Category Archives: higher education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons to use ePortfolios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ePortfolios framework Holt et al 2016

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

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

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

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

scrawled notes

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Glad to see this acknowledged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student need to learn how to e-Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outcomes

Proposed elearning strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research update: needing to reorganise Scrivener

I’m feeling more back on track with my PhD proposal literature reading and idea synthesising than I have for a little while but I don’t feel much closer to understanding exactly what I want to do yet. The closest I can come to it is that I want to identify the things in H.E that get in the way of people adopting TELT practices (that actually improve teaching and learning, not that are simply ‘innovative’) and find practical, implementable strategies to overcome them. I feel as though there is more than enough research out there about what these effective TELT practices are, I’m happy to take it as a given that TELT can help, and so I’m left wondering which sector of ‘education’ I’m looking at.

Is this in fact more about organisations and management and how things run? I have a feeling that it’s bigger than this which is why I still have technology and TELT pedagogy as standalone areas of investigation on the roadmap (as well as students, unis as organisations and TELT support strategies). One thing that I thought about as I was reading the Bennett et al (2016) paper was the fact that it didn’t include the impact of other academic activities (e.g preparing research grants) on the practical design process. This wasn’t the focus of the paper, obviously but the more I look at TELT in Higher Ed., the more inextricably intertwined and complex it all seems. (I’m mindful that I need to remember the advice here that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize)

I’m hoping that better organising my ideas in Scrivener might help me out. At the moment, it’s just a place where I have copy/pasted virtually everything that I’ve been finding in the many folders and subfolders and pages and subpages that make it a beautiful tool. Using Scrivener to work on an application to upgrade my HEA fellowship helped me to see for the first time what a powerful writing tool it can be, in that it effortlessly supports a writing style that jumps all over the place as ideas form. So my focus this weekend is to try to tame this beast – and may God have mercy on my soul.

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Research update #9: What have I learnt

Rather than fretting about what I haven’t been doing cough#reading the literature#cough, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve been doing instead, because it’s not like I’ve been lazing by the pool. I’ve been doing things that (I hope) will inform my research by giving me a bigger picture view of education and Higher Ed.

I went to the ePortforum for a couple of days – chatted with people using ePortfolios, learnt about what they’ve been doing, how social constructivism aligns with ePortfolios (quite well really), considered what the best applications for ePortfolios are (leaning towards competency based education and employability skills), enjoyed glorious Sydney weather and marvellous company, went to Joyce Seitzinger’s always great workshop on learning design principles and chatted to more of my education advisor (EdAd) peers about the value of setting up a Special Interest Group (SIG) through HERDSA

Consulted with EdAd peers on Twitter about the SIG and put an application in to formally run one through HERDSA. (To be completely honest, I’m not 100% certain about whether this is the best approach and what benefits being under this umbrella will bring but doing something seems better than umming and aahing).

Worked for far too long on an application to become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. (Better part of the last three weekends). This involved a lot of critical reflection and writing, describing my philosophy of teaching and coming up with a couple of case studies about leadership and mentoring. These were particularly challenging because my perspective on mentoring is that a reciprocal relationship of equals is a far better approach – fortunately there is a body of literature out there to back this up. Long story short I wrote far more than needed for each section and had to do some brutal editing. I tend to use a lot of qualifiers (there’s one – tend) in my writing but mostly because I like the nuance that they bring. As it turns out, I hadn’t quite grasped (to be generous) exactly what was needed for the case studies and have been advised that an application for a level down (Fellow) is far more likely to succeed. As the first professional staff member to apply to become a Senior Fellow, this is a shame but I’ve also spent more time on the application than I’d expected and I truly need to get back into “proper” study/research. I’ve also been told by the big cheese in the process that he will advise me on my SFHEA application in the new year. It was nice -though taxing – to get stuck into some writing.

I’ve also been working on an infrastructure project which seems to be coming along – well actually two at the same time. (Kind of the same thing in two different locations with different stakeholders though, so that helps). It’s a One Button Studio – essentially a video booth with present lighting, sound, camera, backdrop – all a presenter needs to do is plug in their USB drive and hit “the button” to start recording a reasonable quality video. Learning a lot about the range of stakeholders and moving parts – there is construction to be done, cabling, contractors, sound analysis, hardware purchasing, security, questions of who owns which spaces and how we get into them, internal politics, support arrangements, questions about how sophisticated to go (as simple as possible) and somewhere in there user requirements. It does let me bang on a little about sociomaterial theory however and affordances.

