Category Archives: culture

Quick reading: Five papers on Academic Development (Hannon, 2008; Hicks, 2005; Boud & Brew, 2013; Lee & McWilliam, 2008; Bath & Smith, 2004)

Academic development refers to the professional development of academics – which makes sense when you think about it. Evidently I hadn’t thought about that a lot because until I skim read these five papers, I had put academic developers in the same broad (and perhaps vague) category as education designers and learning technologists. People working with teachers/academics to support teaching and learning and developing resources.

These are the papers:

I had just assumed that given that the terminology hasn’t really been settled yet (consider blended/flexible/online/technology-enhanced/e-learning), people have been using the terms that they prefer. (I’ve been toying with Director of Education Innovation as a new title but apparently that will upset the Directors of our schools, so that won’t fly).

Anyway, this was the first of a few realisations that I’ve had in the last week of trying to get my research back on track – ironically enough perhaps while I’ve been in the midst of a major academic development project of my own. (STELLAR – which will get its own post shortly).

Recognising that I need to move on to a new topic of exploration in my holistic overview of the central elements in supporting TELT practices in Higher Ed. but also feeling that I haven’t yet covered Education Support Staff (ESS) adequately, I decided to take the temperature of ESS research via five papers. (I’ve also been concerned that while the deep reading that I’ve been doing has been valuable, I’m spending too long on individual papers and chapters in the process.) I allocated a single 25 min pomodoro period to each of these new papers, including writing notes. Admittedly, four of the five papers I’ve decided that I still need to read in full and may well come back to them in the next topic anyway. (However, I changed my initially planned ‘next topic’ from Universities as Organisations to Teachers as a result of these papers and some other thinking recently, so this still feels like progress)

In a nutshell, as I’ve been looking at research relating to education support staff over the last couple of months, I’ve probably been in my own tribal mindset. I do still believe that there are significant cultural factors at play in higher ed. that mean that knowledge and experience aren’t always appropriately used or recognised if you’re not in the academic tribe and this is an area to work on. There are also an incredibly diverse range of reasons for this, some more understandable than others. I have to admit that I’ve not been as open to the more understandable (and valid) ones as I should’ve and that empathy is always an important part of communication and collaboration.

So after this post on the matter, I’m going to take a first pass at my lit review relating to ESSes and focus on the academic/teacher side. (Ultimately people that teach are teachers and this is the side of the academics’ work that I’m looking at – it’s also a more meaningful term in this context – but I realise that terminology is perhaps more important than I thought.

These are my quick responses to the papers that I skimmed

This is a particularly insightful paper that uses “the discourse analytic method of “interpretative repertoires (Potter & Wetherall, 1987)” (p.15) to consider issues in academic development with a particular focus on education technology and changing teaching practices.

Hannon essentially distills the approaches into ‘enabling’ and ‘guiding’ and interviews 25 individuals working with education technology (including academics and ESSes) about their experiences in one university in this space.

He identifies four main differences in the ways that practice is organised:

  • Developing staff or developing courses (p.19)
  • Implementing or adapting institutional strategy (p.20)
  • Drawing together – systems or community (p.22)
  • Reframing technology or reframing the user (p.23)

Ultimately, Hannon finds that:

it is neither institutional strategy nor learning technologies that impose these constraints, rather the discourse or repertoires associated with their operationalisation (p.27)

I’ll certainly be coming back to this paper in the future.

Hicks looked at issues more in relation to the role of Academic Developers – and people working in Education Support units – as ‘change agents’, caught between the strategic requirements and priorities of the university executive and the needs of teachers and learners.

She felt that the voice of academic developers is seldom heard in research in this field and takes time to address this within a Bourdieuian framework emphasising social systems by inviting developers to participate in a number of focus groups.

Hicks’ paper sits well alongside most of the other papers that I have looked at already, with a focus on the tensions between academic and professional staff as well as academic staff and ‘management’ – with the ESSes torn between the two and underutilised.

This paper may be a useful source of additional supporting quotes and could also be worth reviewing when I get to university as an organisation.

David Boud is a major figure in research into Higher Education in Australia, (Angela Brew presumably is as well but it’s Boud that I’ve heard more about to date), so I was keen to read this one.

The idea of practice theory (Kemmis) is something that I keep coming across (and has also been suggested by my supervisor) and it’s at the heart of this paper. In a nutshell, it’s about framing academic work as practice and considering three key foci

practice development, fostering learning-conducive work and deliberately locating activity within practice. It also suggests that academic development be viewed as a practice (p.208)

Given that my new area of exploration is teachers/teaching/academics, this is a timely examination of academic practice that I will absolutely be delving into in far greater depth. It also offers a nice bridge between these two areas and I think it will also help me to inform my other (professional) work.

