Writing about work by your supervisor feels a little strange but, as adults and scholars, it really shouldn’t. Obviously there is a power dynamic and a question for me of what to do if I disagree with him. Putting aside the matter that Peter Goodyear has worked and researched in this field forever and is highly regarded internationally while I am essentially a neophyte, I’m almost certain that his worst reaction would be the slightest brow-crinkling and a kindly, interested “ok, so tell me why”. He even made the point that the research may now be dated but it could be worth following the citation trail. Fortunately none of this is an issue because, as you’d hope from your supervisor, it’s pretty great and there is much to draw from it.
In summary, this chapter focuses on understanding what and how teachers think when they are teaching online. Sadly perhaps, little has changed in the nature of online teaching in the 14 years since this was written – the online teaching activities described are largely related to students reading papers and participating in discussions on forums. This gives the chapter a degree of currency in terms of the technology (although a few questions emerged for me in terms of the impact of social media) and I imagine that little has changed in teacher thought processes in this time related to assessing and trying to engage students online.
In some ways it’s the methodology used in the study that is the most exciting part of this – it steers away from the sometimes problematic reliance on transcript analysis used often (at the time?) in research on online learning and makes more use of the opportunities for observation. Observing a teacher reading, processing and replying to discussion forum posts offers opportunities for insight into their thoughts that a far richer than one might get in observing face to face teaching. By using a combination of concurrent and retrospective verbalisation and interview, a rich picture emerges.
Concurrent verbalisation involves getting the tutor to keep up a kind of stream of consciousness dialogue as they work on the discussion posts, with the researcher prompting them if they fall silent for more than 10 seconds. This can prove difficult for the teacher at times as they need to stop speaking at times to concentrate on the replies that they write but a balance is generally found. The session is also videotaped and the researcher and teacher watch it back together, (‘stimulated recall’), which gives the teacher the opportunity to discuss what they were thinking in the quiet moments as well as enabling them to expand on their recorded comments. In terms of understanding the things that are important to teachers and how they work with the students, I find this method really exciting. I’m not at all sure how or if it will align with my own research when I come to it but this rich insight seems invaluable.
The author opens the chapter by thoroughly going through the motivations for researching teaching – ranging from an abstracted interest in it as a good area for study to a more action research oriented focus on improving specific aspects of teaching practice. He explores the existing literature in the field – particularly in relation to online learning and finds that (at the time) there were a number of significant gaps in research relating to practice and he proceeds to set out six high level research questions relating to online teaching. It seems worthwhile sharing them here
What are the essential characteristics of online teaching? What tasks are met? What actions need to be taken? Are there distinct task genres that further differentiate the space of online teaching?
How do these practices and task genres vary across different educational settings (e.g between disciplines, or in undergraduate vs postgraduate teaching, or in campus based vs distance learning) and across individuals?
For each significant kind of online teaching, what knowledge resources are drawn upon by effective teachers? How can we understand and represent the cognitive and other resources and processes implicated in their teaching?
How do novice online teachers differ from expert and experienced online teachers? How do they make the transition? How does their thinking change? How does the knowledge on which they draw change? How closely does this resemble ‘the knowledge growth in teaching’ about which we know from studies of teaching in other, more conventional, areas?…
What do teachers say about their experiences of online learning? How do they account for their intentions and actions? How do their accounts situation action in relation to hierarchies of belief about teaching and learning (generally) and about teaching and learning online?
How do learners’ activities and learning outcomes interact with teaching actions? (p.86)
Skipping forward, Goodyear conducted the research with a number of teachers working online and identified several key factors that shape what and how teachers teach online. The focus of their attention – is it on the student, the content, how well the subject is going, whether students are learning, the technology, how students will respond to their feedback etc – can vary wildly from moment to moment. Their knowledge of their students – particularly when they might never meet them in person – can shape the nuance and personalisation of their communications. This also ties to “presentation of self” – also known as presence – which is equally important in forming effective online relationships. Understanding of online pedagogy and attitudes towards it are unsurprisingly a big factor in success in teaching online and this also impacts on their ability to manage communication and conflict in an online space, where normal behaviours can change due to perceived distance.
There were a lot of other noteworthy ideas in this chapter that are worth including here and it also sparked a few of my own ideas that went off on something of a tangent.
Those who foresee an easy substitution of teaching methods too frequently misunderstand the function or underestimate the complexity of that which they would see replaced (p.80)
Teaching is not an undifferentiated activity. What is involved in giving a lecture to 500 students is different from what is involved in a one-to-one, face-to-face, tutorial. Also, interactive, face-to-face, or what might be called ‘live’ teaching is different from (say) planning a course, giving feedback on an essay, designing some learning materials, or reflecting on end-of-course student evaluation reports. (James Calderhead structures his 1996 review of teachers’ cognitions in terms of ‘pre-active’, ‘interactive’ and ‘post-active reflection’ phases to help distinguish the cognitive demands of ‘live’ teaching from its prior preparation and from reflection after the event) (p.82)
The affordances of the user interface are an important factor in understand how online tutors do what they do. This is not simply because online tutors need to understand the (relatively simple) technical procedures involved in searching, reading and writing contributions. Rather the interface helps structure the tutors’ tasks and also takes some of the cognitive load off the tutor (P.87)
Studies of ‘live’ classroom teaching in schools have tended towards the conclusion that conscious decision-making is relatively rare – much of what happens is through the following of well-tested routines (Calderhead, 1984). While swift routine action can be found in online tutoring, its curiously asynchronous nature does allow more considered problem solving to take place (p.97)
Many of these ideas crystallise thoughts that I’ve come to over recent years and which I’ve shared with Peter in our supervision meetings. I’m going to choose to believe that his inner voice is saying at these points, ‘good, you’re on track’ rather than ‘well, obviously and I wrote about this a decade and a half ago’. This is why we go with this apprenticeship model I guess.
As for the other random thought that emerged from reading this paper was that as we get more comfortable with using video and asking/allowing students to submit videos as assessments, we’ll need new ways to ‘read’ videos. Clearly these will already exist in the scholarhood but they may not be as widely known as we need.