STELLAR wrapped up – in some ways it kind of limped to the finish line with maybe 4 still active participants at the end but lots of valuable feedback and ideas for the next iteration. Pokemon Go has actually been giving me some inspiration – the random way that mini-challenges (catch a Pokemon with a randomised level of difficulty) pop up on a semi-regular basis has made me think about ways to release single question quizzes in Moodle on a timer of some description and some kind of rewards system for “collecting” different kinds. (That part is far more in the abstract so far)

I was also very kindly sent up to Brisvegas for a flying visit to the Students As Partners conference, in exchange for my outsider perspective via tweets (tick, done) and a blog post (coming soon, I swear). First impressions are that this is a potentially rewarding and enriching process that democratises education. There are a few core questions to be dealt with – how to ensure that student involvement is representative and beneficial and how much can/do students really know about what they need to learn? The event itself was run spectacularly well with a lot of student involvement and a very dynamic mixture of tag-teaming presenters, frequent discussion (at tables) breaks and a ‘world cafe’ approach in the afternoon. As I say, more on this soon.

I also put a proposal together to present at MoodlePosium which may or not have been conveniently copy-pasted from my HEA application in the spirit of reusable learning objects and also wrote up a strong enough argument to get to go to ASCILITE at the end of November.

On a more prosaic note, I reinstalled Windows 10 on my workhorse because it had developed a worrying habit of crashing on shutdown and some restart glitches and I assume most of you know how time-consuming that process can be, not the reinstall as much as tracking down all the software I had installed and serials and updates and whatnot.

Now I’m taking a week off work to get back to reading and reflecting and the research literature and oh dear I just thought about how cranky my project plan is going to be with me. I’m sorry planny, we can work this out – please don’t give up on me yet.

Also all the day to day work stuff and trying to help come up with practical and satisfactory approaches to satisfy stricter new national reporting requirements for Higher Education that are coming up in the new year, as well as keeping an eye on major education projects in the college that I haven’t been asked for help on with yet

Oh and also finalising the governance documents and proposals for the TEL/Online learning groups that I’m on at work that went to the executive last week. Of which there has been zero reporting back from the representatives that went to the meeting. I could chase it up but I’m trying hard to not look at workmail this week, so it can wait. Probably.

STELLAR : A project to gamify academic professional development

stellar logo

One constant in my experience as an education support person over 13 years is that generating excitement about professional development activities relating to teaching and learning can be a challenge. I don’t think this is because teachers aren’t interested in their teaching practice or that they believe that there is nothing more to know (well, in most cases), it’s often just another activity competing for scarce time. Calculations have to be made about the effort vs the reward and often the reward simply isn’t sufficient unless it has been mandated in some way (or offers some kind of formal accreditation – or sandwiches and cake)

Gamification (if you don’t already know) is the practice of using game elements (rules, competition, challenges, winning, points, prizes, badges etc) to motivate behaviour in non-game contexts. It’s been used in commerce for decades (consider frequent flyer programs where you earn points towards rewards and level up to better perks) and it has been explored actively in education for about a decade. (This is separate in some ways to the use of play and games in education, which arguably has been happening for as long as we have had education)

I’ve had an interest in game based learning and gamification for a while now – my previous blog was called Gamerlearner and this is still my “brand” in educational social media. (I switched over to Screenface to be able to focus on wider TELT issues).

I’ve been conscious of the fact that while I’ve been doing pretty good work in supporting TELT in my college, there hasn’t been as much happening in the professional development / academic development space as I would’ve liked. (As a one man team, I’m not going to be too hard on myself about this but it still bugged me).

So a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to our Associate Dean (Education) and launched STELLAR as a pilot. A very very beta-y pilot with a lot of elements really not worked out at all. (This was made clear to participants). The plan is to run the pilot over September and use this experience to design a full scale version to run in Semester 1, 2017. Participants earn points for engaging in a range of professional development activities and the winners get a fancy dinner out.

STELLAR stands for Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, Leadership And Research. To be honest, it’s a slightly clunky backronym designed to work with a stars theme. Because I think people like to be seen as stars, its a nice, easy visual theme and putting stars into teams (which was a goal – even small teams) lets us start talking about constellations. I also like that it means that I get to call myself Starlord in my daily STELLAR emails.

At the half way mark, I’ve got a set of activities in place that academics can use to earn points.
(At some point I want to cluster these to enable collection type activities and rewards. I also plan to map them to Bartle’s player types and a few other things to check that there is a good spread of kinds of activities). These can be found in this Google Doc as well as in a page in the Moodle course that I’m using to house resources, organise groups and track activities.

I’ve been trying to encourage spot activities – e.g. you have 24 hours to upload a scholarly selfie to the Gallery – but so far there hasn’t been much engagement. I’ve been lucky that our central TEL team has been running a “coffee course” over the last week relating to the Flipped Classroom. This involves short learning chunks posted on a blog that take around 10 minutes to complete and include the option to leave a comment. (This idea draws from work by Sarah Thorneycroft at UNE). I’ve been pushing this hard and offering generous points for attending and commenting. I’m happy to say that of the 17 participants in STELLAR, at least six that I know of have signed up and five have been the main posters in the coffee course.

