Thoughts on: National Students as Partners Roundtable 2016

I was recently invited by @UQKelly – Kelly Matthews of the University of Queensland – to attend the National Students as Partners Roundtable on a glorious Brisbane Spring day. (For which I am grateful almost as much for the chance to escape a particularly bleak Canberra day as for the exposure to some interesting ideas and wonderful people working in this space). This isn’t an area that I’ve had much to do with and I was invited to bring a critical friend/outsider perspective to proceedings as much as anything.

Students as Partners (which I’ll shorten to SaP because I’ll be saying it a lot) more than anything represents a philosophical shift in our approach to Higher Education, it doesn’t seem like too great a stretch to suggest that it almost has political undertones. These aren’t overt or necessarily conventional Left vs Right politics but more of a push-back against a consumerist approach to education that sees students as passive recipients in favour of the development of a wider community of scholarship that sees students as active co-constructors of their learning.

It involves having genuine input from students in a range of aspects of university life, from assessment design to course and programme design and even aspects of university governance and policy. SaP is described as more of a process than a product – which is probably the first place that it bumps up against the more managerialist model. How do you attach a KPI to SaP engagement? What are the measurable outcomes in a change of culture?

The event itself walked the walk. Attendance was an even mixture of professional education advisor staff and academics  and I’d say around 40% students. Students also featured prominently as speakers though academics did still tend to take more of the time as they had perhaps more to say in terms of underlying theory and describing implementations. I’m not positive but I think that this event was academic initiated and I’m curious what a student initiated and owned event might have looked like. None of this is to downplay the valuable contributions of the students, it’s more of an observation perhaps about the unavoidable power dynamics in a situation such as this.

From what I can see, while these projects are about breaking down barriers, they often tend to be initiated by academics – presumably because students might struggle to get traction in implementing change of this kind without their support and students might not feel that they have the right to ask. Clearly many students feel comfortable raising complaints with their lecturers about specific issues in their courses but suggesting a formalised process for change and enhancements is much bigger step to take.

The benefits of an SaP approach are many and varied. It can help students to better understand what they are doing and what they should be doing in Higher Education. It can give them new insights into how H.E. works (be careful what you wish for) and help to humanise both the institution and the teachers. SaP offers contribution over participation and can lead to greater engagement and the design of better assessment. After all, students will generally have more of a whole of program/degree perspective than most of their lecturers and a greater understanding of what they want to get out of their studies. (The question of whether this is the same as what they need to get out of their studies is not one to ignore however and I’ll come back to this). For the students that are less engaged in this process, at the very least the extra time spent discussing their assessments will help them to understand the assessments better. A final benefit of actively participating in the SaP process for students is the extra skills that they might develop. Mick Healey developed this map of different facets of teaching and learning that it enables students to engage with. A suggestion was made that this could be mapped to more tangible general workplace skills, which I think has some merit.


As with all things, there are also risks in SaP that should be considered. How do we know that the students that participate in the process are representative? Several of the students present came from student politics, which doesn’t diminish their interest or contribution but I’d say that it’s reasonable to note that they are probably more self-motivated and also driven by a range of factors than some of their peers. When advocating for a particular approach in the classroom or assessment, will they unconsciously lean towards something that works best for them? (Which everyone does at some level in life).  Will their expectations or timelines be practical? Another big question is what happens when students engage in the process but then have their contributions rejected – might this contribute to disillusionment and disengagement? (Presumably not if the process is managed well but people are complicated and there are many sensitivities in Higher Ed)

To return to my earlier point, while students might know what they want in teaching and learning, is it always what they need? Higher Ed can be a significant change from secondary education, with new freedoms and responsibility and new approaches to scholarship. Many students (and some academics) aren’t trained in pedagogy and don’t always know why some teaching approaches are valuable or what options are on the table. From a teaching perspective, questions of resistance from the university and extra time and effort being spent for unknown and unknowable outcomes should also be considered. None of these issues are insurmountable but need to be considered in planning to implement this approach.

Implementation was perhaps my biggest question when I came along to the Roundtable. How does this work in practice and what are the pitfalls to look out for. Fortunately there was a lot of experience in the room and some rich discussion about a range of projects that have been run at UQ, UTS, Deakin, UoW and other universities. At UoW, all education development grants must now include a SaP component. In terms of getting started, it can be worth looking at the practices that are already in place and what the next phase might be. Most if not all universities have some form of student evaluation survey. (This survey is, interestingly, an important part of the student/teacher power dynamic, with teachers giving students impactful  marks on assessments and students reciprocating with course evaluations, which are taken very seriously by universities, particularly when they are bad).

A range of suggestions and observations for SaP implementations were offered, including:

  • Trust is vital, keep your promises
  • Different attitudes towards students as emerging professionals exist in different disciplines – implementing SaP in Law was challenging because content is more prescribed
  • Try to avoid discussing SaP in ‘teacher-speak’ too much – use accessible, jargon-free language
  • Uni policies will mean that some things are non negotiable
  • Starting a discussion by focusing on what is working well and why is a good way to build trust that makes discussion of problems easier
  • Ask the question of your students – what are you doing to maximise your learning

These images showcase a few more tips and a process for negotiated assessment.

students as partners tips negotiated assessment process

There was a lot of energy and good will in the room as we discussed ideas and issues with SaP. The room was set up with a dozen large round tables holding 8-10 people each and there were frequent breaks for table discussions during the morning and then a series of ‘world cafe’ style discussions at tables in the afternoon. On a few occasions I was mindful that some teachers at the tables got slightly carried away in discussing what students want when there were actual, real students sitting relatively quietly at the same table, so I did what I could to ask the students themselves to share their thoughts on the matters. On the whole I felt a small degree of scepticism from some of the students present about the reality vs the ideology of the movement. Catching a taxi to the airport with a group of students afterwards was enlightening – they were in favour of SaP overall but wondered how supportive university executives truly were and how far they would let it go. One quote that stayed with me during the day as Eimear Enright  shared her experiences was a cheeky comment she’d had from one of her students – “Miss, what are you going to be doing while we’re doing your job”

On the whole, I think that a Students as Partners approach to education has a lot to offer and it certainly aligns with my own views on transparency and inclusion in Higher Ed. I think there are still quite a few questions to be answered in terms of whether it is adequately representative and how much weighting the views of students (who are not trained either in the discipline or in education) should have. Clearly a reasonable amount but students study because they don’t know things and, particularly with undergraduate students, they don’t necessarily want to know what’s behind the curtain. The only way to resolve these questions is by putting things into practice and the work that is being done in this space is being done particularly well.

