Category Archives: attitudes

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

L. Herckis, personal communication, July 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Research update #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.

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.

Why it’s better to be a TELT Advisor than an Education Advisor

For people working in roles like mine in tertiary education – education designers, academic developers, learning technologists etc – one our greatest challenges is being listened to and having our skills and knowledge recognised.

I think that adopting an overarching term for our roles such as TELT (Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching) Advisor might be one way to address this.

Celia Whitchurch (2008) describes a sector of the workforce in Higher Education whose day to day work overlaps the teaching and administration areas – the so-called ‘third space professionals’. She refers to a broader set of staff members than I am here – she includes curriculum developers, student study skills advisors and more – but people who support and advise academics/teachers about teaching practices without actually teaching themselves certainly fit well into the third space category.

I’ve been involved in many discussions trying to find an umbrella term for people in these roles – the academic developers (people who train academics in teaching and learning), learning technologists (people who support the use and implementation of educational technology) and education designers/developers (people who help to design and build courses and learning resources). All of these people do more than the minimal descriptions that I’ve offered and the vast majority tend to do all three of these things at different times.

In the course of discussions with my colleagues, we have settled (for now) on Education Advisor as an umbrella term for our roles. Using Advisor rather than Support person was an important distinction for more than a few people because they felt strongly that Advisor puts us on a more equal footing.

We are frequently (but not exclusively) professional staff members which means that while we may have extensive experience in teaching and learning and qualifications to match, in the academic-centric culture of universities, because we are not teaching (or researching), we are not part of the tribe, we are not peers to the teachers we work with. We are Other. Even the academics that move over to roles in this area are sometimes jokingly referred to as having ‘gone over to the dark side’.

On a personal level, none of this bothers me overly. The vast majority of academics that I work with are decent people that appreciate my support and I enjoy the work that I do. Teaching & Learning and Research are the core reasons for being of universities so I can understand how the culture of the institution tends to privilege the people working directly at the chalkface – or Screenface if you will. (And the research-face as well, of course. Yes, this term started well but…).

This culture also means that there is significant pressure on academics to demonstrate their value, both in their research and (to a lesser extent still, sadly) in their teaching practice. Knowledge is the currency of the academic. To admit that you don’t know something is therefore to make yourself vulnerable. It is assumed then that academics are experts in their field (reasonably so) and also in teaching.

The assumed expertise in teaching seems curious in some ways, given that teaching is a profession and a craft in its own right and people working in this area at any level other that higher education are mandated to have relevant qualifications. There are, of course, many fantastic teachers among academics, but it’s often more by luck than design. Some do choose to undertake teaching qualifications or training but in an institutional culture that strongly favours research over teaching, there is little incentive to do so.

Education Advisors however, do tend to have these qualifications and training, as well as years of experience in teaching and learning. In spite of this, there is an intense reluctance from academics to seek or take pedagogical advice from education advisors. I don’t understand why this is but I have some theories. Seeking or taking advice on teaching, I believe, is effectively seen as sending up a signal that they lack some of the core skills that define their value to the university. It might also come down to basic tribalism in some instances – education advisors aren’t in the teaching tribe, they’re professional staff (mostly) and therefore what could they really offer. I’m sure there are other factors and this may not mirror the experiences of all of my colleagues but I’ve had university leaders say to me directly “I’m going to hire an academic to support this project because they understand pedagogy”.

This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.

Yes, it grows a little tiresome being seen primarily as the first port of call for technical questions relating to the use of the LMS or the lecture capture system or any of the other institutional ed. tech tools when we know how much more we have to offer BUT academics are far more willing to admit that they need help with education technology than with education. They’re not expected to know the tech and this liberates them to be learners.

TELT knowledge is our ticket to the conversation about teaching and learning in our institutions. Rather than burning energy trying to demonstrate that we know more about teaching and learning than just the TELT side (which, can still be what we make it), we should make the most of our niche.

Another key reason to do this is that the higher up the chain you go in tertiary education institutions, the more excitement there is about ‘innovation’ and the promise of education technology. Sometimes the excitement is because the executive actually see the benefits in teaching and learning terms and sometimes it is because it represents ‘doing something’ (and being seen to be ‘doing something’) and sometimes it is even just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses – or one-upping them. Whatever the reasons, and I hope I’m being pragmatic rather than cynical, being the local ‘experts’ in ed tech and innovation in TELT practices gives us more perceived value in these terms than other teaching support areas and creates more opportunities to do good.

So in a nutshell, we’re better off self-identifying as TELT advisors because it creates a niche, academics are more open to seeking advice and support in areas tied to technology and we sit comfortably in the innovation space, which is so hot right now.