This paper presents a solid overview of tribalism in academia and the emergence of Higher Education as a field of study in its own right that needs to be claimed by academic developers. (I’d wonder whether an idea of “academy developers” is more fitting here).

One thing that I’ve come to realise in this sector is that trying to take on organisational cultural issues directly is unproductive, so while I’d prefer tribalism to be replaced with the embrace of a broader notion of being part of a collaborative community of scholars, I realise that it won’t happen any time soon. I guess the real questions are; do the members of a tribe respect the knowledge of another tribe and is teaching and learning in Higher Education something that can be owned by one tribe? Perhaps something more along the lines of tribal elders – strictly in the H.E T&L discipline area, never the ‘academy’ itself – could work?

When it comes to the role of ESS, I note that the authors quote Rowland et al (1998), which has popped up in most of these papers and is high on my list of future reading. It’s a fairly brutal quote however.

[a]t best, they [i.e. academics] view those in these [academic development] units as providing a service to help them teach. At worst, they ignore them as lacking academic credibility and being irrelevant to the real intellectual tasks of academic life. (Rowland, Byron, Furedi, Padfield & Smyth, 1998, p.134) (p.10)

This is certainly another paper to read in full as I explore the idea of academic work and teaching.

This final paper by Lee and McWilliam leans heavily on Foucault and “games of truth and error” and a fairly specific idea of irony. It again explores the tensions that academic developers encounter in the space between executive/management priorities and teacher needs. As someone that hasn’t yet explored Foucault, I imagine it might be of value if this is theoretical direction that I choose but for the most part I just felt that I didn’t get the joke.

Ok, so hopefully this give me a decent starting point for writing something about the literature as it relates to education support staff (obviously there is always more to explore but the best writing is the writing that you’ve actually done and having something to show will make it easier to find the gaps – both in ideas covered in the research as well as in what I’ve been reading and not reading.

Onwards to teachers.


Thoughts on: ‘Sleeping with the enemy’: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff (Wohlmuther, 2008)

At this stage of looking at the matter of professional staff and academic staff in Higher Education, I feel that I’m somewhat flogging a dead horse and everything that needs to be said, has been said. So why am I still looking at this paper? Initially I was concerned that it grated on me because it doesn’t fit with my current narrative that there are significant cultural factors in universities that make it unnecessarily difficult for professional staff – particularly those in education support roles – to be heard when it comes to discussing teaching and learning.

If this was the case, I’d clearly not being doing my best work as a scholar – open to new information and willing to reconsider my world view in the face of it. Having looked over the paper a few times now though, I have to say that I think it’s just not that great a piece of research. A number of assertions are made that simply aren’t supported by the evidence presented and some of the reasoning seems specious. Events from four years prior to the publication date are referred to in the future tense but there is no discussion of whether they happened or what the consequences were.

Assuming that this is poor research – or perhaps poor analysis – it makes me happy that I’ve reached a point where I can identify bad work but also a little concerned that I’m wrong or I’m missing something because this was still published in a peer reviewed journal that I’ve found a lot of good work in previously. (Then again, I assume that most journals have their own favoured perspectives and maybe this was well aligned with it). I searched in vain to find other writing by the author but she appears to be a ghost, with no publications or notable online presence since the paper came out.

In a nutshell, based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities, the author concludes that there is minimal dissension between academic and “allied” staff and most of what little there is, is felt by the allied staff.

Now it’s entirely reasonable that this may well be the case but there are a few elements of the paper that seem to undermine the authors argument. Wohlmuther asks survey participants about their perceptions of a divide but doesn’t dig directly into attitudes towards other kinds of staff, which McInnis (1998), Dobson (2000) and Szekeres (2004) all identified as central factors. She looks at the perceptions of contributions of academic and allied staff members to the strategic goals of the organisation which obliquely explores their ‘value’ within the organisation but it seems limited. Given the ambiguous value of some higher level strategic goals (Winslett, 2016), this would seem to tell an incomplete story.

The greatest weakness of the paper to my mind is that ‘allied’ and ‘academic’ work roles are unclear.

Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work (p.330)

With no further examination of the responses via focus groups or interviews, this alone (to me anyway) seems to make the findings murky.

