Category Archives: PhD

Research update #17: Making connections, learning from others

I’ll write a fuller post on this but I’ve recently helped launch a SIG (special interest group) for TEL edvisors through ASCILITE. I have a lot of different reasons for doing this, chief amongst them is the fact that there are a lot of incredibly smart and talented people working in this sector (education designer/developers, learning technologists, academic developers etc) doing fantastic work but it’s largely in isolation.

Given that I’ve chosen to focus my research on this area, because I believe that we can do a lot of good, I do hope that being a part of this community will make my research better and make it more practically useful. (I get that a PhD is a research apprenticeship but the thought of spending years working on something that is then only read by 3 people and buried deep in a library really scares me, particularly when I don’t know that further post-doc research is the direction I want to take afterwards. It might be, I just don’t know)

Anyway, a lot of the last month has centred around kicking the SIG (I prefer network) into gear. We held our first monthly webinar last week, with a great discussion about minimum standards for online course design (to put it in overly simple terms) and had three contributors – Lynnae Venaruzzo from Western Sydney Uni, Leanne Ngo from Deakin and our own Kate Mitchell (one of the co-founders and organisers of the network) from LaTrobe sharing their work and ideas.

Between this and the usual busyness of the start of a semester, there wasn’t as much other work on my studies – specifically reading – but I am getting back into it and am happy to have passed the hump of the most complex chapter of the Dynamics of Social Practice Theory book.

I haven’t heard anything from my supervisors and don’t have much to report or discuss just yet, though I feel as though I’m close to being able to write up a post about what I’m hoping to explore that will give us something to discuss. I’m still caught in this dilemma of what to talk about when I meet/Skype with them – I don’t want to ask them what I should do because surely this is for me to work out and I’m a grown-arsed adult. But when I tell them what I’m doing, the response is generally just keep going with a reading suggestion or two. (Reading material I am not short of, though I do need to remember that if I’d followed the advice to explore SPT sooner, I might be further along. Then again, maybe I wasn’t ready for it until I was. )

Next of the list of Pat Thomson’s PhD journalling topics:

How stress affects my ability to get things done.

Not well, really. Not well. Between being told the owner of my house is selling up and discovering that I’m kind of too old (or have too much furniture – seriously, almost every share place now is fully furnished) to share a house any more (I like living in a house and in the inner ‘burbs and it’s cheaper) and also having a close friend waiting on health news, I haven’t been feeling the study love. Progress is being made here though – just signed a lease on a flat, it’ll be my first time living alone, which will be interesting – and I’m slowly getting back on with things. The distance of the finish line makes it easy enough to say “tomorrow” – though there’s still the proposal itself to write and have accepted which is far sooner.

Garbage (sugar) stress eating definitely doesn’t help – it just smashes my ability to concentrate, so taking steps in the right direction there has been a positive move.

So yeah, stress and studying, not great allies. (Surprise)

Research update #16 – Narrowing focus

I had a Skype chat with my supervisor and told Peter about my refined direction shifting the research question to What can TEL edvisors do to better support TELT practices in Higher Education. This moves me along from universities as a whole but still allows me to draw on the relationships between TEL edvisors and different stakeholders in the institution.

I also told Peter that I’ve been reading Shove et al (2012) – The Dynamics of Social Practice – and this seems like a theoretical framework that can underpin my research. I think Shove’s approach to SPT might be a little simplified so I’ll need to explore other takes – Schatzki stands out so far.

I mentioned my work with the TEL edvisor SIG and that it might be a useful source of data. I asked about the ethical issues of this and Peter thinks that it’s ok to gather material that helps me to get a broader understanding of issues but I’ll need ethics clearance to more structured research.

I also floated the idea of using STELLAR in some way, though I don’t really know how just yet and whether is too much of a diversion.

Peter’s had some stuff going on so I hope this is why he doesn’t seem particularly engaged. I think next meeting I might ask him for some broad guidance. I’ve felt that I don’t want to be told what to do (in the sense of being spoon fed) so I tend not to ask him many questions but at the same time, I don’t feel like he volunteers much in the way of feedback or ideas. Maybe it’s that my topic is still far too broad. He certainly doesn’t seem to think that I need to be in any kind of hurry, so maybe I should just take this at face value.

His follow up suggestions were as follows:

The book Ray Land did, based on his PhD research, is
Land, R. (2004). Educational development: discourse, identity and practice. Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press.

The system that Anna Janssen has been working with is called Qstream.

Coming back to my Pat “Patter” Thomson list of things to PhD blog about – let’s try:

Am I too competitive? 


This seems like a very personal and individual journey and so competition seems kind of irrelevant.

This question does make me mindful though of the fact that I am basically disconnected entirely from my Sydney Uni PhD peers (that I shared the PhD proposal workshop with) and I should probably try to plug back into that community. I had been following what was going on through the Slack groups but have refreshed both my work and home computer and haven’t reinstalled that. So this is a thing and it actually seems kind of helpful. (Which is funny because I initially just chose this question because I thought it would be short.)

