Category Archives: education design

Research update #20 – Language language covfefe

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

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

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

Am I too hard on myself?

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

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 6 Circuits of Reproduction (Shove et al, 2012)

This chapter seemed to take forever to work through, possibly because a bit of life stuff came up in the interim but it’s also at the more complex end of the discussion. It concludes the overall examination of the dynamics of social practice and in some ways felt like a boss level that I’d been working up to. Most of the chapter made sense but I must confess that there is a page about cross-referencing practices as entities that I only wrote “wut?” on in my notes. Maybe it’ll make more sense down the road.

The good news is that there was more than enough more meaningful content in this chapter to illuminate my own exploration of practices in my research and it sparked a few new stray ideas for future directions. There’s a decent summary near the end of the chapter that I’ll start with and then expand upon. (The authors do great work with their summaries, bless them)

In this chapter we have built on the idea that if practices are to endure, the elements of which they are made need to be linked together consistently and recurrently over time (circuit 1). How this works out is, in turn, limited and shaped by the intended and unintended consequences of previous and co-existing configurations (circuit 2). Our third step has been to suggest that persistence and change depend upon feedback between one instance or moment of enactment and another, and on patterns of mutual influence between co-existing practices (circuit 3). It is through these three intersecting circuits that practices-as-entities come into being and through these that they are transformed. (p.93)

So let’s unpack this a little. There are a number of reciprocal relationships and cycles in the lives of practices. The authors discuss these in two main ways – through the impact of monitoring/feedback on practices (both as individual performances and larger entities) and also by cross-referencing different practices (again as performances and entities)

Monitoring practices as performances

A performance of a practice will generate data that can be monitored. It might be monitored by the practitioner (as a part of the practice) and it might also be monitored by an external actor that is assessing the performance or the results/outputs. (This might be in an education/training context or regulatory or something else). This monitoring then informs feedback which improves/modifies that performance and/or the next one/s and so the cycle continues. In some way, potentially, in every new performance, the history of past performances can help refine the practice over time.

This isn’t all that evolves the practice; materials, competences and meanings play their part too, but it is a significant factor.

Monitoring, whether instant or delayed, provides practitioners with feedback on the outcomes and qualities of past performance. To the extent that this feeds forward into what they do next it is significant for the persistence, transformation and decay of the practices concerned… self-monitoring or monitoring by others is part of, and not somehow outside, the enactment of a practice (what are the minimum conditions of the practice?) is, in a sense, integral to the performance. Amongst other things, this means that the instruments of recording (the body, the score sheet, the trainee’s CV) have a constitutive and not an innocent role. (p.83-4)

So far, so good. This also makes me think that many practices are made up of elements or units of practice – let’s call them steps for simplicity. The act of monitoring is just another step. (This does take us into the question of whether it is a practice or a complex/bundle of practices – like driving is made up of steering, accelerating, braking, signalling etc – but nobody says they’re going out accelerating)

Monitoring practices as entities

Looking at a practice as an entity is to look much more at the bigger picture of the practice.

the changing contours of practices-as-entities are shaped by the sum total of what practitioners do, by the variously faithful ways in which performances are enacted over time and by the scale and commitment of the cohorts involved. We also noticed that practices-as-entities develop as streams of consistently faithful and innovative performances intersect. This makes sense, but how are the transformative effects of such encounters played out? More specifically, how are definitions and understandings of what it is to do a practice mediated and shared, and how do such representations change over time (p.84)

An interesting side-note when considering the evolution of practice is the contribution of business. This example was in a discussion of snow-boarding

As the number of snowboarders rose, established commercial interests latched on to the opportunities this presented for product development and profit (p.85)

This ties back to the influence of material elements (new designs and products in this case) on shaping a practice.

Technologies are themselves important in stabilising and transforming the contours of a practice. In producing snowboards of different length, weight, width and form, the industry caters to – and in a sense produces – the increasingly diverse needs of a different types of user… Developments of this kind contribute to the ongoing setting and re-setting of conventions and standards. (p.85)

This in turn brings up back to one of the other key roles played by monitoring (and feedback) in terms of practices as entities, which is describing and defining them. The language that is used to describe a practice and its component parts and also to define what makes good practice is of vital importance in determining what a practice is and what it becomes.

