Monthly Archives: August 2017

Thoughts on: Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: implications for academic development (Boud & Brew, 2012)

I’ve been really struggling to process my thoughts on this paper for the last week. I’ll read a few pages, furiously scribbling notes all over it, and then need to step away to deal with my responses to it.

Now this isn’t particularly uncommon for me as it helps me feel that I’m part of a discourse and I try to create action items for future followup, particularly with citations. It often also feels like the most convenient place to jot down other ideas, like the spectrum of edvisor practices that I’ve started on the bottom of page two there. But I think I’ve probably written more on this paper than most because while I agree with most of the broad principles, the lack of understanding that it demonstrates of the practices of academic development and the capacity of academic developers to effect significant change in the institution undercuts much of what it has to say. Which surprises and disappoints me, particularly because I’ve spoken to one of the authors on several occasions and have great respect for his other work and I’ve read many of the other author’s papers and hold her in similar esteem. She has also, according to her bio, worked as an academic developer and co-edited the academic journal that this paper appears in, which makes it even harder to understand some of the misperceptions of this kind of work.

Which leads me to question my own perceptions. Am I overly defensive about what feels like an attack of the competence and professionalism of my colleagues and I? Is the environment that I work in uniquely different and my attitudes towards the development of academics that far out of the norm suggested by this paper? Perhaps most importantly am I taking this too personally and is my emotional response out of proportion to the ideas in the paper?

I suspect that part of my frustration is that the paper begins by talking about something which sounds like academic development but which ends up being a call for a complete revision of all aspects of academic practice and an implication that academic developers should really do something about that.

Assuming that academic development or academic developers are even actually necessary in the first place. There are a couple of telling remarks that, to me at least, strongly imply that academic development is a cynical exercise by university management to impose training on an academic staff that doesn’t need it – they did a PhD after all – in the interests of ensuring compliance with organisational policy and being seen to do something.

Or to put it another way (emphasis mine):

The development of academics is based on the notion that institutions need to provide opportunities for their academic employees to develop across a range of roles. Any initial training (e.g. through undertaking a PhD) is not sufficient for them to be able to meet the complex and increasing demands of the modern academy. Their development is an essentially pragmatic enterprise aimed at making an impact on academics and their work, prompted by perceptions that change is needed. This change has been stimulated variously by: varying needs and a greater diversity of students, external policy initiatives, accountability pressures and organisational desires to be seen to attend to the development of personnel. (p.208)

“Varying needs” almost seems to be used as a get-out-of-jail free card for those apparently rare instances where an academic might benefit from some additional training to be able to meet their responsibilities in teaching, research, service and potentially management.

There’s another section where the authors discuss the challenges of academic development. It’s close to a page long – 4 solid paragraphs, 22 lengthy sentences – yet it lacks a single citation to support any of the assertions that the authors make. The main argument made is that academic developers (and their units) don’t provide academics with the development that will help them because the developers are beholden to the agendas of the institution. The same institution, I should mention, that is governed at an executive level by senior academics who presumably have a deep understanding of academic practices.

Like most forms of education and training, academic development is continually at risk from what might be termed ‘provider-capture’, that is, it becomes driven by the needs of the providers and those who sponsor them, rather than the needs of beneficiaries’ (p. 210)

The main objection that the authors appear to have is that the institution takes a simplistic approach to training – because, reasons? – that implies that academics don’t already know everything that they need to.

…academic development has a tendency to adopt a deficit model. It assumes that the professionals subject to provision lack something that needs to be remedied; their awareness needs to be raised and new skills and knowledge made available. The assumption underpinning this is that without intervention, the deficit will not be addressed and academics not developed. (p.210)

Correct me if I’m wrong but I suspect that this is precisely the attitude that lies at the heart of the teaching practices of many academics. The students need knowledge/skills/experience in the discipline and its practices and the teacher will help them to attain this. Is the implication that academics deserve to be developed better than their students? Does it suggest a deficit in the pedagogical knowledge of academics? I would argue that this description undervalues the sophistication of work done by both academics and academic developers. Which the authors hypothetically note but then immediately discount based upon…? (Emphasis mine)