For a few extra resources, you might find these interesting.

International Journal for Students as Partners – 

Students as Partners Australia network – 

Student voice as risky praxis: democratising physical education teacher education

UTS Student voice in university decision making





Thoughts on: Teaching online (in Teaching thinking: Beliefs and knowledge in Higher Education) (Goodyear, P. 2002)

Writing about work by your supervisor feels a little strange but, as adults and scholars, it really shouldn’t. Obviously there is a power dynamic and a question for me of what to do if I disagree with him. Putting aside the matter that Peter Goodyear has worked and researched in this field forever and is highly regarded internationally while I am essentially a neophyte, I’m almost certain that his worst reaction would be the slightest brow-crinkling and a kindly, interested “ok, so tell me why”. He even made the point that the research may now be dated but it could be worth following the citation trail. Fortunately none of this is an issue because, as you’d hope from your supervisor, it’s pretty great and there is much to draw from it.

In summary, this chapter focuses on understanding what and how teachers think when they are teaching online. Sadly perhaps, little has changed in the nature of online teaching in the 14 years since this was written – the online teaching activities described are largely related to students reading papers and participating in discussions on forums. This gives the chapter a degree of currency in terms of the technology (although a few questions emerged for me in terms of the impact of social media) and I imagine that little has changed in teacher thought processes in this time related to assessing and trying to engage students online.

In some ways it’s the methodology used in the study that is the most exciting part of this – it steers away from the sometimes problematic reliance on transcript analysis used often (at the time?) in research on online learning and makes more use of the opportunities for observation. Observing a teacher reading, processing and replying to discussion forum posts offers opportunities for insight into their thoughts that a far richer than one might get in observing face to face teaching. By using a combination of concurrent and retrospective verbalisation and interview, a rich picture emerges.

Concurrent verbalisation involves getting the tutor to keep up a kind of stream of consciousness dialogue as they work on the discussion posts, with the researcher prompting them if they fall silent for more than 10 seconds. This can prove difficult for the teacher at times as they need to stop speaking at times to concentrate on the replies that they write but a balance is generally found. The session is also videotaped and the researcher and teacher watch it back together, (‘stimulated recall’),  which gives the teacher the opportunity to discuss what they were thinking in the quiet moments as well as enabling them to expand on their recorded comments. In terms of understanding the things that are important to teachers and how they work with the students, I find this method really exciting. I’m not at all sure how or if it will align with my own research when I come to it but this rich insight seems invaluable.

The author opens the chapter by thoroughly going through the motivations for researching teaching – ranging from an abstracted interest in it as a good area for study to a more action research oriented focus on improving specific aspects of teaching practice. He explores the existing literature in the field – particularly in relation to online learning and finds that (at the time) there were a number of significant gaps in research relating to practice and he proceeds to set out six high level research questions relating to online teaching. It seems worthwhile sharing them here

  1. What are the essential characteristics of online teaching? What tasks are met? What actions need to be taken? Are there distinct task genres that further differentiate the space of online teaching?

  2. How do these practices and task genres vary across different educational settings (e.g between disciplines, or in undergraduate vs postgraduate teaching, or in campus based vs distance learning) and across individuals?

  3. For each significant kind of online teaching, what knowledge resources are drawn upon by effective teachers? How can we understand and represent the cognitive and other resources and processes implicated in their teaching?

  4. How do novice online teachers differ from expert and experienced online teachers? How do they make the transition? How does their thinking change? How does the knowledge on which they draw change? How closely does this resemble ‘the knowledge growth in teaching’ about which we know from studies of teaching in other, more conventional, areas?…

  5. What do teachers say about their experiences of online learning? How do they account for their intentions and actions? How do their accounts situation action in relation to hierarchies of belief about teaching and learning (generally) and about teaching and learning online?

  6. How do learners’ activities and learning outcomes interact with teaching actions? (p.86)

Skipping forward, Goodyear conducted the research with a number of teachers working online and identified several key factors that shape what and how teachers teach online. The focus of their attention – is it on the student, the content, how well the subject is going, whether students are learning, the technology, how students will respond to their feedback etc – can vary wildly from moment to moment. Their knowledge of their students – particularly when they might never meet them in person – can shape the nuance and personalisation of their communications. This also ties to “presentation of self” – also known as presence – which is equally important in forming effective online relationships. Understanding of online pedagogy and attitudes towards it are unsurprisingly a big factor in success in teaching online and this also impacts on their ability to manage communication and conflict in an online space, where normal behaviours can change due to perceived distance.

There were a lot of other noteworthy ideas in this chapter that are worth including here and it also sparked a few of my own ideas that went off on something of a tangent.

Those who foresee an easy substitution of teaching methods too frequently misunderstand the function or underestimate the complexity of that which they would see replaced (p.80)

Teaching is not an undifferentiated activity. What is involved in giving a lecture to 500 students is different from what is involved in a one-to-one, face-to-face, tutorial. Also, interactive, face-to-face, or what might be called ‘live’ teaching is different from (say) planning a course, giving feedback on an essay, designing some learning materials, or reflecting on end-of-course student evaluation reports. (James Calderhead structures his 1996 review of teachers’ cognitions in terms of ‘pre-active’, ‘interactive’ and ‘post-active reflection’ phases to help distinguish the cognitive demands of ‘live’ teaching from its prior preparation and from reflection after the event) (p.82)

The affordances of the user interface are an important factor in understand how online tutors do what they do. This is not simply because online tutors need to understand the (relatively simple) technical procedures involved in searching, reading and writing contributions. Rather the interface helps structure the tutors’ tasks and also takes some of the cognitive load off the tutor (P.87)

Studies of ‘live’ classroom teaching in schools have tended towards the conclusion that conscious decision-making is relatively rare – much of what happens is through the following of well-tested routines (Calderhead, 1984). While swift routine action can be found in online tutoring, its curiously asynchronous nature does allow more considered problem solving to take place (p.97)

Many of these ideas crystallise thoughts that I’ve come to over recent years and which I’ve shared with Peter in our supervision meetings. I’m going to choose to believe that his inner voice is saying at these points, ‘good, you’re on track’ rather than ‘well, obviously and I wrote about this a decade and a half ago’. This is why we go with this apprenticeship model I guess.

