There are two people that I’ve heard about repeatedly in beginner PhD student circles as goldmines of advice – Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson. I’m lucky enough to work at the same institution as Inger and occasionally get the chance to chat in person but her blog – Thesis Whisperer – also carries a wealth of ideas and experiences from across the scholarsphere that help me to remember that I’m not alone and anything that I’m facing has been overcome by far smarter people than I.
Pat Thomson is regarded just as highly and her blog, Patter, has been just as helpful. She recently posted some suggestions for keeping your own PhD journal/blog/thing that have struck a chord with me. Happy to see that some of them I’ve already touched on but I think I’ll make an effort to work through this list in future updates.
This week I’ll go with
Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to…
Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to learn from them, reflect on how (or whether) my actions have contributed to the situation and consider what I need to do to get/keep things moving again. I also need to make a decision about whether I just let go.
I’ve mentioned my ideas and work on STELLAR, a gamified academic professional development program here before – I had planned to run a semester long version this semester (starting mid Feb) but college priorities haven’t aligned and this has now been put on hold. What I’ve learned is that I need to get better at making my case clearly and navigating institutional politics. I’ve also been told directly that academics would find it insulting to be taught how to teach (I think the subtext there was ‘by a professional staff member’) which I don’t 100% accept. While I recognise that some academics have no/little interest in teaching because research is still the source of status in the university, there are plenty who take a scholarly mindset and understand that developing one’s craft in this area is a life-long endeavour. I also need to remember that just because an idea is rationally (and empirically) sound, this isn’t all that is needed to sell it. There is a whole other set of complex emotional factors that sway decision making and simply being (or believing oneself to be) right about something is far from enough.
Coming back to my research, I’ve also been diving into Social Practice Theory and am kind of kicking myself for not taking advice better and pursuing it earlier. I’m not 100% sold on all facets of it yet – there seems to be a lot of discounting of more complex aspects of practice for the sake of making the theoretical model work – but there’s more than enough to be able to use in shaping a framework for what I’m hoping to do. Currently this seems to be talking to a lot of ‘at the coal-face /screenface’ TELT Advisors about what they do in their day to day work. (Oh and in the process of developing a Special Interest Group through ASCILITE for this community, I’m edging towards TEL edvisors as an umbrella name that seems to flow better. This is still up for discussion but it looks better I think.)
My much amended project plan is once more out the window but it is also based on an arbitrary deadline of July/August to get my proposal in.
In a nutshell though, I think I want to narrow focus from what universities can do to support TELT practices to what TEL edvisors do (and can do), which seems like a positive step. Viewing this through a social practice theory / sociomaterial lens helps to focus it a little further too.
Hopefully my supervisor agrees when I chat to him in a week.
One of my principle reasons for using this blog in my research/study is that it offers an effective and searchable way to put my first-draft thoughts and quotes/references down in a central and searchable space. I found this very useful when I did my Masters and hope that it will prove equally useful now.
My main challenge is the overwhelming amount of ideas and information that I’m currently swimming in. By taking on – at least for now – the challenge of developing an holistic understanding of the factors influencing (positively and negatively) the use of TELT in Higher Ed, I’ve opened myself to trying to understand the nature of H.E itself and how all of the pieces work together (or don’t, depending on how they seem to feel in the morning)
This has meant that I had a virtual bombsite with (digitally) jotted down questions and ideas for my job and quotes and scattered references and issues. I think I’ve now put this into some kind of triage/processing system. In brief, I’ll read the paper/book/etc, scrawl barely legible notes on it in pencil, highlight (it seems) every other word and then convert that into a blog post here.
From there, useful quotes (all annotated and properly cited) go into a quotes/refs page in Scrivener under the broad factor heading (e.g. Teachers and teaching). Simultaneously I have another page (organised by factor) with appropriate citations that is for my questions and ideas. These get filtered down to key points which go into a Notes for Lit Review page (again organised into factors) and this will give me the structure of the Lit Review itself and help me to make some semblance of order of my thinking.
I’ve just finished updating the Questions/ideas and Quotes/Ref pages and am up to transferring that to Notes. All of which means that it’s been a little while since I’ve actually read something new however revisiting the range of papers that I’ve already looked at was interesting in terms of seeing which areas my thinking has progressed in. (not many but some)
Going by my project plan, I should be moving on now to looking at Universities as Organisations as a factor – which I’ve never been 100% sure what I mean by but it seems relevant and like a handy catch all for a lot of spare influencers.