Given that people are at the heart of implementing and supporting TELT practices in Higher Education, I’ve been investigating the kinds of people involved.
At the first level of the taxonomy, universities employ academic and professional staff. Whitchurch (2008) makes a solid case that, while these people generally work in their own domains, there are people who work across these boundaries in different ways – third space professionals. For the sake of simplicity however, and also because the three papers that I read focus almost entirely on ‘administrative’ professional staff, I’m just going to examine the key differences and some of the sources of tension between these two groups.
The first thing I noticed after reading all three papers was the small ways in which the writers’ personalities, assumptions and perspectives creep through. In some ways, they reflect the larger issues at hand, occupying a spectrum from begrudging acceptance of the need to take professional staff more seriously within set parameters to good-natured concern at the disregard of them to simmering disquiet at the routine slights experienced (mixed in with a distaste for the Neoliberalism that has been a part of many recent changes in Higher Ed. and exacerbated these divisions)
Collectively they all seem to arrive at more or less the same destination – that greater understanding is needed about the roles and values of professional staff and academics and that more needs to be done to foster better collaboration. The differences in how they get there and what they believe is needed to help this to happen (and why) are illustrative of the issues themselves.
McInnis and Dobson were (and are) academics and Szekeres was a professional administrative staff member – also working on her doctorate at the time. Their respective positions in their universities offer additional insights into different attitudes in different departments – McInnis working as an Associate Professor in a school and Dobson holding a role tied to the executive.
The three papers were written in a reasonably narrow window of time – 1998 to 2004 – when Australian universities were still coming to terms with major shifts to the sector introduced by John Dawkins (Federal minister responsible for Higher Education) in the mid to late ’80s. These heralded a more market driven and corporate managerialist mindset in public institutions. (More on this shortly)
The language used in all of these papers is interesting in itself, the now commonly used “professional staff” terminology is nowhere to be seen, the terms of the day were administrative staff, general staff or non-academic staff. Being academia, these terms were also picked apart for their own implied meanings and values – with “non-academic” given special attention for seeking to define people by what they aren’t.
Dobson particularly is very mindful of this, titling his paper “Them and Us – General and Non-General staff in Higher Education”, turning the tables on the usual academic / non-academic binary. He comments that
“the tendency to describe general staff in this negative way is a strange trait in the current climate of inclusiveness promoted fairly generally by universities, but in particular by universities’ acceptance of equity and affirmative action principles” (p.203)
Dobson and Szekeres’ papers are largely based around a review of the current literature (including government and university reports, letters to H.E. publications and novels) as well as informal notes from conversations with colleagues overseas. McInnis takes a different approach, comparing the results of two surveys of attitudes conducted of academics and administrative staff (at a management level).
All agree that there are a number of differences and tensions between academic and professional staff and recognise that professional staff are massively underrepresented in discussions and publications relating to Higher Education.
(I’m curious to see whether this is still the case – I imagine it is, based on my own experiences – and have flagged it for further research). At this point I need to mention that I was initially looking more for writing about Education Support Professionals and the nature of their relationships with academics but there is scant reference to this role in any of these papers. McInnis mentions that
“Professional administrators are reshaping academic work by virtue of their increasingly pivotal roles in such areas as course management and delivery” (p.168)
but the emphasis here is much more on people working in non-teaching areas of the university, or as Szekeres more comprehensively puts it
“their focus is about either supporting the work of academic staff, dealing with students on non-academic matters or working in an administrative function such as finance, human resources, marketing, public relations, business development, student administration, academic administration, library, information technology, capital or property” (p.8)
Even though in these papers we are looking at people working in “non-academic” areas, I think there is still much to be learned from exploring the broader relationships between academics and professionals as it is often people working in professional roles that are charged with supporting and initiating TELT practices in Higher Ed. Putting aside the boundary crossing tendencies of this relationship and the complications that arise from stepping onto teaching and learning ‘turf’, there are many other moving parts to be considered and these three papers offer valuable insights into other facets of this relationship, particularly university culture.
The virtual absence of professional staff in the literature discussing people working in Higher Education is recognised by all three authors here. Szekere’s paper title – “The Invisible Workers” – is a pointed reminder of this and even in the defining documents of the time (Dawkins’ Green and White papers) Dobson notes that
“general staff were scarcely considered during the writing of the Green Paper. In fact there are only three paragraphs devoted to the subject” (p.204)
This lack of presence in literature (of all kinds) discussing Higher Ed illustrates one of the interesting contradictions of the relationship between professionals and academics – the work and expertise of professionals is misunderstood and considered trivial but they also represent a threat to the status quo (of academic values) in terms of the change that they represent and they are felt (by academics) to hold too much power. Maybe the hope is that by not talking about them, they will just go away or maybe academics simply have a blind spot to people not in their ‘tribe’. (Neither of those are points raised by any of the authors)
Szekeres raises another factor in discussing invisibility, that of gender, pointing out that
“while women make up the majority of general staff, they are disproportionately in the lower-level positions” (p.8)
Again, I’d hope that more recent research will show that this has changed but I won’t be surprised if it hasn’t. Dobson discusses a study carried out by UWA on “The Position of Women General Staff at the University of Western Australia” that aimed to
“identify any cultural or structural impediments within the University which might work against the aspirations of women and propose strategies to address these. (UWA, Executive Summary, P.1)” (p.206)
It found that
“the issue of gender was less of a barrier to their aspirations than the fact that they were members of the general staff” (p.206)
This is not at all to say that there aren’t issues faced specifically by professional women in Higher Ed, simply that the professional/academic divide is a significant one.
At the heart of the divide lies the aforementioned culture of corporate managerialism. This ties in to new practices, changes to decision making structures and moves toward greater accountability and efficiency that can come into conflict with the established ‘academic values’, university culture and autonomy that make Higher Education a distinct sector.
