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Thoughts on: Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: implications for academic development (Boud & Brew, 2012)

I’ve been really struggling to process my thoughts on this paper for the last week. I’ll read a few pages, furiously scribbling notes all over it, and then need to step away to deal with my responses to it.

Now this isn’t particularly uncommon for me as it helps me feel that I’m part of a discourse and I try to create action items for future followup, particularly with citations. It often also feels like the most convenient place to jot down other ideas, like the spectrum of edvisor practices that I’ve started on the bottom of page two there. But I think I’ve probably written more on this paper than most because while I agree with most of the broad principles, the lack of understanding that it demonstrates of the practices of academic development and the capacity of academic developers to effect significant change in the institution undercuts much of what it has to say. Which surprises and disappoints me, particularly because I’ve spoken to one of the authors on several occasions and have great respect for his other work and I’ve read many of the other author’s papers and hold her in similar esteem. She has also, according to her bio, worked as an academic developer and co-edited the academic journal that this paper appears in, which makes it even harder to understand some of the misperceptions of this kind of work.

Which leads me to question my own perceptions. Am I overly defensive about what feels like an attack of the competence and professionalism of my colleagues and I? Is the environment that I work in uniquely different and my attitudes towards the development of academics that far out of the norm suggested by this paper? Perhaps most importantly am I taking this too personally and is my emotional response out of proportion to the ideas in the paper?

I suspect that part of my frustration is that the paper begins by talking about something which sounds like academic development but which ends up being a call for a complete revision of all aspects of academic practice and an implication that academic developers should really do something about that.

Assuming that academic development or academic developers are even actually necessary in the first place. There are a couple of telling remarks that, to me at least, strongly imply that academic development is a cynical exercise by university management to impose training on an academic staff that doesn’t need it – they did a PhD after all – in the interests of ensuring compliance with organisational policy and being seen to do something.

Or to put it another way (emphasis mine):

The development of academics is based on the notion that institutions need to provide opportunities for their academic employees to develop across a range of roles. Any initial training (e.g. through undertaking a PhD) is not sufficient for them to be able to meet the complex and increasing demands of the modern academy. Their development is an essentially pragmatic enterprise aimed at making an impact on academics and their work, prompted by perceptions that change is needed. This change has been stimulated variously by: varying needs and a greater diversity of students, external policy initiatives, accountability pressures and organisational desires to be seen to attend to the development of personnel. (p.208)

“Varying needs” almost seems to be used as a get-out-of-jail free card for those apparently rare instances where an academic might benefit from some additional training to be able to meet their responsibilities in teaching, research, service and potentially management.

There’s another section where the authors discuss the challenges of academic development. It’s close to a page long – 4 solid paragraphs, 22 lengthy sentences – yet it lacks a single citation to support any of the assertions that the authors make. The main argument made is that academic developers (and their units) don’t provide academics with the development that will help them because the developers are beholden to the agendas of the institution. The same institution, I should mention, that is governed at an executive level by senior academics who presumably have a deep understanding of academic practices.

Like most forms of education and training, academic development is continually at risk from what might be termed ‘provider-capture’, that is, it becomes driven by the needs of the providers and those who sponsor them, rather than the needs of beneficiaries’ (p. 210)

The main objection that the authors appear to have is that the institution takes a simplistic approach to training – because, reasons? – that implies that academics don’t already know everything that they need to.

