Category Archives: Professional staff

Research update #23 – The ‘troublemaker’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: National Students as Partners Roundtable 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

students as partners tips negotiated assessment process

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

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

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

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

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

Student voice as risky praxis: democratising physical education teacher education

UTS Student voice in university decision making

 

 

 

 

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: Three papers about professional vs academic staff in Higher Education. (McInnis, 1998; Dobson, 2000; Szekeres, 2004)

Given that people are at the heart of implementing and supporting TELT practices in Higher Education, I’ve been investigating the kinds of people involved.

At the first level of the taxonomy, universities employ academic and professional staff. Whitchurch (2008) makes a solid case that, while these people generally work in their own domains, there are people who work across these boundaries in different ways – third space professionals. For the sake of simplicity however, and also because the three papers that I read focus almost entirely on ‘administrative’ professional staff, I’m just going to examine the key differences and some of the sources of tension between these two groups.

Following on from the paper I posted about recently by Jones et al (2012) on Distributed Leadership, I dove down the rabbit hole of citations and found these three papers:

Mcinnis, C. (1998). Academics and Professional Administrators in Australian Universities: dissolving boundaries and new tensions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 20(2), 161–173. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080980200204

Dobson, I. R. (2000). “Them and Us” – General and Non-General Staff in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(2), 203–210. http://doi.org/10.1080/713678142

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

The first thing I noticed after reading all three papers was the small ways in which the writers’ personalities, assumptions and perspectives creep through. In some ways, they reflect the larger issues at hand, occupying a spectrum from begrudging acceptance of the need to take professional staff more seriously within set parameters to good-natured concern at the disregard of them to simmering disquiet at the routine slights experienced (mixed in with a distaste for the Neoliberalism that has been a part of many recent changes in Higher Ed. and exacerbated these divisions)

Collectively they all seem to arrive at more or less the same destination – that greater understanding is needed about the roles and values of professional staff and academics and that more needs to be done to foster better collaboration. The differences in how they get there and what they believe is needed to help this to happen (and why) are illustrative of the issues themselves.

McInnis and Dobson were (and are) academics and Szekeres was a professional administrative staff member – also working on her doctorate at the time. Their respective positions in their universities offer additional insights into different attitudes in different departments – McInnis working as an Associate Professor in a school and Dobson holding a role tied to the executive.

The three papers were written in a reasonably narrow window of time – 1998 to 2004 – when Australian universities were still coming to terms with major shifts to the sector introduced by John Dawkins (Federal minister responsible for Higher Education) in the mid to late ’80s. These heralded a more market driven and corporate managerialist mindset in public institutions. (More on this shortly)

The language used in all of these papers is interesting in itself, the now commonly used “professional staff” terminology is nowhere to be seen, the terms of the day were administrative staff, general staff or non-academic staff. Being academia, these terms were also picked apart for their own implied meanings and values – with “non-academic” given special attention for seeking to define people by what they aren’t.

Dobson particularly is very mindful of this, titling his paper “Them and Us – General and Non-General staff in Higher Education”, turning the tables on the usual academic / non-academic binary. He comments that

“the tendency to describe general staff in this negative way is a strange trait in the current climate of inclusiveness promoted fairly generally by universities, but in particular by universities’ acceptance of equity and affirmative action principles” (p.203)

Dobson and Szekeres’ papers are largely based around a review of the current literature (including government and university reports, letters to H.E. publications and novels) as well as informal notes from conversations with colleagues overseas. McInnis takes a different approach, comparing the results of two surveys of attitudes conducted of academics and administrative staff (at a management level).

All agree that there are a number of differences and tensions between academic and professional staff and recognise that professional staff are massively underrepresented in discussions and publications relating to Higher Education.