Szekeres describes the rise of this culture of corporate managerialism particularly well:
‘As pressure increases on governments to account for the expenditure of public funds, they respond either by privatising government institutions or by increasing the reporting requirements of those few public institutions left…
In many texts, this increase of surveillance and privatisation is characterised as a neoliberal agenda. It exhibits itself through public institutions remodeling themselves along commercial lines and falls into a general discourse, corporate managerialism. This discourse has a number of elements including: an increase in managerial control (managerialism); competing with each other in the marketplace (marketization); being under greater scrutiny while having greater devolved responsibility (audit); and generally modelling their structures and operations on corporate organisations (corporatisation)” (p.9)
This kind of change can’t occur without at least perceived winners and losers. McInnis’ discussion of the two attitude surveys of academics and administrative staff, taken relatively early in the process of these changes, gives us an indication of some of the points of contention.
56% of admins felt that academics are not sufficiently accountable for their worktime (p.167)
“A mere 12% of academics thought their research productivity had increased as a result of formal appraisal processes, and 57% clearly thought not” (p.167)
“41% of administrators believing that quality assurance mechanisms would ensure genuine improvement to the higher education system as against 19% of academics” (p.167)
67% of academics (vs 52% of admins) felt that “universities are of little value to society if they are not autonomous” (p.166)
Much of McInnis’ paper revolves around the impact these changes have on the “core values” (p.170) of the academy, going so far as to conclude that
“Efficiency and effectiveness, productivity and performance, accountability and supervision are typically the preoccupation of administrators. It may be argued that the growth in specialist support staff and administrators such as experts in marketing, counselling and strategic planning has amounted to a subtle process of ‘colonisation’ of higher education. The experts are assumed to bring with them market and individualistic values with no particular allegiance to the higher-order goals of the academic world” (p.171)
I find it interesting that these core values and higher-order goals are never explicitly stated – presumably as an academic you just ‘get’ them but autonomy seems to sit firmly at the core.
(This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I believe that Higher Education and research should be treated as businesses in place of of noncommercial exploration, investigation and creativity, it’s more that the underlying assumptions that “non-academics” exist only in a soulless world of spreadsheets seems narrow minded and perhaps a little arrogant.)
McInnis makes his most explicit statement of this in his conclusion:
“where once administrative staff were considered powerless functionaries, they now increasingly assume high-profile technical and specialist roles that impinge directly on academic autonomy and control of the core activities of teaching and research” (p.170)
Looking at power reveals another significant source of tension in the academic/professional staff binary – rightly or wrongly. It’s hardly a new thing however.
Szekeres observes that
“Lee and Bowen (1971) found that academics tended to confound the lives of administrators but at the same time they vastly over-estimated the power that administrators had” (p.19)
A key point that often seems to be missed is that while professional / administrative staff are often responsible for implementing changes seen as less desirable by academics, these have almost always come from the university executive – Deans, Vice Chancellors and the like – who are invariably academics. Dobson notes that
“too few staff (particularly academic staff) understand or appreciate the reality of university authority structures. The ills which have befallen universities in recent times have frequently been seen by the academic staff as the fault of ‘the administration’. The difference between ‘administration’ and ‘governance’ seems to be lost on many members of the academic staff. That there is an ‘attitude problem’ toward the role of general staff among some in the academic ranks in exemplified by the following quote from Cullen (1988):
“There is a great deal of talent in the academic staff of higher education institutions. How they manage the systems which surround them and still find time to make a contribution to academic programs is a minor miracle… there is an old adage that administration is too important to be left to the administrators. It seems to me that this is certainly true of the sorts of reforms [in the Green and White Papers] we now need to discuss (p.154)” “ (p.208 of Dobson)
Academics can be even more scathing of former academics in the university executive levels than of professional / administrative staff. Szekeres found a quote in a Academia Nuts, a satirical novel about university life by Michael Wilding describing them thusly:
“they are not even trained administrators, they are not even professional managers. They are the Judases of the profession (2002, p.202)” (p.14)
So perhaps it is as much a matter of expressing frustration at anybody who gets in the way and being unable to sort the ‘functionaries’ from the ‘Judases’.
In practical terms however, the perception of a shift in power to professional staff may be over estimated. Three quotes from the comments sections of the survey of administrative staff reviewed by McInnis are revealing.
“in order for an opinion to be accepted it seems it must be sanctioned by an academic – this is very frustrating for general staff who are experts in their field” (p.168)
“the current concept of ‘general’ or ‘administrative’ staff inherently denies that we have specialist skills or subject expertise” (p.168)
“there is little recognition that there are highly qualified and experienced professionals in areas of support expertise which the University now needs and that they may well be better able to manage these tasks better than an academic; the assumption that an academic specialisation in a field makes a practising expert e.g. in marketing; or that computing support needs ultimately to be managed by an academic (Director of unit)” (p.168-9)
On the Professional staff side, by far the most significant issue reported (repeatedly) was the lack of respect or appreciation for their work from academic staff. According to McInnis
“only 28% of administrators agreed that ‘the relationship between academic and general staff is generally very positive’ and 36% expressed dissatisfaction with the appreciation their roles by academic staff” (p.167)
The under-representation of professional staff in publications about Higher Education, could be seen as another symptom of this and even the authors of these papers that appear more sympathetic to their plight sometimes pay more ‘backhanded compliments’
“It is probably fair to say that most general staff both ‘know their place’ and realise that their role is not the ‘main game’, but perhaps some academic staff haven’t caught up with the fact that a professional general staff does much to support and to enhance the student experience at university” (Dobson, p.209)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the three authors generally all come to the same conclusions, recognising that there is no option to put the genie of recent Higher Education reform back in the bottle and that more understanding and effective collaboration is needed between academic and professional staff.
With Szekeres’ attention being primarily on the representation of professional staff in current literature relating to Higher Education, she feels that much more effort needs to be put into telling and understanding “the stories of administrative staff” (p. 20).