Now that the coffee course is over, I’m mindful of the need to maintain momentum so really have to come up with some further activities to encourage people to engage in. We ran a small (2 people) session on Thursday last week about the new ePortfolio tool that the university has introduced and one of our lecturers that is currently using it was generous enough with her time to share her experiences. Hearing “on the ground” stories from peers makes a huge difference.

In terms of the site itself, I’ve been strongly encouraging team play which requires the use of groups (Constellations) to make the most out of the Moodle functionality. This has been much harder than expected, with most people preferring to play solo. I’ve been asking them to join one person groups and now half of the course is in groups. A major reason for trying to encourage group play (ideally 2-4 max) is to foster greater collaboration and discussion in the schools of the college. I appreciate that academic research can be a very solitary pursuit but teaching doesn’t need to be. For all that I read about Communities of Practice in teaching, the culture in my college just doesn’t seem interested yet – particularly at any kind of scale. (As the old saying goes, our university is 70 schools united by a common parking problem)

I’ve set up a leaderboard which is group based only and also set up visible topics that are only accessible by group members but the hold-outs haven’t budged. (These are also the people that have tended to engage less with the course in these first two weeks – in fairness, this has also been the mid-semester break when a lot of marking is done as well as organising applications for research grants). I’m a little conflicted about what to do with this – I’ve made it clear that if people want to play solo it’s fine but it would help if they were attached to a team. As an admin I can just put them in teams but given that “play is a voluntary activity” (Whitton, 2014, p.113), I’m hesitant to force behaviour. (Which isn’t to say that I’m not using game based strategies – fear of missing out and nagging/feedback – to encourage it)

One lecturer – who generally has been engaging – mentioned to me last week that he wasn’t sure what he is meant to be doing. While I’ve been sending out regular emails, they have perhaps been less succinct than I’d like and more fixated on the set up and mechanics of the game rather than the professional development activities that I’m trying to promote. This is definitely a thing to improve quickly.

I’ve been thinking about the games that I enjoy playing – particularly video games – and there is certainly much more direction given, particularly early on. At the same time, these tend to be much more narratively oriented and I don’t have a story running in STELLAR yet. I toyed with the idea of everyone being astronauts and needing to build their ship by earning points which buy parts etc etc but have serious questions about whether this is going too far off track for people in a college of economics and business.

One thing I would dearly like to achieve is to start building a rich collection of learning resources – including case studies/exemplars of good practice locally and research papers into various topics. Having this created collectively would be a fantastic outcome.

I’ve also been making limited use of the idea of random drops. These are unexpected prizes that a player sporadically wins/gets in video games for no particular reason but the possibility that it might happen is used as a motivator. I got 10 coffee vouchers from our local cafe and have been giving Shooting Star spot prizes when people do something new mostly – first suggestion for an improvement, first addition to the glossary, first person to attend a face to face event etc. This system needs some refinement and will benefit from being less arbitrary. My hope is that by announcing the random drops in the daily emails, it is maintaining interest from the people that haven’t yet won one. Maybe a thing to do will be to highlight that these are being won for being the first to do something.

The scoring system is something of a chore – I’m using the gradebook system in Moodle which has meant creating a separate assessment item for each individual activity that people can participate in. I’m keeping a separate Excel spreadsheet because it’s easier to track (in some ways) and need to manually update both. I’ve asked people to claim points in a discussion forum post but am aware that this is entering an unfun grey area of administrivia. What I really want is for people to be sharing what they’ve done in professional development and sharing their learning with the group and I should find a way to reframe it as such. Or automate it more. I can grade some items that are done in Moodle activities but mostly things have been happening externally that I’m tracking. I’m also fairly conflicted about this tracking – for example, I’ve seen people posting in the coffee course and I’ve been giving them the points that they’ve been earning for this. Many of them haven’t been claiming these points through the forum – at least not after the first day. It’s no secret that I’m also in the coffee course because I’m posting comments there as well but if people are earning points for this kind of activity that I’ve seen them doing, is it a little weird?

Digital badges is something that I’m keen to explore and I’ve created some tied to the random drop prizes but we have massive institutional hurdles with badges and our Moodle instance doesn’t support them yet.

I’ve had several other grand ideas that I simply haven’t had time to implement yet. For the groups/constellations, I’d like to have a star field present that grows as they earn more points/stars. So they begin with just their constellation on a black background but a small star appears when they get 10 points or a new constellation when they complete a cluster of activities. Again, when it is a matter of manual handling, it’s a labour intensive activity.

Anyway, that’s the broad strokes of STELLAR, there are twice as many participants as I was expecting (and this is in a time when many people are away) so I’m quietly pleased with our progress but I’m also well aware that sustaining interest and activity is going to be a challenge when semester resumes on Monday.

More than anything though, it’s nice to finally be walking the walk after talking the talk for such a very long time.

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.

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: 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. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080980200204

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. http://doi.org/10.1080/713678142

Szekeres, J. (2004). The invisible workers. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(1), 7–22. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080042000182500

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)

and

“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.