…if we are to understand what snowboarding ‘is’ at any one moment, and if we are to figure out how the image and the substance of the sport evolves, we need to identify the means by which different versions of the practice-as-entity relate to each other over time. Methods of naming and recording constitute one form of connective tissue. In naming tricks like the ollie, the nollie, the rippey flip and the chicken salad, snowboarders recognise and temporarily stabilize specific moves. Such descriptions map onto templates of performance- to an idea of what it is to do an ollie, and what it means to do one well… in valuing certain skills and qualities above others, they define the present state of play and the direction in which techniques and technologies evolve. (p.85)

So clearly, monitoring and description and standardisation/regulation and the dissemination of all of this is hugely important on practices. Interestingly, a Community of Practice for TEL edvisors that I’ve started recently had our first webinar yesterday looking at the different standards that Australian universities have for online course design. It probably merits a blog post of its own but I guess it’s a good example of what needs to happen to improve Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices.

The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to monitoring – which ties back to our webinar nicely once more – is mediation.

Describing and materializing represent two modes of monitoring in the sense that they capture and to some extent formalize aspects of performance in terms of which subsequent enactments are defined and differentiated. A third mode lies in processes of mediation which also constitute channels of circulation. Within some snowboarding subcultures, making and sharing videos has become part of the experience. These films, along with magazines, websites and exhibitions, provide tangible records of individual performance and collectively reflect changing meanings of the sport within and between its various forms. Put simply, they allow actual and potential practitioners to ‘keep up’ with what is happening at the practice’s leading edge(s) (p.86)

I find the fact that monitoring/documenting and sharing the practice is considered an important part of practice quite interesting. Looking at teaching, I’ve tried to launch projects to support this in teaching but management levels have not seen value in this. (I’ll just have to persevere and keep making the argument).

There’s another nice description of the role of standards

…standards, in the form of rules, descriptions, materials and representations, constitute templates and benchmarks in terms of which present performances are evaluated and in relation to which future variants develop (p.86)

The discussion of the role of feedback notes that positive feedback can be self-perpetuating, in “what Latour and Woolgar refer to as ‘cycles of credibility’ (1986). Their study of laboratory life showed how the currencies of scientific research – citations, reputation, research funding – fuelled each other. In the situations they describe, research funding led to research papers that enhanced reputations in ways which made it easier to get more research funding and so on” (p.86)

Ultimately, feedback helps to sustain practices (as entities) by keeping practitioners motivated.

At a very basic level, it’s good to know you are doing well. Even the most casual forms of monitoring reveal (and in a sense constitute) levels of performance. In this role, signs of progress are often important in encouraging further effort and investment of time and energy (Sudnow, 1993). The details of how performances are evaluated (when how often, by whom) consequently structure the careers of individual practitioners and the career path that the practice itself affords. This internal structure is itself of relevance for the number of practitioners involved and the extent of their commitment (p.86)

Cross-referencing practices-as-performances

The act of participating in a performance of a practice means that it has been prioritised over other practices – the time spent on this performance is not available to the others.

…some households deliberately rush parts of the day in order to create unhurried periods of ‘quality’ time elsewhere in their schedule. In effect, short-cuts and compromises in the performance of certain practices are accepted because they allow for the ‘proper’ enactment of others (p.87)

Shove et al examine the importance of time as a tool, a coordinating agent that helps in this process. In a nutshell, it is a vital element of every practice and shapes the interactions between practices (and also practitioners). They move on to explore the change from static ‘clock-time’ to a more flexible ‘mobile-time’. Their argument is essentially that our adoption of mobile communication technologies (i.e. smart phones) is giving us a more fluid relationship with time because we can now call people on the fly to tell them that we are running late.

However some commentators are interested in the ways in which mobile messaging (texting, phoning, mobile emailing) influences synchronous cross-referencing between practices (p.88)

I’ll accept that mobile communication is changing the way we live but I’m not convinced that it is having the impact on practices that the authors suggest. Letting someone know that you’re running late particularly doesn’t change what is to be done, it just pushes it back. Perhaps letting someone know of a change of venue has more impact, in that it would allow a practice that might not otherwise have occurred to do so, but this doesn’t strike me as something that would happen regularly enough to change our concepts of time or practice.

The authors express this somewhat more eloquently than I:

But is this of further significance for the ways in which practices shape each other? For example, does the possibility of instant adjustment increase the range of practices in which many people are involved? Does real-time coordination generate more or less leeway in the timing and sequencing of what people do? Are patterns of inattention and disengagement changing as practices are dropped or cut short in response to news that something else is going on? Equally, are novel practices developing as a result? In thinking about these questions it is important to consider how technologies of ‘micro’-coordination relate to those that operate on a global scale (p.89)

Another significant idea that this generated for me was that the things that we do shape our world because we design and modify our world to suit the things that we do. This then may change our ability to do those things and we enter a cycle where practice shapes environment shapes practice etc.

