Category Archives: professional development

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

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

These are the papers:

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

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

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

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

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

These are my quick responses to the papers that I skimmed

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

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

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

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

Ultimately, Hannon finds that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards to teachers.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing again from prior research, the authors found that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General random ideas and thoughts this paper has triggered:

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Research update

The formal “research” part of my pre-research – the literature review essentially – has gone off the rails a little in the last couple of months. I’ve been collecting things to read here and there but not reading them and clearly not digesting and blogging about them.

Nonetheless, I still feel as though my ideas are coming along. This has mostly been as a result of attending a couple of major Higher Education events – the ACODE Benchmarking summit and the HERDSA 2016 conference. (Australasian Council of Online & Distance Education and the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia)

One of my initial goals with this research was to generate some helpful resources for people in my field/trade/craft – Education Designers/Developers/Technologists. The more I look into the issues around supporting TEL in Higher Ed., the more I realise that this is the area of the most interest to me. I had thought for a while that focussing on the work of professional (non-academic) staff in this space could be a great way to explore larger questions of university culture and the impact that this has but speaking to a number of colleagues at these events, I’ve realised that there is a combination of academics and professional staff providing educational support and that this sector – which I’m going to call Education Support People (ESPs) for now because writing Education Designers/Developers/Technologists is tiresome and clunky.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t multiple factors – that I think may require varying research methodologies to properly explore – that affect the uptake of TELT practices in Higher Ed. but given the central position of ESPs in the organisation, there is a better than even chance that I’ll be able to hang most things on this hub. (To mangle a metaphor)

I’m also starting to think about the dichotomy of rational and emotional reasons for using/avoiding TEL practices. The literature offers many solid, evidence based reasons to use TEL but actual uptake often seems tied to the attitudes of the key players. They might further muddy the waters by raising a (legitimate) rational barrier to TEL practices – we don’t have the time/resources to do this – but the next words in the sentence take us closer to the heart of the emotional response to the issue. They could be … ‘so how can we get around that and do it anyway?’ or ‘… so you can’t make me do it’ when they simply don’t want to.

Finding these core gut responses I think will be interesting and challenging.

The project plan that I showed here a few posts ago has blown out a little, so I’ve tweaked some of the timeframes. I moved University as Organisation to begin after ESPs a few weeks ago but this is my current interest (and I’m not altogether sure what I mean by University as organisation – beyond something to do with the complexity of the educational ecosystem) and I’ve now extended my time to read up on ESPs and pushed back the Uni section a couple of weeks. I was hoping to neatly tie everything to months but there is no compelling practical reason for this, just neatness.

I also spoke to several people at HERDSA – who really were all great, thoughtful and generous people – about interest in creating a Special Interest Group for ESPs (not necessarily that name) and will pursue this in the near future. Big wraps for HERDSA – I have to say that I think it has been one of my all time favourite edu conferences. There wasn’t a single slot that didn’t have at least one presentation that I was interested to see.

The conference also helped me to discover the work of Carroll Graham at UTS, who recently finished a PhD on the impact of professional staff on student learning outcomes. Her website – Higher Education Professionals – I think will be a rich resource

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: “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.

hack-poster-3

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.

Culture

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.

Experts

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 Screenface.net – the role of technology in shaping change and some practical ideas for action.

 

 

Thoughts on: What is educational research? Changing perspectives through the 20th century (Nisbet, 2005)

This is a substantial and comprehensive paper that takes us on a journey from the late 19th century to the modern age. Nisbet explores the place of research in education and how it has shifted in focus and character over time in response to the needs and demands of stakeholders.

