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.

Research update #27: The reframe

Just a quick note this time about the rather helpful feedback that I got from my supervisors about my evolved research question.

I was considering something like:

How do and should edvisors in H.E. ensure that their work in introducing, supporting and developing TELT practices is understood, valued and supported by academics and the institution?

Peter suggested that ‘ensure’ adds a certain amount of pressure, which is a fair call as after all, one of our ongoing challenges is achieving this and there are no guarantees that it will happen. (But I think it will eventually because it has to happen)

He proposed the following:

What strategies do edvisors in HE use to promote understanding of their role and value among academic staff, and more broadly within their institutions?

With a sub-question of:

Which among these strategies are particularly successful?

Lina chimed in with a couple more examples of sub-questions that might offer some additional directions for the research to follow.

What are the roles and values of edvisors (as they seen from their perspective)
How those roles and values are seen from the institutional (aka client) perspective?

Pretty hard to escape those perspective-oriented questions but in this context, where so much seems to be about perspectives shaping a workplace reality, it makes sense.

On a separate note, our short paper was accepted for ASCILITE 2017. One of the reviewers seemed to expect a lot of detail from something that we had to cram into 5 pages (down from 17ish) but the feedback was helpful and offers some ideas about ways to expand the work. (The second reviewer didn’t seem to share any of their concerns, so that’s a good lesson perhaps about the nature of the review process). Overall, I take the feedback to be a good sign that we’re exploring an area where there is some interest and something of a gap in the literature.

 

Research update #26: The reboot

Here’s this week’s Pat Thomson inspired PhD journal topic:

I have learnt since starting the PhD that… I need to rethink my approach and be a little more realistic in my planning. This is the project plan that I started at the end of May last year.

project plan

At the time, it seemed like a pretty good plan. By this plan, I had finished the final version of my PhD proposal 29 days ago, after getting and responding to feedback on two draft versions.

I could beat myself up about not hitting these targets – not coming even remotely close really – but that’s not going to achieve anything.

So I’m hitting the reboot button. Fortunately, my thinking has progressed in this time and I can happily remove several of the sections. Students – gone. TELT pedagogy and practices – largely gone I think. Teachers  – mostly gone. Technology – mostly gone. Instead of trying to do all the things and come up with some kind of genius ‘theory of everything’, I’ve landed on something rather more achievable.

The original question was this:

How can Edvisors, (third space teaching support workers including education designers, academic developers and learning technologists), better support technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT) practices in higher education?

(The bit explaining edvisors has always been draft at best)

It might look kind of like this:

How can, do and should H.E. institutions ensure that the work and role of the edvisor in introducing, expanding and supporting TELT practices is understood, valued and supported?

Or maybe it’s not the responsibility of H.E institutions. I mean, I think it is but in terms of actually getting something done… Maybe the question is really:

How do and should edvisors in H.E. ensure that their work in introducing, supporting and developing TELT practices is understood, valued and supported by academics and the institution?

Not sure – this option feels more pro-active and empowered but maybe initiatives that don’t come from the ‘thought-leaders’ of the academy are unlikely to succeed due to entrenched power structures. Who needs to take ultimate responsibility? Who is actually more likely to get it done?

What do you think? Please comment or tweet me back @gamerlearner

I just need to find a way to put this into a question that gives me the room to address it properly. There’s a lot of other stuff that I’m interested in but I think it has been covered already pretty well in the existing literature. It’s the job of the edvisor to know the research and recommend the best strategies for innovation and support of TELT practices, so this is not the focus of the thesis.

Oh and I think I’ll go with the term edvisor for now too. Probably need to write something explaining what I think this is and why it is the best term, but I’m ok with that.

Mainly just writing something is vital at this stage – and figuring out exactly what I’m trying to research and what methods I want to use to do so.

One core element is going to be a comprehensive scan of what Australian Universities are currently doing in this space – how they manage edvisor teams and which systems appear to be working. I had in my head that there are 37 Australian Universities – I found out yesterday that there are actually 40, plus 3 International unis with local campuses. Not sure what to do with them – I suspect they have a very minimal local presence so it’s probably not relevant. Might be interesting though. We’ll see.

Onwards.

Thoughts on: The Herckis research in progress into barriers to TEL in Higher Ed

L. Herckis, personal communication, July 10, 2017

I’ve been banging on about this a bit here recently but that’s only because I’m enjoying the new perspective on this issue, which is kind of at the heart of my day to day work and my own research. Unlike most if not all of the other research that I’ve read in this space, this comes from an anthropological background and seems far more interested in looking beyond what academics say to explore what they actually mean when it comes to talking about their teaching and learning (and particularly TEL and innovation practices).

I don’t think that people often go out of their way to be deliberately deceptive in the way they discuss or think about their teaching practice (we have committees and office politics for that – zing) but I think we all also like to consider ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives and this can get in the way of truly understanding what (or who) gets in the way of innovation and iteration. (I don’t believe in change for change’s sake either, just to be clear – I think it’s just as important to identify and celebrate the things that we do that works and support them, but that’s a matter for another day)

As a baby researcher (no, that sounds weird, let’s try pre-researcher – presearcher?) and one with minimal knowledge of anthropology, I won’t presume to comment on the methodology, suffice to say it seems sensible  – mixed method including an ethnographic observation, surveys and interviews – and appears to already be yielding interesting results in the early phases of the work and analysis.