…academic development has a tendency to adopt a deficit model. It assumes that the professionals subject to provision lack something that needs to be remedied; their awareness needs to be raised and new skills and knowledge made available. The assumption underpinning this is that without intervention, the deficit will not be addressed and academics not developed. (p.210)

Correct me if I’m wrong but I suspect that this is precisely the attitude that lies at the heart of the teaching practices of many academics. The students need knowledge/skills/experience in the discipline and its practices and the teacher will help them to attain this. Is the implication that academics deserve to be developed better than their students? Does it suggest a deficit in the pedagogical knowledge of academics? I would argue that this description undervalues the sophistication of work done by both academics and academic developers. Which the authors hypothetically note but then immediately discount based upon…? (Emphasis mine)

Such a characteristation, many developers would protest, does not represent what they do. They would argue that they are assiduous in consulting those affected by what they do, they collect good data on the performance of programmes and they adjust what they do in the light of feedback…they include opportunities for academics to address issues in their own teaching, to research their students’ learning and to engage in critical reflection on their practice. Developers undoubtedly cultivate high levels of skill in communicating and articulating their activities for such a demanding group. Nevertheless they are positioned within their institutions to do what is required of them by their organisation, not by those they claim to serve.  (p.210-211)

It’s hard to go past “those affected by what they do” as an indicator of the attitudes towards academic developers. I’d also make the point that I’ve come across few institutions with a comprehensive, practical strategy on teaching and learning and it generally falls on academic developers to use their extensive professional knowledge and experience to offer the best advice and support available in the absence of this.

The other significant point that I feel that the authors have completely missed – again perhaps surprisingly given their experience – is that, in my experience at least, academic professional development is almost never mandated and simply getting academics to attend PD is a task unto itself. The authors must certainly be aware of this, having written a recent paper (2017) that I found invaluable about academic responses to institutional initiatives. (Spoiler alert, it’s like herding sleeping cats). Academic developers are painfully aware of this – imagine spending days preparing a workshop or seminar only to have two attendees – and this if nothing else necessitates design of PD activities that are as relevant and attractive to academics as possible. I won’t dispute that the further away academic development teams are from academics – e.g. centralised teams – the harder it can be to do this and the more generic content becomes but even these areas have a deeper understanding of academics and their needs than is implied. (And I still have more to say about the practical realities of delivering PD that can wait for now)

Now that we’ve gotten past that – and it was something that I evidently needed to say – we start to get to the nub of what the authors would prefer instead of this ‘deficit model’.

The authors draw on Schatzki’s (2001) work in Social Practice theory, which is an area that I’ve spent some time looking at and which I see the value of. My introduction came through the work of Shove et al (2012) who present a slightly different perspective, a more streamlined one perhaps, but fundamentally the same. Where Shove et al identify three major elements to practice – meaning, materials and competences, Schatzki is a little more granular and includes elements such as emotions/moods, projects, tasks and ends. Arguably these could sit in the three elements of Shove et al but there might be something in looking more deeply at emotions/moods particularly. Maybe I’ll end up taking a Shovezki based approach to practice theory.

At the risk of oversimplifying it, from what I can see practice theory necessitates taking a more holistic perspective of being an academic and recognising that the different practices in the bundle of practices (or is it a complex – one or the other) that make up “being an academic” all occur in a specific context involving the practitioner, time, space and the larger meaning around what is being done. These sub-practices – such as teaching, research, service – can be in competition with each other and it is necessary to factor them in when providing PD training that relates to any other of them. Now this is an avenue of thinking that I’ve been pursuing myself, so obviously I’m pretty happy with this part of the paper. When we look at why an academic doesn’t undertake an activity to enhance their teaching, the current research rarely seems to answer – ‘well it was partially because they had to put together an application for research funding and that took priority’. This much I appreciate in the paper.

Where I think the paper runs into trouble though is that it makes a case for a slightly hazy approach to re-seeing academics practices as a whole, taking into consideration the following six factors that shape them:

  1. Embodiment – “It is the whole person who engages in practice, not just their intellect or skills… Desires, emotions and values are ever present and cannot be separated out” (p.212)

  2. Material mediation – “Practice is undertaking in conjunction with material arrangements. These may include objects such as raw materials, resources, artefacts and tools, physical connections, communication tools, organisms and material circumstances (Kemmis, 2009). These materials can both limit and enable particular practices” (p.212)