She is fairly scathing of current representations
“much of the writing about universities which has emanated from the academic community has displayed erroneous perceptions. Many of these writers have been dismissive of administrative staff and their roles in the institution or have ignored them altogether. When provided at all, many of the constructions of academic staff demonstrate false impressions of what administrators actually do, the nature of their work and their relationship to the organisation” (p.20)
McInnis, on the other hand, makes it clear in his conclusion that he believes that this needs to done with an emphasis on the traditional values of academia
“the extent to which administrative staff support core values is crucial to the preservation of university autonomy” (p.170)
“the key question is how to support and sustain the transformation of universities while acknowledging and accommodating the basic sentiments and work practices of academics considered central to the idea of the university as a community of learners” (p.171)
Dobson ends with an appeal for understanding from academic staff that unfortunately somewhat downplays professional staff concerns about being being disrespected and unappreciated but which broadly calls for unity
“Should general staff be worried by the attitudes of some academic staff members? Probably not, because they will have found that there are also many rude people among the senior general staff. However, this does not change the fact that there is a need for a greater understanding by academic staff that the changes in higher education have been difficult for general staff too” (p. 210)
Many of these issues I’d have to put into the university-culture basket (the “too-hard basket”?) because there are a lot of long established and entrenched attitudes and expectations that are unlikely to change quickly. Speaking openly about them, sharing stories and viewpoints and increasing understanding at least seems like a useful first step.
Clearly one of the key ingredients in enhancing teaching practice is teacher professional development and a vital element of deriving meaning from this is reflective practice.
It is at this point however that we need to be cautious of the evangelisers of reflective practice as a global solution. “Reflecting or Acting? Reflective Practice and Continuing Professional Development in UK Higher Education” by Sue Clegg, Jon Tan and Saeideh Saeidi (2002) takes a methodical look at the use of reflection and notes that current (at the time – not sure how much they have evolved) uses of reflective practice in CPD isn’t suited to all learners and needs to be anchored in actions taken to be particularly meaningful.
Reflective practice is valued for acknowledging “the importance of artistry in teaching” (p.3), which seems even more important in 2016 than it was in 2002 with the rise of big data and analytics in education sometimes seeming determined to quantify and KPI-ify every single facet of teaching and learning. (Can you tell that I’m more of a qual than a quant?)
Clegg et al investigated the use and value of reflective practice amongst academic staff in accredited CPD between 1995-1998. In broad terms (Spoiler alert) they tied it to four types of practices/behaviours that reflected the learning preferences and teaching circumstances of the teachers. These preferences – either for ‘writerly’ reflection or not – and the circumstances (which impacted their ability to act on new teaching knowledge) had a significant part to play on how valuable reflection was to them.
The ‘action’ part is at the core of the question that Clegg et al are pursuing. They draw on Tomlinson (1999) in assuming that “the relationship between reflection and action is transparent with reflection-on-action leading to improvement and change” (p.4). This idea has been of interest to me recently because I’ve been involved with the HEA fellowship scheme at my university which appears to have a different focus, seemingly sans action. (I’ll discuss this further in future posts as engaging Fellows seems as though it is going to be an important part of my ongoing quest/research)
As for the learning preference side of the equation, one of the simultaneous strengths and failings of the widely followed reflective practice approach is the emphasis on a very ‘writerly’ style of reflection. By which the paper refers to Bleakly (2000), who has “argued for greater attention to the form of writing and a greater self-awareness of literary accomplishments of narrating and confessional.” The authors note however that “our data suggested that some practitioners fail to write or only write as a form ex post facto justification for accreditation purposes”. Which, based on the feedback from some of the participants that struggled with the writing element of the task, can be linked in part to the disciplinary orientation of the learners (i.e. quant vs qual backgrounds) and in some cases to gender-role perceptions – “the feminine reflective side as opposed to the more active masculine doing side of practice” (p.18)
These key factors allowed the authors to sort participants into four groups, based on their practices.
Immediate action – participants put new ideas into practice directly after the CPD workshops (and before reflection) (more often novice practitioners)
Immediate reflection – participants reflected on their own practices directly after CPD workshops (more often experienced practitioners) – they also found less value in the workshops in terms of new knowledge
Deferred action – some participants were unable to act on knowledge gained in workshops due to organisational/time constraints (this limited their ability to reflect on the impact of new knowledge on their new actions/practices)
Deferred reflection – largely participants that struggled to engage with the reflection activity in its current format. Many only did it for accreditation purposes so saw little benefit in it.
Clegg et al take pains to emphasise that their research is about starting a conversation about the interrelationship between action and reflection and the need to maintain this link. They don’t draw any other conclusions but I think that even by simply looking at on-the-ground interaction with reflective practice, they have given us something to think about.
Reading this paper sparked a few random ideas for me:
Perhaps Design thinking might offer a way to bridge the gap between the ‘teaching as a craft’ and ‘teaching as an empirical science with hard data’ viewpoints by applying a more deliberate and structured way of thinking about pedagogy and course design
Are there ways that we can foster writing (and some reflection) as a part of every day ongoing CPD for academics? (Without it being seen as a burden? There probably needs to be a goal/outcome/reward that it leads to)
Decoupling reflection from action – particularly when action comes in the forms of making improvements to practice – gives people less to reflect on and might lead to too much navel gazing.
A large part of the work being done on reflective practice by one of my colleagues is focusing on the impact that it has on teacher self-efficacy. Tying it to professional recognition boosts confidence which is valuable but is there a risk that this can in turn lead to complacency or even over-estimation of one’s competence?
My personal philosophy when it comes to theory and practice is that none will ever hold all of the answers for all of the contexts. I believe that equipping ourselves with a toolbox of theories and practices that can be applied when needed is a more sustainable approach but I’m not sure how to describe this – one term that I’ve considered is multifocal – does this seem valid?
One concern that I have about this study is the large number of contextual factors that it tries to accommodate. These include : “how participants understood their activity including reflective practice, their motivations for joining the course, how they made sense of their decisions to complete or not complete, and whether they thought of this as a conscious decision” (p.7) On top of this there was the level at which the CPD was being conducted (novice teachers vs supervisors), disciplinary and gender differences as well as learning preferences. Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge these but it seems like a lot of variables.
