Category Archives: academic development

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.

 

 

 

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.

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/

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research update #20 – Language language covfefe

Nothing like using a word that will be terribly dated in a week’s time in a title to anchor it in space/time. Language has been a particular interest in the last few weeks and months as I have worked with my TELedvisor co-convenors to explore the different role types and practices of TEL edvisors – notably academic developers, education/… designers and learning/… technologists. I presented about our work yesterday at our TELedvisors webinar – if you’re interested, I’ll add the video at the end of this post. The last 20 mins is discussion but it was a pretty interesting conversation. Dom McGrath from UQ was the other presenter and (happily) his work took a slightly different approach but I think we arrived at largely the same conclusions.

Language was still a challenge even as we discussed final touches on the paper this morning – the nature of design vs develop and what these practices really mean and also what the develop in Academic Developer really means. (My take is that it helps to see that mostly as a training role and keep ‘develop’ to the practice of building things like learning resources or curriculum but I don’t think we’re all 100% on the same page – which is fine because this is representative of the bigger issue around the lack of clarity in this language in our sector)

I’ve forgotten to look at my list of Pat Thomson PhD blog questions for a little while but here’s this week’s.

Am I too hard on myself?

Maybe? Probably? I hope that it’s more about an attitude of continuous improvement but I’m much more interested in the bits that can be better than the bits that are working – I’m happy to just leave them be. I know that perfect is the enemy of the good and I think I’ve made strides in accepting when things are good enough but I also like to think that I have high standards, so it’s a toss-up. My bigger worry is less that I am hard on myself but that this normalises being hard on others – by being open to (ideally constructive) criticism and perhaps trusting it more than praise – childhoods, ugh – I suspect that I might think everyone has the same attitude and is more accepting of criticism than they actually are. I guess it’s probably mainly a matter of walking more confidently on that fine line between helping and offending.

Thoughts on: Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 5 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

This chapter has us looking at the ways that practices can be grouped together, what factors drive these groupings and what impact competition and collaboration between practices has on other practices.

(I’m still mind-mapping the core concepts now before writing these posts and feeling like they’re helping a lot in terms of clarity.)

Shove et al open with more discussion of why they are viewing practices in the simplified way that they are. (In comparison to other theoreticians in the field like Schatzki.) It feels slightly defensive at times but I guess this is what one needs to do when trying a new approach – justify, justify, justify. Their main point is that

by holding fast to this approach we are able to describe historically fluid processes of linkage, disruption and mutual influence and identify instances in which practices become so closely connected that distinctions between them dissolve (p.71)

Their arguments here are making more sense to me as we progress but I’m still going to have to check out the other theorists to see what other angles there are. It does feel more and more however like I can draw pretty heavily on these ideas in how I scaffold my own research. At the moment it seems like I want to catalogue the various practices of TEL edvisors, teachers/academics and maybe institutions (if that isn’t too broad) in pursuit of understanding of the relationships between these practices and to find areas where they can be improved or better supported. I had a Skype chat with my supervisor last week and he doesn’t seem to have any urgency in my work – I’m not sure what to make of this. I get that this is my work and I need to drive where it is going and I don’t want to be told what to do but I’m still feeling rather unguided.

In terms of how practices are grouped, the authors suggest that there are bundles and complexes.

Just as elements are linked together to form recognisable practices, so practices link, one to another, to form bundles and complease. Bundles are loose-knit patterns based on the co-location and co-existence of practices. Complexes represent stickier and more integrated combinations, some so dense that they constitute new entities in their own right (p.71)

In a nutshell, practices can be linked because a series of them might need to occur in a specific order (such as docking a large ship) and at a certain time or they might need to occur in a given space (like the photocopy room). Or both. Or the practices might be more loosely linked, so that you could do several in succession but it’s not necessary to do so.

The fact that practices occur in the same place could be that this is where the necessary materials are stored – and this is turn could be because this is where the practice(s) need to occur. Cities are considered great for the evolution of practices because “proximity… increases the chances of cross-fertilisation between otherwise unrelated practices” (p.74).

