Category Archives: organisation

Research update #23 – The ‘troublemaker’

I went to a cross institute training thing last week and for some reason we did an icebreaker exercise where we had to introduce the person that we were sitting next to to the room.

I was sitting with a long-time colleague from the central IT unit, who said that he was going to introduce me as a ‘troublemaker’. At first I laughed and suggested that ‘disruptor’ is probably a better term. I won’t deny for a second that I care about what we do and how we do it as a university and I will ask challenging questions and push for change where I think it’s necessary. I certainly don’t buy into the logical fallacy of appeal to authority as a source of all wisdom.

He did say that he appreciated the fact that I was reasonable and put forward logical arguments in my advocacy. He said it was also appreciated that I wasn’t overly demanding and didn’t constantly hassle the IT team. This just made me wonder if this wasn’t why I generally don’t feel like I’m actually achieving much of what I set out to in my dealings with the central teams. Maybe I need to be less reasonable and more persistent.

The fact that I’m considered to be a ‘troublemaker’ rather than an engaged participant in the system suggests to me that our system is flawed, particularly in terms of the relationships between the central units that ‘own’ the systems and people in the college teams that work the most closely with the people that the systems are intended for – well, the teaching side of this at least. This isn’t to say that the central units don’t work with teachers and students but it’s rarely a long term relationship. For all the talk of cooperation and collaboration, the communications and governance structures are very much set up in such a way that the central units dictate the conversation and the policy directions – and I’ve been told directly by them that they don’t exist to serve the needs of the teachers and learners, they exist to serve the university executive.

Fortunately this reinforces a discussion that I had with my supervisor Peter last week, where I mentioned once again that I feel like the work that I’ve been doing and the things that I’ve been reading are all heavily oriented to ideas around how H.E. institutions work and particularly in relation to TEL edvisors / Third Space TEL workers. I feel that this is an important part of the question (what can TEL workers do to better support TEL practices in H.E) but it’s far from all that I want to cover. That said though, the broad vision that I have – what do TEL workers do, how do they sit in the organisation, what do teachers do, what are the overlaps that create opportunities for better collaboration – is probably far too large to do justice to in a thesis. Peter suggested that a solid mapping of how different TEL support units in Australian institutions work could grow to be a significant piece of work in itself. I think this still lets me explore what TEL edvisors/works are and do, so maybe this is enough. I’m sure there’s also a decent discussion to be had about how different universities create opportunities to support TEL practices by the ways that they structure their support teams. All of this seems a little removed from teaching and learning per se to me – considering that it’s a PhD in Education – and almost more tied to organisational/management type ideas. Maybe it’s just broadly sociological or anthropological or something.

Anyway, it’s given me more to think about and should make it easier to dive into the literature once more.

On a side note, I came across an article about some anthropological research into why professors don’t adopt innovative teaching methods – which was kind of the initial premise of my research – and, surprise, it’s at least partially to do with not looking foolish in front of their students. (Which I’ve suspected for some time – my reasoning being that one’s capital in a university is one’s intelligence and looking like you don’t know something appears to be regarded as a cardinal sin. Which is crazy because it’s impossible to know everything – particularly when it’s not your discipline – and admitting this (and trying to rectify it) is clearly an indicator of intelligence. Anyway, it’s well worth a read – I do wish they’d cited the actual research though. (I also recognise that it’s a more nuanced issue than I’ve painted)

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/06/anthropologist-studies-why-professors-dont-adopt-innovative-teaching-methods 

 

Thoughts on: Responding to university policies and initiatives: the role of reflexivity in the mid-career academic (Brew, Boud, Lucas & Crawford, 2017)

Is academia a workplace like any other? Going by the normalisation of academic staff attitudes towards organisational policies and initiatives displayed in this paper, it’s hard to believe so. As a professional staff member in a H.E institution it’s kind of fascinating to see a discussion of ignoring policy and procedures treated as a norm that management needs to work harder to mitigate – ideally by offering the staff greater incentives to comply. Maybe we also see it in the higher levels of the entertainment industry, where top stars are feted to keep the show running. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, is academia showbiz for clever people?

Brew, Boud et al explore these attitudes using the lens of Archer’s modes of reflexivity (2007) to try to better understand how mid-career academics’ preferences for reflecting on and responding to the world help to define the way they respond to policies and initiatives in their institutions. This is an interesting angle to take, particularly as they are able to use it to formulate some potential actions that management can take in the formulation of these policies etc to get greater buy in. The authors interviewed a diverse set of 27 mid-career (5-10 years experience) academics in research intensive universities in the UK and Australia and categorised their responses to policies/initiatives as aligning with one of the following four modes of reflexivity:

Communicative reflexivity: exhibited in people whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in courses of action

Autonomous reflexivity: exhibited in those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action

Meta-reflexivity: characterised by internal conversations critical of one’s own internal conversations and on the look-out for difference in the social world around them

Fractured reflexivity: internal conversations intensify distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action (p.3)

A question that concerned me throughout however – and it was acknowledged at the end by the authors – was whether the authors identified these people as having one of these orientations before seeing if their attitudes or actions matched them. They did not – instead they mapped the individuals to these modes based on their attitudes and actions and accept that this is a relatively subjective approach to have taken. In the case of several participants, they even found that different things that they said in the course of their interview aligned to most or all of the four modes. As a series of signposts however, these modes generally appear to have stood up to scrutiny and reasonably reflect the set of different responses taken by the academics.