Research update #15 – Pat Thomson’s tips of journalling your PhD

There are two people that I’ve heard about repeatedly in beginner PhD student circles as goldmines of advice – Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson. I’m lucky enough to work at the same institution as Inger and occasionally get the chance to chat in person but her blog – Thesis Whisperer – also carries a wealth of ideas and experiences from across the scholarsphere that help me to remember that I’m not alone and anything that I’m facing has been overcome by far smarter people than I.

Pat Thomson is regarded just as highly and her blog, Patter, has been just as helpful. She recently posted some suggestions for keeping your own PhD journal/blog/thing that have struck a chord with me. Happy to see that some of them I’ve already touched on but I think I’ll make an effort to work through this list in future updates.

This week I’ll go with

  • Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to…

Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to learn from them, reflect on how (or whether) my actions have contributed to the situation and consider what I need to do to get/keep things moving again. I also need to make a decision about whether I just let go.

I’ve mentioned my ideas and work on STELLAR, a gamified academic professional development program here before – I had planned to run a semester long version this semester (starting mid Feb) but college priorities haven’t aligned and this has now been put on hold. What I’ve learned is that I need to get better at making my case clearly and navigating institutional politics. I’ve also been told directly that academics would find it insulting to be taught how to teach (I think the subtext there was ‘by a professional staff member’) which I don’t 100% accept. While I recognise that some academics have no/little interest in teaching because research is still the source of status in the university, there are plenty who take a scholarly mindset and understand that developing one’s craft in this area is a life-long endeavour. I also need to remember that just because an idea is rationally (and empirically) sound, this isn’t all that is needed to sell it. There is a whole other set of complex emotional factors that sway decision making and simply being (or believing oneself to be) right about something is far from enough.

Coming back to my research, I’ve also been diving into Social Practice Theory and am kind of kicking myself for not taking advice better and pursuing it earlier. I’m not 100% sold on all facets of it yet – there seems to be a lot of discounting of more complex aspects of practice for the sake of making the theoretical model work – but there’s more than enough to be able to use in shaping a framework for what I’m hoping to do. Currently this seems to be talking to a lot of ‘at the coal-face /screenface’ TELT Advisors about what they do in their day to day work. (Oh and in the process of developing a Special Interest Group through ASCILITE for this community, I’m edging towards TEL edvisors as an umbrella name that seems to flow better. This is still up for discussion but it looks better I think.)

My much amended project plan is once more out the window but it is also based on an arbitrary deadline of July/August to get my proposal in.

In a nutshell though, I think I want to narrow focus from what universities can do to support TELT practices to what TEL edvisors do (and can do), which seems like a positive step. Viewing this through a social practice theory / sociomaterial lens helps to focus it a little further too.

Hopefully my supervisor agrees when I chat to him in a week.



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.

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.

Thoughts on: Reflecting or Acting? Reflective practice and continuing professional development in UK Higher Education (Clegg, Tan and Saeidi, 2002)

Clearly one of the key ingredients in enhancing teaching practice is teacher professional development and a vital element of deriving meaning from this is reflective practice.

It is at this point however that we need to be cautious of the evangelisers of reflective practice as a global solution. “Reflecting or Acting? Reflective Practice and Continuing Professional Development in UK Higher Education” by Sue Clegg, Jon Tan and Saeideh Saeidi (2002) takes a methodical look at the use of reflection and notes that current (at the time – not sure how much they have evolved) uses of reflective practice in CPD isn’t suited to all learners and needs to be anchored in actions taken to be particularly meaningful.

Reflective practice is valued for acknowledging “the importance of artistry in teaching” (p.3), which seems even more important in 2016 than it was in 2002 with the rise of big data and analytics in education sometimes seeming determined to quantify and KPI-ify every single facet of teaching and learning. (Can you tell that I’m more of a qual than a quant?)

Clegg et al investigated the use and value of reflective practice amongst academic staff in accredited CPD between 1995-1998. In broad terms (Spoiler alert) they tied it to four types of practices/behaviours that reflected the learning preferences and teaching circumstances of the teachers. These preferences – either for ‘writerly’ reflection or not – and the circumstances (which impacted their ability to act on new teaching knowledge) had a significant part to play on how valuable reflection was to them.

The ‘action’ part is at the core of the question that Clegg et al are pursuing. They draw on Tomlinson (1999) in assuming that “the relationship between reflection and action is transparent with reflection-on-action leading to improvement and change” (p.4). This idea has been of interest to me recently because I’ve been involved with the HEA fellowship scheme at my university which appears to have a different focus, seemingly sans action. (I’ll discuss this further in future posts as engaging Fellows seems as though it is going to be an important part of my ongoing quest/research)

As for the learning preference side of the equation, one of the simultaneous strengths and failings of the widely followed reflective practice approach is the emphasis on a very ‘writerly’ style of reflection. By which the paper refers to Bleakly (2000), who has “argued for greater attention to the form of writing and a greater self-awareness of literary accomplishments of narrating and confessional.” The authors note however that “our data suggested that some practitioners fail to write or only write as a form ex post facto justification for accreditation purposes”. Which, based on the feedback from some of the participants that struggled with the writing element of the task, can be linked in part to the disciplinary orientation of the learners (i.e. quant vs qual backgrounds) and in some cases to gender-role perceptions – “the feminine reflective side as opposed to the more active masculine doing side of practice” (p.18)

These key factors allowed the authors to sort participants into four groups, based on their practices.