These examples have emphasised collaboration as a key factor in the relationships between practices and this is particularly seen to be the case when considering complexes. (This is also referred to as “blackboxing” in other circles – the practice of driving, comprising a host of mini-practices, is the black box for all of them)

…when practices do come to depend upon each other (whether in terms of sequence, sychronization, proximity or necessary co-existence), they constitute complexes, the emergent characteristics of which cannot be reduced to the individual practices of which they are composed (p.75)

However, on the other side of the coin we have competition. There might be competition for materials, particularly time – I guess time is a material more than anything else – and competition for the attention of the practitioner.

…there are instances in which time-use data reveals what seem to be aggressively competitive moves in which one practice colonizes resources and captures recruits at the expense of another (p.76)

The rise of television in the home from the 1950s onwards is seen as a prime example of this, changing the way that people organise their lives and prioritise practices. These kind of practices come to be referred to as ‘dominant projects’. This mirrors language used elsewhere

  • In innovation studies, the notion of dominant design has been used to explain how certain products and technological solutions define the terms off which others compete (and collaborate)… ‘technological experimentation and competition persists within a product class until a dominant design emerges as a synthesis of a number of proven concepts (p.77)

Initiating change at this point is seen as a challenge, with the authors noting that “breaking through incumbent regimes and overturning dominant designs requires radical rather than incremental innovation (Abernathy and Clark, 1985)” (p.77)

In terms of my own research, where initiating change does seem to be a necessary (or at least desired) outcome, I wonder if I might write up some case studies of successful implementations of change of dominant projects. I’d imagine that before then I’ll want to interview TEL edvisors (and maybe academics – though this may not be necessary) in the course of identifying and defining sets of practices in these various worker domains.

There’s an interesting description of some possible methodologies for analysing the relationships between practices toward the end of this chapter – it’s perhaps still slightly abstract but I’ll include it for further consideration.

Multi-level analyses of stability and change emphasise one-way tracks of path dependence. These do not necessarily exclude parallel accounts of more fluid patterns of multi-sited anchoring. However each approach draws attention to significantly different forms of positive and negative interconnection. The first highlights competitive relations and their impact on the selection environments of the future. The second suggests that webs of co-dependence are not evenly arranged, that they include nodes, knots, relays and points of convergence and amplification, and that the emergence of dominant systems and projects depends on how practices are linked and not (only) on their capacity to compete. This underlines the importance of identifying and analysing types and combinations of spatial and temporal links while remembering that these connections are living tissue: they do not exist ready-made, but are continually re-woven as practices to be reproduced (Ingold, 2008) (p.79)

There’s a final quote in this chapter that I particularly liked, mainly because it seems highly relevant to an unrelated (I think – though I’m considering whether it might be incorporated into the research in some way, if I can overcome some local barriers) project for academic professional development – STELLAR.

In the first part of this chapter we distinguished between loose bundles and denser, stickier complexes of practice, also describing arrangements in which patterns of sequential order and periodicity combine, and in which serendipity is common. It may be that configurations less constrained by path dependencies or by strict temporal order are better able to accommodate diversion and interruption. In these situations temporary defection, multi-tasking and contamination between practices is perhaps more likely than when practices are held together by strong routines (p.79)

One of the key aims of STELLAR is to support a host of different forms of professional development practice that academics can dip into and out of in their own time. To me, this sounds somewhat in line with this idea.

Thoughts on: Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within Higher Education (King & Boyatt, 2015)

This is a big post because it is about a journal article that covers some of the core issues of my thesis in progress. I’ve spent far longer looking over, dissecting and running off on a dozen tangents with it than I had expected. My highlights and scrawled notes are testament to that.

scrawled notes

In a nutshell, King and Boyatt attribute the success (or otherwise) of adoption of e-learning in their university to three key factors. Institutional infrastructure, teacher attitudes and knowledge and perceived student expectations. This seems like a reasonable argument to make and they back it up with some fairly compelling arguments that I’ll expand on and provide my own responses to shortly.