Some choice examples, including some transcripts:

A change that affected Shaun was degree accreditation by a professional body. This was deemed necessary to ensure continued student applications. His courses did not address the competencies needed in the degree. The consequence of this was that his teaching was taken away… Shaun describes this as a critical incident in his career:

[It was a] slap in the face, because an external accrediting body didn’t think my knowledge area was necessary to produce this… degree, as opposed to a university standing up and going, well no the tail doesn’t wag the dog, this is what we think is important to become a university graduate and that should inform what becomes a practitioner (Shaun, Aus, HS, SL, M, L.344-352) (P.5-6)

And this:

William refers to ‘red tape’ that surrounds teaching describing initiatives requiring writing learning outcomes and conforming to graduate outcome statements as ‘a fashion, a fad’ (L.257)

And Shaun again:

there are some faculty research priorities… which were suggested as being pillars that we had to try and perform under. I couldn’t tell you what they are, I haven’t paid attention to them because I remember looking at them and going, my area doesn’t fit under them. (p.8)

Now of course I’ve taken the more dramatic examples but there are many more that broadly paint a picture indicating that the academics in the study take a fairly self-centric viewpoint and few give much thought to bigger picture issues and needs in the institution. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also many instances of mystifying and seemingly counterproductive policies and procedures being put into place and the authors suggest that some academics would be better engaged if these were explained/justified more effectively.

Sensitivity to the ways in which those demonstrating communicative reflexivity work to maintain the status quo and the difficulties they appear to have in responding to change would suggest that attention needs to be paid to providing academics with thorough rationales for policy changes and that opportunities for these to be debated need to be provided. How such policies fit in with and/or enhance existing practice need careful consideration if they are to be implemented successfully. (p.11)

These people and those people who engage in meta-critical reflexivity, where they are able and willing to question their own internal conversations appear to be the easiest to work with in this space.

the people whose mode of reflexivity is meta-reflexivity could be the most helpful in policy implementation as their focus is likely to be on the smooth and equitable functioning of the university community as a whole. Harnessing the critical capacities of such academics and their concern for their fellow workers can be a useful asset for sensitive managers concerned to implement new initiatives (p.11)

When dealing with the autonomous reflexives, those people who – to paraphrase – pretty much just do whatever they feel is right – things get harder. (There is certainly never any question of entertaining the prospect that this behaviour is flawed)

for academics demonstrating autonomous reflexivity, teaching and learning policies are likely to pose the greatest challenges particularly if they are seen to take time away from research. For successful implementation, such people are likely to need incentives in terms of furthering their careers. (p.11)

The authors appear to largely give up on working with the final category, the fractured reflexives, those who struggle to deal with change at all

Academics whose mode of fractured reflexivity makes them unable to move forward may need professional counselling (p.11)

As a professional staff member – I would’ve said non-academic but have a particular dislike of defining things by what they are not – these descriptions do all ring true and something that I’ve been keenly aware of since I started this research (and long before, really) is that the question of culture in academia is a massive factor in the success or failure of innovation and change. In some ways this hangs on the question of whether academia is just another job – I’d be surprised to find anyone inside who would agree with that idea and maybe they’re right but maybe we also need to find a middle ground which recognises that complete autonomy and/or academic freedom simply isn’t a realistic expectation in the modern age – perhaps unless you’re working for and by yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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 🙂

 

 

 

 

Quick thoughts on: 10 Principles of Organization Design, Sethi et al

With the new month, I’ve moved into the project plans that I’ve designed for my research and some new ways of working. One of these is writing and reading more quickly with a focus on a particular theme.

This month the theme is the university as an organisation. It seems valuable to begin by thinking about the space that TELT happens in and how it works at a macro level, with a particular focus on change.

So I’ve started in a not particularly academic space with a blogpost about 10 principles of organization design from Strategy-business.com – looking at things to consider in a restructure. (One of the authors is a partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers, so, not small fry in this field)

The first question to mind is how relevant this is to higher education, given that it is more about large corporations and there are variations in cultures and motivations. We’re still talking about large, complex organisations though so I feel there are a few valuable ideas and at least one contradicts my current views, which is always a healthy place to start.

Getting caught up in previous practice is often a trap in a renewal process, so the authors’ first point is to “declare amnesty for the past“. Accept that what was done, was done and refocus on what is needed and the best ways to do it. This dovetails nicely into a point that I struggle with but am considering, which is to “benchmark sparingly, if at all“. Their point is that competitors might have radically different strategies and it is hard to say whether it is even a good one. This may not apply to Higher Ed but up until this point I’ve been concerned that universities tend to be too introspective and having a greater understanding of the environment could only be healthy. Definitely food for thought either way.