Such a characteristation, many developers would protest, does not represent what they do. They would argue that they are assiduous in consulting those affected by what they do, they collect good data on the performance of programmes and they adjust what they do in the light of feedback…they include opportunities for academics to address issues in their own teaching, to research their students’ learning and to engage in critical reflection on their practice. Developers undoubtedly cultivate high levels of skill in communicating and articulating their activities for such a demanding group. Nevertheless they are positioned within their institutions to do what is required of them by their organisation, not by those they claim to serve.  (p.210-211)

It’s hard to go past “those affected by what they do” as an indicator of the attitudes towards academic developers. I’d also make the point that I’ve come across few institutions with a comprehensive, practical strategy on teaching and learning and it generally falls on academic developers to use their extensive professional knowledge and experience to offer the best advice and support available in the absence of this.

The other significant point that I feel that the authors have completely missed – again perhaps surprisingly given their experience – is that, in my experience at least, academic professional development is almost never mandated and simply getting academics to attend PD is a task unto itself. The authors must certainly be aware of this, having written a recent paper (2017) that I found invaluable about academic responses to institutional initiatives. (Spoiler alert, it’s like herding sleeping cats). Academic developers are painfully aware of this – imagine spending days preparing a workshop or seminar only to have two attendees – and this if nothing else necessitates design of PD activities that are as relevant and attractive to academics as possible. I won’t dispute that the further away academic development teams are from academics – e.g. centralised teams – the harder it can be to do this and the more generic content becomes but even these areas have a deeper understanding of academics and their needs than is implied. (And I still have more to say about the practical realities of delivering PD that can wait for now)

Now that we’ve gotten past that – and it was something that I evidently needed to say – we start to get to the nub of what the authors would prefer instead of this ‘deficit model’.

The authors draw on Schatzki’s (2001) work in Social Practice theory, which is an area that I’ve spent some time looking at and which I see the value of. My introduction came through the work of Shove et al (2012) who present a slightly different perspective, a more streamlined one perhaps, but fundamentally the same. Where Shove et al identify three major elements to practice – meaning, materials and competences, Schatzki is a little more granular and includes elements such as emotions/moods, projects, tasks and ends. Arguably these could sit in the three elements of Shove et al but there might be something in looking more deeply at emotions/moods particularly. Maybe I’ll end up taking a Shovezki based approach to practice theory.

At the risk of oversimplifying it, from what I can see practice theory necessitates taking a more holistic perspective of being an academic and recognising that the different practices in the bundle of practices (or is it a complex – one or the other) that make up “being an academic” all occur in a specific context involving the practitioner, time, space and the larger meaning around what is being done. These sub-practices – such as teaching, research, service – can be in competition with each other and it is necessary to factor them in when providing PD training that relates to any other of them. Now this is an avenue of thinking that I’ve been pursuing myself, so obviously I’m pretty happy with this part of the paper. When we look at why an academic doesn’t undertake an activity to enhance their teaching, the current research rarely seems to answer – ‘well it was partially because they had to put together an application for research funding and that took priority’. This much I appreciate in the paper.

Where I think the paper runs into trouble though is that it makes a case for a slightly hazy approach to re-seeing academics practices as a whole, taking into consideration the following six factors that shape them:

  1. Embodiment – “It is the whole person who engages in practice, not just their intellect or skills… Desires, emotions and values are ever present and cannot be separated out” (p.212)

  2. Material mediation – “Practice is undertaking in conjunction with material arrangements. These may include objects such as raw materials, resources, artefacts and tools, physical connections, communication tools, organisms and material circumstances (Kemmis, 2009). These materials can both limit and enable particular practices” (p.212)

  3. Relationality – “Practice occurs in relation to others who practice, and in relation to the unique features a particular practitioner brings to a situation. Practice is thus embedded in sets of dynamic social interactions, connections, arrangements, and relationships” (p.212)

  4. Situatedness – This I’d call context – “…in particular settings, in time, in language… shaped by mediating conditions…” that “may include cultures, discourses, social and political structures, and material conditions in which a practice is situated” (p.213)