She found that only 29% of staff – all staff? that is unclear – felt that there was “good understanding and respect for the significance of each others roles and all staff work well together” (p.331) across the institute, however doesn’t take this to be an indicator of division.

Looking over the paper again, these are probably my main quibbles and perhaps they aren’t so dramatic. This tells me that I still have a way to go before I can truly ‘read’ a paper properly but I’m on the way


Research update #6

Not a stellar week – I did discover @legogradstudent on Twitter which is great

I also read another paper – yes I’m really trying to move on – about the professional /academic divide. This time about research into it in a particular institute in NZ. I’m not sure whether it is a bad paper or it’s just that I disagree with the findings but I’m almost sure that it is just bad. There’ll be more on this soon. I note that the author doesn’t appear to have written any other papers and that one was 8 years ago.

There have been a few big work things relating to the governance of TEL systems that I’ve been working in which I think will inform my research and I’m also cobbling together a gamified approach to academic staff PD that I think should be fun. I just really hope that people play. If I can get 4 teams of 2, I’ll consider it a win. More on this soon too – I’m calling it STELLAR – Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research, which is a tortured but valid acronym.



Thoughts on: The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff (Winslett, 2016)

While looking at three papers relating to professional staff in Higher Education recently I was conscious of two things. They were all written at least 12 years ago and they contained scant reference to people working in my domain of education support people (academic developers/education designers/learning technologists etc).

The papers were still valuable because I don’t believe that the academic/professional divide has gone anywhere and I think it does still impact on how universities are able to support TELT practices. All the same, I was keen to get a more contemporary take on things in this particular arena.

Greg Winslett  of the University of New England (Australia) lives in this space and has come at the issue from an interesting angle – exploring the ways in which top-level university strategic plans provide useful guidance to education support people in terms of setting priorities and practical directions.

Winslett favours the term Teaching Support Staff which I considered for a little while as a better option to Education Support People (or Professionals) but then I wondered whether it downplays the importance of learning. In fairness, he does refer to Teaching and Learning Support Staff at one point but mostly stuck with TSS. To be perfectly honest, all of this does feel like a minor semantic quibble to me, along the same lines as choosing between technology enhanced learning (TEL) or technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT), but given that one of “our” issues is that academics don’t fully understand what ESPs (or TSS) have to offer, perhaps finding the right terminology can make a difference.

I’m still also torn between Education Support Professionals and Education Support People  – at least partially because the acronym ESP appeals to me – because this field is made up of both academics and professionals but “people” doesn’t seem weighty enough. I guess Teaching Support Staff avoids this question and we do spend virtually all of our time working with teachers on teaching matters. But philosophically we work in a learner-centred domain – or at least this is what we are told. Given that Winslett uses TSS in this paper, I’ll stick with that for now.

(Well that was something of a diversion)

Winslett does a number of things with the strategic plans gathered from the 39 universities in Australia. He runs them through data-mining software (Leximancer) to pull out key themes and concepts based around the clustering and frequency of key terms. These are then ranked to identify university priorities, both at a national level as well as in terms of university sub-groupings including the Group of Eight (Australia’s ‘Ivy League’), the Australian Technical Network, Regional Universities Network and Innovative Research Universities. This offers some interesting comparisons and insights into differences between the (self-selected) types of universities in this country.

He also draws on the work of Fraser (1989) in relation to “needs talk” (p.537) to discuss the concepts and themes identified and the cues they provide teaching support staff

Fraser proposes that examining ‘needs talk’ (statements that follow a conceptual structure of a needs b in order to c) makes visible the manner in which claims are made and contested and how different types of need are expressed. (p.537)

Given the high-level nature of most strategic plans and their importance in encompassing the vision of the organisation and their tendency to be more forward-looking;

most claims of need are framed as predictions for the future, rather than a more dramatic expression of an immediate need (p.542)

I think I expected less from them than Winslett in terms of practical guidance for people working on the ground. Something he finds noteworthy

and perhaps surprising is that the theme of ‘research’ does not appear in the top 10 ranking for the Group of Eight (p.539)

(in terms of themes in the strategic plans). If we accept that the plans are future focused and take an additional step to acknowledge that they will centre around improving areas of perceived weakness, maybe it’s not so surprising that Go8 unis, which pride themselves on research, take an ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude here.

The lists of themes and concepts that Winslett identifies and discusses are interesting but it is the next section that really stands out for me. Having identified the ‘claims of need’ across the strategic plans, the author explores the ones of specific relevance to TSS’ and identifies three areas where contradictory needs are often expressed that offer challenges in determining what the university executive actually wants.