  3. Relationality – “Practice occurs in relation to others who practice, and in relation to the unique features a particular practitioner brings to a situation. Practice is thus embedded in sets of dynamic social interactions, connections, arrangements, and relationships” (p.212)

  4. Situatedness – This I’d call context – “…in particular settings, in time, in language… shaped by mediating conditions…” that “may include cultures, discourses, social and political structures, and material conditions in which a practice is situated” (p.213)

  5. Emergence – “Practices evolve over time and over contexts: new challenges require new ways of practising” (p.213)

  6. Co-construction – “Practices are co-constructed with others. That is, the meaning given to practice is the meaning that those involved give it” (p.213)

In my personal experience, I don’t believe that many academics give their practices, particularly teaching, anywhere near this level of reflection. It’s probably fair to say that few academic developers would either, at least not consciously. The authors believe that using this new practice frame

“…moves academic development from a focus on individuals and learning needs to academic practice and practice needs; from what academics need to know to what they do to enact their work” (p.213-214)

Maybe it’s just my professional background but I think that I pretty well always frame learning objectives in terms of the tangible things that they need to be able to do. On the other hand, my experience with academics is largely that many of their learning outcomes for their students begin with “understand x” or “appreciate the concept of y”. It’s not my job to be a discipline expert and I have no doubt that these are important learning outcomes to the academics – and I might still be misinterpreting how the authors are thinking about practices and learning design.

They go on to make an important point about the value of situated learning in professional development – conducting it in the space where the teacher teaches rather than in a removed seminar room in a building that they never otherwise visit. This makes me think that it would be valuable to have a simulated workspace for our students to learn in and I’ll give that some more thought but the logistics seem challenging at the moment as we undergo massive redevelopment. (This also acts as a pretty significant barrier to providing situated professional development, as teaching spaces are occupied from 8am to 9pm every day).

There’s an additional idea about the format of assessment conducted by ADs and what more beneficial alternatives might be considered.

“Learning is driven by, for example, by encountering new groups of students with different needs and expectations, or by working with a new issue not previously identified. Success in learning is judged by how successfully the practice with the new group or new issue is undertaken, not by how much is learnt by the individuals involved that could be tested by formal assessment practices” (p.214)

I completely support this approach to learning but I cannot see how it could ever be implemented with current staffing levels. If we’re going to think seriously about practices in an holistic way, perhaps a wider view needs to be taken that encompasses all of the participants in co-construction of the practice. This is probably where I think that this paper falls down heaviest – there seems to be a wilful blindness to ability to enact these new approaches. I also don’t see any academics ever moving to this kind of approach in their own teaching for the exact same reason.

This brings me to my larger challenge with this paper – from here (and perhaps in ignoring the logistical issues of situated learning in teaching spaces), there seems to be an expectation that it is up to academic developers and/or their units to make a lot of these significant changes happen. I can only imagine that this comes from the openly held perception that ADs are tools of ‘university management’ – which I will stress yet again is made up of academics – and that ADs are able to use these connections to management to effect major changes in the institution. I’m just going to quote briefly some of these proposed changes because I think it is self-evident how absurd that would be to expect ADs to implement any of them.

We suggest that a practice perspective would thus place greater emphasis on the development of academics:

(2) as fostering learning conducive work, where ‘normal’ academic work practices are reconfigured to ensure that they foster practice development; (p.214)

And this

“Working with individual academics to meet institutional imperatives, for example, curriculum reform, comes up against various stumbling blocks where academics complain that they are overworked, that there is too much to take on and that their colleagues are not supportive of what they are trying to do. Practice development means working with how that group juggles various aspects of their role and their attitudes and beliefs in relation to that. It is about how the group interacts in pursuing its practice, how and where interpersonal relationships are take account of the being of its members, how power and authority are negotiated, whose ideas are listened to and taken up and whose are denied” (P.215)

So, I’ll change the entire culture of academia and then after lunch… I know that sounds cynical but if the VC can’t enact that kind of a mindset shift…

I don’t disagree with any of these changes by the way but even in my relatively short time in the H.E. sector I have had it made painfully clear to me that the expertise of professional staff is basically never considered in these processes, so this paper is wildly misdirected.