Half-way in to the slightly manic process of reorganising my Scrivener notes for my PhD thesis proposal, I wondered if I wasn’t using it to avoid to actual work. I was painstakingly working through a host of references (some with annotations – mainly from the abstract I suspect) – that I had added early on from my initial proposal and largely just dumped into my broad categories without much further thought. I haven’t since come back to them or considered how relevant or useful they are or what I plan to do with them.
My larger goal in this exercise was to try to find some kind of structure for my thinking – I’m increasingly aware that the Higher Education ecosystem is intricate and complex and most if not all of the moving parts impact on each other far more than the current literature seems to acknowledge. I’m still not sure what the best way to represent this is, but I’m hoping that creating some order will help me to place the myriad random thoughts and questions that I’ve come up with so far in something more manageable.
Which seems to be a point that I often reach in large projects (none as large as this, admittedly) before losing interest and moving on to something new. As I thought about this, I worried that I was doing this exact thing here.
Fortunately, I wasn’t. I eliminated a number of papers that seemed relevant on the surface but really weren’t, I found a few more that I’d completely forgotten that I have put into the high priority reading list and I think that now I have a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s a section for the actual writing (broken up by broad topics), a section for notes (broken up by broad topics which I’d say will get more and more subtopics), a section for quotes and references (with sub-sections for individual papers) and some general miscellaneous pages for ‘other’ stuff. What works best about this for me is the way that it lets me quickly jump around the proposal when something useful needs to be jotted down and the side-by-side structure of Scrivener lets me easily copy-paste chunks. It looks a bit like this.
The other part of this process that was useful was finding a brief paper that has the same focus as my research, which gave me some assurance that I’m on track with my ideas as well as check whether I’m missing anything vital. (Turns out that I think that they are missing a few things, which is obviously good for me. I’ll post about this one shortly)
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes posting a research progress update can be like jumping on the scales after a weekend of eating cake – it’s important to do to maintain accountability but you know it’s not going to be pretty. This is one of those times.
As you can tell by my recent posting history, it’s been a while since I read and reflected upon anything. Since my last update however, I have had a PhD progress review where the panel was satisfied with how I’m going and took me off probation and I also attended the ePortforum conference in Sydney, two days of talking and learning about what is being done in Higher Ed. with ePortfolios.
I also read a chapter of a book my supervisor (hi Peter) wrote about teacher attitudes towards education technology which got me thinking much more about methodology than I have been to date. There’s a strangeness to reading (and particularly writing) about one’s supervisor’s writing – a lot of different conflicting feels. Am I obliged/expected to fall into line with his ideas and/or particular areas of interest? (I don’t think so – he’s been remarkably chilled about what I’m doing. Offering thoughts and suggestions, of course but I’ve never felt pressured). Is it ok if I disagree with something that he’s said in his writing? (Again, I think that if I was able to present a solid argument, it would be fine. That said, I’ve not come across anything yet that hasn’t been eye-opening, as you would hope for from a mentor/supervisor). If I read too much of his work, does it get weird or obsequious?
On the one (rational) hand, you approach a supervisor because you think that their interests/methods will inform yours and presumably align (or vice versa) so why wouldn’t you but on the other (emotional) hand, have I had some kind of need to explore the other literature first to come to some of my own conclusions before being shaped too much by his take on things? (In the same way that a filmmaker on a remake might go back to the initial novel but not watch the first film that came from it?). Even Peter said that I didn’t necessarily need to read this particular book as it’s from 2002 and attitudes to ed tech have no doubt shifted since then. He suggested more that I look at who has cited it.
I’m really glad that I did read it though as, as I mentioned, the methodological ideas gave me a lot to think about – largely in getting tutors to describe their grading process as almost as stream of consciousness in real time which was also recorded so that they could watch the recording and add a layer of reflection later. This may well be a common methodology but it’s not one that I’ve come across in the reading that I’ve done to date. I’ll post something about this chapter soon anyway.