Nisbet broadly identifies three key shifts in the role of the researcher in education – “from academic theorist in phase 1, through expert consultant in phase 2, to reflective practitioner in phase 3.” Clearly these can never be absolutist descriptions as there are always going to be a range of types of research occurring at any time but they do still offer an interesting insight into the ways that cultural norms and trends have led research. He also rightly wonders whether “the growing acceptance of research in education… may have had the effect of restricting its scope”

Rather than focusing here on the entirety of this overview, I’ll look more at some of the key ideas. (I’m very much still at the point of needing to better understand the nature of formal research in education and I heartily recommend this paper if you’re interested in the context of this but a blog post will do it no justice)

Early educational research had a highly psychological and quantitative bent

The concept of educational research which was established was experimental, primarily psychological, involving measurement, seeking solutions to the educational problems of the day, and this interpretation monopolised educational research for the first half of the century

Edouarde Claparede delved into some interesting questions in the field of cognition in Experimental Pedagogy and the Psychology of the Child (1911), asking:

Before learning anything, it is necessary to learn how to learn (p.57)

How far are the various mental functions able to be independent of each other, or, on the other hand, how far do they reciprocally influence each other? [correlation and factor analysis] (p. 61)

When we educate a certain function, are we acting on others at the same time? [transfer of training] (p. 64)

The heavily science driven approach persisted for many decades, lead to a flourishing of standardised testing (as well as bizarre experiments where students were sprayed with a 1% solution of nerve gas to increase alertness). Some of the less radical work relating to student fatigue led to contemporary practices of limiting class times to around 40-45 minutes. Broadly however, education research was seen as an academic pursuit that was largely “out of touch with ‘real problems'”

Major shifts occurred in the 1960s when governments started to review education systems and practices and saw a need for supporting evidence for change. Researchers became more closely aligned with education departments who started to demand more of what they saw as relevant value for their money.

Relegating research to this instrumental role carries risks: trivialising, in pursuing volatile educational fashions; restrictive, in limiting research within the constraints of existing policy frameworks; potentially divisive, creating an elite group of researchers in alliance with authority; and ultimately damaging, in that it can leave the researchers wholly dependent on their powerful partner. Researchers who decline to accept this requirement, choosing an unpopular or unfashionable line of inquiry, are liable to find that they receive no grants, that their papers are not accepted by journals, or, if published, are not widely read or quoted.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s shifts in the parallel disciplines of psychology and sociology led to a move away from the long-standing quantitative methods in education and towards greater acceptance of qualitative approaches including case studies “exploring issues in more depth with relatively small numbers”. It aimed “at understanding and insight into the complexities of learning and human behaviour”.

This in turn saw a rise in Action Research and the teacher-researcher movement. Greater emphasis on reflective practices by teachers was (is) a key component of this. Other approaches also emerged.

The practice of measurement was also questioned. In-depth interviews provided a different kind of data, approaching a topic from the perspective of the interviewee rather than within a framework decided in advance by the researcher. This phenomenographic method (as it is called) has its roots in the philosophy of phenomenology, which opposes the positivism or naturalism inherent in contemporary science and technology – the standard scientific approach to knowledge by formulating hypotheses and designing experimental procedures to test these – on the grounds that this finds (or negates) only what the researcher is looking for, whereas the open-ended methods of phenomenography produce data for formulating new interpretive constructs. This approach focuses on awareness or ‘encountering’ and accepts the role of description in how we perceive situations and how we interpret or ‘understand’ them. Thus, from the interview transcripts, the researcher derives interpretive categories: for example, the way students speak about their reading and understanding leads to the categorisation of ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ learning (Entwhistle, 1981). Recognising the subjectivity involved, the interpretation is supported extensively by excerpts from the interview transcripts.

Further approaches drawn from the worlds of philosophical and sociological theory included:

Garfinkel (1967) introduced the term ‘ethnomethodology’ to describe his approach to research which explores ‘the patterns and structures discernible in societies’

(These) are not a matter of external social constraints, roles or functions imposed on hapless individuals but are produced through cultural and interpretive processes that people collaboratively use to make sense of the world and render it mutually comprehensible (Maclure, 2003, p. 188)

Arguably, much of this and other post-modern / poststructuralist approaches raise interesting and valuable questions but don’t appear to be used widely in educational research due to their lack of connection to more pressing practical questions facing educators.

This is evidenced most dramatically – and I would argue is manifested most apparently in the apparent government obsession with standardised testing and metrics – in the contemporary reality that ” evaluation and data gathering studies are more likely to attract funding than theoretical analyses which aim at insights into problems, the enlightenment function of research”. This is also clearly where the booming corporate face of education sits – the textbook publishers (Pearson, McGraw Hill etc) with their expanding range of teaching and testing products.