Given that this is research in progress, I’ll just highlight what I’ve found to be key points so far.

The author mentions ‘refinement’ as a stage in the innovation process – which I would take to be an evaluation and iteration/modification process – which is nice but it seems to be so rarely implemented formally that it might be nice to break this into these two parts. More than anything though, these challenges indicate to me that there might need to be support from someone (or a team) that is able to offer a more holistic perspective on an innovation process – I would suggest, unsurprisingly, working collaboratively with an education design support unit (TEL edvisors if you will), so that some of the issues relating to the transitions to different stages of the process are mitigated because there is constancy of people involved.

Some nice stuff about the needs for a more collaborative model of teaching innovation. Getting this message across (for me at least) is one of my challenges – I was told pretty categorically this week by a senior member of the exec that teaching is an individual endeavour and that a community of practice is probably a waste of time (that’s paraphrased)

Overall it seems as though this work aims to lead to solid, practical and applicable outcomes. One of my greatest concerns about entering research is whether it might have a practical application, beyond just being a contribution to the wider pool of understanding. Some have told me that the latter is the primary purpose of research, which feels limiting to me so it’s nice to see a different take.

Many factors identified that impact of the success of an innovation project, including the very hard to untangle political and psychological. Interestingly, many issues seem resolvable far more simply than one would expect if there are visible career benefits or opportunities to work with respected peers, which makes me think that some of the barriers raised and emphatically identified as insurmountable are largely made of bluster.

Coming back to my earlier comment about the difference between what people say and what they think, Herckis uses techniques from her discipline to cleverly swerve around this. Framing questions in terms of ‘what would your (very similar to you) colleague think about this issue?’ lets people filter out their own personal biases and answer a question more objectively. Perhaps it lets them move past the need to be the hero of their own story and be consider it from a slightly more critical perspective.

I might just summarise the rest of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and revealing findings to date.

After surveying participants about their attitudes to SoTL (and SoTEL) and their perceptions of their institutions attitudes to the same, it emerged that the gap between these attitudes worked in different ways, depending on whether you are an early career teacher or a senior one. I have to note that different institutions have different organisational structures for their academics and there is more to this than simply being an early or late career teacher. Being more research oriented or having tenure, for example, are obviously going to shape attitudes and behaviours as well and there are always going to be a raft of local cultural factors at play too. That said, the fact that there are differences in outlook based on this seems like a pretty big deal.

When early career teachers feel that the institution values teaching less than they do (significantly), they are less inclined to innovate. With senior teaching academics however, in this instance they are more likely to do so, perhaps because they see it as their duty to help the institution raise the bar. This sounds somewhat like a question of power or privilege – don’t want to rock the boat vs not having to care – and probably more than anything else in this paper has started me thinking that different approaches need to be taken in my teaching/TEL edvisor role with junior and senior staff.

A couple of final factors come to play more than I had considered – and this is perhaps a disadvantage of my outsider role. While the ever-present time, capability and resourcing issues are at the forefront of academic resistance to revising their approaches to teaching and innovation, the prospect of working on this with an esteemed colleague, of future professional opportunities or of receiving good press can push these concerns to the background.

An overemphasis on student satisfaction measurements was identified as a major barrier, the fact that many (untrained) teachers lean very heavily on how they were taught, misalignments between institutional change and teaching needs and a belief that there is little to be learnt from teaching approaches in other disciplines also all crop up. Almost all of which I put down to issues surrounding culture, ultimately.

Definitely looking forward to the next phases of this particular research and working out how to make use of it in practice.

 

 

 

 

 

Research update #25: getting on with it

Drawing once more from the Pat Thomson well – “the key thing I have to remember is” that perfect is the enemy of the good

I really enjoy preparing things, getting all my ducks lined up in a row so that when I start doing the writing work I can get into a flow-state and not have to stop until its done. The challenge is knowing when I’m ready – this preparation phase can and will keep expanding as I find more and more ways to make the thing that I’m working on ‘perfect’.

This completely neglects the fact that it is often only when I start writing something that I know where it is going anyway, as I need to actually find the combination of words and ideas that sum up everything that I’ve been thinking.

Its time to be writing something. I’m not expected to produce something amazing on the first attempt, I’m expected to be learning as I’m doing, so doing is the only way to see what I’m learning.

Research update #24: The community

I mentioned recently that I’d come across some interesting anthropological research suggesting that the key reason that academics rarely innovate their teaching is fear of looking foolish in front of their students. There was a whole thing about it in the Times Higher Education at the time and it sparked some interesting discussion in the TEL edvisors SIG forums. Media being media of course, it was far from the whole story and the researcher – Lauren Herckis – was able to help correct the story a week later.