Or as the authors put it:

we have shown that moments of performance reproduce and reflect qualities of spacing and timing, some proximate, some remote. It is in this sense that individual practices ‘make’ the environments that others inhabit (p.89)

I guess then, the real question is how we as TEL edvisors can make this work for us.

Cross-referencing practices-as-entities

This is the section that lost me a little but parts made sense. It’s something to do with the way that separate practices might be aggregated as part of a larger issue – such as eating and exercise both sit within this issue of obesity. Clearly obesity isn’t a practice but it does encompass both of these practices and creates linkages that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be there. This happens in part by tying in monitoring and creating a discourse/meaning attached to them all.

The authors refer to this combination of the discourse and the monitoring via measurement technologies as “epistemic objects, in terms of which practices are conjoined and associated, one to another” (p.92). (And arguably monitoring and discourse create their own cyclical relationship)

They move on to expand the significance of the elements of a practice (material, competence and meaning),

this time viewing them as instruments of coordination. In their role as aggregators, accumulators, relays and vehicles, elements are more than necessary building blocks: they are also relevant for the manner in which practices relate to each other and for how these relations change over time. (p.92)

Writing and reading – as competences rather than practices I guess – occupy a vital space here in terms of the ways that they are vital in the dissemination of practices, meanings and techniques.

They discuss two competing ideas by other scholars in the field (Law and Latour) that posit that either practices need elements to remain stable for significant periods of time to allow practices to become entrenched or that they benefit from changes in the elements that enable practices to evolve. I don’t actually think that these positions are mutually exclusive.

Other thoughts

I jotted down a number of stray thoughts as I read this chapter that don’t necessarily tie to specific sections, so I’ll just share them as is.

Is a technology a material or does it also carry meanings and competences?

Does research culture/practice negatively impact teaching practice? Isolated and competitive – essentially the antithesis of a good teaching culture.

Does imposter syndrome (in H.E. specifically) inhibit teachers from being monitored/observed for feedback? Does rewarding only teaching excellence inhibit academic professional development in teaching because it stops people from admitting that they could use help. Are teaching excellence awards a hangover from a research culture that is highly competitive?
What if we could offer academics opportunities to anonymously and invisibly self assess their teaching and online course design? 

Is Digigogy (digital pedagogy) the ‘wicked problem’ that I’m trying to resolve in my research – in the same way that ‘obesity’ is an aggregator for exercise and eating as practices? I do like ‘digigogy’ as an umbrella term for TEL practices.

Where do TEL edvisors sit in the ‘monitoring’ space of TEL practices?

This ‘epistemic objects – cycle of monitoring/feedback and discourse’ is probably going to play a part in my research somehow. Maybe in CoPs.

So what am I taking away from this?

I guess it’s mainly that there are a lot of different ways in which practices (and performances of practices) are connected which impact on how the evolve and spread. Monitoring and feedback – particularly when it is baked into the practice – is a big deal. The whole mobile time thing feels like an interesting diversion but the place of technology (and what exactly it is in practice element terms) will be a factor, given that I’m looking at Tech Enhanced Learning. (To be honest though, I think I’m really looking at Tech Enhanced Teaching)

In specific terms, it seems more and more like what I need to do is break down all of the individual tasks/activities that make up the practice of ‘teaching’ – or Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching – and find the cross-over points with the activities that make up the practice of a TEL edvisor. I think there is also merit in looking at the competition between the practices of research for academics and teaching, which impacts their practice in significant ways.

On now to Chapter 7, where the authors promise to bring all the ideas together. Looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: National Students as Partners Roundtable 2016

I was recently invited by @UQKelly – Kelly Matthews of the University of Queensland – to attend the National Students as Partners Roundtable on a glorious Brisbane Spring day. (For which I am grateful almost as much for the chance to escape a particularly bleak Canberra day as for the exposure to some interesting ideas and wonderful people working in this space). This isn’t an area that I’ve had much to do with and I was invited to bring a critical friend/outsider perspective to proceedings as much as anything.

Students as Partners (which I’ll shorten to SaP because I’ll be saying it a lot) more than anything represents a philosophical shift in our approach to Higher Education, it doesn’t seem like too great a stretch to suggest that it almost has political undertones. These aren’t overt or necessarily conventional Left vs Right politics but more of a push-back against a consumerist approach to education that sees students as passive recipients in favour of the development of a wider community of scholarship that sees students as active co-constructors of their learning.