They use this to generate a proposed action plan which includes a coherent and detailed university level e-learning strategy – which includes adequate resourcing for technological and pedagogical support, academic development training, leadership, guidance, flexibility and local autonomy. Everything that they propose seems reasonable and sane yet (sadly) quite optimistic and ambitious. From their bios, I think that the authors aren’t teachers themselves but education advisors like myself but the perspective put forward in the article is very clearly from an academic’s perspective. (Well, 48 academics from a range of discplines, ages and years of teaching experience.) All the same, there were more than a few occasions when I read the paper and thought – “well it’s fine to suggest communities of practice (or whatever) but even when we do set them up, nobody comes more than once or twice”.

I guess the main difference between this paper and my line of thinking in my research is that I want to know what gets in the way, and I didn’t get enough of that here. I also found myself thinking a few times that this kind of research needs to avoid falling into the trap of forgetting that teaching is only one (often de-prioritised, depending on the uni culture) part of an academic’s practice and we need to factor in the impact that their research and service obligations have on their ability to find time to do this extra training. To be completely fair though, the authors did recognise and note this later in the paper, as well as the fact that the section on perceived student expectations was only that – perceptions – and not necessarily a true representation of what students think or want. So they propose extending the study to include students and the university leadership, which seems pretty solid to me and helps to strengthen my personal view that this is probably a thing I’ll need to do when I start my own research. (I’m still in proposal/literature review/exploration swampland for now). To this I would probably add the affordances of the technology itself and also the Education Advisor/Support staff that can and would help drive much of this.

This paper sparked a number of ideas for me but perhaps the most striking was the question of what are the real or main reasons for implementing e-learning and TELT? Is it simply because it can offer the students a richer and more flexible learning experience or is it because it makes a teacher’s life easier or brings some prestige to a university (e.g. MOOCs) or (in the worst and wrongest case) is perceived as a cost-saving measure. There is no reason that it can’t be all of these things (and more) and that makes a lot of sense but some of the quotes from teachers in the article do indicate that they are more motivated to adopt new tools and teaching approaches if they can see an immediate, basically cost-free benefit to themselves. Again, I’m not unsympathetic to this – everyone is busy and if you’re under pressure to output research above all else, it’s perfectly human to do this. But it speaks volumes firstly about the larger cultural questions that we must factor in to explorations of this nature and secondly about the strategic approaches that we might want to take in achieving the best buy in.

From here, I’ll include the notes that I took that go into more specifics and also include some quotes. They’re a little dot pointy but I think still valuable. This is most definitely a paper worth checking out though and I have found it incredibly useful, even if I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of practical detail about successfully implementing the strategies.

 

“In addition, the results suggest that underpinning staff motivation to adopt e-learning is their broader interest in teaching and learning. This implies a bigger challenge for the institution, balancing the priorities of research and teaching, which may require much more detailed exploration” (p.1278)

Glad to see this acknowledged.

This paper focuses on Adoption. What are the other two phases in the Ako paper?
Initiation (a.k.a adoption), Implementation and Institutionalisation
Getting people to start using something is a good start but without a long term plan and support structure, it’s easy for a project to collapse. The more projects collapse, the more dubious people will be when a new one comes along.

Feel like there are significant contradictions in this paper – need for central direction/strategy as well as academic autonomy. Providing people with a menu of options is good and makes sense but that makes for huge and disparate strategy.

The three core influencing factors identified. (How well are they defined?)

Institutional infrastructure
Definition:
Includes: institutional strategy, sufficient resources (to do what?), guidance for effective implementation.

Question of academic development training is framed with limited understanding of the practicalities of implementation. Assumption that more resources can simply be found and allocated with no reciprocal responsibilities to participate.

Support needs identified:
Exploration of available tools and the development of the skills to use them
Creating resources/activities and piloting them
Developing student skills in using the tools
Engaging with students in synchronous and asynchronous activities
Monitoring and updating resources

Unclear over what time frame this support is envisioned. Presumably it should be ongoing, which would necessitate a reconsideration of current support practices.