(I’m curious to see whether this is still the case – I imagine it is, based on my own experiences – and have flagged it for further research). At this point I need to mention that I was initially looking more for writing about Education Support Professionals and the nature of their relationships with academics but there is scant reference to this role in any of these papers. McInnis mentions that

“Professional administrators are reshaping academic work by virtue of their increasingly pivotal roles in such areas as course management and delivery” (p.168)

but the emphasis here is much more on people working in non-teaching areas of the university, or as Szekeres more comprehensively puts it

“their focus is about either supporting the work of academic staff, dealing with students on non-academic matters or working in an administrative function such as finance, human resources, marketing, public relations, business development, student administration, academic administration, library, information technology, capital or property” (p.8)

Even though in these papers we are looking at people working in “non-academic” areas, I think there is still much to be learned from exploring the broader relationships between academics and professionals as it is often people working in professional roles that are charged with supporting and initiating TELT practices in Higher Ed. Putting aside the boundary crossing tendencies of this relationship and the complications that arise from stepping onto teaching and learning ‘turf’, there are many other moving parts to be considered and these three papers offer valuable insights into other facets of this relationship, particularly university culture.

The virtual absence of professional staff in the literature discussing people working in Higher Education is recognised by all three authors here. Szekere’s paper title – “The Invisible Workers” – is a pointed reminder of this and even in the defining documents of the time (Dawkins’ Green and White papers) Dobson notes that

“general staff were scarcely considered during the writing of the Green Paper. In fact there are only three paragraphs devoted to the subject” (p.204)

This lack of presence in literature (of all kinds) discussing Higher Ed illustrates one of the interesting contradictions of the relationship between professionals and academics – the work and expertise of professionals is misunderstood and considered trivial but they also represent a threat to the status quo (of academic values) in terms of the change that they represent and they are felt (by academics) to hold too much power. Maybe the hope is that by not talking about them, they will just go away or maybe academics simply have a blind spot to people not in their ‘tribe’. (Neither of those are points raised by any of the authors)

Szekeres raises another factor in discussing invisibility, that of gender, pointing out that

“while women make up the majority of general staff, they are disproportionately in the lower-level positions” (p.8)

Again, I’d hope that more recent research will show that this has changed but I won’t be surprised if it hasn’t. Dobson discusses a study carried out by UWA on “The Position of Women General Staff at the University of Western Australia” that aimed to

“identify any cultural or structural impediments within the University which might work against the aspirations of women and propose strategies to address these. (UWA, Executive Summary, P.1)” (p.206)

It found that

“the issue of gender was less of a barrier to their aspirations than the fact that they were members of the general staff” (p.206)

This is not at all to say that there aren’t issues faced specifically by professional women in Higher Ed, simply that the professional/academic divide is a significant one.

At the heart of the divide lies the aforementioned culture of corporate managerialism. This ties in to new practices, changes to decision making structures and moves toward greater accountability and efficiency that can come into conflict with the established ‘academic values’, university culture and autonomy that make Higher Education a distinct sector.

Szekeres describes the rise of this culture of corporate managerialism particularly well:

‘As pressure increases on governments to account for the expenditure of public funds, they respond either by privatising government institutions or by increasing the reporting requirements of those few public institutions left…

In many texts, this increase of surveillance and privatisation is characterised as a neoliberal agenda. It exhibits itself through public institutions remodeling themselves along commercial lines and falls into a general discourse, corporate managerialism. This discourse has a number of elements including: an increase in managerial control (managerialism); competing with each other in the marketplace (marketization); being under greater scrutiny while having greater devolved responsibility (audit); and generally modelling their structures and operations on corporate organisations (corporatisation)” (p.9)

This kind of change can’t occur without at least perceived winners and losers. McInnis’ discussion of the two attitude surveys of academics and administrative staff, taken relatively early in the process of these changes, gives us an indication of some of the points of contention.