Reflection shared with peers seems more valuable than simply submitted to assessors.
Even when reflective writing is a new, ‘out of character’ approach, it can be seen as valuable even though it can take learners time to ease into it. Supporting some warm up exercises seems like it would be important in this case.
It’s worth taking a harder look at exactly what forms meaningful reflections might take – is there just one ‘writerly’ way or should we support a broader range of forms of expression?
Audio? Video? Dank memes? “Virtually all the descriptions of keeping a journal or gather materials together suggested that they somehow felt they had not done it properly – qualifying their descriptions in terms of things being just scrappy notes, or jottings, or disorganised files, or annotated e-mail collections. Such descriptions suggest that participants had an ideal-typical method of what reflective practice should look like. While the overt message from both courses was that there was no one format, it appears that despite that, the tacit or underlying messages surrounding the idea of reflective practice is that there is a proper way of writing and that it constitutes a Foucauldian discipline with its own rules” (p.16-17)
Good reflection benefits from a modest mindset: “one sort of ethos of the course is it requires you to, I don’t know, be a bit humble. It requires you to take a step back and say perhaps I’m not doing things right or am I getting things right, and throw some doubt on your mastery…” (p.17)
This is more of a bigger picture question for my broader research – To what extent does the disciplinary background shape the success (or orientation) of uni executives in strategic thinking – qual (humanities) vs quant (STEM)?
It was always my intention that researching in the area that I work in would help me to shape my professional practice (and it is) but I’ve been surprised lately at how much things are flowing in the other direction. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to make an educational project successful and how we know that learners have actually benefitted.
This is partially coming from the big picture work that I’m doing with my peers at the university looking at what we’re doing and why and partially from my own college, which has recently launched a Teaching and Learning Eminence Committee/project to look into what we’re doing with teaching and learning. I wasn’t initially invited onto the committee, (it’s all academics), which speaks to some of the ideas that have been emerging in some of my recent posts (the academic/professional divide) as well as the fact that I need to work on raising the profile of my team* and understanding of our* capacity and activities in the college.
Anyway, while trawling through the tweetstream of the recent (and alas final) OLT – Office of Learning and Teaching – conference at #OLTConf2016, I came across a couple of guides published recently by Ako Aotearoa, the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, that fit the bill perfectly.
One focusses on running effective projects in teaching and learning in tertiary education, it’s kind of project managementy, which isn’t always the most exciting area for me but it offers a comprehensive and particularly thoughtful overview of what we need to do to take an idea (which should always be driven by enhancing learning) through three key phases identified by Fullan (2007 – as cited in Akelma et al, 2011) in the process of driving educational change – initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. The guide – Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners is freely available on the Ako Aotearoa website, which is nice.
I took pages and pages of notes and my mind wandered off into other thoughts about immediate and longer term things to do at work and in my research but the key themes running through the guide were treating change as a process rather than an event, being realistic, working collectively, being honest and communicating well. It breaks down each phases into a number of steps (informed by case studies) and prompts the reader with many pertinent questions to ask of themselves and the project along the way.
The focus of the guide is very much on innovation and change – I’m still thinking about what we do with the practices that are currently working well and how we can integrate the new with the old.
The second guide – A Tertiary practitioners guide to collecting evidence of learner benefit – drills down into useful research methodologies for ensuring that our projects and teaching practices are actually serving the learners’ needs. Again, these are informed by helpful case studies and showcase the many places and ways that we can collect data from and about our students throughout the teaching period and beyond.
It did make me wonder whether the research mindset of academics might conventionally be drawn from their discipline. Coming from an organisation with an education and social science orientation, one might expect an emphasis on the qualitative (and there are a lot of surveys suggested – which I wonder about as I have a feeling that students might be a little over-surveyed already) but the guide actually encourages a mixture of methodologies and makes a number of suggestions for merging data, as well as deciding how much is enough.
Definitely some great work from our colleagues across the ditch and well worth checking out.
There’s still much to talk about. Technology and what we need it to do, practical solutions both in place and under consideration / on the wishlist, further questions and a few stray ideas that were generated along the way.
Unsurprisingly, technology was a significant part of our conversation about what we can do in the education support/design/tech realm to help shape the future of our institutions. The core ideas that came up included what we are using it for and how we sell and instill confidence in it in our clients – teachers, students and the executive.
The ubiquity and variety of educational technologies means that they can be employed in all areas of the teaching and learning experience. It’s not just being able to watch a recording of the lecture you missed or to take a formative online quiz; it’s signing up for a course, finding your way to class, joining a Spanish conversation group, checking for plagiarism, sharing notes, keeping an eye on at-risk students and so much more.
It’s a fine distinction but Ed Tech is bigger than just “teaching and learning” – it’s also about supporting the job of being a teacher or a learner. I pointed out that the recent “What works and why?” report from the OLT here in Australia gives a strong indication that the tools most highly valued by students are the ones that they can use to organise their studies.
Amber Thomas highlighted that “…better pedagogy isn’t the only quality driver. Students expect convenience and flexibility from their courses” and went on to state that “We need to use digital approaches to support extra-curricular opportunities and richer personal tracking. Our “TEL” tools can enable faster feedback loops and personalised notifications”
Even this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s not just tools for replicating or improving analog practices – the technology that we support and the work we do offers opportunities for new practices. In some ways this links back closely to the other themes that have emerged – how we can shape the culture of the organisation and how we ensure that we are part of the conversation. A shift in pedagogical approaches and philosophies is a much larger thing that determining the best LMS to use. (But at its best, a shift to a new tool can be a great foot in the door to discussing new pedagogical approaches)
“It is reimagining the pedagogy and understanding the ‘new’ possibilities digital technologies offer to the learning experience where the core issue is” (Caroline Kuhn)
Lesley Gourlay made a compelling argument for us to not throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to technology by automatically assuming that tech is good and “analogue” practices are bad. (I’d like to assume that any decent Ed Designer/Tech knows this but it bears repeating and I’m sure we’ve all encountered “thought leaders” with this take on things).