  5. Emergence – “Practices evolve over time and over contexts: new challenges require new ways of practising” (p.213)

  6. Co-construction – “Practices are co-constructed with others. That is, the meaning given to practice is the meaning that those involved give it” (p.213)

In my personal experience, I don’t believe that many academics give their practices, particularly teaching, anywhere near this level of reflection. It’s probably fair to say that few academic developers would either, at least not consciously. The authors believe that using this new practice frame

“…moves academic development from a focus on individuals and learning needs to academic practice and practice needs; from what academics need to know to what they do to enact their work” (p.213-214)

Maybe it’s just my professional background but I think that I pretty well always frame learning objectives in terms of the tangible things that they need to be able to do. On the other hand, my experience with academics is largely that many of their learning outcomes for their students begin with “understand x” or “appreciate the concept of y”. It’s not my job to be a discipline expert and I have no doubt that these are important learning outcomes to the academics – and I might still be misinterpreting how the authors are thinking about practices and learning design.

They go on to make an important point about the value of situated learning in professional development – conducting it in the space where the teacher teaches rather than in a removed seminar room in a building that they never otherwise visit. This makes me think that it would be valuable to have a simulated workspace for our students to learn in and I’ll give that some more thought but the logistics seem challenging at the moment as we undergo massive redevelopment. (This also acts as a pretty significant barrier to providing situated professional development, as teaching spaces are occupied from 8am to 9pm every day).

There’s an additional idea about the format of assessment conducted by ADs and what more beneficial alternatives might be considered.

“Learning is driven by, for example, by encountering new groups of students with different needs and expectations, or by working with a new issue not previously identified. Success in learning is judged by how successfully the practice with the new group or new issue is undertaken, not by how much is learnt by the individuals involved that could be tested by formal assessment practices” (p.214)

I completely support this approach to learning but I cannot see how it could ever be implemented with current staffing levels. If we’re going to think seriously about practices in an holistic way, perhaps a wider view needs to be taken that encompasses all of the participants in co-construction of the practice. This is probably where I think that this paper falls down heaviest – there seems to be a wilful blindness to ability to enact these new approaches. I also don’t see any academics ever moving to this kind of approach in their own teaching for the exact same reason.

This brings me to my larger challenge with this paper – from here (and perhaps in ignoring the logistical issues of situated learning in teaching spaces), there seems to be an expectation that it is up to academic developers and/or their units to make a lot of these significant changes happen. I can only imagine that this comes from the openly held perception that ADs are tools of ‘university management’ – which I will stress yet again is made up of academics – and that ADs are able to use these connections to management to effect major changes in the institution. I’m just going to quote briefly some of these proposed changes because I think it is self-evident how absurd that would be to expect ADs to implement any of them.

We suggest that a practice perspective would thus place greater emphasis on the development of academics:

(2) as fostering learning conducive work, where ‘normal’ academic work practices are reconfigured to ensure that they foster practice development; (p.214)

And this

“Working with individual academics to meet institutional imperatives, for example, curriculum reform, comes up against various stumbling blocks where academics complain that they are overworked, that there is too much to take on and that their colleagues are not supportive of what they are trying to do. Practice development means working with how that group juggles various aspects of their role and their attitudes and beliefs in relation to that. It is about how the group interacts in pursuing its practice, how and where interpersonal relationships are take account of the being of its members, how power and authority are negotiated, whose ideas are listened to and taken up and whose are denied” (P.215)

So, I’ll change the entire culture of academia and then after lunch… I know that sounds cynical but if the VC can’t enact that kind of a mindset shift…

I don’t disagree with any of these changes by the way but even in my relatively short time in the H.E. sector I have had it made painfully clear to me that the expertise of professional staff is basically never considered in these processes, so this paper is wildly misdirected.

The paper wraps up with a few more achievable suggestions that I think ADs have known for a long time already and try to enact when possible. Offering training or advice about something (e.g the grading system in the LMS) is going to be more valuable in some temporal contexts (weeks of semester) than others, learning more about academics and their particular practice needs – again, generally teaching as I suspect there is hierarchy of things that academics never want to have their knowledge questioned on – discipline knowledge, research skills, teaching and then technology. I might look into how often academics go to research training after they finish PhDs. I suspect it will be rarely – but I don’t know. (I should probably know that)

The authors also suggest that ADs might take a project based approach, a consultancy one or a reflective one to their development work and I would consider that communities of practice probably sit well with the latter.