My thoughts and ideas

As ever, these are a little random in some ways and reflect some of the tangents that I went off on while reading this paper. Some are simply to-do items for further investigation.

Teacher reflection processes – if this is to be taken seriously as a form of professional development – need to be more tightly framed and/or led

How much research can I get my teachers to do into their practices – can we get the uni to support this? Can this become a more substantive part of their teaching professional development? Where is the carrot for this?

I need to look more deeply into the existing OLT research projects

A final quote:

But research has become part of every professional role today, and in education one task of professional development is to weave a research question into the expertise of teachers, leading them to adopt at a personal level the self-questioning approach which leads to reflection and understanding, and from there into action

This reminds me that professional development for higher ed “teachers” should be a vital avenue in my research and also makes me think about the value of reflection in a vacuum. Surely Communities of practice are a vital element of the step to action?

 

Claparède, E. (1911). Experimental Pedagogy and the Psychology of the Child. Longmans, Green and Company.

Entwistle, N. (1981). Styles of Learning and Teaching John Wiley UK.

A hierarchy of digital badges – Level 1 Accredited

Part of me thinks it’s a really dumb idea to try to identify a hierarchy for digital badges and particular to try to name them. Because the people out there that don’t get badges are often the same kinds of people that get fixated on names for things and let the names blind them to the function or purpose of the thing. (This is why we start getting things called micro-credentials and nano-degrees. Personally I would’ve called them chazzwozzers but that’s just me)

Maybe hierarchy isn’t even the right term – taxonomy could work just as well but I do actually believe that some badges have greater value than others – determined by the depth and rigour of their metadata and their credibility with an audience. (Which isn’t to say that some educators mightn’t find classroom/gamified badges far more valuable in their own practice).

In the discussions that I’ve seen of digital badges, advocates tend to focus on the kinds of badges that suit their own needs. Quite understandable of course but it does feel as though this might be slowing down progress by setting up distracting side-debates about what a valid badge even is.

Here is a quick overview of the badge types that I have come across so far. If I’ve missed something, please let me know.

Level 1 – Accredited 

Accredited badges recognise the attainment of specific skills and/or knowledge that has the highest level of accountability. The required elements of these skills are identified in fine detail, multiple auditable assessments are conducted (and ideally reviewed) and supporting evidence of the badge recipient’s skill/knowledge is readily available.

I work in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector in Australia, where every single qualification offered is built on a competency based education framework. Each qualification is comprised of at least 8 different Units of Competency, which are generally broken down into 4 or 5 elements that describe highly specific job skills.

VET is a national system meaning that a person undertaking a Certificate Level 4 in Hairdressing is required to demonstrate the same competence in a specific set of skills anywhere in the country. The system is very tightly regulated and the standards for evidence of competence are high. Obviously, other education sectors have similarly high standards attached to their formal qualifications.

Tying the attainment of a Level 1 badge to an existing accredited education/training program seems like a no-brainer really. The question of trust in the badge is addressed by incorporating the rigour applied to the attainment of the existing qualification and having a very clearly defined set of achieved skills/knowledge offers the badge reader clarity about the badge earner’s abilities.

E.G. A badge for Apply graduated haircut structures could easily be awarded to a hairdressing apprentice on completion of that Unit of Competency in the Certificate III in Hairdressing. It would include the full details of the Unit of Competency in the badge metadata, which could also include a link to evidence (photos/video/teacher reports) in the learner’s ePortfolio.

I use a VET example because that’s what I know best (and because it seems a natural fit for badges) but obviously, any unit in a formal qualification would work just as well

Next post, I’ll look at Level 2 – Work skills

 

Rejigging professional development training for teachers – Sarah Thorneycroft

Sarah Thorneycroft (@sthcrft) from the University of New England (Australia) often impresses with her thoughtful presentations about dragging academics and teaching staff into the 21st century when it comes to professional development in online teaching and learning.

This paper that she presented at Ascilite 2014 showcases her work in shifting from conventional workshops to webinars and “coffeecourses”. Teachers being teachers, the results were mixed (why can’t we learn about online teaching in a face to face workshop) but the signs are encouraging nonetheless.

The video runs to 19:23 but is well worth checking out.