The paper wraps up with a few more achievable suggestions that I think ADs have known for a long time already and try to enact when possible. Offering training or advice about something (e.g the grading system in the LMS) is going to be more valuable in some temporal contexts (weeks of semester) than others, learning more about academics and their particular practice needs – again, generally teaching as I suspect there is hierarchy of things that academics never want to have their knowledge questioned on – discipline knowledge, research skills, teaching and then technology. I might look into how often academics go to research training after they finish PhDs. I suspect it will be rarely – but I don’t know. (I should probably know that)

The authors also suggest that ADs might take a project based approach, a consultancy one or a reflective one to their development work and I would consider that communities of practice probably sit well with the latter.

Ultimately, while I am broadly supportive of many of the approaches and the more holistic viewpoint put forward in this paper, expecting ADs to implement many of the larger changes seems to demonstrate a lack of awareness of the powerlessness of people in these kinds of roles. What is proposed would largely require a significant cultural shift and to be driven from the top. Of course, the latter paper by Brew, Boud et al (2017) shows the utter folly of expecting that to succeed.




Research update #29: Slowly digesting

I’m re-reading (or properly reading) a paper by Boud and Brew that I’ve previously skim-read but now that more pieces are falling into place in my research, I’m realising its true value.

The main problem is that I can only read a few pages at a time because it’s sparking so many sideward thoughts and diversions that I need to step away to process it all. Which ultimately seems like a good thing. Just a little time-consuming.

It’s about taking a new approach to the work that Academic Developers do by viewing it through the lens of Social Practice theory. They’re using a slightly different flavour of SPT than I’m familiar with (Schatzki vs Shove) – though it’s all largely still mappable and it’s helpful in expanding my understanding of the theory as well.

There are moments as I read it when I feel they might be missing some bits as ‘outsiders’ accustomed to an academic’s view of the world but these will either wrap up ok at the end or offer me a gap to fill with my own experiences, so it’s win/win.

I keep coming back to a minor comment in the feedback on our ASCILITE paper about TEL edvisors where the reviewer said (to paraphrase) that he (feels like a he) doesn’t see the significance for anyone other than the authors. Which, you know, ouch but also, you know, you’re wrong. But I think you’re wrong because I suspect that TEL edvisors live in a blind spot for many academics, even those with the best and noblest intentions. Which often makes reading research about ‘us’ – I get to say ‘us’ here which is the nice thing about a blog – sometimes more revealing about the academic culture that it came from. But I’m also trying to escape the mental mire of us vs them that seems increasingly pervasive these days and will strive to think bigger and find the missing nuance.

Research update #26: The reboot

Here’s this week’s Pat Thomson inspired PhD journal topic:

I have learnt since starting the PhD that… I need to rethink my approach and be a little more realistic in my planning. This is the project plan that I started at the end of May last year.

project plan

At the time, it seemed like a pretty good plan. By this plan, I had finished the final version of my PhD proposal 29 days ago, after getting and responding to feedback on two draft versions.

I could beat myself up about not hitting these targets – not coming even remotely close really – but that’s not going to achieve anything.

So I’m hitting the reboot button. Fortunately, my thinking has progressed in this time and I can happily remove several of the sections. Students – gone. TELT pedagogy and practices – largely gone I think. Teachers  – mostly gone. Technology – mostly gone. Instead of trying to do all the things and come up with some kind of genius ‘theory of everything’, I’ve landed on something rather more achievable.

The original question was this:

How can Edvisors, (third space teaching support workers including education designers, academic developers and learning technologists), better support technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT) practices in higher education?