“Teaching support staff need to innovate, but not too much” (p.543) 

Innovation has been a popular buzzword in government, industry and education for a good twenty years, if not longer. I’m not one to point fingers – I work in (or as) the Education Innovation Office. The first challenge that Winslett identifies is that everybody wants to be innovative but not everybody is willing to pay for it. The perceived benefits of innovation – increases in efficiency and (lower down the list) better teaching and learning –  are clearly highly desirable. These routinely collide with other needs to make more effective use of “existing resources, approaches and infrastructure” (p.544). This raises major questions:

How, for example, do teaching support staff know when to lobby for additional funding and resources? How innovative must a particular work activity be? (p.544)

“Teaching support staff need to help staff and help staff help themselves” (p.544) 

One of the practical costs of this innovation, particularly when it comes to using online tools and new pedagogies, is the extra work required to create resources and activities. And it isn’t just extra work, there are often new skillsets that are needed to create infographics, develop online quizzes, make videos and moderate discussion boards.

The strategic plans examined expressed the desire to equip academics with these skills as well as making use of the time-savings that Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching apparently promises to offer more personalised teaching and learning experiences.

I run into this dilemma on a regular basis and it really boils down to a question of what is the purpose of a teaching academic? How productive a use of their time is it to expect them to master web development or media production when there are often skilled professionals on hand to do this for them? On the other hand, if these skilled professionals build something that is beyond the ability of the academic to fix or edit when they need to,  how long should they be stuck with a shoddy or faulty teaching resource that just frustrates them and the students.

In calling for the best of both worlds, the strategic plans perpetuate the problem without understanding it.

Teaching support staff need to adopt a learner-centred approach as long as the learner wants a job”

Another of the great points of debate routinely raised by academics is that Higher Education isn’t merely vocational training. (Ironically one of the new ‘big things’ in Higher Ed. is competency based education, with a stronger focus on better learning outcomes and constructive alignment of learning outcomes with course assessment, all of which has been features of the vocational sector for decades).

Winslett makes a point here that while there is much promotion of learner-centred approaches to teaching and learning – which includes “what is taught and how” (p.545) – in the strategic plans, there is also much discussion of designing courses that create employment ready graduates and which also meet the “requirements of the nation” (p.546). He appears to feel that these are all mutually exclusive and “may present a collision for teaching support staff working within some disciplines” (p.546)

I take the argument to be that a commitment to learner-centred design is quickly made secondary to other university priorities – including the actual capacity of the university to change enough to deliver this in a meaningful way and a perceived need to engage more effectively with industry and future student employers. I’d suggest that these two aims are not necessarily as contradictory as suggested and that a great many students attend university to be made more employable at a higher level. The ‘higher-order’ skills of analysis, research, critical thinking and communication – amongst others – that are seen to set universities apart from vocational training providers are in fact the ’employability skills’ that industry is calling for in graduates.

Winslett concludes in a fairly scathing manner that top-level university strategic plans more often hinder than help teaching support staff.

At best, these plans fail to distinctively shape the tone and direction of higher education pedagogy and delivery at a national level. At worst, the statements of need relating to teaching support confuse and mystify expectations of the role. This context presents considerable challenges to teaching support staff across the sector, making it difficult to muster support for initiatives, achieve consistency across the country and achieve quality benchmarks. Perhaps worst of all, the strategic plans do not generally provide specific guidance on the favoured forms of pedagogical design and development. That is to say, there is no substantive pedagogic strategy evident in any of the plans (p.546)

He does go on to concede that this level of detail is ideally more likely to be found in the lower-level operational plans that flow on from here. Given the diversity of disciplines and thus of appropriate teaching and learning approaches in these disciplines, I would personally struggle to advocate a detailed pedagogical strategy suitable for an entire university. (Which might be why I’m not in the executive – also that whole pesky not being an academic thing).

Winslett’s broad point is well made though and entirely relevant to all of us teaching support staff members who have scoured these kinds of documents in order to better understand the best – or at least most successful – ways to do our work in supporting teaching and learning.




Thoughts on: Three papers about professional vs academic staff in Higher Education. (McInnis, 1998; Dobson, 2000; Szekeres, 2004)

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.

Following on from the paper I posted about recently by Jones et al (2012) on Distributed Leadership, I dove down the rabbit hole of citations and found these three papers:

Mcinnis, C. (1998). Academics and Professional Administrators in Australian Universities: dissolving boundaries and new tensions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 20(2), 161–173.