As for the other random thought that emerged from reading this paper was that as we get more comfortable with using video and asking/allowing students to submit videos as assessments, we’ll need new ways to ‘read’ videos. Clearly these will already exist in the scholarhood but they may not be as widely known as we need.

Research update #9: What have I learnt

Rather than fretting about what I haven’t been doing cough#reading the literature#cough, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve been doing instead, because it’s not like I’ve been lazing by the pool. I’ve been doing things that (I hope) will inform my research by giving me a bigger picture view of education and Higher Ed.

I went to the ePortforum for a couple of days – chatted with people using ePortfolios, learnt about what they’ve been doing, how social constructivism aligns with ePortfolios (quite well really), considered what the best applications for ePortfolios are (leaning towards competency based education and employability skills), enjoyed glorious Sydney weather and marvellous company, went to Joyce Seitzinger’s always great workshop on learning design principles and chatted to more of my education advisor (EdAd) peers about the value of setting up a Special Interest Group (SIG) through HERDSA

Consulted with EdAd peers on Twitter about the SIG and put an application in to formally run one through HERDSA. (To be completely honest, I’m not 100% certain about whether this is the best approach and what benefits being under this umbrella will bring but doing something seems better than umming and aahing).

Worked for far too long on an application to become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. (Better part of the last three weekends). This involved a lot of critical reflection and writing, describing my philosophy of teaching and coming up with a couple of case studies about leadership and mentoring. These were particularly challenging because my perspective on mentoring is that a reciprocal relationship of equals is a far better approach – fortunately there is a body of literature out there to back this up. Long story short I wrote far more than needed for each section and had to do some brutal editing. I tend to use a lot of qualifiers (there’s one – tend) in my writing but mostly because I like the nuance that they bring. As it turns out, I hadn’t quite grasped (to be generous) exactly what was needed for the case studies and have been advised that an application for a level down (Fellow) is far more likely to succeed. As the first professional staff member to apply to become a Senior Fellow, this is a shame but I’ve also spent more time on the application than I’d expected and I truly need to get back into “proper” study/research. I’ve also been told by the big cheese in the process that he will advise me on my SFHEA application in the new year. It was nice -though taxing – to get stuck into some writing.

I’ve also been working on an infrastructure project which seems to be coming along – well actually two at the same time. (Kind of the same thing in two different locations with different stakeholders though, so that helps). It’s a One Button Studio – essentially a video booth with present lighting, sound, camera, backdrop – all a presenter needs to do is plug in their USB drive and hit “the button” to start recording a reasonable quality video. Learning a lot about the range of stakeholders and moving parts – there is construction to be done, cabling, contractors, sound analysis, hardware purchasing, security, questions of who owns which spaces and how we get into them, internal politics, support arrangements, questions about how sophisticated to go (as simple as possible) and somewhere in there user requirements. It does let me bang on a little about sociomaterial theory however and affordances.

STELLAR wrapped up – in some ways it kind of limped to the finish line with maybe 4 still active participants at the end but lots of valuable feedback and ideas for the next iteration. Pokemon Go has actually been giving me some inspiration – the random way that mini-challenges (catch a Pokemon with a randomised level of difficulty) pop up on a semi-regular basis has made me think about ways to release single question quizzes in Moodle on a timer of some description and some kind of rewards system for “collecting” different kinds. (That part is far more in the abstract so far)

I was also very kindly sent up to Brisvegas for a flying visit to the Students As Partners conference, in exchange for my outsider perspective via tweets (tick, done) and a blog post (coming soon, I swear). First impressions are that this is a potentially rewarding and enriching process that democratises education. There are a few core questions to be dealt with – how to ensure that student involvement is representative and beneficial and how much can/do students really know about what they need to learn? The event itself was run spectacularly well with a lot of student involvement and a very dynamic mixture of tag-teaming presenters, frequent discussion (at tables) breaks and a ‘world cafe’ approach in the afternoon. As I say, more on this soon.

I also put a proposal together to present at MoodlePosium which may or not have been conveniently copy-pasted from my HEA application in the spirit of reusable learning objects and also wrote up a strong enough argument to get to go to ASCILITE at the end of November.

On a more prosaic note, I reinstalled Windows 10 on my workhorse because it had developed a worrying habit of crashing on shutdown and some restart glitches and I assume most of you know how time-consuming that process can be, not the reinstall as much as tracking down all the software I had installed and serials and updates and whatnot.

Now I’m taking a week off work to get back to reading and reflecting and the research literature and oh dear I just thought about how cranky my project plan is going to be with me. I’m sorry planny, we can work this out – please don’t give up on me yet.

Also all the day to day work stuff and trying to help come up with practical and satisfactory approaches to satisfy stricter new national reporting requirements for Higher Education that are coming up in the new year, as well as keeping an eye on major education projects in the college that I haven’t been asked for help on with yet

Oh and also finalising the governance documents and proposals for the TEL/Online learning groups that I’m on at work that went to the executive last week. Of which there has been zero reporting back from the representatives that went to the meeting. I could chase it up but I’m trying hard to not look at workmail this week, so it can wait. Probably.

Research update #8 – Shame and progress

Sometimes posting a research progress update can be like jumping on the scales after a weekend of eating cake – it’s important to do to maintain accountability but you know it’s not going to be pretty. This is one of those times.

As you can tell by my recent posting history, it’s been a while since I read and reflected upon anything. Since my last update however, I have had a PhD progress review where the panel was satisfied with how I’m going and took me off probation and I also attended the ePortforum conference in Sydney, two days of talking and learning about what is being done in Higher Ed. with ePortfolios.