(The bit explaining edvisors has always been draft at best)

It might look kind of like this:

How can, do and should H.E. institutions ensure that the work and role of the edvisor in introducing, expanding and supporting TELT practices is understood, valued and supported?

Or maybe it’s not the responsibility of H.E institutions. I mean, I think it is but in terms of actually getting something done… Maybe the question is really:

How do and should edvisors in H.E. ensure that their work in introducing, supporting and developing TELT practices is understood, valued and supported by academics and the institution?

Not sure – this option feels more pro-active and empowered but maybe initiatives that don’t come from the ‘thought-leaders’ of the academy are unlikely to succeed due to entrenched power structures. Who needs to take ultimate responsibility? Who is actually more likely to get it done?

What do you think? Please comment or tweet me back @gamerlearner

I just need to find a way to put this into a question that gives me the room to address it properly. There’s a lot of other stuff that I’m interested in but I think it has been covered already pretty well in the existing literature. It’s the job of the edvisor to know the research and recommend the best strategies for innovation and support of TELT practices, so this is not the focus of the thesis.

Oh and I think I’ll go with the term edvisor for now too. Probably need to write something explaining what I think this is and why it is the best term, but I’m ok with that.

Mainly just writing something is vital at this stage – and figuring out exactly what I’m trying to research and what methods I want to use to do so.

One core element is going to be a comprehensive scan of what Australian Universities are currently doing in this space – how they manage edvisor teams and which systems appear to be working. I had in my head that there are 37 Australian Universities – I found out yesterday that there are actually 40, plus 3 International unis with local campuses. Not sure what to do with them – I suspect they have a very minimal local presence so it’s probably not relevant. Might be interesting though. We’ll see.


Research update #24: The community

I mentioned recently that I’d come across some interesting anthropological research suggesting that the key reason that academics rarely innovate their teaching is fear of looking foolish in front of their students. There was a whole thing about it in the Times Higher Education at the time and it sparked some interesting discussion in the TEL edvisors SIG forums. Media being media of course, it was far from the whole story and the researcher – Lauren Herckis – was able to help correct the story a week later.

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of the PhD (thanks once more Pat Thomson) is the peek through the door it offers me to the global community of scholars. (That reads far more pretentiously than is intended). But if I wasn’t working on mine and found this work to be particularly pertinent, I probably wouldn’t have reached out to the author to ask if there is a paper or book or something that this research came from. (As the THE article was remarkably vague on that). Turns out that it’s a work in progress but Lauren was happy to share what they’ve done so far, making the point that the later stages of the research and data analysis are still in train.

I have no illusions that all academics are as generous with their time and work but on the whole, those that I have reached out to that are working in my field have helped me to feel as though I’m part of something bigger. Maybe as a PhD student rather than a rival researcher in competition for research funding it might be different but I haven’t had that sense – it’s really felt more like sharing an interest that perhaps not that many others do.

I’ll probably write something more about the paper in progress shortly – after checking I’m not travelling too far into spoiler town or whatever the academic equivalent is – but I’ve already found it interesting in framing the discussions that I’ve had at work and in trying to better understand some of the (sometimes unfathomable) resistance I encounter to new ideas about teaching and learning. The difference between the ways that attitudes in early career vs senior academics relating the value of teaching overall has particularly given me a lot to ponder.

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Research update #21 – Where is this going?

When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.

Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.

In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.

Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.

Research update #18: Wow, it’s been a while

While I haven’t been ‘here’ writing up things about readings, there’s still been a little bit of research action going on under the surface. I had a great meeting in person with Peter and Lina a month or so ago where I asked more questions than normal and it felt like more of a two-way conversation. (In our phone/skype chats, I’ve often felt like I needed to prove that I’ve been working, so I’ve largely just rattled off things that I’ve come across and new ideas for directions for the research, rather than drawing on the wisdom at the other end of the line. I mean, I still got some of that in the comments but seeking it out more pro-actively definitely seems more productive)

I’ve also been working on a paper submission with my TELedvisor network colleagues for ASCILITE 2017. What was meant to be a 5 page concise paper, kind of describing a work in progress rapidly blew out to 17+ pages (without appendices). I think this might have been partially because we have a lot to say on this topic – why the names for TEL edvisor roles are so ill-defined and what it means as workers in the third space – and perhaps a little bit because there’s a little bit of a sense of having something to prove. We aim to shape this into a journal paper, so will need to trim it pretty substantially.