“Participants suggested the need for a more coordinated approach. A starting point for this would be consideration of how available technologies might be effectively integrated with existing pedagogic practices and systems” (p.1275)

Issues basically boil down to leadership and time/resourcing. Teachers seem to want a lot in this space – “participants in this study reported the lack of a coherent institutional-wide approach offering the guidance, resources and recognition necessary to encourage and support staff.” At the same time, they expect “ongoing consultation and collaboration with staff to ensure a more coherent approach to meet institutional needs” (both p.1277).

If you want leadership but you also want to drive the process, what do you see leadership as providing? I do sympathise, this largely looks more like a reaction to not feeling adequately consulted with however my experience with many consultation attempts in this space is that very few people actually contribute or engage. (This could possibly be a good question to ask – phrased gently – what actions have you taken to participate in existing consultation and collaboration processes in ed tech)

“A further barrier to institutional adoption was the piecemeal approach to availability of technologies across the institution. Participants reported the need for a more coordinated approach to provision of technologies and their integration with existing systems and practices” (p.1277)

Probably right, clashes with their other requests for an approach that reflects the different disciplinary needs in the uni. How do we marry the two? How much flexibility is reasonable to ask of teachers?

Staff attitudes and skills
Definition:
Is this where “culture” lives?

Includes:
“including their skills and confidence in using the technology” (p.1275)

“A key step for broadening engagement is supporting staff to recognise the affordances of technology and how it might help them to maintain a high-quality learning experience for their students.

[teacher quote] There’s a lot of resistance to technology but if you can demonstrate something that’s going to reduce amount of time or genuinely going to make life easier then fine” (p.1275)

Want to know more about the tech can do – a question here is, for who. Making teaching easier or making learning better? Quote suggests the former.

What about their knowledge of ePedagogy? (I need to see what is in the Goodyear paper about competencies for teachers using eLearning. Be interesting to compare that to the Training Packages relating to eLearning too)

A big question I have, particularly when considering attitudes relating to insecurity and not knowing things – which some people will be reluctant to admit and instead find other excuses/reasons for avoiding Ed Tech (”it’s clunky” etc) – is how we can get past these and uncover peoples’ real reasons. It seems like a lot of this research is content to take what teachers say at face value and I suspect that this means that the genuine underlying issues are seldom addressed or resolved. There are also times when the attitudes can lead to poor behaviour – rudeness or abruptly dropping out of a discussion. (Most teachers are fine but it is a question of professionalism and entitlement, which can come back to culture)

In terms of addressing staff confidence, scaffolded academic dev training, with clear indicators of progress, might be valuable here. (Smart evidence – STELLAR eportfolios – Core competencies for e-teaching and some elective/specialisation units? This is basically rebuilding academic development at the ANU from the ground up)

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences. While staff recognised that support was available centrally, they suggested that it needed to be more closely tailored to the specific needs of staff and extended to include online guidance at point of need and communities of practice that facilitated sharing between colleagues” (p.1278)

These seems to strengthen the case for college/school level teams. I am well aware that teachers tend not to engage with academic development activities and resources outside their discipline area – which I think is partially tribal because the Bennett literature suggests that there are actually few differences in teaching design approaches from discipline to discipline. This seems like a good area for further investigation. What kind of research has been conducted into effectiveness (or desire for) centralised Academic Dev units vs those at a college level?
Perceived student expectations
Definition: Students expect their online learning world to match the rest of their online experiences.

“One student expectation reported was the availability of digital resources accessible anytime and anywhere: participants suggested that students expected to access all course materials online including resources used as part of face-to-face sessions and supplementary resources necessary to complete assignments.” (p.1276)

Seems like there are a lot of (admittedly informed) assumptions be made of what students actually want by the teachers in this section. Maybe it is reasonable to say that everyone wants everything to be easier. But when does it become too much easier? When they don’t need to learn how to research?

Student need to learn how to e-Learn

“These findings suggest that for successful implementation of e-learning, students need to be supported to develop realistic expectations, an understanding of the implications of learning with technology and skills for engaging in these new ways of learning and make the most out of the opportunities that they present” (p.1277)

Interestingly phrased outcome – DO students need to learn more about the challenges of teaching and/or the mechanisms behind it? Is this just about teachers avoiding responsibilities? It sounds a bit like being expected to study physics or road-building before going for a drive.