I’ve also been working away on an application to upgrade myself from Associate Fellow of the HEA to Senior Fellow. This requires a lot of reflective writing (around 7000+ words) and has been useful in thinking in greater depth about my own professional practices and ‘learning journey’. (I always feel a little bit hippy using that expression but I haven’t come across a better one). So this application has taken up a decent chunk of my time as well.
I have also – because clearly I have a lot of free time on my hands – been slowly nudging forward the formation of a Special Interest Group through HERDSA (but not solely for HERDSA members I think) that is focused on Education Advisors. (a.k.a Education Support Staff – academic developers, ed designers, learning technologists etc). We had a great lunchtime conversation (vent?) about some of the issues that we face which aligned particularly with many of the papers that i have posted about here in the last couple of months. I suspect that one of the trickiest parts will be explaining to teaching academics that this isn’t a group for them. I guess this is one of the things that we’ll need to pin down in the formation of it. It’s far from a new idea – there are a range of city and state based parallels in varying states of activity – but having a national (transnational to include NZ) body isn’t something I’ve seen before. The funny thing is that while this is important to me, some of the issues/ideas that came up in the conversation yesterday, I felt like I have already moved on from in pivoting to research academic staff now and their issues and concerns. But I’m pretty sure I can walk and chew gum at the same time.
At this stage of looking at the matter of professional staff and academic staff in Higher Education, I feel that I’m somewhat flogging a dead horse and everything that needs to be said, has been said. So why am I still looking at this paper? Initially I was concerned that it grated on me because it doesn’t fit with my current narrative that there are significant cultural factors in universities that make it unnecessarily difficult for professional staff – particularly those in education support roles – to be heard when it comes to discussing teaching and learning.
If this was the case, I’d clearly not being doing my best work as a scholar – open to new information and willing to reconsider my world view in the face of it. Having looked over the paper a few times now though, I have to say that I think it’s just not that great a piece of research. A number of assertions are made that simply aren’t supported by the evidence presented and some of the reasoning seems specious. Events from four years prior to the publication date are referred to in the future tense but there is no discussion of whether they happened or what the consequences were.
Assuming that this is poor research – or perhaps poor analysis – it makes me happy that I’ve reached a point where I can identify bad work but also a little concerned that I’m wrong or I’m missing something because this was still published in a peer reviewed journal that I’ve found a lot of good work in previously. (Then again, I assume that most journals have their own favoured perspectives and maybe this was well aligned with it). I searched in vain to find other writing by the author but she appears to be a ghost, with no publications or notable online presence since the paper came out.
In a nutshell, based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities, the author concludes that there is minimal dissension between academic and “allied” staff and most of what little there is, is felt by the allied staff.
Now it’s entirely reasonable that this may well be the case but there are a few elements of the paper that seem to undermine the authors argument. Wohlmuther asks survey participants about their perceptions of a divide but doesn’t dig directly into attitudes towards other kinds of staff, which McInnis (1998), Dobson (2000) and Szekeres (2004) all identified as central factors. She looks at the perceptions of contributions of academic and allied staff members to the strategic goals of the organisation which obliquely explores their ‘value’ within the organisation but it seems limited. Given the ambiguous value of some higher level strategic goals (Winslett, 2016), this would seem to tell an incomplete story.
The greatest weakness of the paper to my mind is that ‘allied’ and ‘academic’ work roles are unclear.
Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work (p.330)
With no further examination of the responses via focus groups or interviews, this alone (to me anyway) seems to make the findings murky.
She found that only 29% of staff – all staff? that is unclear – felt that there was “good understanding and respect for the significance of each others roles and all staff work well together” (p.331) across the institute, however doesn’t take this to be an indicator of division.
Looking over the paper again, these are probably my main quibbles and perhaps they aren’t so dramatic. This tells me that I still have a way to go before I can truly ‘read’ a paper properly but I’m on the way
This is just a quick one because I’m getting on a roll and am going to try to skim read 6 papers this weekend and properly read one that I’ve already started. I’ve been quite conscious of the fact that while I’m doing some good (it seems) deep reading, it’s taking a fair while and looking at the bibliographies even in journal papers makes me mindful of the fact that coming up with a useful (and read) list of 50+ papers requires a little getting the lead out.