The work has helped me to think more about how Social Practice Theory might be practically applied – I haven’t found much if anything about this in the literature yet but I’m assuming that’s more because I haven’t looked enough rather than that my ideas are breath-takingly innovative. I think that it will be useful to go deeper into the practices of TEL edvisors and the practices of teachers (and maybe or maybe not management) to see what the barriers to good TEL practices actually are – rather than the plausible excuses that people use to make them sound better.

I also seem to have gotten caught up with a lot of research adjacent work – putting together an application to be a HERDSA Fellow for example – which seems useful long term and professionally (I hope) but not directly relevant. I think I’m looking to bolster my pedagogical and research credibility – which, as a professional staff member, I’m almost never given credit for.

I was seriously pondering printing out all of my education qualifications this morning and creating a poster that I would stick to my office door – maybe with a sign saying “You can talk to me about teaching too, you know”. Might come across as a little defensive – or, you know, unhinged. So I probably won’t do that.

Anyhoo, back to the reading. I only have two chapters to go in this social practice theory book – now I just need to find it in my newly set up study. (I did move house, so I feel that has contributed to my study gap in some ways)


Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 4 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

Chapter 4 of The Dynamics of Social Practice takes us from the ways that the elements of practices circulate, emerge and disappear to the people that ‘carry’ these practices and some of the reasons that they pick them up and abandon them (or defect from them, to use the preferred terminology of the authors).

After my post on Chapter 3 came in at 3000+ words and took a day and a half to write, I thought I’d look for a new approach for this post. So here’s my mindmap of core concepts that I’m hoping will help me take a bit more of a top down view.

Chapter 4 mindmap

Something that I’ve felt was missing in discussion of practices up until now was the human element, the practitioners. The authors, taking a practise-centric perspective unfortunately refer to practitioners as carriers, which I kind of get from that viewpoint but it still feels wrong. Putting this quibble aside, the authors do identify some valuable issues when it comes to the spread of practices in relation to people, not the least of which being that inequalities of opportunity and access can play a significant role in who becomes a practitioner.

Rather than asking how social and material inequalities restrict the potential for one or another practice to develop, should we not also think about their impact on individual lives and the chances that people have?… It is so in that the chances of becoming the carrier of any one practice are closely related to the social and symbolic significance of participation and to highly structured and vastly different opportunities to accumulate and amass the different types of capital required for, and typically generated by participation (p.61)

The authors lean heavily on Bourdieu here, who I’m yet to really dip into but from what I’ve seen of his work, I think we’re on the same page.

Shove et al discuss the importance of pre-existing networks (and communities of practice) that expose practitioners to new practices. In this particular instance, they frame the discussion in terms of the emergence of the Punk movement.

…critical features, like the diameter of the circle and the density of links within it, proved to be important in allowing rapid interaction between members, establishing patterns of mutual obligation and enabling a productive concentration of energy and effort. The same arrangements that allowed punk practices to emerge also enabled them to take hold and diffuse. In effect, the networks through which punk came into being, and through which its carriers were recruited, were formed by previous interests and affiliations. This suggests that new and emerging practices exploit connections forged and reproduced by practices that co-exist or that went before. Needless to say, these links are not randomly distributed but, in the case of punk, neither were they configured by intent. (p.62)

There’s further discussion later in the chapter about the way that people can belong to multiple communities of practice and that practices can spread between these communities. It’s the last sentence of the quote above though that makes me think the most about how we can make use of these networks to spread new practices. It seems as though working with existing networks might be far more effective than trying to start new ones from scratch. This seems to create challenges in my research, where the nature of academia seems to be that it is regarded as a solitary practice and I’m not sure what these existing networks might be. Hopefully it’s just that it’s harder rather than impossible.

