Author Archives: Colin Simpson

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 

 

Selected tweets and notes from HERDSA 2017

Here’s a Storify that I created from tweets I made at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference in Sydney last week.

This is slightly scattered – in addition to notes and photos from the sessions that I attended are some retweets from parallel sessions  – but there are some great ideas and rich resources to ponder.

https://storify.com/gamerlearner/selected-tweets-from-herdsa-2017-5959908843787735b36ae10e

 

Research update #22 – The Outsider

Today’s Pat Thomson inspired post revolves around “Risks I will and won’t take”

Writing about the last paper that I read really brought home to me the fact that I’m looking at and engaging with the world of academia as an outsider, while simultaneously doing an apprenticeship to maybe join it.

I honestly don’t know where I want to end up after I finish my research, I’m rather hoping that the things that I learn and the experiences that I have offer me some signposts. The world of the mind and ideas is clearly appealing and I do feel that education is a noble cause but there are more options out there than universities and I might even be a little old to make a career here now.

But I’m certainly keen to better understand how Higher Ed works and it is a place where I do feel some sense of belonging. Which perhaps gives a lie to the title of this post but we’ll get to that.

So bearing these things in mind and considering that I’m investigating and examining the sector that I work in (and by extension, if not literally, the people I work with), I’m conscious of the impact that my words can have professionally. (I’m certainly more conscious of this now that I realise that this isn’t simply a digital diary but some people actually read it – thanks, by the way, I hope it’s of some value to you). One thing that I’ve been seeing in my research and in wider conversations is that words have significant impact in this world – if you’ve ever killed an hour or two of a meeting in an ongoing debate about which term to use and which term is completely inappropriate I think you’ll know what I mean. Which places me in the invidious position of trying to critically analyse the teaching practices of people that I work with or that I might one day work with. In a utopian world, this would be recognised as scholarship and a respectable pursuit of knowledge, whatever the findings are. Or, at this stage, whatever my half-baked opinions are. The pragmatic reality though is that there will probably be things that I have to say that people won’t want to hear and they could have a concrete impact on future employment prospects.

I have no doubt that many academics would genuinely believe themselves when they say – ‘if you construct a robust enough argument supported with sufficient evidence, I’m happy to have that conversation’ but we’re all human and even if it is only on a subconscious level, saying the wrong thing might leave a mark. As a professional staff member and not ‘part of the tribe’, this applies doubly I suspect, again, regardless of the best intentions.

So what risks will I and won’t I take? I’m not sure yet but I know that I did some significant modifying of some of the language that I used in my last post to tone it down – though I think it actually reads better as a result. One thing I’m noticing more and more in the papers that I’m reading is there is very little written that is directly critical of the teaching practices of other academics – maybe I just haven’t read enough yet, maybe this is simply good, objective research practice or maybe there is similarly an element of professional caution.

Thoughts on: Responding to university policies and initiatives: the role of reflexivity in the mid-career academic (Brew, Boud, Lucas & Crawford, 2017)

Is academia a workplace like any other? Going by the normalisation of academic staff attitudes towards organisational policies and initiatives displayed in this paper, it’s hard to believe so. As a professional staff member in a H.E institution it’s kind of fascinating to see a discussion of ignoring policy and procedures treated as a norm that management needs to work harder to mitigate – ideally by offering the staff greater incentives to comply. Maybe we also see it in the higher levels of the entertainment industry, where top stars are feted to keep the show running. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, is academia showbiz for clever people?

Brew, Boud et al explore these attitudes using the lens of Archer’s modes of reflexivity (2007) to try to better understand how mid-career academics’ preferences for reflecting on and responding to the world help to define the way they respond to policies and initiatives in their institutions. This is an interesting angle to take, particularly as they are able to use it to formulate some potential actions that management can take in the formulation of these policies etc to get greater buy in. The authors interviewed a diverse set of 27 mid-career (5-10 years experience) academics in research intensive universities in the UK and Australia and categorised their responses to policies/initiatives as aligning with one of the following four modes of reflexivity:

Communicative reflexivity: exhibited in people whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in courses of action

Autonomous reflexivity: exhibited in those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action

Meta-reflexivity: characterised by internal conversations critical of one’s own internal conversations and on the look-out for difference in the social world around them

Fractured reflexivity: internal conversations intensify distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action (p.3)

A question that concerned me throughout however – and it was acknowledged at the end by the authors – was whether the authors identified these people as having one of these orientations before seeing if their attitudes or actions matched them. They did not – instead they mapped the individuals to these modes based on their attitudes and actions and accept that this is a relatively subjective approach to have taken. In the case of several participants, they even found that different things that they said in the course of their interview aligned to most or all of the four modes. As a series of signposts however, these modes generally appear to have stood up to scrutiny and reasonably reflect the set of different responses taken by the academics.