I also read a chapter of a book my supervisor (hi Peter) wrote about teacher attitudes towards education technology which got me thinking much more about methodology than I have been to date. There’s a strangeness to reading (and particularly writing) about one’s supervisor’s writing – a lot of different conflicting feels. Am I obliged/expected to fall into line with his ideas and/or particular areas of interest? (I don’t think so – he’s been remarkably chilled about what I’m doing. Offering thoughts and suggestions, of course but I’ve never felt pressured). Is it ok if I disagree with something that he’s said in his writing? (Again, I think that if I was able to present a solid argument, it would be fine. That said, I’ve not come across anything yet that hasn’t been eye-opening, as you would hope for from a mentor/supervisor). If I read too much of his work, does it get weird or obsequious?

On the one (rational) hand, you approach a supervisor because you think that their interests/methods will inform yours and presumably align (or vice versa) so why wouldn’t you but on the other (emotional) hand, have I had some kind of need to explore the other literature first to come to some of my own conclusions before being shaped too much by his take on things? (In the same way that a filmmaker on a remake might go back to the initial novel but not watch the first film that came from it?). Even Peter said that I didn’t necessarily need to read this particular book as it’s from 2002 and attitudes to ed tech have no doubt shifted since then. He suggested more that I look at who has cited it.

I’m really glad that I did read it though as, as I mentioned, the methodological ideas gave me a lot to think about – largely in getting tutors to describe their grading process as almost as stream of consciousness in real time which was also recorded so that they could watch the recording and add a layer of reflection later. This may well be a common methodology but it’s not one that I’ve come across in the reading that I’ve done to date. I’ll post something about this chapter soon anyway.

I’ve also been working away on an application to upgrade myself from Associate Fellow of the HEA to Senior Fellow. This requires a lot of reflective writing (around 7000+ words) and has been useful in thinking in greater depth about my own professional practices and ‘learning journey’. (I always feel a little bit hippy using that expression but I haven’t come across a better one). So this application has taken up a decent chunk of my time as well.

I have also – because clearly I have a lot of free time on my hands – been slowly nudging forward the formation of a Special Interest Group through HERDSA (but not solely for HERDSA members I think) that is focused on Education Advisors. (a.k.a Education Support Staff – academic developers, ed designers, learning technologists etc). We had a great lunchtime conversation (vent?) about some of the issues that we face which aligned particularly with many of the papers that i have posted about here in the last couple of months. I suspect that one of the trickiest parts will be explaining to teaching academics that this isn’t a group for them. I guess this is one of the things that we’ll need to pin down in the formation of it. It’s far from a new idea – there are a range of city and state based parallels in varying states of activity – but having a national (transnational to include NZ) body isn’t something I’ve seen before. The funny thing is that while this is important to me, some of the issues/ideas that came up in the conversation yesterday, I felt like I have already moved on from in pivoting to research academic staff now and their issues and concerns. But I’m pretty sure I can walk and chew gum at the same time.

STELLAR : A project to gamify academic professional development

stellar logo

One constant in my experience as an education support person over 13 years is that generating excitement about professional development activities relating to teaching and learning can be a challenge. I don’t think this is because teachers aren’t interested in their teaching practice or that they believe that there is nothing more to know (well, in most cases), it’s often just another activity competing for scarce time. Calculations have to be made about the effort vs the reward and often the reward simply isn’t sufficient unless it has been mandated in some way (or offers some kind of formal accreditation – or sandwiches and cake)

Gamification (if you don’t already know) is the practice of using game elements (rules, competition, challenges, winning, points, prizes, badges etc) to motivate behaviour in non-game contexts. It’s been used in commerce for decades (consider frequent flyer programs where you earn points towards rewards and level up to better perks) and it has been explored actively in education for about a decade. (This is separate in some ways to the use of play and games in education, which arguably has been happening for as long as we have had education)

I’ve had an interest in game based learning and gamification for a while now – my previous blog was called Gamerlearner and this is still my “brand” in educational social media. (I switched over to Screenface to be able to focus on wider TELT issues).

I’ve been conscious of the fact that while I’ve been doing pretty good work in supporting TELT in my college, there hasn’t been as much happening in the professional development / academic development space as I would’ve liked. (As a one man team, I’m not going to be too hard on myself about this but it still bugged me).

So a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to our Associate Dean (Education) and launched STELLAR as a pilot. A very very beta-y pilot with a lot of elements really not worked out at all. (This was made clear to participants). The plan is to run the pilot over September and use this experience to design a full scale version to run in Semester 1, 2017. Participants earn points for engaging in a range of professional development activities and the winners get a fancy dinner out.

STELLAR stands for Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research. To be honest, it’s a slightly clunky backronym designed to work with a stars theme. Because I think people like to be seen as stars, its a nice, easy visual theme and putting stars into teams (which was a goal – even small teams) lets us start talking about constellations. I also like that it means that I get to call myself Starlord in my daily STELLAR emails.

At the half way mark, I’ve got a set of activities in place that academics can use to earn points.
(At some point I want to cluster these to enable collection type activities and rewards. I also plan to map them to Bartle’s player types and a few other things to check that there is a good spread of kinds of activities). These can be found in this Google Doc as well as in a page in the Moodle course that I’m using to house resources, organise groups and track activities.

I’ve been trying to encourage spot activities – e.g. you have 24 hours to upload a scholarly selfie to the Gallery – but so far there hasn’t been much engagement. I’ve been lucky that our central TEL team has been running a “coffee course” over the last week relating to the Flipped Classroom. This involves short learning chunks posted on a blog that take around 10 minutes to complete and include the option to leave a comment. (This idea draws from work by Sarah Thorneycroft at UNE). I’ve been pushing this hard and offering generous points for attending and commenting. I’m happy to say that of the 17 participants in STELLAR, at least six that I know of have signed up and five have been the main posters in the coffee course.

Now that the coffee course is over, I’m mindful of the need to maintain momentum so really have to come up with some further activities to encourage people to engage in. We ran a small (2 people) session on Thursday last week about the new ePortfolio tool that the university has introduced and one of our lecturers that is currently using it was generous enough with her time to share her experiences. Hearing “on the ground” stories from peers makes a huge difference.