56% of admins felt that academics are not sufficiently accountable for their worktime (p.167)

“A mere 12% of academics thought their research productivity had increased as a result of formal appraisal processes, and 57% clearly thought not” (p.167)

“41% of administrators believing that quality assurance mechanisms would ensure genuine improvement to the higher education system as against 19% of academics” (p.167)

67% of academics (vs 52% of admins) felt that “universities are of little value to society if they are not autonomous” (p.166)

Much of McInnis’ paper revolves around the impact these changes have on the “core values” (p.170) of the academy, going so far as to conclude that

“Efficiency and effectiveness, productivity and performance, accountability and supervision are typically the preoccupation of administrators. It may be argued that the growth in specialist support staff and administrators such as experts in marketing, counselling and strategic planning has amounted to a subtle process of ‘colonisation’ of higher education. The experts are assumed to bring with them market and individualistic values with no particular allegiance to the higher-order goals of the academic world” (p.171)

I find it interesting that these core values and higher-order goals are never explicitly stated – presumably as an academic you just ‘get’ them but autonomy seems to sit firmly at the core.

(This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I believe that Higher Education and research should be treated as businesses in place of of noncommercial exploration, investigation and creativity, it’s more that the underlying assumptions that “non-academics” exist only in a soulless world of spreadsheets seems narrow minded and perhaps a little arrogant.)

McInnis makes his most explicit statement of this in his conclusion:

“where once administrative staff were considered powerless functionaries, they now increasingly assume high-profile technical and specialist roles that impinge directly on academic autonomy and control of the core activities of teaching and research” (p.170)

Looking at power reveals another significant source of tension in the academic/professional staff binary – rightly or wrongly. It’s hardly a new thing however.

Szekeres observes that

“Lee and Bowen (1971) found that academics tended to confound the lives of administrators but at the same time they vastly over-estimated the power that administrators had” (p.19)

A key point that often seems to be missed is that while professional / administrative staff are often responsible for implementing changes seen as less desirable by academics, these have almost always come from the university executive – Deans, Vice Chancellors and the like – who are invariably academics. Dobson notes that

“too few staff (particularly academic staff) understand or appreciate the reality of university authority structures. The ills which have befallen universities in recent times have frequently been seen by the academic staff as the fault of ‘the administration’. The difference between ‘administration’ and ‘governance’ seems to be lost on many members of the academic staff. That there is an ‘attitude problem’ toward the role of general staff among some in the academic ranks in exemplified by the following quote from Cullen (1988):

“There is a great deal of talent in the academic staff of higher education institutions. How they manage the systems which surround them and still find time to make a contribution to academic programs is a minor miracle… there is an old adage that administration is too important to be left to the administrators. It seems to me that this is certainly true of the sorts of reforms [in the Green and White Papers] we now need to discuss (p.154)” “ (p.208 of Dobson)

Academics can be even more scathing of former academics in the university executive levels than of professional / administrative staff. Szekeres found a quote in a Academia Nuts, a satirical novel about university life by Michael Wilding describing them thusly:

“they are not even trained administrators, they are not even professional managers. They are the Judases of the profession (2002, p.202)” (p.14)

So perhaps it is as much a matter of expressing frustration at anybody who gets in the way and being unable to sort the ‘functionaries’ from the ‘Judases’.

In practical terms however, the perception of a shift in power to professional staff may be over estimated. Three quotes from the comments sections of the survey of administrative staff reviewed by McInnis are revealing.

“in order for an opinion to be accepted it seems it must be sanctioned by an academic – this is very frustrating for general staff who are experts in their field” (p.168)

“the current concept of ‘general’ or ‘administrative’ staff inherently denies that we have specialist skills or subject expertise” (p.168)

“there is little recognition that there are highly qualified and experienced professionals in areas of support expertise which the University now needs and that they may well be better able to manage these tasks better than an academic; the assumption that an academic specialisation in a field makes a practising expert e.g. in marketing; or that computing support needs ultimately to be managed by an academic (Director of unit)” (p.168-9)

On the Professional staff side, by far the most significant issue reported (repeatedly) was the lack of respect or appreciation for their work from academic staff. According to McInnis

“only 28% of administrators agreed that ‘the relationship between academic and general staff is generally very positive’ and 36% expressed dissatisfaction with the appreciation their roles by academic staff” (p.167)

The under-representation of professional staff in publications about Higher Education, could be seen as another symptom of this and even the authors of these papers that appear more sympathetic to their plight sometimes pay more ‘backhanded compliments’

“It is probably fair to say that most general staff both ‘know their place’ and realise that their role is not the ‘main game’, but perhaps some academic staff haven’t caught up with the fact that a professional general staff does much to support and to enhance the student experience at university” (Dobson, p.209)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the three authors generally all come to the same conclusions, recognising that there is no option to put the genie of recent Higher Education reform back in the bottle and that more understanding and effective collaboration is needed between academic and professional staff.