  • Immediate action – participants put new ideas into practice directly after the CPD workshops (and before reflection) (more often novice practitioners)
  • Immediate reflection – participants reflected on their own practices directly after CPD workshops (more often experienced practitioners) – they also found less value in the workshops  in terms of new knowledge
  • Deferred action – some participants were unable to act on knowledge gained in workshops due to organisational/time constraints (this limited their ability to reflect on the impact of new knowledge on their new actions/practices)
  • Deferred reflection – largely participants that struggled to engage with the reflection activity in its current format. Many only did it for accreditation purposes so saw little benefit in it.

Clegg et al take pains to emphasise that their research is about starting a conversation about the interrelationship between action and reflection and the need to maintain this link. They don’t draw any other conclusions but I think that even by simply looking at on-the-ground interaction with reflective practice, they have given us something to think about.

Reading this paper sparked a few random ideas for me:

  • Perhaps Design thinking might offer a way to bridge the gap between the ‘teaching as a craft’ and ‘teaching as an empirical science with hard data’ viewpoints by applying a more deliberate and structured way of thinking about pedagogy and course design
  • Are there ways that we can foster writing (and some reflection) as a part of every day ongoing CPD for academics? (Without it being seen as a burden? There probably needs to be a goal/outcome/reward that it leads to)
  • Decoupling reflection from action – particularly when action comes in the forms of making improvements to practice – gives people less to reflect on and might lead to too much navel gazing.
  • A large part of the work being done on reflective practice by one of my colleagues is focusing on the impact that it has on teacher self-efficacy. Tying it to professional recognition boosts confidence which is valuable but is there a risk that this can in turn lead to complacency or even over-estimation of one’s competence?
  • My personal philosophy when it comes to theory and practice is that none will ever hold all of the answers for all of the contexts. I believe that equipping ourselves with a toolbox of theories and practices that can be applied when needed is a more sustainable approach but I’m not sure how to describe this – one term that I’ve considered is multifocal – does this seem valid?
  • One concern that I have about this study is the large number of contextual factors that it tries to accommodate. These include : “how participants understood their activity including reflective practice, their motivations for joining the course, how they made sense of their decisions to complete or not complete, and whether they thought of this as a conscious decision” (p.7) On top of this there was the level at which the CPD was being conducted (novice teachers vs supervisors), disciplinary and gender differences as well as learning preferences. Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge these but it seems like a lot of variables.
  • Reflection shared with peers seems more valuable than simply submitted to assessors.
  • Even when reflective writing is a new, ‘out of character’ approach, it can be seen as valuable even though it can take learners time to ease into it. Supporting some warm up exercises seems like it would be important in this case.
  • It’s worth taking a harder look at exactly what forms meaningful reflections might take – is there just one ‘writerly’ way or should we support a broader range of forms of expression?
    Audio? Video? Dank memes?
    “Virtually all the descriptions of keeping a journal or gather materials together suggested that they somehow felt they had not done it properly – qualifying their descriptions in terms of things being just scrappy notes, or jottings, or disorganised files, or annotated e-mail collections. Such descriptions suggest that participants had an ideal-typical method of what reflective practice should look like. While the overt message from both courses was that there was no one format, it appears that despite that, the tacit or underlying messages surrounding the idea of reflective practice is that there is a proper way of writing and that it constitutes a Foucauldian discipline with its own rules” (p.16-17)
  • Good reflection benefits from a modest mindset: “one sort of ethos of the course is it requires you to, I don’t know, be a bit humble. It requires you to take a step back and say perhaps I’m not doing things right or am I getting things right, and throw some doubt on your mastery…” (p.17)
  • This is more of a bigger picture question for my broader research – To what extent does the disciplinary background shape the success (or orientation) of uni executives in strategic thinking – qual (humanities) vs quant (STEM)?





Thoughts on: Two guides from Ako Aotearoa on education projects and researching learners

It was always my intention that researching in the area that I work in would help me to shape my professional practice (and it is) but I’ve been surprised lately at how much things are flowing in the other direction. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to make an educational project successful and how we know that learners have actually benefitted.

This is partially coming from the big picture work that I’m doing with my peers at the university looking at what we’re doing and why and partially from my own college, which has recently launched a Teaching and Learning Eminence Committee/project to look into what we’re doing with teaching and learning. I wasn’t initially invited onto the committee, (it’s all academics), which speaks to some of the ideas that have been emerging in some of my recent posts (the academic/professional divide) as well as the fact that I need to work on raising the profile of my team* and understanding of our* capacity and activities in the college.