In looking at the work of Brown and Duguid on Communities of Practice, the authors note that “the ties and connections through which practices develop and circulate, and by means of which they reach and capture new recruits, do not necessarily map onto organisational or institutional structures” (p.62) 

I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my workplace, which is why I’ve made a significant effort to connect with my colleagues across colleges and other institutions based on our work types and backgrounds.

Drawing on the work of Wenger, the authors go further, noting that

if communities of practice are born of the experience of doing, they cannot be willed into existence or designed from afar. But it is also puzzling. If communities are defined by the practices in which members engage, can they also act as conduits through which the practices flow? (p.63)

There is also a tipping point where practices are so widespread that surrounding elements (materials, meaning) help to reinforce them.

Where practices are widespread within any group or society, the chances encounter are that much higher. And in situations where participation is simply expected, recruitment follows as a matter of course. There are, in addition, instances in which people are required to adopt or refrain from certain practices by law. There are no laws about showering on a daily basis but the practice has become embedded through material and not only social networks. As a result, people are, in a sense recruited to showering by the design of the bathroom and the products on sale, as well as by the expectations of family and friends (Burke, 1996) (p.63)

This echoes sociomaterial theory, as far as I can see.

Once someone has been exposed to a practice and been recruited to it, the next logical step – if the practice is right for them – is that it becomes part of their ‘career’. They progress from a novice practitioner through a range of performances of the practice, often in the company of other practitioners, to mastery of it. At some point they might even adopt it into their identity, so that they become a full practitioner – like a ‘jazz musician’ or a ‘drugtaker’ – probably both in that specific instance. (oooh, 50’s zinger)

The practicalities of becoming what Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to as a ‘full practitioner’ and the sequences and stages involved vary from one practice to another. This is relevant in that at any one moment, a practice will be populated and carried by people with different degrees of experience and commitment. (p.65)

Shove et al take a brief sidestep at this point to consider the ‘career’ of a practice itself. At times, it feels like they’re trying to be a little too cute/clever with language but I can also see what they’re getting at. It’s essentially the evolution of the practice over time. They discuss the fact that you might expect novices to be try to bend or break a practice with new ideas and approaches, given their lack of reverence for the history of the practice but find that it just as often (if not moreso) tends to be more those that have achieved mastery that are the most at ease with changing things. This makes sense to me, in that you need to know the rules before you can break them. It does suggest that it’s useful to maintain a certain flexibility or fluidity in the definition of a practice, as there will always be changes and permutations as it ages.

The impact of these changes in practices on their associated communities of practice can be significant and amplify the changes – which sometimes then change the communities

Outside the realm of formal organisation, and sometimes within it too, evolving practices routinely change the margins of relevant networks and the scope of who they do and do not include. As snowboarders split away from skiers, new communities of practice formed. Similarly, when practices diffuse through social hierarchies, for instance as people emulate those of higher status, the meaning of participation changes; an influx of new recruits often leads to the exit of others…Patterns of participation matter not only for who gets the opportunity to do what, but for who it is that shapes the future of a practice, and for how individuals are shaped by the experience  (p.66)

The final section of this chapter looks at what happens (and how and why) when practices collapse and experience large scale defections.

Schatzki suggests that judgements about whether practices have died or merely been transformed should reflect the extent and character of change. He provides the following guidance: ‘where multiple mutations are accompanied by continuities in other components, a practice lives on’, but ‘when changes in organisation are vast or wholesale, or a practice’s projects and task are simply no longer carried out, former practices expire’ (2002: 244) (p.67)

They identify three key pathways that reflect change in practices; innovations, fads and fashions.