“we can find ourselves collapsing into a form of ‘digital dualism’ which assumes a clear binary between digital and analogue / print-based practices (?)…I would argue there are two problems with this. First, that it suggests educational and social practice can be unproblematically categorised as one or the other of these, where from a sociomaterial perspective I would contend that the material / embodied, the print-based / verbal and the digital are in constant and complex interplay. Secondly, there perhaps is a related risk of falling into a ‘digital = student-centred, inherently better for all purposes’, versus ‘non-digital = retrograde, teacher-centred, indicative of resistance, in need of remediation’.” (Lesley Gourlay)
Another very common theme in the technology realm was the absolute importance of having reliable technology (as well as the right technology.)
“Make technology not failing* a priority. All technology fails sometime, but it fails too often in HE institutions. Cash registers in supermarkets almost never fail, because that would be way too much of a risk.” (Sonia Grussendorf)
When it comes to how technology is selected for the institution, a number of people picked up on the the tension between having it selected centrally vs by lecturers.
“Decentralize – allow staff to make their own technology (software and hardware) choices” (Peter Bryant)
Infrastructure is also important in supporting technologies (Alex Chapman)
Personally I think that there must be a happy medium. There are a lot of practical reasons that major tools and systems need to be selected, implemented, managed and supported centrally – integration with other systems, economies of scale, security, user experience, accessibility etc. At the same time we also have to ensure that we are best meeting the needs of students and academics in a host of different disciplines. and are able to support innovation and agility. (When it comes to the selection of any tool I think that there still needs to be a process in place to ensure that the tool meets the needs identified – including those of various institutional stakeholders – and can be implemented and supported properly.)
Finally, Andrew Dixon framed his VC elevator pitch in terms of a list of clear goals describing the student experience with technology which I found to be an effective way of crafting a compelling narrative (or set of narratives) for a busy VC. Here are the first few:
They will never lose wifi signal on campus – their wifi will roam seemlessly with them
They will have digital access to lecture notes before the lectures, so that they can annotate them during the lecture.
They will also write down the time at which difficult sub-topics are explained in the lecture so that they can listen again to the captured lecture and compare it with their notes. (Andrew Dixon)
Some practical solutions
Scattered liberally amongst the discussions were descriptions of practical measures that people and institutions are putting in place. I’ll largely let what people said stand on its own – in some cases I’ve added my thoughts in italics afterwards. (Some of the solutions I think were a little more tongue in cheek – part of the fun of the discussion – but I’ll leave it to you to determine which)
Culture / organisation
Our legal team is developing a risk matrix for IT/compliance issues (me)
(We should identify our work) “not just as teaching enhancement but as core digital service delivery” (Amber Thomas)
“we should pitch ‘exposure therapy’ – come up with a whole programme that immerses teaching staff in educational technology, deny them the choice of “I want to do it the old fashioned way” so that they will realise the potential that technologies can have…” (Sonja Grussendorf)
“Lets look at recommendations from all “strategy development” consultations, do a map of the recommendations and see which ones always surface and are never tackled properly.” (Sheila MacNeill)
“Could this vision be something like this: a serendipitous hub of local, participatory, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning, a place of on-going, life-long engagement, where teaching and learning is tailored and curated according to the needs of users, local AND global, actual AND virtual, all underscored by data and analytics?” (Rainer Usselman)
“…build digital spaces to expand our reach and change the physical set up of our learning spaces to empower use of technology…enable more collaborative activities between disciplines” (Silke Lange)
“we need a centralised unit to support the transition and the evolution and persistence of the digital practice – putting the frontliners into forefront of the decision making. This unit requires champions throughout the institutions so that this is truly a peer-led initiative, and a flow of new blood through secondments. A unit that is actively engaging with practitioners and the strategic level of the university” (Peter Bryant)
In terms of metrics – “shift the focus from measuring contact time to more diverse evaluations of student engagement and student experience” (Silke Lange)
“Is there a metric that measures teaching excellence?… Should it be designed in such a way as to minimise gaming? … should we design metrics that are helpful and allow tools to be developed that support teaching quality enhancement?” (David Kernohan) How do we define or measure teaching excellence?
“the other thing that we need to emphasise about learning analytics is that if it produces actionable insights then the point is to act on the insights” (Amber Thomas) – this needs to be built into the plan for collecting and dealing with the data.
Talking about the NSS (National student survey) – “One approach is to build feel-good factor and explain use of NSS to students. Students need to be supported in order to provide qualitative feedback” (David Kernohan) (I’d suggest that feedback from students can be helpful but it needs to be weighted – I’ve seen FB posts from students discussing spite ratings)
“We should use the same metrics that the NSS will use at a more granular levels at the university to allow a more agile intervention to address any issues and learn from best practices. We need to allow flexibility for people to make changes during the year based on previous NSS” (Peter Bryant)
“Institutional structures need to be agile enough to facilitate action in real time on insights gained from data” (Rainer Usselmann) – in real time? What kind of action? What kind of insights? Seems optimistic
“Institutions need at the very least pockets of innovation /labs / discursive skunk works that have licence to fail, where it is safe to fail” (Rainer Usselmann)
“Teachers need more space to innovate their pedagogy and fail in safety” (Silke Lange)
“Is it unfair (or even unethical) to not give students the best possible learning experience that we can?…even if it was a matter of a control group receiving business-as-usual teaching while a test group got the new-and-improved model, aren’t we underserving the control group?” (me)
“I can share two examples from my own experiences
An institution who wanted to shift all their UG programmes from 3 year to 4 year degrees and to deliver an American style degree experience (UniMelb in the mid 2000s)
An institution who wanted to ensure that all degree programmes delivered employability outcomes and graduate attributes at a teaching, learning and assessment level
So those resulted in;
a) curriculum change
b) teaching practice change
c) assessment change
d) marketing change ” (Peter Bryant)
“One practical option that I’m thinking about is adjusting the types of research that academics can be permitted to do in their career path to include research into their own teaching practices. Action research.” (Me) I flagged this with our Associate Dean Education yesterday and was very happy to hear that she is currently working on a paper for an education focussed journal in her discipline and sees great value in supporting this activity in the college.