Ultimately, while I am broadly supportive of many of the approaches and the more holistic viewpoint put forward in this paper, expecting ADs to implement many of the larger changes seems to demonstrate a lack of awareness of the powerlessness of people in these kinds of roles. What is proposed would largely require a significant cultural shift and to be driven from the top. Of course, the latter paper by Brew, Boud et al (2017) shows the utter folly of expecting that to succeed.




Research update #29: Slowly digesting

I’m re-reading (or properly reading) a paper by Boud and Brew that I’ve previously skim-read but now that more pieces are falling into place in my research, I’m realising its true value.

The main problem is that I can only read a few pages at a time because it’s sparking so many sideward thoughts and diversions that I need to step away to process it all. Which ultimately seems like a good thing. Just a little time-consuming.

It’s about taking a new approach to the work that Academic Developers do by viewing it through the lens of Social Practice theory. They’re using a slightly different flavour of SPT than I’m familiar with (Schatzki vs Shove) – though it’s all largely still mappable and it’s helpful in expanding my understanding of the theory as well.

There are moments as I read it when I feel they might be missing some bits as ‘outsiders’ accustomed to an academic’s view of the world but these will either wrap up ok at the end or offer me a gap to fill with my own experiences, so it’s win/win.

I keep coming back to a minor comment in the feedback on our ASCILITE paper about TEL edvisors where the reviewer said (to paraphrase) that he (feels like a he) doesn’t see the significance for anyone other than the authors. Which, you know, ouch but also, you know, you’re wrong. But I think you’re wrong because I suspect that TEL edvisors live in a blind spot for many academics, even those with the best and noblest intentions. Which often makes reading research about ‘us’ – I get to say ‘us’ here which is the nice thing about a blog – sometimes more revealing about the academic culture that it came from. But I’m also trying to escape the mental mire of us vs them that seems increasingly pervasive these days and will strive to think bigger and find the missing nuance.

Thoughts on: Academic developers as change agents: Caught in the Middle (Hicks, 2005)

Maybe it’s just a happy coincidence but I picked up a paper that I’d made a note to read in full after skimming it a while back and I don’t think I could’ve found something that aligned more with the questions that I asked myself in my post here about values vs value and the way that edvisors sit between teachers and the institution.

Hicks, who leads an academic development unit in an Australian university, delves deep into this issue of the two masters that academic developers serve – the institution and the academics/teachers. As far as I can make out, she uses the relatively well established definition of academic developers as people providing professional development training to academics. She references Nunan, George and McCausland to specify that this is

directed towards both inducing change towards institutional directions and working with teachers in areas of change that they initiate in their local contexts (Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000 p.85) (p.176)

I have to assume that the “they” in “they initiate” refers to the teachers, though it could be read as the academic developers as well. Teachers kind of makes more sense.

She ran a handful of focus groups with a small sample of academic developers – it’s not apparent whether it was at her own institution or not, which seems significant because even if you made it clear that you’re wearing a researcher hat, I would suspect that this would potentially inhibit completely open discussion. But then, I don’t know what kind of relationship she had/has with her team.

What emerges from these focus groups is that the space occupied by academic developers sees them torn between supporting the implementation of change that comes down from “management” and trying to serve the needs and interests of teachers/academics in their own practices. Despite numerous references to management, it’s not explicitly stated whether this is at a Chancellery level, with policy direction coming from former academics at the top of the university tree or “professional” management. Probably both although, again, I’d suggest that the professional management side has little to nothing to do with educational policy and few institutions would accept them trying to dictate the kind of behaviour that academic developers are tasked with embedding.