With Szekeres’ attention being primarily on the representation of professional staff in current literature relating to Higher Education, she feels that much more effort needs to be put into telling and understanding “the stories of administrative staff” (p. 20).

She is fairly scathing of current representations

“much of the writing about universities which has emanated from the academic community has displayed erroneous perceptions. Many of these writers have been dismissive of administrative staff and their roles in the institution or have ignored them altogether. When provided at all, many of the constructions of academic staff demonstrate false impressions of what administrators actually do, the nature of their work and their relationship to the organisation” (p.20)

McInnis, on the other hand, makes it clear in his conclusion that he believes that this needs to done with an emphasis on the traditional values of academia

“the extent to which administrative staff support core values is crucial to the preservation of university autonomy” (p.170)

and

“the key question is how to support and sustain the transformation of universities while acknowledging and accommodating the basic sentiments and work practices of academics considered central to the idea of the university as a community of learners” (p.171)

Dobson ends with an appeal for understanding from academic staff that unfortunately somewhat downplays professional staff concerns about being being disrespected and unappreciated but which broadly calls for unity

“Should general staff be worried by the attitudes of some academic staff members? Probably not, because they will have found that there are also many rude people among the senior general staff. However, this does not change the fact that there is a need for a greater understanding by academic staff that the changes in higher education have been difficult for general staff too” (p. 210)

 

 

Many of these issues I’d have to put into the university-culture basket (the “too-hard basket”?) because there are a lot of long established and entrenched attitudes and expectations that are unlikely to change quickly. Speaking openly about them, sharing stories and viewpoints and increasing understanding at least seems like a useful first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research update

Things are definitely feeling better in researchland – this weekend I’ve read 3 papers and 2 blog posts, have blogged about the post and have another post brewing that will capture key ideas from the three papers.

I think my choice of papers has helped me here, I’ve been looking at the divide between professional and academic staff in higher education and this has been a comparatively theory-lite experience, with far less epistemology and pedagogy to unpack than normal.

The papers are all at least a decade (and one is closer to two) old and have left me asking regularly – ok well that’s pretty interesting but where are we now? Have your promised or hoped for changes eventuated or has the academe stubbornly dug in?

Perhaps it was the papers that I chose/found but the role of Education Support People/Professionals is barely even acknowledged and this certainly gives me thing to move on with. Developing a broader understanding of attitudes and the impact of external changes (largely governmental in these papers in terms of higher expectations for accountability and professionalism) has definitely given me a greater feel for the environment and issues.

I have noted that all three papers came from the same journal, the Higher Education Policy and Management, which seems like a logical place for discussions of the operational side of universities and I’ll be interested to see whether the question of the role and value of professional staff is considered in journals relating to other aspects of Higher Ed.

I have a meeting booked with my supervisor on Thursday and I’m feeling like I might even have something of substance to discuss, seemingly for the first time in a while. This isn’t to say that the other meetings weren’t productive but I feel much more like I’ve been doing proper scholarship this time around.

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 (and post #100)

I thought twice about making this post, given that (according to the WordPress stats) it’s the 100th but my slightly neglected PhD Wunderlist has an ongoing to-do item involving making update posts about my research.

Once again, the work side of this work focused research has taken priority however I’m still hopeful that it has helped to inform some of my big picture thinking around the ways that universities can support Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching in very realpolitik, pragmatic ways.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been working with my other “third space” peers on a project to look at how we are currently advising the decision makers in use of ed tech. The discussion/consultation part of this process came to a close a week ago and I’ve been trying to synthesise the key ideas, issues and questions into actionable terms of reference for our two ground level reference and user groups. I presented these proposed changes to the reference group yesterday and given that they sparked a degree of impassioned discussion and some of the ideas have shaken some sensibilities, I’ll refrain from going into detail here just yet until the dust settles.