In terms of the site itself, I’ve been strongly encouraging team play which requires the use of groups (Constellations) to make the most out of the Moodle functionality. This has been much harder than expected, with most people preferring to play solo. I’ve been asking them to join one person groups and now half of the course is in groups. A major reason for trying to encourage group play (ideally 2-4 max) is to foster greater collaboration and discussion in the schools of the college. I appreciate that academic research can be a very solitary pursuit but teaching doesn’t need to be. For all that I read about Communities of Practice in teaching, the culture in my college just doesn’t seem interested yet – particularly at any kind of scale. (As the old saying goes, our university is 70 schools united by a common parking problem)

I’ve set up a leaderboard which is group based only and also set up visible topics that are only accessible by group members but the hold-outs haven’t budged. (These are also the people that have tended to engage less with the course in these first two weeks – in fairness, this has also been the mid-semester break when a lot of marking is done as well as organising applications for research grants). I’m a little conflicted about what to do with this – I’ve made it clear that if people want to play solo it’s fine but it would help if they were attached to a team. As an admin I can just put them in teams but given that “play is a voluntary activity” (Whitton, 2014, p.113), I’m hesitant to force behaviour. (Which isn’t to say that I’m not using game based strategies – fear of missing out and nagging/feedback – to encourage it)

One lecturer – who generally has been engaging – mentioned to me last week that he wasn’t sure what he is meant to be doing. While I’ve been sending out regular emails, they have perhaps been less succinct than I’d like and more fixated on the set up and mechanics of the game rather than the professional development activities that I’m trying to promote. This is definitely a thing to improve quickly.

I’ve been thinking about the games that I enjoy playing – particularly video games – and there is certainly much more direction given, particularly early on. At the same time, these tend to be much more narratively oriented and I don’t have a story running in STELLAR yet. I toyed with the idea of everyone being astronauts and needing to build their ship by earning points which buy parts etc etc but have serious questions about whether this is going too far off track for people in a college of economics and business.

One thing I would dearly like to achieve is to start building a rich collection of learning resources – including case studies/exemplars of good practice locally and research papers into various topics. Having this created collectively would be a fantastic outcome.

I’ve also been making limited use of the idea of random drops. These are unexpected prizes that a player sporadically wins/gets in video games for no particular reason but the possibility that it might happen is used as a motivator. I got 10 coffee vouchers from our local cafe and have been giving Shooting Star spot prizes when people do something new mostly – first suggestion for an improvement, first addition to the glossary, first person to attend a face to face event etc. This system needs some refinement and will benefit from being less arbitrary. My hope is that by announcing the random drops in the daily emails, it is maintaining interest from the people that haven’t yet won one. Maybe a thing to do will be to highlight that these are being won for being the first to do something.

The scoring system is something of a chore – I’m using the gradebook system in Moodle which has meant creating a separate assessment item for each individual activity that people can participate in. I’m keeping a separate Excel spreadsheet because it’s easier to track (in some ways) and need to manually update both. I’ve asked people to claim points in a discussion forum post but am aware that this is entering an unfun grey area of administrivia. What I really want is for people to be sharing what they’ve done in professional development and sharing their learning with the group and I should find a way to reframe it as such. Or automate it more. I can grade some items that are done in Moodle activities but mostly things have been happening externally that I’m tracking. I’m also fairly conflicted about this tracking – for example, I’ve seen people posting in the coffee course and I’ve been giving them the points that they’ve been earning for this. Many of them haven’t been claiming these points through the forum – at least not after the first day. It’s no secret that I’m also in the coffee course because I’m posting comments there as well but if people are earning points for this kind of activity that I’ve seen them doing, is it a little weird?

Digital badges is something that I’m keen to explore and I’ve created some tied to the random drop prizes but we have massive institutional hurdles with badges and our Moodle instance doesn’t support them yet.

I’ve had several other grand ideas that I simply haven’t had time to implement yet. For the groups/constellations, I’d like to have a star field present that grows as they earn more points/stars. So they begin with just their constellation on a black background but a small star appears when they get 10 points or a new constellation when they complete a cluster of activities. Again, when it is a matter of manual handling, it’s a labour intensive activity.

Anyway, that’s the broad strokes of STELLAR, there are twice as many participants as I was expecting (and this is in a time when many people are away) so I’m quietly pleased with our progress but I’m also well aware that sustaining interest and activity is going to be a challenge when semester resumes on Monday.

More than anything though, it’s nice to finally be walking the walk after talking the talk for such a very long time.

Quick reading: Five papers on Academic Development (Hannon, 2008; Hicks, 2005; Boud & Brew, 2013; Lee & McWilliam, 2008; Bath & Smith, 2004)

Academic development refers to the professional development of academics – which makes sense when you think about it. Evidently I hadn’t thought about that a lot because until I skim read these five papers, I had put academic developers in the same broad (and perhaps vague) category as education designers and learning technologists. People working with teachers/academics to support teaching and learning and developing resources.

These are the papers:

I had just assumed that given that the terminology hasn’t really been settled yet (consider blended/flexible/online/technology-enhanced/e-learning), people have been using the terms that they prefer. (I’ve been toying with Director of Education Innovation as a new title but apparently that will upset the Directors of our schools, so that won’t fly).

Anyway, this was the first of a few realisations that I’ve had in the last week of trying to get my research back on track – ironically enough perhaps while I’ve been in the midst of a major academic development project of my own. (STELLAR – which will get its own post shortly).