Anyway, while trawling through the tweetstream of the recent (and alas final) OLT – Office of Learning and Teaching – conference at #OLTConf2016, I came across a couple of guides published recently by Ako Aotearoa, the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, that fit the bill perfectly.


One focusses on running effective projects in teaching and learning in tertiary education, it’s kind of project managementy, which isn’t always the most exciting area for me but it offers a comprehensive and particularly thoughtful overview of what we need to do to take an idea (which should always be driven by enhancing learning) through three key phases identified by Fullan (2007 – as cited in Akelma et al, 2011) in the process of driving educational change – initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. The guide – Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners  is freely available on the Ako Aotearoa website, which is nice.

I took pages and pages of notes and my mind wandered off into other thoughts about immediate and longer term things to do at work and in my research but the key themes running through the guide were treating change as a process rather than an event, being realistic, working collectively, being honest and communicating well. It breaks down each phases into a number of steps (informed by case studies) and prompts the reader with many pertinent questions to ask of themselves and the project along the way.

The focus of the guide is very much on innovation and change – I’m still thinking about what we do with the practices that are currently working well and how we can integrate the new with the old.

The second guide – A Tertiary practitioners guide to collecting evidence of learner benefit – drills down into useful research methodologies for ensuring that our projects and teaching practices are actually serving the learners’ needs. Again, these are informed by helpful case studies and showcase the many places and ways that we can collect data from and about our students throughout the teaching period and beyond.

It did make me wonder whether the research mindset of academics might conventionally be drawn from their discipline. Coming from an organisation with an education and social science orientation, one might expect an emphasis on the qualitative (and there are a lot of surveys suggested – which I wonder about as I have a feeling that students might be a little over-surveyed already) but the guide actually encourages a mixture of methodologies and makes a number of suggestions for merging data, as well as deciding how much is enough.

Definitely some great work from our colleagues across the ditch and well worth checking out.

(* The team is me – but one day…)

Thoughts on: “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” – how education support staff can bring change

One of the best things about my research and being part of a community of practice of education technologists/designers is that there are a lot of overlaps. While I’d hate to jump the gun, I think it’s pretty safe to say that harnessing the group wisdom of this community is going to be a core recommendation when it comes to looking for ways to better support Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices in higher education.

So why not start now?

There’s a lively and active community of Ed Techs online (as you’d hope) and arguably we’re bad at our jobs if we’re not part of it. I saw an online “hack” event mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” discussion/workshop/something and joined up.


There’s a homepage (that I only just discovered) and a Twitter hashtag #futurehappens (that I also wish I’d noticed) and then a Loomio discussion forum thing that most of the online action has been occurring in.

Just a side note on Loomio as a tool – some of the advanced functionality  (voting stuff) seems promising but the basics are a little poor. Following a discussion thread is quite difficult when you get separate displays for new posts that only include most of the topic heading and don’t preview the new response. (Either on screen or in the email digest). Biographical information about participants was also scant.

All the same, the discussions muddled along and there were some very interesting and thoughtful chats about a range of issues that I’ll hopefully do justice to here.

It’s a joint event organised by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Arts, London (UAL) but open to all. Unsurprisingly then, most participants seem to be from the UK, so discussions were a little staggered. There was also an f2f event that generated a sudden surge of slightly decontextualised posts but there was still quite of bit of interest to come from that (for an outsider)

The “hack” – I have to use inverted commas because I feel silly using the term with a straight face but all power to the organisers and it’s their baby – was intended to examine the common issues Higher Ed institutions face in innovating teaching and learning practices, with a specific focus on technology.

The guiding principles are:

Rule 1: We are teaching and learning focused *and* institutionally committed
Rule 2: What we talk about here is institutionally/nationally agnostic
Rule 3: You are in the room with the decision makers. What we decide is critical to the future of our institutions. You are the institution
Rule 4: Despite the chatter, all the tech ‘works’ – the digital is here, we are digital institutions. Digital is not the innovation.
Rule 5: We are here to build not smash
Rule 6: You moan (rehearse systemic reasons why you can’t effect change – see Rule 3), you get no beer (wine, juice, love, peace, etc)

We have chosen 5 common scenarios which are often the catalyst for change in institutions. As we noted above, you are in the room with the new VC and you have 100 words in each of the scenarios below to effectively position what we do as a core part of the institution. Why is this going to make our institutional more successful/deliver the objectives/save my (the VCs) job? How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies?

The scenarios on offer are below – they seemed to fall by the wayside fairly quickly as the conversation evolved but they did spark a range of different discussions.

Scenario 1
Strategic review of the institution and budget planning for 2020
Scenario 2
Institutional restructure because of a new VC
Scenario 3
Undertaking of an institution wide pedagogical redesign
Scenario 4
Responding to and implementing TEF
Scenario 5
Institutional response to poor NSS/student experience results

(It was assumed knowledge that TEF is the upcoming UK govt Teaching Excellence Framework – new quality standards – and the NSS is the National Student Survey – student satisfaction feedback largely.)