(I’ll concede that it’s a clunky term but I’m yet to hear a better one that truly reflects our knowledge, skills and practices and which keeps the focus on teaching and learning)











Thoughts on “Academic Leaders’ perspectives on adopting ePortfolios for developing and assessing professional capabilities in Australian Business Education” (Holt et al, 2016)

While I’m still letting the sociomaterial stew simmer in the back of my mind, it seems like a good time to dig in to something that feels slightly more practical (not to mention incredibly relevant to my day to day work).

This paper is about the first stage of research in a major Australian project looking at the use of (and attitudes towards) ePortfolios in Higher education business schools. As someone working in a business school and advocating the use of ePortfolios, it is unsurprisingly of some interest. Now that we’ve had a real live semester of ePortfolios actually being used in teaching – rather than speculated upon – it’s particularly nice to be able to come to this with something more than a theoretical viewpoint. (I’ll freely admit that it was used only in two subjects and in one, the lecturer only picked up the tool in week 6 of a 13 week semester, but what they’ve already learned and the success that they have had has been incredibly encouraging)

As you might expect, the paper dives into a detailed explanation of the context of using ePortfolios in Higher Ed – it notably hasn’t been as commonly used in business disciplines, something that the authors attribute in part to the diversity of kinds of disciplines in this field. Some (e.g. accounting) have distinct pathways with clearly articulated accreditation leading to specific careers while others contribute more generally to a student’s ability to work in ‘business’. The authors suggest that professions including medicine, law, engineering, teaching and architecture might be more suited to tools and practices supporting the collection of evidence that can be used in external accreditation processes and this might be why ePortfolios have been reported on less frequently in business. All the same, they argue that there are still many compelling reasons that ePortfolios should be used in business schools.

This paper focuses particularly on attitudes towards ePortfolios amongst academic leaders in business schools – Associate Deans (Education/ Teaching & learning), program/course directors and subject/course/unit conveners. (It does seem that survey responses from teachers were also accepted though the details on this are a little hazy).

A lot of reasons (excuses?) are given for why ePortfolios aren’t being used widely which align with those that I’ve come across commonly in the literature (and day to day practice) about the use/non-use of ed. tech in general. Seeing these has helped me to reframe my research question – though I still need to run this by my supervisors – to How can (and do?) Education (or TELT?) Advisors help universities overcome barriers to adopting TELT practices? (Previously – How can Higher Education better support TELT practices?). This is no small thing for me, as it feels like I’m narrowing the focus of the research to something more achievable and personally meaningful.

Anyway, there are a few points of particular interest that this paper covers – reasons for using ePortfolios in business ed., perceived strengths amongst management and the beginnings of a framework for effective implementation of ePortfolios in this space.

Reasons to use ePortfolios

The use of ePortfolios across Higher Ed. is tied very closely to the development of professional capabilities (a.k.a competencies) and employability skills. I’d suggest that the technology can do more than this in terms of offering new opportunities for content management, creation and publishing that might finally enable us to move beyond linear text heavy essays into student construction of richer resources that more adequately reflect the world that we now live in. That said, the portfolio has been a vital tool for demonstrating one’s skills to prospective employers for centuries and the ePortfolio is simply the latest iteration of this.

The authors identify a common set of professional capabilities that universities aspire to equip students with via threshold learning outcomes and program and graduate attributes. ( I think we include something about being a global citizen and thought leader but the rest all seem fairly common and laudable)

1. Professional judgement: Use knowledge and skills to solve novel business challenges.
2. Problem solving: Use knowledge and skills to identify and solve common business problems.
3. Communication: Demonstrate oral, written and visual communication skills appropriate to the needs of different business stakeholders.
4. Teamwork: Demonstrate skills in working collaboratively with colleagues in undertaking complex and varied work tasks.
5. Leadership: Demonstrate skills in constructively influencing the work of colleagues individually and in teams towards mutually agreed goals.
6. Digital literacy: Use knowledge and skills in ICT to frame, analyse and report on business problems and their solutions.
7. Self-management: Demonstrate skills in self-initiative, self-motivation and self-directed learning in business studies and practices.
8. Creativity and innovation: Demonstrate the capacity to generate new ideas to meet customer needs, and in the understanding of how good ideas become marketable products.
9. Entrepreneurship: Appreciate how new businesses are created, grow and adapt to changing market conditions.
10. Social responsibility: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ obligations to the societies within which they operate, and to those parties who directly contribute to their viability.
11. Cultural awareness: Demonstrate knowledge and skills in working effectively with cultural diversity as related to global and international business practices.
12. Sustainability as applied to business organisations: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ need to evolve and adapt to the imperatives of an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable world in the service of future generations.
13. Ethics: Develop a personally meaningful set of values to guide professional practice which reflect honesty, fairness, respectfulness, loyalty, composure and competence. (p.5-6)

The academic leaders were asked which of these they rated as most important and which they were most satisfied with the current development of in their students. Communication and problem solving were rated as most important with entrepreneurship at the end of that list. (Accountants tended to rate creativity and innovation lower than others). In terms of how well they think their colleges/schools are doing, academic leaders felt most confident about problem solving, digital literacy and communication and least about leadership and creativity/innovation. (However, confidence in the teaching of all 13 capabiliities ranged from 2.53/5 to 1.68/5, so across the board, there’s work to be done in this space)

There’s also an interesting breakdown of the pedagogical approaches that academic leaders in business colleges saw as being valuable in supporting these varying capabilities – I’m not sure if they were provided with a set list because the choices seem limited. Exams are nowhere to be seen though, which I find heartening.