Recognising that I need to move on to a new topic of exploration in my holistic overview of the central elements in supporting TELT practices in Higher Ed. but also feeling that I haven’t yet covered Education Support Staff (ESS) adequately, I decided to take the temperature of ESS research via five papers. (I’ve also been concerned that while the deep reading that I’ve been doing has been valuable, I’m spending too long on individual papers and chapters in the process.) I allocated a single 25 min pomodoro period to each of these new papers, including writing notes. Admittedly, four of the five papers I’ve decided that I still need to read in full and may well come back to them in the next topic anyway. (However, I changed my initially planned ‘next topic’ from Universities as Organisations to Teachers as a result of these papers and some other thinking recently, so this still feels like progress)

In a nutshell, as I’ve been looking at research relating to education support staff over the last couple of months, I’ve probably been in my own tribal mindset. I do still believe that there are significant cultural factors at play in higher ed. that mean that knowledge and experience aren’t always appropriately used or recognised if you’re not in the academic tribe and this is an area to work on. There are also an incredibly diverse range of reasons for this, some more understandable than others. I have to admit that I’ve not been as open to the more understandable (and valid) ones as I should’ve and that empathy is always an important part of communication and collaboration.

So after this post on the matter, I’m going to take a first pass at my lit review relating to ESSes and focus on the academic/teacher side. (Ultimately people that teach are teachers and this is the side of the academics’ work that I’m looking at – it’s also a more meaningful term in this context – but I realise that terminology is perhaps more important than I thought.

These are my quick responses to the papers that I skimmed

This is a particularly insightful paper that uses “the discourse analytic method of “interpretative repertoires (Potter & Wetherall, 1987)” (p.15) to consider issues in academic development with a particular focus on education technology and changing teaching practices.

Hannon essentially distills the approaches into ‘enabling’ and ‘guiding’ and interviews 25 individuals working with education technology (including academics and ESSes) about their experiences in one university in this space.

He identifies four main differences in the ways that practice is organised:

  • Developing staff or developing courses (p.19)
  • Implementing or adapting institutional strategy (p.20)
  • Drawing together – systems or community (p.22)
  • Reframing technology or reframing the user (p.23)

Ultimately, Hannon finds that:

it is neither institutional strategy nor learning technologies that impose these constraints, rather the discourse or repertoires associated with their operationalisation (p.27)

I’ll certainly be coming back to this paper in the future.

Hicks looked at issues more in relation to the role of Academic Developers – and people working in Education Support units – as ‘change agents’, caught between the strategic requirements and priorities of the university executive and the needs of teachers and learners.

She felt that the voice of academic developers is seldom heard in research in this field and takes time to address this within a Bourdieuian framework emphasising social systems by inviting developers to participate in a number of focus groups.

Hicks’ paper sits well alongside most of the other papers that I have looked at already, with a focus on the tensions between academic and professional staff as well as academic staff and ‘management’ – with the ESSes torn between the two and underutilised.

This paper may be a useful source of additional supporting quotes and could also be worth reviewing when I get to university as an organisation.

David Boud is a major figure in research into Higher Education in Australia, (Angela Brew presumably is as well but it’s Boud that I’ve heard more about to date), so I was keen to read this one.

The idea of practice theory (Kemmis) is something that I keep coming across (and has also been suggested by my supervisor) and it’s at the heart of this paper. In a nutshell, it’s about framing academic work as practice and considering three key foci

practice development, fostering learning-conducive work and deliberately locating activity within practice. It also suggests that academic development be viewed as a practice (p.208)

Given that my new area of exploration is teachers/teaching/academics, this is a timely examination of academic practice that I will absolutely be delving into in far greater depth. It also offers a nice bridge between these two areas and I think it will also help me to inform my other (professional) work.

This paper presents a solid overview of tribalism in academia and the emergence of Higher Education as a field of study in its own right that needs to be claimed by academic developers. (I’d wonder whether an idea of “academy developers” is more fitting here).

One thing that I’ve come to realise in this sector is that trying to take on organisational cultural issues directly is unproductive, so while I’d prefer tribalism to be replaced with the embrace of a broader notion of being part of a collaborative community of scholars, I realise that it won’t happen any time soon. I guess the real questions are; do the members of a tribe respect the knowledge of another tribe and is teaching and learning in Higher Education something that can be owned by one tribe? Perhaps something more along the lines of tribal elders – strictly in the H.E T&L discipline area, never the ‘academy’ itself – could work?

When it comes to the role of ESS, I note that the authors quote Rowland et al (1998), which has popped up in most of these papers and is high on my list of future reading. It’s a fairly brutal quote however.

[a]t best, they [i.e. academics] view those in these [academic development] units as providing a service to help them teach. At worst, they ignore them as lacking academic credibility and being irrelevant to the real intellectual tasks of academic life. (Rowland, Byron, Furedi, Padfield & Smyth, 1998, p.134) (p.10)

This is certainly another paper to read in full as I explore the idea of academic work and teaching.

This final paper by Lee and McWilliam leans heavily on Foucault and “games of truth and error” and a fairly specific idea of irony. It again explores the tensions that academic developers encounter in the space between executive/management priorities and teacher needs. As someone that hasn’t yet explored Foucault, I imagine it might be of value if this is theoretical direction that I choose but for the most part I just felt that I didn’t get the joke.

Ok, so hopefully this give me a decent starting point for writing something about the literature as it relates to education support staff (obviously there is always more to explore but the best writing is the writing that you’ve actually done and having something to show will make it easier to find the gaps – both in ideas covered in the research as well as in what I’ve been reading and not reading.

Onwards to teachers.


Research update #7 New topic, academic development, continuity and change

According to my frequently revised project plan for my thesis proposal, I should now move on to my next topic for exploration, which was initially the University as Organisation but based on recent readings and discussions, it makes more sense to shift across to academics/teachers.

While I still feel that I haven’t read enough – but am assured that this feeling never goes away – I think it’s time to write up what I have found in the literature so far, understanding that this is the first of many drafts. Because I’ve been feeling that I’m not reading enough – or quickly enough – I got five more papers relating to academic development with the intention of skim reading them to identify core ideas and see which ones I should come back to in greater depth. I dedicated a 25 min pomodoro to each paper which generally included note taking.

I think I’ll actually put these into a separate post but my main outcome was that my understanding of the term “academic developer” and academic development seems to differ somewhat from the community. To be honest, I’ve not really given the different terms a lot of thought, assuming that as a nascent field, eLearning is yet to settle on broadly accepted language for people in education support roles and education designer / learning technologist / academic developer are all fairly interchangeable. As it turns out, an academic developer actually develops academics – which is to say, provides training and advice in teaching and learning to lecturers. There was little assumption in the literature that they have anything to do with making things, building course resources or taking a larger view of education technology. (Well, that’s an oversimplification)

In conjunction with a presentation from the always astute Professor Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong) at a local teaching and learning day on Monday, where she made a strong point that academics/teachers need to own education design rather than being “designed at” by education support types, I’ve realised that much of my focus over the last month or two has been from the education support perspective (with a lengthy detour into academic / professional divide territory) and shifting my frame to teachers makes a lot of sense.