Discussions centred around what we as Ed. Designers/Techs need to do to “change the discourse and empower people like us to actively shape teaching and learning at our institutions”. Apart from the ubiquitous “more time and more money” issue that HE executives hear from everyone, several common themes emerged across the scenarios and other posts. Thoughts about university culture, our role as experts and technology consistently came to the fore. Within these could be found specific issues that need to be addressed and a number of practical (and impractical) solutions that are either in train or worth considering.

On top of this, I found a few questions worthy of further investigation as well as broader topics to pursue in my own PhD research.

I’m going to split this into a few posts because there was a lot of ground covered. This post will look at some of the common issues that were identified and the from there I will expand on some of the practical solutions that are being implemented or considered, additional questions that this event raised for me and a few other random ideas that it sparked.

Issues identified

There was broad consensus that we are in the midst of a period of potentially profound change in education due to the affordances offered by ICT and society’s evolving relationship with information and knowledge creation. As Education designers/technologists/consultants, many of us sit fairly low in the university decision making scheme of things but our day to day contact with lecturers and students (and emerging pedagogy and technology) give us a unique perspective on how things are and how they might/should be.

Ed Tech is being taken up in universities but we commonly see it used to replicate or at best augment long-standing practices in teaching and learning. Maybe this is an acceptable use but it is often a source of frustration to our “tribe” when we see opportunities to do so much more in evolving pedagogy.

Peter Bryant described it as “The problem of potential. The problem of resistance and acceptance” and went on to ask “what are the key messages, tools and strategies that put the digital in the heart of the conversation and not as a freak show, an uncritical duplication of institutional norms or a fringe activity of the tech savvy?”

So the most pressing issue – and the purpose of the hack itself – is what we can do (and how) to support and drive the change needed in our institutions. Change in our approach to the use of technology enhanced learning and teaching practices and perhaps even to our pedagogy itself.

Others disagreed that a pedagogical shift was always the answer. “I’m not sure what is broken about university teaching that needs fixing by improved pedagogy… however the economy, therefore the job market is broken I think… when I think about what my tools can do to support that situation, the answers feel different to the pedagogical lens” (Amber Thomas)

The very nature of how we define pedagogy arose tangentially a number of times – is it purely about practices related to the cognitive and knowledge building aspects of teaching and learning or might we extend it to include the ‘job’ of being a student or teacher? The logistical aspects of studying – accessing data, communication, administrivia and the other things that technology can be particularly helpful in making more convenient. I noted the recent OLT paper – What works and why? – that found that students and teachers valued these kinds of tools highly. Even if these activities aren’t the text-book definition of pedagogy, they are a key aspect of teaching and learning support and I’d argue that we should give them equal consideration.

Several other big-picture issues were identified – none with simple solutions but all things that must be taken into consideration if we hope to be a part of meaningful change.

  • The sheer practicality of institution wide change, with the many different needs of the various disciplines necessitates some customised solutions.
  • The purpose of universities and university education – tensions between the role of the university in facilitating research to extend human knowledge and the desire of many students to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for a career.
  • The very nature of teaching and learning work can and is changing – this needs to be acknowledged and accommodated. New skills are needed to create content and experiences and to make effective use of the host of new tools on offer. Students have changing expectations of access to information and their lecturers’ time, created by the reality of our networked world. These are particularly pointy issues when we consider the rise of casualisation in the employment of tutors and lecturers and the limits on the work that they are paid to do.

Three key themes emerged consistently across all of the discussion posts in terms of how we education support types (we really do need a better umbrella term) can be successful in the process of helping to drive change and innovation in our institutions. Institutional culture, our role as “experts” and technology. I’ll look at culture and expertise for now.


It was pretty well universally acknowledged that, more than policy or procedure or resourcing, the culture of the institution is at the heart of any successful innovations. Culture itself was a fairly broad set of topics though and these ranged across traditional/entrenched teaching and learning practices, how risk-averse or flexible/adaptable an institution is, how hierarchical it is and to what extent the ‘higher-ups’ are willing to listen to those on the ground, willingness to test assumptions, aspirational goals and strategy and change fatigue.

Some of the ideas and questions to emerge included:

  • How do we change the discourse from service (or tech support) to pedagogy?
  • “The real issue is that money, trust, support, connectedness and strategy all emanate from the top” (Peter Bryant)
  • “the prerequisite for change is an organisational culture that is discursive, open and honest. And there needs to be consensus about the centrality of user experience.” (Rainer Usselmann)
  • “We need to review our decision making models and empower agility through more experimentation” (Silke Lange) – My take on this – probably true but perhaps not the right thing to say to the executive presumably, with the implication that they’re currently making poor decisions. Perhaps we can frame this more in terms of a commitment to continuous improvement, then we might be able to remove the sense of judgement about current practices and decision makers? 
  • “we will reduce the gap between the VC and our students… the VC will engage with students in the design of the organisation so it reflects their needs. This can filter down to encourage students and staff to co-design courses and structures, with two way communication” (Steve Rowett)
  • “In the private (start-up) sector, change is all you know. Iterate, pivot or perservere before you run out of money.That is the ‘Lean Start-up’ mantra… create a culture and climate where it is expected and ingrained behaviour then you constantly test assumptions and hypotheses” (Rainer Usselman)
  • “Theoretical and practical evidence is important for creating rationale and narratives to justify the strategy” (Peter Bryant) – I agree, we need to use a research-led approach to speak to senior academic execs

While change and continuous improvement is important, in many places it has come to be almost synonymous with management. And not always good management – sometimes just management for the sake of appearing to be doing things. It’s also not just about internal management – changes in government and government policy or discipline practices can all necessitate change.