1. Problem solving: Ranked in order of decreasing importance, respondents indicated: 1. Case studies; 2. Projects; 3. Work-placement; and 4. Simulations, might be effective ways to assess a student’s ability to solve problems.
2. Communication: Case studies, projects, presentations and written work appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to communicate.
3. Teamwork: Group projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to work in a team.
4. Leadership: Projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to lead a team.
5. Digital literacy: Projects, simulations and assignments appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s digital literacy.
6. Self-management: Projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to self-manage.
7. Creativity and innovation: Projects appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s creativity and innovation.
8. Entrepreneurship: Projects perhaps within a business context appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s entrepreneurial skills.
9. Social responsibility: Projects and Case studies appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s sense of social responsibility.
10. Cultural awareness: International study and work tours appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s cultural awareness.
11. Business Sustainability: Case studies, work placements and projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s understanding of sustainability in a business context.
12. Professional judgement: Case studies, work placements and simulations appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s professional judgement skills.
13. Ethics: Case studies and projects (p.9-10)

The perceived drivers of the implementation of ePortfolios offers some interesting insights into the value that academic leaders ascribe to ePortfolios and perhaps some selling points to stress when having the discussion about using them. (I have to admit at this point though that I’ve noticed that a lot of research seems to centre around people’s perceptions of things rather than the concrete realities of them. Maybe this is just the nature of education as a social science and there is certainly value in understanding why people make the decisions that they do in this space but just because people feel a certain way about a tool or a practice doesn’t necessarily make it so. Unless we are also looking at what is needed to shift perceptions, I’m not altogether sure what we hope to achieve by simply cataloguing them.)

The best reasons seen for using ePortfolios included “Improve student reflective learning”, “Enhance Student work placement experience”, “allow students to better demonstrate the achieve of learning outcomes to others” and “improve student understanding of learning outcomes.” (p. 11) Considered least important was “the imperative to use technology given the nature of the institution, i.e. mission, vision etc” (p.11) – which I’m fairly ok with and I’m also pretty happy that a teaching and learning goal was most highly valued. (But are people saying this because it seems like the right thing to say?)

In examining which kinds of support were most useful when using ePortfolios (and I suspect any other ed. tech), there was no clear preference for any of the following:

guidance on the purpose of the ePortfolio; guidance on how to use the ePortfolio; a workshop alongside to support the ePortfolio process; tutor/mentor support; IT helpdesk support for the learner; and support for producing media files. (p.12)

At least this seems like a solid checklist for developing a support plan and an implementation strategy.

The paper draws a few implications from the survey results as well as the existing literature, these align pretty well with my own feelings about ePortfolios and unfortunately they tend to make implementation projects harder, because taking a whole of program/degree approach to the use of ePortfolios in a siloed institution tends to get put quickly into the ‘too-hard basket’.

Housego and Parker (2009) and Woodley and Sims (2011), reflecting on their respective investigations, conclude that ideally ePortfolios should be integrated appropriately into the whole curriculum. With this in mind, ePortfolio implementation for assessing professional capabilities can be seen in the context of: whole-of-program-based curriculum designs; the major disciplinary studies allowing specialisation in business degrees; key areas of the curriculum dealing with work-integrated learning (WIL) (see Papadopoulos, Taylor, Fallshaw, & Zanko, 2011), foundational core and capstone studies, and those dealing directly with managerial capabilities like intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. (p.14)

I do note with some interest though that perhaps my college’s biggest success story with ePortfolios came in a fairly reflective unit related to management (post-grad), which aligns well with the final line of the paragraph.

The final section of the paper and perhaps the one that gives me the most to unpack (and which also excites me the most about the future work of this team) is a preliminary guidance framework for the implementation of ePortfolios in undergraduate business programs.

ePortfolios framework Holt et al 2016

This is absolutely something that I’m going to take to the powers that be at my institution to explore further. All in all this is a rich paper and I greatly look forward to future reports from this project.

Papadopoulos, T., Taylor, T., Fallshaw, E., & Zanko, M. (2011). Engaging industry: Embedding professional learning in the business curriculum final report. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.