I have a few stray observations however that these discussions and this process have prompted and I think that they offer some interesting insights into the behind the scenes challenges that universities can face both in supporting TELT and in embracing change and innovation more broadly.

As a relative new-comer to the space, I’ve noticed that many of the discussions around current practices and opportunities for improvements will at some point come back to a lengthy explanation of the context in which structures and policies were put into place “back in the day”. “Back in the day we didn’t have x/y/z and a new person started and decided we should do a/b/c and yada yada yada”. Now I can appreciate the importance of learning from history and avoiding making the same mistakes over and over but there always seem to be two undercurrents to these discussions.

The first is essentially – “our current situation isn’t my fault” – ok, no worries, I’m not interested in judging, all I want to do is look at where we are right now, where we want to be and what we do to get there. The second is often a variation on – “we already tried x idea and it failed” – this is probably more useful if the conversation proceeds to “it failed because a/b/c and we learnt d/e/f from it and in the future can try g/h/i”. This rarely seems to be the case though because it seems that the simple act of making a suggestion that was tried once, five years ago, is a clear indication that the suggestor simply doesn’t understand “how things work here”.

Navigating sensibilities – particularly when they relate to struggles and disappointments that others before you may have had – in this space is a much larger challenge than I have anticipated. The simple act of saying that something could be better can be heavily laden with  implications that this is the case because someone isn’t that great at their job. (This is clearly absurd when there are so many moving pieces in an educational ecosystem that impact on getting things done that no one person could ever reasonably be held responsible for anything – which is another matter for discussion again if we want to look at the vexed question of getting things done in this space)

Just as human frailty is routinely identified as the weak link in I.T. security, I’d suggest that it is equally problematic in achieving change in higher ed.

The second real issue identified in these discussions has been the culture or more precisely the mindset that determines the approach taken to the problem. To be clearer – TELT. Rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly, clearly), our current environment magnifies the Technology part by referring to “enterprise educational technologies” and framing things in an IT project mindset. We have a set of tools and systems that are owned by a central team that academics and students are allowed to use, if they are careful. What the discussions (and, to be fair, the actual stated terms of reference of the two low-level user/reference groups) have suggested is that the mindset actually needs to be more about a service that exists to support teaching and learning through the provision of appropriate and useful technology. A major identified issue seems to be that the activities of the groups don’t reflect their stated purposes.

Perhaps I’m using slightly slanted language and I appreciate that sound IT project management practices are required to keep things humming but if a tool has no value without a user, surely the needs of the user have to be the primary focus. Anyway, the tensions between these two camps – which I truly hope are about genuine beliefs that one approach is better for teaching and learning than another rather than baser matters of position or prestige – are definitely a significant area meriting further consideration. In real terms, it’s rarely an either/or question, people, systems and institutions are complex and have any number of simultaneous drivers and learning how to work with them is probably the best outcome possible.

Thoughts on: Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education (Whitchurch, 2008)

As I’ve delved into the place of Education Support People (academic/educational developers, designers and technologists) in shaping TELT practices in Higher Education, there have been repeated references to “Third space professionals”.

This paper by Celia Whitchurch from the University of London is routinely cited in these discussions, papers and presentations so I thought that I might have come across one of my first “seminal” papers. And it’s not bad at all, with a number of interesting ideas and keen observations about the emerging world of employment in Higher Ed. but it’s not entirely what I had hoped it would be.

My take on “third space professionals” until this point has been focused on education support professional staff – non-academics working in universities in areas (teaching and learning) generally considered to be within the academic domain. (As opposed to non-academics working in conventionally “non-academic” areas such as administration/finance/HR/IT/maintenance etc).

My use of the term Education Support People/Professionals (ESPs) is quite deliberate as there are several differentiatable roles in this sphere, with some people focusing on curriculum design and development, others helping to create educational resources, others providing professional development to academics in teaching practices and others still supporting Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices and systems. Many people work in roles that encompass most or all of these responsibilities.