Dobson, I. R. (2000). “Them and Us” – General and Non-General Staff in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(2), 203–210.

Szekeres, J. (2004). The invisible workers. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(1), 7–22.

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.








Thoughts on: Distributed Leadership: a collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education (Jones, Lefoe, Harvey & Ryland 2012)

The other day as I was reading and frustratedly scribbling notes all over this paper, I took a moment to tweet about it.

tweet screenshot

I was about 2/3s of the way through and finding the honest and accurate but inherently contradictory takes on how things seem to work (culture) and how things can and should and sometimes do work well (best practice) in higher ed. utterly maddening.

Having taken a break for the day and come back to finish it – including the actual, tangible but perhaps far too brief case studies of success stories – I think I get it. I also think that much of my frustration with the paper comes from some of my own current experiences of attempting to navigate (and perhaps refine) organisational operations and structures. (In my own, quite small, domain)

In a nutshell, the authors describe a model of distributed leadership that offers an opportunity to make more effective use of the diverse sets of expertise in Higher Education, both from academic and professional staff. This approach could act as a remedy – or at least a symptom reliever – for some of the major changes to have occurred in the sector over the last twenty to thirty years. These include:

“an increase in managerial control (managerialism); an increase in competition (marketisation); increased scrutiny alongside greater devolved responsibility (audit); and a remodelling of structures and operations on corporate organisations (corporatisation) (Szekeres, 2004)” (p.67)

A lot of this paper is spent on discussing ideal and preferred models for collaboration and what I felt was just common workplace decency and respect – consultation, supporting collegiality, contextual awareness etc – which seemed to be presented as a radical new way forward in a space where conventionally people (generally academics) prefer to nest away from the world in their silos and microsilos.

The paper offers a comprehensive overview of leadership in higher education and current research into this area – it appears to have been an area with a recognised need for improvement for many years and a number of studies and research projects have been undertaken. The fact that the paper concludes that much more work remains to be done in terms of actually embedding the proposed practices is revealing and suggests that university culture is a tough nut to crack and perhaps also that the current approaches taken and mooted may need to be refined.

The greatest value in this paper for my current research is as a source of promising leads for other people that have been investigating the academic/professional staff divide, however as I progress towards looking more for over-arching strategies to supporting TELT practices in Higher Ed., the approaches to leadership may become more useful.

Some general ideas of interest in the paper:

Understanding and responding to the varied contextual needs of the organisation is vital

This paper argues that for universities to build sustainable leadership, a new, more participative and collaborative approach to leadership is needed that acknowledges the individual autonomy that underpins creative and innovative thinking  (p.68)

Differences between academic and professional (or ‘non-academic’ to use a not-at-all loaded term) staff are a key factor in collaborations

…much of this is deeply rooted in cultural, structural and power differences in the source of authority (for professional staff based on their work role, while for academics it is based on their discipline) as well as differences in perceptions about working in collaboration between the more individualistic academics and the more collaborative administrative staff (p.68)

The project report findings found that Distributed Leadership (in line with UK theoretical research)

consists of five dimensions – context; culture; change; relationships; and activity (p.71)

It achieved

Accommodation of the academic culture of autonomy was achieved by encouraging participants to self-select for the project based on their interest and expertise rather than their formal leadership positions (p.71)

Relationships between the parties in the collaboration are highlighted and supported by

the involvement of people on the basis of their expertise; the establishment of systematic processes; the provision of professional development to encourage shared or distributed leadership, the resourcing of collaborative activities and working conditions to support individual participation (p.72)

Most significantly for me, the four successful projects that were run at the heart of this research are all described in terms of their teaching and learning objectives

RMIT: to provide effective maintenance of existing teaching spaces and to advise on future teaching spaces

ACU: to build and operate an effective approach to online learning that was both technically capable and pedagogically anchored

Macquarie: focus on leading assessment

UoW: implement change to assessment practice (p.73)

This may seem like a minor thing but it is probably the source of my greatest personal frustration in the HE workplace at the moment and sits at the core of the thinking that I am trying to reframe in the way that we support TELT. Our language and activities centre heavily on maintaining and providing access to “enterprise education technologies” and it’s nice to see that looking at things from a teaching and learning perspective is demonstrated to be successful.