One poster described how change fatigued lecturers came to respond to an ongoing stream of innovations relating to teaching and learning practice coming down from on-high.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that staff got very good at re-describing their existing, successful practice in whatever the language of the week was.

Culture is arguably the hardest thing to change in an organisation because there are so many different perspectives of it held by so many different stakeholders. The culture is essentially the philosophy of the place and it will shape the kinds of policy that determine willingness to accept risk, open communication, transparency and reflection – some of the things needed to truly cultivate change.


Our status (as education designers/technologists/support with expertise) in the institution and the extent to which we are listened to (and heard) was seen as another major factor in our ability to support and drive innovation.

There were two key debates in this theme: how we define/describe ourselves and what we do and how we should best work with academics and the university.

Several people noted the difference between education designers and education technologists.

“Educational developers cannot be ignorant of educational technologies any more than Learning Technologists can be ignorant of basic HE issues (feedback, assessment, teaching practices, course design, curriculum development etc).”

Perhaps it says something about my personal philosophy or the fact that I’ve always worked in small multi-skilled teams but the idea that one might be able to responsibly recommend and support tools without an understanding of teaching and learning practice seems unthinkable. This was part of a much larger discussion of whether we should even be talking in terms of eLearning any more or just trying to normalise it so that it is all just teaching and learning. Valid points were made on both sides

“Any organisational distinction between Learning & Teaching and eLearning / Learning Technology is monstrous. Our goal should be to make eLearning so ubiquitous that as a word it becomes obsolete.” (SonJa Grussendorf)

” I also think that naming something, creating a new category, serves a political end, making it visible in a way that it might not be otherwise.” (Martin Oliver)

“it delineates a work area, an approach, a mindset even…Learning technology is not a separate, secondary consideration, or it shouldn’t be, or most strongly: it shouldn’t be optional.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

There was also an interesting point made that virtually nobody talks about e-commerce any more, it’s just a normal (and sometimes expected) way of doing business now.

For me, the most important thing is the perception of the people that I am working with directly – the lecturers. While there is a core of early adopters and envelope pushers who like to know that they have someone that speaks their language and will entertain their more “out-there” ideas when it comes to ed tech and teaching practices, many more just want to go about the business of teaching with the new learning tools that we have available.

As the Education Innovation Office or as a learning technologist, I’m kind of the helpdesk guy for the LMS and other things. Neither of these sets of people necessarily think of me in terms of broader educational design (that might or might not be enhanced with Ed Tech). So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rebranding to something more like Education Support or Education Excellence. (I’ve heard whispers of a Teaching Eminence project in the wind – though I haven’t yet been involved in any discussions)

But here’s the kicker – education technology and innovation isn’t just about better teaching and learning. For the college or the university, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that yes, we are keeping up with the Joneses, we are progressive, we are thought leaders. We do have projects that can be used to excite our prospective students, industry partners, alumni, government and benefactors. So on this level, keeping  “innovation” or  “technology” in a title is far more important. So, pragmatically, if it can help me to further the work that I’m doing by being connected to the “exciting” parts of university activity, it would seem crazy not to.

There was some debate about whether our role is to push, lead or guide new practice. I think this was largely centred on differences of opinion on approaches to working with academics.  As I’ve mentioned, my personal approach is about understanding their specific teaching needs (removing technology from the conversation where possible) and recommending the best solutions (tech and pedagogic). Other people felt that as the local “experts”, we have a responsibility to push new innovations for the good for the organisation.

“Personally I’m not shy about having at least some expertise and if our places of work claim to be educational institutions then we have a right to attempt to make that the case… It’s part of our responsibility to challenge expectations and improve practices as well” (David White)

“we should pitch ‘exposure therapy’ – come up with a whole programme that immerses teaching staff in educational technology, deny them the choice of “I want to do it the old fashioned way” so that they will realise the potential that technologies can have in changing not only, say, the speed and convenience of delivery of materials (dropbox model), but can actually change their teaching practice.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

I do have a handful of personal Ed tech hobby horses that the College hasn’t yet taken an interest in (digital badges, ePortfolios, gamification) that I have advocated with minimal success and I have to concede that I think this is largely because I didn’t link these effectively enough to teaching and learning needs. Other participants held similar views.

Don’t force people to use the lift – convince them of the advantages, or better still let their colleagues convince them. (Andrew Dixon)

A final thought that these discussions triggered in me – though I didn’t particularly raise it on the board – came from the elephant in the room that while we might be the “experts” – or at least have expertise worth heeding – we are here having this discussion because we feel that our advice isn’t always listened to.