Hicks draws heavily from the ideas of Bourdieu to frame this conflict in terms of power relationships and this works for me for the most part, as navigating these is a pretty substantial factor in this kind of work. It was a little bit of a shame though that they didn’t really lead to any particularly meaningful conclusions

If universities are to get the most out of their academic development function in times of change, then these tensions need to be recognised, understood and dealt with in a way that takes account of all perspectives – management, academic staff and academic developers (p.182)

I certainly agree that this isn’t the most useful state of affairs but ‘something really should be done by someone’ doesn’t offer much in the way of a direction forwards. She does state that this is part of a broader research project, so I guess I’ll explore this for further clues. This should also not be taken to say that this isn’t a valuable paper – it lays out very clearly the issue and makes solid use of transcripts from the focus groups to highlight the voice of the academic developers.

There were a few other questions though that I felt went begging somewhat. It wasn’t explained whether the academic developers were in professional or academic roles (or came from academic roles), which I think makes a difference in the way that they are perceived by academic staff (and presumably also by management.) The lack of clarity about who management is I think is also a missing piece. I agree that being a change agent with a sometimes excessive focus on compliance can be a substantial part of the role (although if you want to talk about being the compliance police, look more at the VET sector) but I think we’re missing the continuity part of this role. The support of current, successful practices that are largely independent of change. In fairness, this wasn’t the thrust of the argument and it is the change aspects that bring the tensions between ‘management’ and academics into sharp relief.

There were also some great references for me to pursue – Land has been recommended before but it was particularly interesting to see that Land (2001) has

identified twelve different orientations to the practice of academic development (p.176)

A final question that came to mind, which once more seems to come back to my favourite paper of recent times by Brew et al (2017) about academic resistance to university initiatives, is exactly why there is so much conflict about change between academics and management. Is it that management is pushing clearly bad policy (not impossible) or that academics just don’t see the personal benefits of it (also feasible). Presumably a far more complex mess than either of these but one which could help take some of these ideas a little further.

Research update #28: Value vs Values

Looking over the suggestions for the types of sub-questions I might consider, I noticed that in one of them that it was unclear whether it referred to value (in terms of worth) to the institution or values (in terms of principles/beliefs).

My intention was value (worth), as this seems to me to be an important thing for TEL edvisors to demonstrate in terms of being seen to merit our place in the institution. Thinking about values (principles/ethics) though and how they might shape a teacher’s perception of whether TELedvisors are here to help them with teaching & learning or whether they (we) are more like cogs in the institutional machine, sent to give them extra work to do or judge their work.

Because I think it’s reasonable to say that there is a divide between the management/executive level of the institution and the teachers. Brew et al (2017) probably bring this into the sharpest relief, exploring the four key ways that teachers respond to (and generally ignore) initiatives from management. Thirty plus years of NeoLiberalism and the progressive shift to a culture of managerialism in H.E. have seen any number of changes wrought by management and change fatigue is well recognised in the sector. (Dobson, 2000; Trowler, 2014; McInnis, 1998)

The relationships between TELedvisors and the Institution and TELedvisors and teachers are quite different and I don’t think I’ve paid this enough attention until now. While TELedvisors rely on the understanding of ‘the institution’ to support our roles and practices, their (our) day to day practice relies far more on building relationships with teachers. If teachers aren’t confident that our values are aligned in terms of prioritising scholarship over the broader institutional financial imperatives, building this trust can be a challenge. (This of course presumes that these academics/teachers have these values in the first place and aren’t more interested in pursuing their research, students be damned. I still choose to believe that the majority do care about their teaching)

In a nutshell, when I look more deeply at what perceptions are held by whom, I think I’ll be looking for different things from different sources. I need to not make this explicit and provide people the opportunity to answer without being led, but I suspect that these factors will be significant.

Coming to the Pat Thomson question of the week – “The feedback that helps me most is…” the conversation that lets me chew over my thoughts and raises questions and ideas that weren’t even necessarily meant. When I asked which meaning of value had actually been intended, the discussion moved to concepts and approaches of teaching but the value/values seed had already taken root. (Maybe down the track something will click into place with concepts and approaches as well – I have a new paper to explore on the subject at least)

One side thought that I suspect I already know the answer to – I have a strong urge to say “we” and “our” when discussing TELedvisors but I think I need to get into the habit of referring to them/us in the third person. Perhaps less so in a blog post but almost certainly in actual academic writing, so maybe it would be best to just do that here anyway.