Thoughts on: Changing perspectives: teaching and learning centres’ strategic contributions to academic development in higher education. (Holt, Palmer & Challis, 2011)

As I’ve been investigating Education Support People as a theme in my lit review reading and writing this month, I came across a wealth of interesting papers by Dr Dale Holt at Deakin University. (Australia)

This one, Changing perspectives: teaching and learning centres’ strategic contributions to academic development in higher education, that he co-wrote with Stuart Palmer and Di Challis in 2011 seemed particularly relevant. (And it actually flows on very nicely from my last blog post here too)

The paper offers a rich overview of the recent history and current standing of teaching and learning centres in Higher Education institutions and draws a list of ten very practical “leverage points” that these centres can use to have a greater impact on improving teaching and learning practices. It draws from interviews, surveys and focus groups conducted with leaders in centres at almost all Australian universities as part of research supported by the (former) Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

In terms of a ‘state of the actual’ birds-eye overview, this paper is a useful resource and most of the  recommendations make a lot of sense. I did find a few internal inconsistencies in the ways that ‘conventional wisdom’ (e.g. the value and effectiveness of large Communities of Practice in Higher Ed) directly contradicted the lived experiences of the study participants (e.g many academics don’t often engage with people outside their discipline). In fairness, these weren’t ignored but I would’ve liked to see deeper discussion here.

The paper doesn’t explicitly define ‘learning and teaching centres’, assuming a degree of prior organisational knowledge. There is a reference to “the associated complexity of academic development work” (p.5) in the introduction and a table comparing “traditional and new centre paradigms” (p.8) also refers to the provision of professional development, engagement with the university executive and “active representation on faculty teaching and learning committees” (p.8). The assumption that these units operate centrally largely avoids discussion of parallel faculty/college based learning and teaching units and the relationships between the central and ‘outer’ teams. The fact that many colleges/faculties see a need for local, specialised teams is an interesting issue worthy of further exploration. All this said however, I can appreciate the need to manage the scope of this research and focusing on the central units makes sense.

One of the most interesting aspects of this paper came almost in passing and wasn’t really mentioned again. It was a conclusion drawn from previous research by the authors about measures of success in these kinds of units.

It emerged that a myriad of factors influenced whether or not a centre was recognised as being an integral and valued part of its university’s teaching and learning community – a hallmark of having reached maturity. However four factors were identified as being critical to the ability of centres to succeed: clarity of role and direction; shared understanding of purpose; the capacity and capability to achieve purpose; and the ability to demonstrate value (Challis, Holt & Palmer, 2009) (p.6)

Arguably, it’s possible to map these factors to the listed ‘leverage points’ that form the bulk of the paper but it isn’t done explicitly, which seems like a missed opportunity to construct a more powerful resource for people working in these centres. (Though, I’ll admit, that’s not necessarily the point of the paper).

Just as I have found so far in my own research, this paper identifies that the flip side of the ‘how can Higher Ed / T&L centres succeed in supporting better teaching and learning’ coin is the equally important question, ‘what are the obstacles/barriers to success that must be overcome?’

Drawing again from prior research, the authors found that

The principal constraints identified were ‘lack of staff time’, both in the faculties and in the centre, to engage in teaching and learning improvement activities, followed by incorrect or outdated general perceptions of the role and function of the centre and insufficient resources to have a significant impact (Palmer, Holt & Challis, 2010) (p.6)

Drilling down into this paper, it seems to arrive at a philosophical position (supported by some organisational theorists – Senge, 1990 and Mintzberg, 1989) that a network based approach to academic staff professional development is the ultimate goal for moving towards overall improvements. In principal I agree but it would be nice to see some tangible supporting evidence.

At the heart of the argument for networked professional development is Mintzberg’s (1989) classification of universities as “professional bureaucracies”.

Universities, he argues, are hierarchically organised by discipline specialisation. Hence we see universities organised into faculty-based clusters of related disciplines, with a further, more specialised grouping of single disciplines or tightly-related disciplines at the departmental level. Professional learning and development in education is, therefore, vertically driven and governed by discipline concerns. Networking, on the other hand, complements vertical learning through the provision of opportunities for educators and leaders to engage horizontally across departments, faculties and disciplines: not only to engage across areas of interest at a particular level but also to relate through-out various organisational levels and domains. This networked, informal and collegial environment, we argue, provides great potential to enhance teaching and learning throughout the organisation and to contribute to external networking opportunities as well

While I applaud the philosophy of the horizontal approach and would love to see educators learning from their peers in other disciplines, I have to wonder if it is ultimately a matter of expending a lot of energy in pursuit of an ideological goal at the expense of making actual progress. I’ve been considering a competing approach in recent days which is entirely unformed yet but essentially works with the silos and micro-silos to create a series of small communities of practice (say 3-4 people in a specific discipline) that would foster localised cooperation and collaboration and then ideally serve as nodes in a larger network – or constellations in a galaxy of stars. (This second metaphor appears in particular because our new VC is an astro-physicist and the idea of stars offers some nice imagery). I have an acronym that kind of works here too – STELLAR – Scholarship/Scholars of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research. But there’s still work to be done on this idea. (I’m also thinking about options to gamify the whole thing – initial responses to this from my colleagues and members of the college executive have been positive)

Holt et al use the notion of ‘leverages’ as an overall roadmap for strategic approaches that teaching and learning centres in universities can take.