Some choice examples, including some transcripts:

A change that affected Shaun was degree accreditation by a professional body. This was deemed necessary to ensure continued student applications. His courses did not address the competencies needed in the degree. The consequence of this was that his teaching was taken away… Shaun describes this as a critical incident in his career:

[It was a] slap in the face, because an external accrediting body didn’t think my knowledge area was necessary to produce this… degree, as opposed to a university standing up and going, well no the tail doesn’t wag the dog, this is what we think is important to become a university graduate and that should inform what becomes a practitioner (Shaun, Aus, HS, SL, M, L.344-352) (P.5-6)

And this:

William refers to ‘red tape’ that surrounds teaching describing initiatives requiring writing learning outcomes and conforming to graduate outcome statements as ‘a fashion, a fad’ (L.257)

And Shaun again:

there are some faculty research priorities… which were suggested as being pillars that we had to try and perform under. I couldn’t tell you what they are, I haven’t paid attention to them because I remember looking at them and going, my area doesn’t fit under them. (p.8)

Now of course I’ve taken the more dramatic examples but there are many more that broadly paint a picture indicating that the academics in the study take a fairly self-centric viewpoint and few give much thought to bigger picture issues and needs in the institution. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also many instances of mystifying and seemingly counterproductive policies and procedures being put into place and the authors suggest that some academics would be better engaged if these were explained/justified more effectively.

Sensitivity to the ways in which those demonstrating communicative reflexivity work to maintain the status quo and the difficulties they appear to have in responding to change would suggest that attention needs to be paid to providing academics with thorough rationales for policy changes and that opportunities for these to be debated need to be provided. How such policies fit in with and/or enhance existing practice need careful consideration if they are to be implemented successfully. (p.11)

These people and those people who engage in meta-critical reflexivity, where they are able and willing to question their own internal conversations appear to be the easiest to work with in this space.

the people whose mode of reflexivity is meta-reflexivity could be the most helpful in policy implementation as their focus is likely to be on the smooth and equitable functioning of the university community as a whole. Harnessing the critical capacities of such academics and their concern for their fellow workers can be a useful asset for sensitive managers concerned to implement new initiatives (p.11)

When dealing with the autonomous reflexives, those people who – to paraphrase – pretty much just do whatever they feel is right – things get harder. (There is certainly never any question of entertaining the prospect that this behaviour is flawed)

for academics demonstrating autonomous reflexivity, teaching and learning policies are likely to pose the greatest challenges particularly if they are seen to take time away from research. For successful implementation, such people are likely to need incentives in terms of furthering their careers. (p.11)

The authors appear to largely give up on working with the final category, the fractured reflexives, those who struggle to deal with change at all

Academics whose mode of fractured reflexivity makes them unable to move forward may need professional counselling (p.11)

As a professional staff member – I would’ve said non-academic but have a particular dislike of defining things by what they are not – these descriptions do all ring true and something that I’ve been keenly aware of since I started this research (and long before, really) is that the question of culture in academia is a massive factor in the success or failure of innovation and change. In some ways this hangs on the question of whether academia is just another job – I’d be surprised to find anyone inside who would agree with that idea and maybe they’re right but maybe we also need to find a middle ground which recognises that complete autonomy and/or academic freedom simply isn’t a realistic expectation in the modern age – perhaps unless you’re working for and by yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More creating opportunities and less kicking goals

I’ve been playing a bit of Rocket League on the Playstation 4 lately and it’s had me thinking about what I do at work. The game is essentially soccer with rocket powered, jumping stunt cars – it can be played multiplayer with up to 8 people or individually with AI team mates and opposition.

I’ve been playing solo because my home internet is awful and it’s been fun but my AI team mate is a bit dumb. Or to be fair, his programming means that he has a tendency to just dive at the ball whenever I’m about to score a goal and knock it in the wrong direction.

So I’ve started trying more to create situations where I’m positioning the ball well near the goal and he can just charge in and score our goal instead. As long as the goals are being scored, the team wins and we make our way to the finals.

Which is something like what we do in education – create opportunities for students to learn. They still need to apply their knowledge and skills to kick the goal but we’ve set the stage for them to make this happen. And maybe this is what I do as a TEL edvisor. I’m not the one working with the learners, the teacher is. I might have a very clear idea of what goals can and should be kicked but so does the teacher and it’s fair that they are the ones that get to do so. (I’m not suggesting here that the teachers are dumb or have bad programming – the analogy fell down long before now – more that it can be exciting for us to see the opportunities for scoring learning goals and forget that we’re here to create opportunities for the teachers to score them.)

Maybe just playing the game (and it’s a fun game) and being on the winning team is enough.

 

 

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Research update #21 – Where is this going?

When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.

Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.

In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.

Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.