In broad terms, I’m well aware that there are a great many factors at play in the success of TELT practices in Higher Ed – I’ve not even gone near the pedagogy, theory or material aspects yet – but I guess my personal experiences have led me to a point where the key seems to be the human elements. We can create the optimal environment with the most supportive conditions for success in the world, but if the people (university managers, academics, students and professionals) don’t engage or even actively resist (for a host of not always rational reasons), very little will be achieved. For me, it seems that understanding why people hold the attitudes that they do and what the best approaches are to work with these offers the greatest chance of successful change.

The question of change itself is an interesting one – it’s basically assumed that this is needed and desirable, presumably because we are in the middle of an incredible period of change (information revolution etc). The missing part of this discussion I suggest is looking at how we can support and disseminate (and strengthen I guess, which is a milder form of change) the practices that are successful already. Continuity and change, to borrow a cheeky political term. Everyone seems so fixated on on change that they forget that not everything is terrible. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for this in the literature as I go.

Thoughts on: ‘Sleeping with the enemy’: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff (Wohlmuther, 2008)

At this stage of looking at the matter of professional staff and academic staff in Higher Education, I feel that I’m somewhat flogging a dead horse and everything that needs to be said, has been said. So why am I still looking at this paper? Initially I was concerned that it grated on me because it doesn’t fit with my current narrative that there are significant cultural factors in universities that make it unnecessarily difficult for professional staff – particularly those in education support roles – to be heard when it comes to discussing teaching and learning.

If this was the case, I’d clearly not being doing my best work as a scholar – open to new information and willing to reconsider my world view in the face of it. Having looked over the paper a few times now though, I have to say that I think it’s just not that great a piece of research. A number of assertions are made that simply aren’t supported by the evidence presented and some of the reasoning seems specious. Events from four years prior to the publication date are referred to in the future tense but there is no discussion of whether they happened or what the consequences were.

Assuming that this is poor research – or perhaps poor analysis – it makes me happy that I’ve reached a point where I can identify bad work but also a little concerned that I’m wrong or I’m missing something because this was still published in a peer reviewed journal that I’ve found a lot of good work in previously. (Then again, I assume that most journals have their own favoured perspectives and maybe this was well aligned with it). I searched in vain to find other writing by the author but she appears to be a ghost, with no publications or notable online presence since the paper came out.

In a nutshell, based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities, the author concludes that there is minimal dissension between academic and “allied” staff and most of what little there is, is felt by the allied staff.

Now it’s entirely reasonable that this may well be the case but there are a few elements of the paper that seem to undermine the authors argument. Wohlmuther asks survey participants about their perceptions of a divide but doesn’t dig directly into attitudes towards other kinds of staff, which McInnis (1998), Dobson (2000) and Szekeres (2004) all identified as central factors. She looks at the perceptions of contributions of academic and allied staff members to the strategic goals of the organisation which obliquely explores their ‘value’ within the organisation but it seems limited. Given the ambiguous value of some higher level strategic goals (Winslett, 2016), this would seem to tell an incomplete story.

The greatest weakness of the paper to my mind is that ‘allied’ and ‘academic’ work roles are unclear.

Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work (p.330)

With no further examination of the responses via focus groups or interviews, this alone (to me anyway) seems to make the findings murky.

She found that only 29% of staff – all staff? that is unclear – felt that there was “good understanding and respect for the significance of each others roles and all staff work well together” (p.331) across the institute, however doesn’t take this to be an indicator of division.

Looking over the paper again, these are probably my main quibbles and perhaps they aren’t so dramatic. This tells me that I still have a way to go before I can truly ‘read’ a paper properly but I’m on the way


Research update #6

Not a stellar week – I did discover @legogradstudent on Twitter which is great

I also read another paper – yes I’m really trying to move on – about the professional /academic divide. This time about research into it in a particular institute in NZ. I’m not sure whether it is a bad paper or it’s just that I disagree with the findings but I’m almost sure that it is just bad. There’ll be more on this soon. I note that the author doesn’t appear to have written any other papers and that one was 8 years ago.

There have been a few big work things relating to the governance of TEL systems that I’ve been working in which I think will inform my research and I’m also cobbling together a gamified approach to academic staff PD that I think should be fun. I just really hope that people play. If I can get 4 teams of 2, I’ll consider it a win. More on this soon too – I’m calling it STELLAR – Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research, which is a tortured but valid acronym.



Thoughts on: The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff (Winslett, 2016)

While looking at three papers relating to professional staff in Higher Education recently I was conscious of two things. They were all written at least 12 years ago and they contained scant reference to people working in my domain of education support people (academic developers/education designers/learning technologists etc).

The papers were still valuable because I don’t believe that the academic/professional divide has gone anywhere and I think it does still impact on how universities are able to support TELT practices. All the same, I was keen to get a more contemporary take on things in this particular arena.

Greg Winslett  of the University of New England (Australia) lives in this space and has come at the issue from an interesting angle – exploring the ways in which top-level university strategic plans provide useful guidance to education support people in terms of setting priorities and practical directions.

Winslett favours the term Teaching Support Staff which I considered for a little while as a better option to Education Support People (or Professionals) but then I wondered whether it downplays the importance of learning. In fairness, he does refer to Teaching and Learning Support Staff at one point but mostly stuck with TSS. To be perfectly honest, all of this does feel like a minor semantic quibble to me, along the same lines as choosing between technology enhanced learning (TEL) or technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT), but given that one of “our” issues is that academics don’t fully understand what ESPs (or TSS) have to offer, perhaps finding the right terminology can make a difference.