Happily, I’ve found a contemporary paper (2016) by Greg Winslett of UNE that I’m hopeful will give me a recent take on the issues addressed in the three papers I looked at from the turn of the century. (There are also a host of recent citations that seem pretty pertinent)
Winslett’s paper – still from the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management (I’m worried about drawing too often from the same journal well) but what can you do – is about “The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff”
I like two things about this already – the term teaching support staff seems more suitable than the “education support staff” that I’ve been favouring, (although I am sad to lose the ESP acronym) – and the fact that this is about how TSSs can take guidance from university strategies. (We’re in the middle of a strategic revamp at present, so there’s much to think about)
I did also quite like the fact that a paper co-written by my supervisors Peter and Lina was cited. There was a funny moment of “oh, I know them”
I’m also mindful of the fact that I’m leaning very heavily on papers about and writers from the Australian Higher Education sector. I think I’m ok with this for now but will probably need to consider this in the way that I shape my research questions.
My cool uber-boss, our Associate Dean Education (hi Bronwen) mentioned that I’ve been tweeting a lot about the professional/academic staff divide lately. I felt compelled to clarify that I wasn’t trying to make any particular point or that I have any issue, it’s just where my research is sitting at the moment – and I guess I’m noticing more when other people are tweeting about it.
(I’m scheduled to move on to Unis as Organisations next Friday – I’m not 100% clear what I mean by this but I think it includes education ecosystems among other things). My way of thinking is also such that I’m most interested in the search for solutions than dwelling on any possible issues in terms of any divide or tensions between academics and professionals. The way I see things, we are where we are and that part can’t be changed but by trying to understand it, we can see which bits are working and which can be improved .
I suspect this isn’t going to be the last time that thinking critically about academia in an academic way raises eyebrows.
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.
It was always my intention that researching in the area that I work in would help me to shape my professional practice (and it is) but I’ve been surprised lately at how much things are flowing in the other direction. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to make an educational project successful and how we know that learners have actually benefitted.
This is partially coming from the big picture work that I’m doing with my peers at the university looking at what we’re doing and why and partially from my own college, which has recently launched a Teaching and Learning Eminence Committee/project to look into what we’re doing with teaching and learning. I wasn’t initially invited onto the committee, (it’s all academics), which speaks to some of the ideas that have been emerging in some of my recent posts (the academic/professional divide) as well as the fact that I need to work on raising the profile of my team* and understanding of our* capacity and activities in the college.
Anyway, while trawling through the tweetstream of the recent (and alas final) OLT – Office of Learning and Teaching – conference at #OLTConf2016, I came across a couple of guides published recently by Ako Aotearoa, the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, that fit the bill perfectly.
One focusses on running effective projects in teaching and learning in tertiary education, it’s kind of project managementy, which isn’t always the most exciting area for me but it offers a comprehensive and particularly thoughtful overview of what we need to do to take an idea (which should always be driven by enhancing learning) through three key phases identified by Fullan (2007 – as cited in Akelma et al, 2011) in the process of driving educational change – initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. The guide – Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners is freely available on the Ako Aotearoa website, which is nice.
I took pages and pages of notes and my mind wandered off into other thoughts about immediate and longer term things to do at work and in my research but the key themes running through the guide were treating change as a process rather than an event, being realistic, working collectively, being honest and communicating well. It breaks down each phases into a number of steps (informed by case studies) and prompts the reader with many pertinent questions to ask of themselves and the project along the way.
The focus of the guide is very much on innovation and change – I’m still thinking about what we do with the practices that are currently working well and how we can integrate the new with the old.
The second guide – A Tertiary practitioners guide to collecting evidence of learner benefit – drills down into useful research methodologies for ensuring that our projects and teaching practices are actually serving the learners’ needs. Again, these are informed by helpful case studies and showcase the many places and ways that we can collect data from and about our students throughout the teaching period and beyond.
It did make me wonder whether the research mindset of academics might conventionally be drawn from their discipline. Coming from an organisation with an education and social science orientation, one might expect an emphasis on the qualitative (and there are a lot of surveys suggested – which I wonder about as I have a feeling that students might be a little over-surveyed already) but the guide actually encourages a mixture of methodologies and makes a number of suggestions for merging data, as well as deciding how much is enough.
Definitely some great work from our colleagues across the ditch and well worth checking out.