Senge (1990, p.15) identifies systems thinking, and the associated notion of leverage, as a key skill for leaders building learning organisations.

“Systems thinking also shows that small, well-focused actions can produce significant enduring improvements, if they are in the right place. Systems thinkers refer to this idea as the principle of ‘leverage’. Tackling a difficult problem is often a matter of seeing where the high leverage lies, where a change – with a minimum of effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement” (as quoted on p.9 of Holt et al)

Given that Senge wrote this more than a quarter of a century ago, I might check whether systems thinking is still considered ‘a thing’ in the organisational management community but it has a ring of truth to it.

Without going into tremendous detail on all ten leverage points, because this post is already on the long side and most seem like common practice, they are:

  1. New visions/new plans – support uni vision with scholarship of existing research and collaboration with peer institutions. (Need to be careful of pushing a one-size-fits-all vision though) 
  2. Preparation of new continuing academic staff – induction and training (mindfulness of their discipline context) 
  3. Compulsory casual teaching development program (I’ll assume this is paid work) 
  4. Just in time professional development (The paper emphasises online training and resources, I agree they have value but have found people engage far more with face to face training) 
  5. Communities of practice – “Given that research into and practical applications of CoP have primarily been industry-focused, a new paradigm for CoP in academe called CoP-iA can be argued for (Nagy & Burch, 2009)” (p.12)
  6. Strategic funding for development – needs to find a balance between “an emphasis on the conservation of resources often associated with quality assurance and risky investments in innovation associated with quality improvement” (P.13)
  7. Supporting teaching excellence through awards and fellowships – (recognition of individuals vs teams, do individuals truly ‘pay it forward’?) 
  8. Disseminating exemplary practices online
  9. Recognition and use of education ‘experts’ – (yes but there is a disappointing assumption in this section of the paper that the only education experts are academics – professional third space staff are invisible) 
  10. Renewing leadership – distributed leadership models to use ‘expert educators’ more effectively in decision making bodies\

General random ideas and thoughts this paper has triggered:

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been thinking a bit about CoPs recently and why we struggle to get buy in. Time is certainly one factor but I’ve increasingly been thinking that, while it is desirable, pushing broad cross-disciplinary collaboration because ‘it’s good for you’ may be too great a cultural change in the first instance. This paper has helped me to clarify some of my thoughts around this and I’m going to explore this node/constellation model a little further.

Awards and fellowships and other extrinsic motivators for outstanding teaching is another thing that I’ve been considering and plan to dig down into. While providing recognition for individual excellence appear to be an entrenched part of Higher Education culture, I have to wonder how much the recipients pay it forward and whether a focus on rewarding team/department level improvements in teaching and learning practices/outcomes might be more effective. (But again, this may be a matter of calling for too great a cultural shift).

If we are to stick with the model of rewarding individual achievements, are there ways that we can move the application process for awards/fellowships/etc  from an isolated, short time-frame based approach to something that happens more publicly over a greater period of time. I’m not sure how but perhaps it could involve keeping a reflective journal or blog in some way and have a greater focus on contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

This paper ends by touching on the notion of teaching and learning centres as a hub, or pivotal node in the T&L activities of a university. I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Education Support People (both academic and professional) and the valuable space that they inhabit – linked to teachers, students, IT teams, policy and other support areas as well as the wider educational support and scholarly community. So, that seems like a good thing 🙂





Research update (and post #100)

I thought twice about making this post, given that (according to the WordPress stats) it’s the 100th but my slightly neglected PhD Wunderlist has an ongoing to-do item involving making update posts about my research.

Once again, the work side of this work focused research has taken priority however I’m still hopeful that it has helped to inform some of my big picture thinking around the ways that universities can support Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching in very realpolitik, pragmatic ways.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been working with my other “third space” peers on a project to look at how we are currently advising the decision makers in use of ed tech. The discussion/consultation part of this process came to a close a week ago and I’ve been trying to synthesise the key ideas, issues and questions into actionable terms of reference for our two ground level reference and user groups. I presented these proposed changes to the reference group yesterday and given that they sparked a degree of impassioned discussion and some of the ideas have shaken some sensibilities, I’ll refrain from going into detail here just yet until the dust settles.