I’m still also torn between Education Support Professionals and Education Support People  – at least partially because the acronym ESP appeals to me – because this field is made up of both academics and professionals but “people” doesn’t seem weighty enough. I guess Teaching Support Staff avoids this question and we do spend virtually all of our time working with teachers on teaching matters. But philosophically we work in a learner-centred domain – or at least this is what we are told. Given that Winslett uses TSS in this paper, I’ll stick with that for now.

(Well that was something of a diversion)

Winslett does a number of things with the strategic plans gathered from the 39 universities in Australia. He runs them through data-mining software (Leximancer) to pull out key themes and concepts based around the clustering and frequency of key terms. These are then ranked to identify university priorities, both at a national level as well as in terms of university sub-groupings including the Group of Eight (Australia’s ‘Ivy League’), the Australian Technical Network, Regional Universities Network and Innovative Research Universities. This offers some interesting comparisons and insights into differences between the (self-selected) types of universities in this country.

He also draws on the work of Fraser (1989) in relation to “needs talk” (p.537) to discuss the concepts and themes identified and the cues they provide teaching support staff

Fraser proposes that examining ‘needs talk’ (statements that follow a conceptual structure of a needs b in order to c) makes visible the manner in which claims are made and contested and how different types of need are expressed. (p.537)

Given the high-level nature of most strategic plans and their importance in encompassing the vision of the organisation and their tendency to be more forward-looking;

most claims of need are framed as predictions for the future, rather than a more dramatic expression of an immediate need (p.542)

I think I expected less from them than Winslett in terms of practical guidance for people working on the ground. Something he finds noteworthy

and perhaps surprising is that the theme of ‘research’ does not appear in the top 10 ranking for the Group of Eight (p.539)

(in terms of themes in the strategic plans). If we accept that the plans are future focused and take an additional step to acknowledge that they will centre around improving areas of perceived weakness, maybe it’s not so surprising that Go8 unis, which pride themselves on research, take an ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude here.

The lists of themes and concepts that Winslett identifies and discusses are interesting but it is the next section that really stands out for me. Having identified the ‘claims of need’ across the strategic plans, the author explores the ones of specific relevance to TSS’ and identifies three areas where contradictory needs are often expressed that offer challenges in determining what the university executive actually wants.

“Teaching support staff need to innovate, but not too much” (p.543) 

Innovation has been a popular buzzword in government, industry and education for a good twenty years, if not longer. I’m not one to point fingers – I work in (or as) the Education Innovation Office. The first challenge that Winslett identifies is that everybody wants to be innovative but not everybody is willing to pay for it. The perceived benefits of innovation – increases in efficiency and (lower down the list) better teaching and learning –  are clearly highly desirable. These routinely collide with other needs to make more effective use of “existing resources, approaches and infrastructure” (p.544). This raises major questions:

How, for example, do teaching support staff know when to lobby for additional funding and resources? How innovative must a particular work activity be? (p.544)

“Teaching support staff need to help staff and help staff help themselves” (p.544) 

One of the practical costs of this innovation, particularly when it comes to using online tools and new pedagogies, is the extra work required to create resources and activities. And it isn’t just extra work, there are often new skillsets that are needed to create infographics, develop online quizzes, make videos and moderate discussion boards.

The strategic plans examined expressed the desire to equip academics with these skills as well as making use of the time-savings that Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching apparently promises to offer more personalised teaching and learning experiences.

I run into this dilemma on a regular basis and it really boils down to a question of what is the purpose of a teaching academic? How productive a use of their time is it to expect them to master web development or media production when there are often skilled professionals on hand to do this for them? On the other hand, if these skilled professionals build something that is beyond the ability of the academic to fix or edit when they need to,  how long should they be stuck with a shoddy or faulty teaching resource that just frustrates them and the students.

In calling for the best of both worlds, the strategic plans perpetuate the problem without understanding it.

Teaching support staff need to adopt a learner-centred approach as long as the learner wants a job”

Another of the great points of debate routinely raised by academics is that Higher Education isn’t merely vocational training. (Ironically one of the new ‘big things’ in Higher Ed. is competency based education, with a stronger focus on better learning outcomes and constructive alignment of learning outcomes with course assessment, all of which has been features of the vocational sector for decades).

Winslett makes a point here that while there is much promotion of learner-centred approaches to teaching and learning – which includes “what is taught and how” (p.545) – in the strategic plans, there is also much discussion of designing courses that create employment ready graduates and which also meet the “requirements of the nation” (p.546). He appears to feel that these are all mutually exclusive and “may present a collision for teaching support staff working within some disciplines” (p.546)

I take the argument to be that a commitment to learner-centred design is quickly made secondary to other university priorities – including the actual capacity of the university to change enough to deliver this in a meaningful way and a perceived need to engage more effectively with industry and future student employers. I’d suggest that these two aims are not necessarily as contradictory as suggested and that a great many students attend university to be made more employable at a higher level. The ‘higher-order’ skills of analysis, research, critical thinking and communication – amongst others – that are seen to set universities apart from vocational training providers are in fact the ’employability skills’ that industry is calling for in graduates.

Winslett concludes in a fairly scathing manner that top-level university strategic plans more often hinder than help teaching support staff.

At best, these plans fail to distinctively shape the tone and direction of higher education pedagogy and delivery at a national level. At worst, the statements of need relating to teaching support confuse and mystify expectations of the role. This context presents considerable challenges to teaching support staff across the sector, making it difficult to muster support for initiatives, achieve consistency across the country and achieve quality benchmarks. Perhaps worst of all, the strategic plans do not generally provide specific guidance on the favoured forms of pedagogical design and development. That is to say, there is no substantive pedagogic strategy evident in any of the plans (p.546)

He does go on to concede that this level of detail is ideally more likely to be found in the lower-level operational plans that flow on from here. Given the diversity of disciplines and thus of appropriate teaching and learning approaches in these disciplines, I would personally struggle to advocate a detailed pedagogical strategy suitable for an entire university. (Which might be why I’m not in the executive – also that whole pesky not being an academic thing).

Winslett’s broad point is well made though and entirely relevant to all of us teaching support staff members who have scoured these kinds of documents in order to better understand the best – or at least most successful – ways to do our work in supporting teaching and learning.