Promote accountability” – without micromanaging people seems fairly obvious but is worth emphasising and they make an interesting final point about “accentuate the informal“. This refers more to the fact that “norms, commitments, mind-set and networks are essential in getting things done” and these are rarely formalised in the same way that org-charts are. Finding ways to support these elements that tend to be generated from the bottom-up in response to immediate needs can help to support formal structures.

So, as I say, this is probably tangential in some ways to my research question – how to support TELT practices in Higher Ed – and it is probably also more about looking for solutions than fleshing out the questions and issues but the ideas are interesting all the same.

 

Research update

This blog post will probably be of interest to maybe five other people (including my Mum) but it’s part of a process that I’ve decided on for tracking what I’m doing and maintaining some accountability, so here we are. It’s kind of the beauty of blogging – the whole “long tail” thing – that ultra-niche voices can still have a platform. (And in defense of my own posts, this will be far from the least coherent post that I have read this week)

So in my last post I mentioned that I’m putting processes and systems in place to help me work better on my PhD. (Well, my PhD proposal I should say – this has to be approved before I actually embark on the proper research itself). As I’ve mentioned, my topic is currently very broad but I expect that over the next year it will come into a much sharper focus. The absence of deadlines however has meant that I’ve felt that I’ve been drifting from one shiny topic to the next. People keep telling me that this is by far the best stage of a PhD and that this opportunity will probably never come again but there are still things that I need to get done in this time and having a clearer vision of what they are and when they should be done soothes my soul.

project plan screenshotMuch of what I’ve done is create an increasingly granular series of tasks and put them in 3 different tools – the Excel project plan, Wunderlist and Trello. In essence they are all glorified to-do lists but with varying functionality, including attaching teams/people, documents, calender items and integrating them with other productivity systems like Slack.

Managing all three seems a little like triple handling but the spreadsheet should be mainly just about denoting progress now and I like the whole-year perspective that it offers. IFTTT lets me automatically create Wunderlist tasks when I add them to a Trello card so this should also simplify matters.

TrelloScreenshot

(That’s Trello – it looks pretty plain at the moment but has given me a much needed roadmap for the different topic areas that I plan to investigate month by month)

The July topic – Universities as organisations – aligns well with both a (workplace) university strategic review as well as an upcoming ACODE University Benchmarking event that I’m hoping will offer some tangible insights into the ‘state of the actual’ in TELT practices. It also ties to the ongoing discussion/review process that I’ve been leading of ed tech and TELT in my university and the associated governance structures. (The powers that be are expecting a report with some recommendations in early August.)

wunderlist screenshot

The overall to-do list has gotten a little smaller -for now – though it needs updating and there are some ongoing tasks tied to digitising the myriad handwritten ideas and questions that come to me pretty much day and night now.

All this aside, it’s still hard not to feel that I haven’t made a lot of progress in the last few weeks – I guess it would be more accurate to say I haven’t made as much progress as I would’ve liked in terms of reading and writing things but I feel far more ready to do this in a more effective and productive way now.

On a day to day level though, the reading that I’ve been doing and the ideas that I’m starting to synthesise are really starting to feed into my professional practice and are giving me more confidence in the decisions and plans that I’m putting forward.

So let’s see how that goes.

Making a PhD plan

One of the greatest challenges of my chosen research topic (how universities can support tech enhanced learning and teaching practices) is the sheer breadth of it. Obviously this focus will narrow in time but at the moment it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, even when I get into an interesting sub-branch.

As a result, I’ve been pretty good at gathering resources to read later and dipping into a few papers that seem particularly relevant to my work-work in the here and now. Overall however it is a very scattered approach and while some projects at work-work are helping to give me a hands on view of some of the real issues and factors that act as barriers to TELT practices in Higher Ed (so many barriers, so many dumb, needless barriers), I am keenly aware that I’m drifting a little and need to be looking more through the frame of the research proposal in the first instance.

So I spent the weekend organising my thoughts, setting some priorities and starting a plan. (I do really hope that this isn’t just a more advanced form of procrastination – it feels more than that at the very least.) I’ve been drawing my approach partially from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, which is in some ways a fancy process for making to do lists but with a little more forethought. It encourages a very large scale gathering process to begin with, capturing all of the small tasks (and larger projects which are made of many small tasks) and ideas and putting them into categories in an active storage system that you trust. (I’m using Wunderlist which I like for the interface, cross-platformness, the ability to create collections of lists and integration with browsers.

wunderlist screenshot

I’ve got tasks organised by to do today/this weekend/this week/this month as well as in a range of contextual categories. I’ve tried to estimate the time each task will take to give me a sense of how long I need to allow to get it done. I’ve ordered them to set priorities (and because some tasks are contingent on other ones).

Now it’s just a matter of doing them.

Probably the biggest thing I’d like to do is to identify 6 (or so) key topic areas to spend a month each focussing on. These may well change over time but at least it will give some much needed direction.

Writing more regular blog posts about my progress is also another must – trying to keep myself honest.