Is this possibly due to an academic / professional staff divide? Universities exist for research and teaching and these are the things most highly valued – understandably. Nobody will deny that a university couldn’t function in the day to day without the work of professional staff but perhaps there is a hierarchy/class system in which some opinions inherently carry less weight. Not all opinions, of course – academics will gladly accept the advice of the HR person about their leave allocation or the IT person in setting up their computer – but when we move into the territory of teaching and learning, scholarship if you like, perhaps there is an almost unconscious disconnect occurring.

I don’t say this with any particular judgement and I don’t even know if it’s true – my PhD supervisor was aghast when I suggested it to her – but everyone has unconscious biases and maybe this is one of them.

Just a thought anyway but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this or anything else that I’ve covered in this post.

Next time, on – the role of technology in shaping change and some practical ideas for action.



Random PhD tips – the early years

One of the things that I’m finding with this study is that there is a wealth of advice out there and it still feels vaguely productive to pore over that instead of pressing on with actual “work”.

Here are some scattered tips and things that I’ve read and been told in no particular order.

The PhD is essentially a research apprenticeship. While one of the stated goals is to make a contribution to the scholarship, a large part of it is about demonstrating that you are able to competently carry out research and use it to build a solid argument. It doesn’t have to be massive or incredibly sophisticated – indeed, there’s a respect paper (yet to read but it’s on the list) titled “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” by Mullins and Kiley (2002).

In the early stage of your research, it’s all about the reading. You don’t know what you don’t know yet or where the literature will take you so it’s just about reading, reading and more reading. Everyone has said to enjoy this phase because you generally never get to be this indulgent again. (I’m happy with this advice but I also want to make sure that I make the most of the reading that I do so I’ve been fiddling around the edges looking for ways to capture the information, quotes, ideas and further reading to be found in it – partially in a bibliographic/citation tool (Zotero) and partially in blogging about it)

How to read is also a thing. Given the ridiculous amount of material out there, reading cover to cover isn’t going to get it done. I’ve repeated had it suggested to skim the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion, references and if this seems relevant, dip into the methodology. Then decide whether to proceed. This part I’m finding harder, as I’m yet to feel confident that I can make this judgement but I’m sure it will come with time. It seems sensible to put a little more trust into readings recommended by my supervisors and clever colleagues and so far, so good.

Building some solid organisational systems is a no brainer. This is something that I particularly enjoy – probably more than the work part that actually comes after it. Working out categories and folders and backups is great but I’ll have to press on pretty soon.

Emotional resilience is a pretty common theme in the advice literature. It’s a long, draining process requiring us to put our ideas and intellect on display to the world and there will inevitably be some tough feedback. There’s also a lot of talk about imposter syndrome – the fear that people will realise that we aren’t are smart as we make out. (I initially typed smark there, so I’m not sure what that says). This seems reasonably healthy to me – kind of the inverse of the Dunning Kruger effect.

I’ve already felt fairly conscious of the fact that many of my peers seem to be using more theoretical (dare I say jargony) terms in their writing and I wonder if I am judged for not doing this. (I have a political thing about “plain English” and accessible language but I do understand that there are some terms and concepts that are far more effectively communicated in “jargon”). At the moment, I feel that the best thing for me to do is to use the language that best enables me to share my thoughts. (I have found a glossary tool that I’ve added to this blog and will be populating at some point that adds mouse-over definitions for terms in the text. One of my favourite things about reading on the Kindle is being able to highlight words for an instant defintiion. The Trowler book that I’ve been banging on about has a nice linked glossary section at the back, that has helped me to get across concepts like ontology and epistemology, endogenous and etic, among others)

Communicating early and often is also a key theme in the advice so far – as a fairly self-reliant person this is certainly something that I’ll need to work on but I definitely see the value. Many hands etc etc. In the past I’ve liked/needed to thrash an idea out in my head to come up with some kind of solution that I was willing to share with others but I just don’t think this is going to cut it this time around.

Being open to ideas from seemingly unrelated areas is another great piece of advice. A lot of these have come from Inger “Thesis Whisperer” Mewburn’s blog and “How to Tame your PhD” book, I must add. Going to talks by other researchers might lead to any number of brain waves as you extrapolate their ideas to your context.

I’m not super close to the writing stage yet but like the idea of setting time limits to get certain things done. Avoiding that whole “work expands to fill the time available to it” trap. I’ve long been an advocate of Pomodoro technique (the hardest part is starting the timer) and I understand the notion of “the perfect is the enemy of the good/done”. All of this writing will go through umpteen drafts, so it doesn’t have to be good the first (or the fifth) time, it just has to be written.

Talking to people about what you’re doing and what you’re planning (particularly supervisors) can be an effective way to add some deadline and social pressure to do the work. (I’m still trying to work out exactly what I need to be doing yet – it seems like just reading is too easy)

There are a lot of people around that want to help us to succeed and are willing to help – there is research training, library skills training, communities of practice and reams of published advice. For all of this, I am particularly grateful. Thanks.