“However students confidence with online tools and resources was perceived to vary and the finding suggest that students need to be supported to develop skills to engage effectively with the opportunities that e-learning affords…

It is not clear whether this is an accurate portrayal of student views or whether staff attributed their own views to the students. It would be valuable to ascertain whether this perception is a true representation by repeating the study with students.” (p.1278)

Again, nice work by the authors in catching the difference between student perspectives and teacher assumptions. I guess the important part is that whether the students hold the views or not, the teachers believe they do and this motivates them to use the technology.

Students don’t want to lose F2F experiences and they don’t want eLearning forced upon them when it seems like a cost-cutting measure. They do want (and expect) resources to be available online.

Outcomes

Proposed elearning strategy

“Reflecting on the factors that influenced the adoption of e-learning, participants suggested the need for an institutional strategy that :

Defines e-learning
Provides a rationale for its use
Sets clear expectations for staff and students
Models the use of innovative teaching methods
Provides frameworks for implementation that recognise different disciplinary contexts
Demonstrates institutional investment for the development of e-learning
Offers staff appropriate support to develop their skills and understanding” (p.1277)

I’d add an additional item – Offers staff appropriate support to develop and deliver resources and learning activities in TELT systems.

I have a lot of questions about this strategy – what kinds of expectations are we talking about? Is this about the practical realities of implementing and supporting tools/systems which recognises limits to their affordances? Modelling the use of innovative teaching practices – just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is good. I’d avoid this term in favour of best practice and/or emerging. Is modelling really a valid part of a strategy or would it be more about including modelling/showcasing as one of the activities that will achieve the goals. The goals, incidentally, aren’t even referred to. (Other than the rationale but I suspect that isn’t the intent of that item)

Overall I think this strategy is an ok start but I would prefer a more holistic model that also factors in other areas of the academics responsibilities in research and service. The use of “e-learning” here is problematic and largely undefined. There’s just an assumption that everyone knows what it is and takes a common view. (Which is why TELT is perhaps a better term – though I still need to spend some time explaining what I – and the literature – see TELT as)

Support:
Face to face support complemented by online guidance (in what form?)
Facilitated CoPs to support academics sharing their experiences. (Can we anonymise these?? – visible only to teachers (not even exec). If one of our problems is that people don’t like to admit that they don’t know something, let them do it without people knowing. )

Wider marketing of support services in this space to academics. (I don’t buy this – I think that teachers get over marketed to now by all sections of the university and I’ve sent out a lot of info about training and support opportunities that get no response at all)

Faculty or departmental e-learning champion (Is that me or does it need to be an academic? Should we put the entire focus onto one person or have a community. Maybe a community with identifiable (and searchable) areas of expertise

Big question – how many people use the support that is currently available and why/why not?
My questions and ideas about the paper:

Demographics of the sample reasonably well spread – even genders, every faculty, wide distribution of age and teaching experience as well as use of TELT. No mention of whether any of the participants are casual staff members, which seems an important factor.

It’s fine to look at teaching practices but teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum for academics. They also have research and service responsibilities and I think it would be valuable to factor the importance of these things in the research. The fact that nobody mentions them – or time constraints – suggests that they weren’t part of the focus group or interview discussions.

My overall take on this – the authors expand on previous work by Hardaker and Singh 2011 by adding student expectations to the mix. I’d think there is also a need to consider the affordances of existing technology (and pedagogy?) and perhaps also a more holistic view of the other pressure factors impacting teachers and the university.

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences.” (p.1278)

There are a lot of reasons that TELT is actually implemented in unis and while this might be the claim as the highest priority, I would be surprised if it made the top 5. Making life easier for the uni and for teachers, compliance, cost-cutting, prestige/keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and canny vendors all seem quite influential in this space as well. Understanding how the decisions driving TELT implementations are made seems really important.

King, E., & Boyatt, R. (2015). Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within higher education: Factors that influence adoption of e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1272–1280. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12195

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.