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of the PhD (thanks once more Pat Thomson) is the peek through the door it offers me to the global community of scholars. (That reads far more pretentiously than is intended). But if I wasn’t working on mine and found this work to be particularly pertinent, I probably wouldn’t have reached out to the author to ask if there is a paper or book or something that this research came from. (As the THE article was remarkably vague on that). Turns out that it’s a work in progress but Lauren was happy to share what they’ve done so far, making the point that the later stages of the research and data analysis are still in train.

I have no illusions that all academics are as generous with their time and work but on the whole, those that I have reached out to that are working in my field have helped me to feel as though I’m part of something bigger. Maybe as a PhD student rather than a rival researcher in competition for research funding it might be different but I haven’t had that sense – it’s really felt more like sharing an interest that perhaps not that many others do.

I’ll probably write something more about the paper in progress shortly – after checking I’m not travelling too far into spoiler town or whatever the academic equivalent is – but I’ve already found it interesting in framing the discussions that I’ve had at work and in trying to better understand some of the (sometimes unfathomable) resistance I encounter to new ideas about teaching and learning. The difference between the ways that attitudes in early career vs senior academics relating the value of teaching overall has particularly given me a lot to ponder.

Building rapport between Educational Developers and Academics/Teachers

Our colleagues in the great white north – the Canadian Educational Developers Caucus – have produced a rich looking guide to building rapport between ed developers and academics/teachers.

I haven’t had a chance to dig into it deeply (it’s more than 100 pages) but this looks pretty valuable.

The guide – and an earlier one called the Education Developers Portfolio – can be found here https://www.stlhe.ca/affiliated-groups/educational-developers-caucus/guides/

Research update #23 – The ‘troublemaker’

I went to a cross institute training thing last week and for some reason we did an icebreaker exercise where we had to introduce the person that we were sitting next to to the room.

I was sitting with a long-time colleague from the central IT unit, who said that he was going to introduce me as a ‘troublemaker’. At first I laughed and suggested that ‘disruptor’ is probably a better term. I won’t deny for a second that I care about what we do and how we do it as a university and I will ask challenging questions and push for change where I think it’s necessary. I certainly don’t buy into the logical fallacy of appeal to authority as a source of all wisdom.

He did say that he appreciated the fact that I was reasonable and put forward logical arguments in my advocacy. He said it was also appreciated that I wasn’t overly demanding and didn’t constantly hassle the IT team. This just made me wonder if this wasn’t why I generally don’t feel like I’m actually achieving much of what I set out to in my dealings with the central teams. Maybe I need to be less reasonable and more persistent.

The fact that I’m considered to be a ‘troublemaker’ rather than an engaged participant in the system suggests to me that our system is flawed, particularly in terms of the relationships between the central units that ‘own’ the systems and people in the college teams that work the most closely with the people that the systems are intended for – well, the teaching side of this at least. This isn’t to say that the central units don’t work with teachers and students but it’s rarely a long term relationship. For all the talk of cooperation and collaboration, the communications and governance structures are very much set up in such a way that the central units dictate the conversation and the policy directions – and I’ve been told directly by them that they don’t exist to serve the needs of the teachers and learners, they exist to serve the university executive.

Fortunately this reinforces a discussion that I had with my supervisor Peter last week, where I mentioned once again that I feel like the work that I’ve been doing and the things that I’ve been reading are all heavily oriented to ideas around how H.E. institutions work and particularly in relation to TEL edvisors / Third Space TEL workers. I feel that this is an important part of the question (what can TEL workers do to better support TEL practices in H.E) but it’s far from all that I want to cover. That said though, the broad vision that I have – what do TEL workers do, how do they sit in the organisation, what do teachers do, what are the overlaps that create opportunities for better collaboration – is probably far too large to do justice to in a thesis. Peter suggested that a solid mapping of how different TEL support units in Australian institutions work could grow to be a significant piece of work in itself. I think this still lets me explore what TEL edvisors/works are and do, so maybe this is enough. I’m sure there’s also a decent discussion to be had about how different universities create opportunities to support TEL practices by the ways that they structure their support teams. All of this seems a little removed from teaching and learning per se to me – considering that it’s a PhD in Education – and almost more tied to organisational/management type ideas. Maybe it’s just broadly sociological or anthropological or something.

Anyway, it’s given me more to think about and should make it easier to dive into the literature once more.

On a side note, I came across an article about some anthropological research into why professors don’t adopt innovative teaching methods – which was kind of the initial premise of my research – and, surprise, it’s at least partially to do with not looking foolish in front of their students. (Which I’ve suspected for some time – my reasoning being that one’s capital in a university is one’s intelligence and looking like you don’t know something appears to be regarded as a cardinal sin. Which is crazy because it’s impossible to know everything – particularly when it’s not your discipline – and admitting this (and trying to rectify it) is clearly an indicator of intelligence. Anyway, it’s well worth a read – I do wish they’d cited the actual research though. (I also recognise that it’s a more nuanced issue than I’ve painted)

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/06/anthropologist-studies-why-professors-dont-adopt-innovative-teaching-methods