Thoughts on: “Doing Insider Research in Universities” (Trowler, 2012) Part 3 – Good research design and ethics/politics

I’m not sure that this is how I’ll process all of the books that I read – in fact I’m almost certain that it isn’t – but I’ll continue this series of posts about Trowler – Doing Insider Research in Universities because I have found it to be a great way to dip my toe into the many issues that I will face in my research.

The next two chapters look at value and robustness in insider research (which, again, I take to be about being able to defend your methodology – and choosing a good one) and then the ethics and politics of insider research in your university, which is pretty much unavoidable.

He opens with a discussion of some of the criticisms that case studies face as well as some of the responses to these. I’ll leave it here in full as it sums it up well.

Case study researchers may find their work subject to the following criticisms (Flyvbjerg, 2006): it only yields concrete, practical knowledge rather than the supposedly more valuable general, theoretical and propositional knowledge;  generalization from one case is not possible and so the research does not contribute to the development of knowledge; the research can generate hypotheses, but other methods are necessary to test them and build theory; case study design contains a bias toward verification, i.e., a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions. Both Flyvbjerg and Yin (2009) refute these criticisms, but those who research their own universities need to be clear about precisely what their research questions are, what the rationale behind the research design is, and what the truth claims are. This advice holds for any kind of research, but other designs tend to draw less critical fire.

(He also highlights Gomm et al (2000), Simons (2009) and Yin (2009) as great starting points for further investigation of case study methodology)

Trowler dips back into some of the ontological questions that he touched on earlier in the book, comparing the merits of the true vs the useful. (I may be oversimplifying this). This draws on Sayer’s notion of “practical adequacy” in prioritising the usefulness of information. I kind of get it but think I’ll need to dig a little deeper. I can see how some true things mightn’t necessarily be valuable but as for things that are kind of true…?

This is echoed in further discussions of Bassey’s idea of “fuzzy generalizations”. In short, this is about acknowledging that life is complex and theory won’t always accommodate the range of factors at play. So that rather than saying that in situation A, if B happens then C will follow, we might say in situation A, if B happens then C will generally follow between D and E% of the time. It’s not as neat and arguably not as helpful but no doubt more realistic.

In terms of the design of research, Trowler posits twelve questions for researchers to consider to test the rigour and quality of their proposed methods.

1. In designing the research, how do I know that my planned approach will answer the questions I have more fully than any other?
2. How do I design the research to take best advantage of the benefits of insider research while avoiding its pitfalls as far as possible?
3. Conceptually, how do I represent my organization, its culture and its practices? (And how does this representation shape my design?)
4. How and from whom will I secure access to the data I need? (Why them and why not others?)
5. Whom should I inform about the project, and how should I describe it, when I seek ‘informed’ consent? (And how might this affect my data?)
6. How will I ensure that the project is run ethically so that all participants and institutional bodies are protected? (While at the same time being as transparent as possible to readers so they can judge the robustness of my approach and conclusions?)
7. If I am using participant observation, what are the ethical issues in relation to the people I observe in natural settings? (And how might my answer to that question affect my data?)
8. If using interviews, what measures should I take to deal with interview bias? (And will they assure a sufficient degree of robustness?)
9. What should the balance be between collecting naturalistic data and formally ‘collected’ data? (And how can I offer assurances of robustness about conclusions drawn from both?)
10. How should I analyse the different forms of data I have, given that there will almost certainly be a large amount of various sorts? (And how do I ensure that sufficient and appropriate weight is given to each form of data in generating conclusions?)
11. How, and how much, will I communicate my findings to participants to ensure that they are happy with what I intend to make public? (And will this affect the way I present my conclusions to other audiences?)
12. Generally, in what other ways can I satisfy the reader about the robustness of my research and its findings?

(I was a little hesitant to just paste this in holus bolus but it all seems particularly valuable).

In very pragmatic terms, there will also inevitably be a number of ethical and political issues to consider when undertaking insider research in one’s own institution. The question of whether to anonymise the institution and the research participants is a live one – though at this stage, to me, it seems impractical and counterproductive, particularly when it could mean reducing the number of sources of data for fear of not being able to correctly reference them. The lack of transparency could also arguably lessen a reader’s view of the robustness of the research.

I also think that the question of to what extent people change their behaviour under observation is a valid one, however there are no doubt ways to mitigate this.

Politically, senior leaders in the organisation will imaginably want to feel confident that the research won’t damage the reputation of the university before granting access. Does this then lead to self-censorship and selective reporting if there are areas where there is room for improvement?

At a higher level of ethical debate, the selection of standpoints from which to pose questions and to begin observations and investigations can raise some concerns. If I fail to incorporate the perspective of voices that are less often heard, am I guilty of perpetuating the status quo?

Lots to think about and to be perfectly blunt, I would be naive not to factor in the question of what asking the wrong person the wrong question might mean for my career prospects in the organisation. Fortunately I have a little time to think about some of these things.