It involves having genuine input from students in a range of aspects of university life, from assessment design to course and programme design and even aspects of university governance and policy. SaP is described as more of a process than a product – which is probably the first place that it bumps up against the more managerialist model. How do you attach a KPI to SaP engagement? What are the measurable outcomes in a change of culture?

The event itself walked the walk. Attendance was an even mixture of professional education advisor staff and academics  and I’d say around 40% students. Students also featured prominently as speakers though academics did still tend to take more of the time as they had perhaps more to say in terms of underlying theory and describing implementations. I’m not positive but I think that this event was academic initiated and I’m curious what a student initiated and owned event might have looked like. None of this is to downplay the valuable contributions of the students, it’s more of an observation perhaps about the unavoidable power dynamics in a situation such as this.

From what I can see, while these projects are about breaking down barriers, they often tend to be initiated by academics – presumably because students might struggle to get traction in implementing change of this kind without their support and students might not feel that they have the right to ask. Clearly many students feel comfortable raising complaints with their lecturers about specific issues in their courses but suggesting a formalised process for change and enhancements is much bigger step to take.

The benefits of an SaP approach are many and varied. It can help students to better understand what they are doing and what they should be doing in Higher Education. It can give them new insights into how H.E. works (be careful what you wish for) and help to humanise both the institution and the teachers. SaP offers contribution over participation and can lead to greater engagement and the design of better assessment. After all, students will generally have more of a whole of program/degree perspective than most of their lecturers and a greater understanding of what they want to get out of their studies. (The question of whether this is the same as what they need to get out of their studies is not one to ignore however and I’ll come back to this). For the students that are less engaged in this process, at the very least the extra time spent discussing their assessments will help them to understand the assessments better. A final benefit of actively participating in the SaP process for students is the extra skills that they might develop. Mick Healey developed this map of different facets of teaching and learning that it enables students to engage with. A suggestion was made that this could be mapped to more tangible general workplace skills, which I think has some merit.

ct96sklusai7k6v

As with all things, there are also risks in SaP that should be considered. How do we know that the students that participate in the process are representative? Several of the students present came from student politics, which doesn’t diminish their interest or contribution but I’d say that it’s reasonable to note that they are probably more self-motivated and also driven by a range of factors than some of their peers. When advocating for a particular approach in the classroom or assessment, will they unconsciously lean towards something that works best for them? (Which everyone does at some level in life).  Will their expectations or timelines be practical? Another big question is what happens when students engage in the process but then have their contributions rejected – might this contribute to disillusionment and disengagement? (Presumably not if the process is managed well but people are complicated and there are many sensitivities in Higher Ed)

To return to my earlier point, while students might know what they want in teaching and learning, is it always what they need? Higher Ed can be a significant change from secondary education, with new freedoms and responsibility and new approaches to scholarship. Many students (and some academics) aren’t trained in pedagogy and don’t always know why some teaching approaches are valuable or what options are on the table. From a teaching perspective, questions of resistance from the university and extra time and effort being spent for unknown and unknowable outcomes should also be considered. None of these issues are insurmountable but need to be considered in planning to implement this approach.

Implementation was perhaps my biggest question when I came along to the Roundtable. How does this work in practice and what are the pitfalls to look out for. Fortunately there was a lot of experience in the room and some rich discussion about a range of projects that have been run at UQ, UTS, Deakin, UoW and other universities. At UoW, all education development grants must now include a SaP component. In terms of getting started, it can be worth looking at the practices that are already in place and what the next phase might be. Most if not all universities have some form of student evaluation survey. (This survey is, interestingly, an important part of the student/teacher power dynamic, with teachers giving students impactful  marks on assessments and students reciprocating with course evaluations, which are taken very seriously by universities, particularly when they are bad).