“I think policy is but one of the pillars that can reinforce organisational behaviour” (Peter Bryant)- yes, part of a carrot/stick approach, and sometimes we do need the stick. Peter also mentions budgets and strategies, I’d wonder if they don’t change behaviour but more support change already embarked upon.
“let’s court rich people and get some endowments. We can name the service accordingly: “kingmoneybags.universityhandle.ac.uk”. We do it with buildings, why not with services?” (Sonia Grussendorf) – selling naming rights for TELT systems just like buildings – intriguing
We need solid processes for evaluating and implementing Ed Tech and new practices (me)
“Could creating more ‘tailored’ learning experiences, which better fit the specific needs and learning styles of each individual learner be part of the new pedagogic paradigm?” (Rainer Usselman) (big question though around how this might be supported in terms of workload
“At Coventry, we may be piloting designing your own degree” (Sylvester Arnab)
“The challenge comes in designing the modules so as to minimise prerequisites, or make them explicit in certain recommended pathways” (Christopher Fryer)
I went on to suggest that digital badges and tools such as MyCourseMap might help to support this model. Sylvester noted that he is aware that “these learning experiences, paths, patterns, plans have to be validated somehow” Learner convenience over pedagogy – or is it part of pedagogy in line with adult learning principles of self-efficacy and motivation. In a design your own degree course, how do we ensure that learners don’t just choose the easiest subjects – how do we avoid the trap of having learners think they know enough to choose wisely?
“digital might be able to help with time-shifting slots to increase flexibility with more distributed collaboration, flipped teaching, online assessment” (George Roberts)
“At UCL we are in the midst of an institution-wide pedagogic redesign through the Connected Curriculum. This is our framework for research-based education which will see every student engaging in research and enquiry from the very start of their programme until they graduate (and beyond). More at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/connected-curriculum
The connected bit involves students making connections with each other, with researchers, beyond modules and programmes, across years of study, across different disciplines, with alumni, employers, and showcase their work to the wider world…
There is strong top-down support, but also a middle-out approach with faculties having CC fellows on part time secondments to plan how introduce and embed the CC in their discipline.
From a TEL perspective we need to provide a digital infrastructure to support all of this connectivity – big project just getting going. Requirements gathering has been challenging… And we’re also running workshops to help programme and module teams to design curricula that support research-based and connected learning.” (Fiona Strawbridge) – liking this a lot, embedding practice. What relationship do these fellows have with lecturers?
“I am imagining that my research, personal learning environment would fit perfect with this approach as I am thinking the PLE as a toolbox to do research. There is also a potential there to engage student in open practice, etc.” Caroline Kuhn
“There may be a “metapedagogy” around the use of the VLE as a proxy for knowledge management systems in some broad fields of employment: consultancy, financial services, engineering…” (George Roberts) (which I’d tie to employability)
“We need to challenge the traditional model of teaching, namely didactic delivery of knowledge. The ways in which our learning spaces are currently designed -neat rows, whiteboard at front, affords specific behaviours in staff and students. At the moment virtual learning spaces replicate existing practices, rather than enabling a transformative learning experience. The way forward is to encourage a curricula founded on enquiry-based learning that utilise the digital space as professional practitioners would be expected to” (Silke Lange) – maybe but none of this describes where or how lecturers learn these new teaching skills. Do we need to figure out an evolutionary timeline to get to this place, where every year or semester, lecturers have to take one further step, add one new practice?
“Do not impose a pedagogy. Get rid of the curricula. Empower students to explore and to interact with one another. The role of the teacher is as expert, navigator, orienteer, editor, curator and contextualisor of the subject. Use heuristic, problem-based learning that is open and collaborative. Teach students why they need to learn” (Christopher Fryer)
This is but a cherry-picked selection of the ideas and actions that people raised in this hack but I think it gives a sense of some of the common themes that emerged and of the passion that people feel for our work in supporting innovation and good practices in our institutions. I jotted down a number of stray ideas for further action in my own workplace as well as broader areas to investigate in the pursuit of my own research.
As always, the biggest question for me is that of how we move the ideas from the screen into practice.
How are we defining pedagogical improvements – is it just strictly about teaching and learning principles (i.e. cognition, transfer etc) or is it broader – is the act of being a learner/teacher a part of this (and thus the “job” of being these people which includes a broader suite of tools) (me)
What if we can show how learning design/UX principles lead to better written papers by academics? – more value to them (secondary benefits) (me)
“how much extra resource is required to make really good use of technology, and where do we expect that resource to come from?” (Andrew Dixon)
Where will I put external factors like the TEF / NSS into my research? Is it still part of the organisation/institution? Because there are factors outside the institution like this that need to be considered – govt initiatives / laws / ???
Are MOOCs for recruitment? Marketing? (MOOCeting?)
“How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation more effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies” (arguably the latter is part of our job)
“How do we embed technology and innovative pedagogical practices within the strategic plans and processes at our institutions?” (Peter Bryant)
Psychology of academia and relationships between academic and professional staff. (Executive tends to come from academia)
Leadership and getting things done / implementing change, organisational change
How is organisational (particularly university) culture defined, formed and shaped?
Some ideas this generated for me
Instead of tech tool based workshops – or in addition at least – perhaps some learning theme based seminars/debates (with mini-presentations). Assessment / Deeper learning / Activities / Reflection
Innovation – can be an off-putting / scary term for academics with little faith in their own skills but it’s the buzzword of the day for leadership. How can we address this conflict? How can we even define innovation within the college?
What if we bring academics into a teaching and learning / Ed tech/design support team?
Telling the story of what we need by describing what it looks like and how students/academics use it in scenario / case study format offers a more engaging narrative
What is the role of professional bodies (E.g. unions like the NTEU) in these discussions?