I have a few stray observations however that these discussions and this process have prompted and I think that they offer some interesting insights into the behind the scenes challenges that universities can face both in supporting TELT and in embracing change and innovation more broadly.

As a relative new-comer to the space, I’ve noticed that many of the discussions around current practices and opportunities for improvements will at some point come back to a lengthy explanation of the context in which structures and policies were put into place “back in the day”. “Back in the day we didn’t have x/y/z and a new person started and decided we should do a/b/c and yada yada yada”. Now I can appreciate the importance of learning from history and avoiding making the same mistakes over and over but there always seem to be two undercurrents to these discussions.

The first is essentially – “our current situation isn’t my fault” – ok, no worries, I’m not interested in judging, all I want to do is look at where we are right now, where we want to be and what we do to get there. The second is often a variation on – “we already tried x idea and it failed” – this is probably more useful if the conversation proceeds to “it failed because a/b/c and we learnt d/e/f from it and in the future can try g/h/i”. This rarely seems to be the case though because it seems that the simple act of making a suggestion that was tried once, five years ago, is a clear indication that the suggestor simply doesn’t understand “how things work here”.

Navigating sensibilities – particularly when they relate to struggles and disappointments that others before you may have had – in this space is a much larger challenge than I have anticipated. The simple act of saying that something could be better can be heavily laden with  implications that this is the case because someone isn’t that great at their job. (This is clearly absurd when there are so many moving pieces in an educational ecosystem that impact on getting things done that no one person could ever reasonably be held responsible for anything – which is another matter for discussion again if we want to look at the vexed question of getting things done in this space)

Just as human frailty is routinely identified as the weak link in I.T. security, I’d suggest that it is equally problematic in achieving change in higher ed.

The second real issue identified in these discussions has been the culture or more precisely the mindset that determines the approach taken to the problem. To be clearer – TELT. Rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly, clearly), our current environment magnifies the Technology part by referring to “enterprise educational technologies” and framing things in an IT project mindset. We have a set of tools and systems that are owned by a central team that academics and students are allowed to use, if they are careful. What the discussions (and, to be fair, the actual stated terms of reference of the two low-level user/reference groups) have suggested is that the mindset actually needs to be more about a service that exists to support teaching and learning through the provision of appropriate and useful technology. A major identified issue seems to be that the activities of the groups don’t reflect their stated purposes.

Perhaps I’m using slightly slanted language and I appreciate that sound IT project management practices are required to keep things humming but if a tool has no value without a user, surely the needs of the user have to be the primary focus. Anyway, the tensions between these two camps – which I truly hope are about genuine beliefs that one approach is better for teaching and learning than another rather than baser matters of position or prestige – are definitely a significant area meriting further consideration. In real terms, it’s rarely an either/or question, people, systems and institutions are complex and have any number of simultaneous drivers and learning how to work with them is probably the best outcome possible.

More thoughts on: “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” – Technology, practical solutions and further questions

Previously on

I’ve been participating in an online “hack” looking at “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” with a number of other education designers/technologists.

It’s been pretty great.

I shared some thoughts and summarised some of the discussions tied to the issues we face in supporting and driving institutional change, working with organisational culture and our role as professional staff experts in education design and technology.

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:


  1. They will never lose wifi signal on campus – their wifi will roam seemlessly with them
  2. They will have digital access to lecture notes before the lectures, so that they can annotate them during the lecture.
  3. 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: “”. 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

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.

Further questions

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)

Further research

Psychology of academia and relationships between academic and professional staff. (Executive tends to come from academia)

“A useful way to categorise IT is according to benefits realisation. For each service offered, a benefits map should articulate why we are providing the service and how it benefits the university.” (See ) (Andrew Dixon)

Leadership and getting things done / implementing change, organisational change

How is organisational (particularly university) culture defined, formed and shaped?

Actor-network theory

Design research

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

In conclusion

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.













Rethinking Ed Tech at our university

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.)

Language and philosophy/vision: 

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?

Best practice

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 as humble (yet expert) professional support staff to be listened to? How do we take a more substantive role in the decision making processes that directly affect us?

Communication and collaboration

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.

(I should mention that some of the themes were inspired/expanded by the discussions in the “Digital is not the future” hack – particularly the question of expertise)