A range of suggestions and observations for SaP implementations were offered, including:

  • Trust is vital, keep your promises
  • Different attitudes towards students as emerging professionals exist in different disciplines – implementing SaP in Law was challenging because content is more prescribed
  • Try to avoid discussing SaP in ‘teacher-speak’ too much – use accessible, jargon-free language
  • Uni policies will mean that some things are non negotiable
  • Starting a discussion by focusing on what is working well and why is a good way to build trust that makes discussion of problems easier
  • Ask the question of your students – what are you doing to maximise your learning

These images showcase a few more tips and a process for negotiated assessment.

students as partners tips negotiated assessment process

There was a lot of energy and good will in the room as we discussed ideas and issues with SaP. The room was set up with a dozen large round tables holding 8-10 people each and there were frequent breaks for table discussions during the morning and then a series of ‘world cafe’ style discussions at tables in the afternoon. On a few occasions I was mindful that some teachers at the tables got slightly carried away in discussing what students want when there were actual, real students sitting relatively quietly at the same table, so I did what I could to ask the students themselves to share their thoughts on the matters. On the whole I felt a small degree of scepticism from some of the students present about the reality vs the ideology of the movement. Catching a taxi to the airport with a group of students afterwards was enlightening – they were in favour of SaP overall but wondered how supportive university executives truly were and how far they would let it go. One quote that stayed with me during the day as Eimear Enright  shared her experiences was a cheeky comment she’d had from one of her students – “Miss, what are you going to be doing while we’re doing your job”

On the whole, I think that a Students as Partners approach to education has a lot to offer and it certainly aligns with my own views on transparency and inclusion in Higher Ed. I think there are still quite a few questions to be answered in terms of whether it is adequately representative and how much weighting the views of students (who are not trained either in the discipline or in education) should have. Clearly a reasonable amount but students study because they don’t know things and, particularly with undergraduate students, they don’t necessarily want to know what’s behind the curtain. The only way to resolve these questions is by putting things into practice and the work that is being done in this space is being done particularly well.

For a few extra resources, you might find these interesting.

International Journal for Students as Partners – https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/ijsap 

Students as Partners Australia network – http://itali.uq.edu.au/content/join-network 

Student voice as risky praxis: democratising physical education teacher education

UTS Student voice in university decision making

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Teaching online (in Teaching thinking: Beliefs and knowledge in Higher Education) (Goodyear, P. 2002)

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

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?…

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

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.

 

Research update #7 New topic, academic development, continuity and change

According to my frequently revised project plan for my thesis proposal, I should now move on to my next topic for exploration, which was initially the University as Organisation but based on recent readings and discussions, it makes more sense to shift across to academics/teachers.

While I still feel that I haven’t read enough – but am assured that this feeling never goes away – I think it’s time to write up what I have found in the literature so far, understanding that this is the first of many drafts. Because I’ve been feeling that I’m not reading enough – or quickly enough – I got five more papers relating to academic development with the intention of skim reading them to identify core ideas and see which ones I should come back to in greater depth. I dedicated a 25 min pomodoro to each paper which generally included note taking.

I think I’ll actually put these into a separate post but my main outcome was that my understanding of the term “academic developer” and academic development seems to differ somewhat from the community. To be honest, I’ve not really given the different terms a lot of thought, assuming that as a nascent field, eLearning is yet to settle on broadly accepted language for people in education support roles and education designer / learning technologist / academic developer are all fairly interchangeable. As it turns out, an academic developer actually develops academics – which is to say, provides training and advice in teaching and learning to lecturers. There was little assumption in the literature that they have anything to do with making things, building course resources or taking a larger view of education technology. (Well, that’s an oversimplification)

In conjunction with a presentation from the always astute Professor Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong) at a local teaching and learning day on Monday, where she made a strong point that academics/teachers need to own education design rather than being “designed at” by education support types, I’ve realised that much of my focus over the last month or two has been from the education support perspective (with a lengthy detour into academic / professional divide territory) and shifting my frame to teachers makes a lot of sense.

In broad terms, I’m well aware that there are a great many factors at play in the success of TELT practices in Higher Ed – I’ve not even gone near the pedagogy, theory or material aspects yet – but I guess my personal experiences have led me to a point where the key seems to be the human elements. We can create the optimal environment with the most supportive conditions for success in the world, but if the people (university managers, academics, students and professionals) don’t engage or even actively resist (for a host of not always rational reasons), very little will be achieved. For me, it seems that understanding why people hold the attitudes that they do and what the best approaches are to work with these offers the greatest chance of successful change.

The question of change itself is an interesting one – it’s basically assumed that this is needed and desirable, presumably because we are in the middle of an incredible period of change (information revolution etc). The missing part of this discussion I suggest is looking at how we can support and disseminate (and strengthen I guess, which is a milder form of change) the practices that are successful already. Continuity and change, to borrow a cheeky political term. Everyone seems so fixated on on change that they forget that not everything is terrible. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for this in the literature as I go.

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

 

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: 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 🙂