Are well-off, “prestigious” universities the best places to try to innovate? Is there less of a driving urge, no pressing threat to survival? Perhaps this isn’t the best way to frame it – a better question to ask might be – if we’re so great, what should other universities be learning from us to improve their own practices? (And then, would we want to share that knowledge with our competitors)
“I was thinking about the power that could lie behind a social bookmarking tool when doing a dissertation, not only to be able to store and clasify a resource but also to share it with a group of likeminded researcher and also to see what other have found about the same topic.” (Caroline Kuhn) – kind of like sharing annotated bibliographies?
Bigger push for constructive alignment
I need to talk more about teaching and learning concepts in the college to be seen as the person that knows about it
I’d really like to thank the organisers of the Digital is not the future Hack for their efforts in bringing this all together and all of the people that participated and shared so many wonderful and varied perspectives and ideas. Conversation is still happening over there from what I can see and it’s well worth taking a look.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’ve embarked on some sort of ramshackle process of evaluating what we’re doing in terms of Ed. Tech and design with some of my fellow Ed Techs and Designers in the colleges and central team. This is with a view to finding ways to work together better, build relationships and ultimately make some recommendations to the high ups that may or not be acted upon. (At the very least I’m optimistic that people on the ground will communicate and collaborate better and with a renewed clarity)
In some ways, we’re racing the clock, as our VC has started his consultation tour as the first part of his review/reform/something process. Best case scenario is that we’ll be able to feed our findings/opinions/fervent wishes into his process and change might be kickstarted. Worst case is – well, let’s not think about that. Something with dragons and ice zombies or something.
So we had our second discussion today and were able to successfully identify six core themes with some attendant issues and questions to press on with for more in-depth investigation. The goal is to try to come up with something tangible for each theme every two weeks, through a combination of online and in person discussions. This will ideally give us a greater sense of what we’re about (I hate to use the term mission statement but perhaps something less aethereal) which will inform some revised terms of reference for our lower level parts of the ed. tech governance structure. (This is where I’m expecting the greatest resistance but who knows.)
These are the themes that we have arrived at. (If you feel that we’ve missed something or over-estimated the importance of something, please feel free to leave a comment.)
Is it eLearning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning (and teaching), online learning or just plain old teaching and learning? Why? Are we about education innovation or education support? (It’s not simply about the language either – this can be quite political).
What are we ultimately trying to achieve for the learners, the academics, the university, etc?
Are there a set of key principles that guide us?
How do we define, encourage and support best practices in teaching and learning? (And in other areas?) How can we best serve teachers and learners? Is it strictly about the cognitive, pedagogical aspects of teaching and learning or do other factors need to come in to the training and advice that we offer including accessibility, equity and pastoral care?
What can we do between our various colleges and teams to work together more effectively and share our skills and knowledge? How can we support wider dissemination of ideas in the university and in the wider education design/technology community?
What can we do to build better relationships between the colleges and central teams and to increase understanding of each other’s needs and obligations? Can we simplify the decision making process to streamline approvals for changes and new initiatives?
How can we make the elements of the existing governance structure work more effectively together and better utilise the resources available?
These are some sensitively phrased questions and ideas to get started – this process is going to be complicated by virtue of the range of different stakeholders with competing priorities and differences of opinion will be inevitable. My hope is that by keeping focus on the mutual benefits – and sticking to the discussion topics – progress will be made.
This is the padlet in progress – you should be able to add things but not change them.
Easily one of my favourite things about working at a university is the rich range of speakers that come to share ideas with us. This week alone we have presentations for International Women’s Day and lectures on vote buying in Indonesia, Public Private Partnerships in infrastructure, Poverty alleviation in Brazil and Argentina, the Paris Climate Talks, the 2016 Defence White paper and exploring fertility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Last night we also had Alan Alda talking about science communication. He was amazing.
This isn’t something that I knew about him before but this is a long standing passion of his. He is the co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and hosted a tv series – Scientific American Frontiers – interviewing scientists around the world for more than a decade.
Funnily enough, I suspect that like many of the 1300+ people in the audience, that wasn’t my primary reason for going to the talk. (Though it did seem interesting in itself). Whether for his performances as Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, Sen. Arnold Vinick in The West Wing or most recently Pete in Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, Alda is an astounding actor and communicator and has won over many fans in his long career.
While Alda spoke directly about science communication, it was clear to me that everything he said could just as easily be applied to teaching practice, particularly in higher ed where there can be a tendency to get caught up in highly complex and dry technical language. (Which isn’t to say that this isn’t needed or that academics and scholars don’t need common specific terminology to communicate sophisticated content, more that particularly when introducing new concepts, it can be helpful to think about other cognitive processes that aid in learning)
In a nutshell, what I took away from the presentation was:
It’s ok to use plain English to explain concepts that the audience (student) isn’t familiar with
People retain information far better when it is attached to an emotion that they have experienced in receiving it.
Presenting your information as a narrative with a degree of showmanship will enhance engagement.
When you know too much about something, it can be easy to forget how to see it from the perspective of a novice (and adjust your explanation accordingly)
Alda illustrated all of these core ideas with stories and demonstrations that were exciting (a desperate rush for emergency surgery in Chile), disgusting (children thrown in a river in medieval times to ensure that public events stayed in public memory), amusing (an exercise in getting the audience to guess a song by having someone tap it out on the lectern) and truly sad (doomed lovers doing a heartbeat experiment)
Much of what he had to say resonated deeply with many ideas related to cognition and learning over the years that have sparked my interest in scenarios, game based learning and gamification. While he didn’t drill down into which researcher showed what, there is a wealth of research out there that has demonstrated the value of the emotional and personal connections that presenters/scientists/teachers can add to their teaching practices to make them resonate more with an audience.
When asked which areas of science have the biggest problems with this, he made the point that what the anti-vaccination campaigners on their side (as far as persuasion goes) is the emotion and the intimacy of their personal stories. No idea how to counter this but I think he’s right.
There was also an additional point raised (timely on International Women’s Day) about how women in science sometimes feel that they have to present a more dispassionate and impersonal face to their audiences to avoid the stereotypes of “emotional” women. Again, no solutions but an interesting point.
The Q&A component of the talk was filmed and here it is