Recent discussions with a number of peers have indicated that there are also a great many academics working in these capacities and I find myself now trying to decide whether it is the nature of the work or the nature of the organizational position (academic vs professional) that is of the greater importance. For now, I think it is the nature of the work, so People seems more helpful than Professionals.

Whitchurch, on the other hand, in this paper at least, largely avoids this sector of work and focuses more on professional staff working in management roles (and project management) in areas that have conventionally considered to be within the academic domain.

She notes

the emergence of broadly based, extended projects such a student transitions, community partnership and professional practice (Whitchurch, 2006a). These have contributed to the creation of a third space between professional and academic domains, requiring contributions from a range of staff. In this space, the concept of administrative service has become reoriented towards one of partnership with academic colleagues and the multiple constitutencies with whom institutions interact (P. 378)

Based on interviews conducted with 54 professional staff members at universities primarily in the UK but also Australia and the U.S, Whitchurch observed that she could classify professional staff as sitting within one of four distinct categories, related to the nature of their role and the extent to which they were confined by its “boundaries”

  • Individuals who located themselves within the boundaries of a function or organizational location that they had either constructed for themselves, or which had been imposed upon them. These people were characterized by their concern for continuity and the maintenance of processes and standards, and by the performance of roles that were relatively prescribed. They were categorized as bounded professionals”

  • Individuals who recognized and actively used boundaries to build strategic advantage and  institutional capacity, capitalizing on their knowledge of territories on either side of the boundaries that they encountered. They were likely to display negotiating and political skills, and also likely to interact with the external environment. These were categorized as cross-boundary professionals and, as in the case of bounded professionals, boundaries were a defining mechanism for them

  • Individuals who displayed a disregard for boundaries, focusing on broadly-based projects across the university such as widening participation and student transitions, and on the development of their institutions for the future. These people undertook work that might be described as institutional research and development, drawing on external experience and contacts, and were as likely to see their futures outside higher education as within the sector. They were categorized as unbounded professionals

  • A fourth category, of blended professionalswho were being recruited to dedicated appointments that spanned both professional and academic domains… worked in areas such as regional partnership, learning support, outreach and offshore provision, and were likely to have mixed backgrounds and portfolios. (P382-384)

Whitchurch’s primary emphasis was on the first three categories, only expanding to define the fourth in her second round of interviews with professionals outside the UK. This is probably the area of greater interest to me and I’ll investigate further to see whether she returned to this in subsequent research.

There is still a lot of material in the Bounded / Cross-boundary / Unbounded categories of note though.

Whitchurch Higher Education workforce map

This diagram maps out current academic and professional domains in the Higher Ed workplace and proposes a location for the Third Space. It also showcases where on the spectrum the various types of professional staff might sit.

Whitchurch goes on to say that

a number of respondents used organic imagery to describe this process of joint working, seeing the building of communicative relationships and networks as more significance than the observance of organisational boundaries, so much so that third space work may occur in spite of, rather than because of, formal structures (P.386)

As I mentioned at the start, the absence of Education Support People in this paper means that much of the management content is lost on me but I still took away a couple more key ideas.

She points out that it is essential for Third Space professionals to find a common language that speaks to both academics and other professional staff. This ties in some ways to the importance of building credibility, which tends not to come from position but from successful projects completed with academics. This suggests to me that there is still something of a cultural divide between academics and professional staff but given that I’m far more likely to judge someone based on their actions than their words or title, I can understand it. It does make me wonder how seriously academics take the titles/positions of their peers when it comes to credibility and this may well be a path for further investigation.

Given that Whitchurch appears to come from a management / HR perspective in her other research, it shouldn’t surprise me that she seems relatively unconcerned about the job security of third space professional staff but it is still disappointing. The undertone is that TSPs can be more effective in a flexible, short term contract/project based role and that this should be taken advantage of to benefit the university. Which, sure, fair enough but what happens to them after the project seems of little interest. The fact that projects often need to be maintained and don’t simply end also doesn’t seem to be on the radar.

Nonetheless, thinking more about the value that professional staff can bring to a university and looking for ways to support their work is a positive first step.

 

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