An innovation is simple – it merely renders a previous practice redundant or inferior. In the UK in the 1950s, 40% of journeys were made by bicycle but over subsequent decades and car culture grew, this shrank to just a few percent.

Fads seemingly spring from the air, recruit a lot of people very quickly but then disappear just as quickly. Shove et al identify three key reasons that fads fail as ongoing practices and use hula-hooping to illustrate their points. The first is that they often lack the depth needed to give people ‘internal reward’ – otherwise known in gamification circles as intrinsic motivators. Once someone has mastered the basics of hula-hooping, there’s little to progress onto and no other practices that connect to the skills that have been developed, such as one might find in gardening or cooking. So there’s also little connection to social meaning or other practices, all three factors making sustainability hard.

To put this observation the other way around, practices are, perhaps ironically, better able to retain commitment when they afford scope for innovation… These interpretations suggest that mass defection is possible, and perhaps even likely, where practices are not consistently internally rewarding, not laden with symbolic significance and not enmeshed in wider networks (p.68)

Fashions though tend not to lead to significant defections or adoptions because they do little in terms of changing underpinning meanings or practices.

Fashions are different in that they are characterized by cyclical processes of substitution: last year’s model is replaced by this year’s design, but in the end and at the level of practice, nothing really changes (p.67)

When examining defection/recruitment, Shove et al are careful to make the point that these things are not necessarily just ‘two sides of the same coin’. The relationship can be more complex than this. Looking at the rise of Internet use in the 1990s, researchers were concerned that the hours being spent were replacing family/social time, without recognising that part of people’s family/social practices were now just being done online.

While it isn’t mentioned in this book, there is a model used to describe change in Education Technology – SAMR. (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition). This seems as though it could be valuable in the way that we discuss social practice theory and particularly changes when looking at TELT practices. I’m not 100% sure how yet but it’s there.

Shove et al raise an interesting question without an answer – in fact it seems virtually impossible to realise but could be highly enlightening.

…what if there were some means of assessing the rates at which individual practices are changing, and hence the relative ‘plasticity or rigidity (lock-in) of the interlocking systems of practice of which society is composed’ (Shove, 2009: 30) …Should such a thing as a societal index of practice transformation exist, it might indicate that certain domains of daily changes are moving more quickly, or are more dynamic than others. It might show that some such changes are necessarily synchronized, or cumulative, and that others are not. As they go about their daily lives, people are unknowingly engaged in reproducing and enacting multiple and varied cycles of change, simultaneously shaping the lives of practices and being shaped by them. (p.69)

I honestly don’t even know where you’d start with this, it seems to operate as such a large scale. Would we measure the number of participants? The complexity of their practices? (This might be achievable across a limited set of practices in TELT perhaps.)

The authors conclude this chapter by noting that our identities and careers shape the practices that we join. They refer to the work of Pred , who sees our lives as revolving around

a handful of ‘dominant projects’, these being inter-linked practices that in combination ‘require that participating individuals expend their labour power or in some other way engage themselves in activity in a given manner, at a given time and place (Pred, 1981: 16) (p.70)

So what have I drawn from this overall and what can I bring into my research? The point about the challenges of imposing a community of practice from above rather than working with existing networks is well taken however one of the challenges that I’m encountering in universities is that those networks of teaching practice are non-existent or hidden. Research is the primary focus of a university – I guess I should say this university as it is an ‘elite’ one – and research is seen as a solitary process, in this school at least. Less so in sciences I’d imagine.

The idea of a career path both for the practitioner and the practice itself is also interesting – I have a feeling that when it comes to TELT practices that this might not necessarily align with the position/status of the academics, so that feels like an area of sensitivity. Fostering and supporting fluidity in the definition of the practice makes sense and so does encouraging innovation.

Fads are something that we’re plagued with in TELT and these frequently come down from on high – MOOCs for example. These are more connected to existing practices and networks though, so maybe fashions is a more accurate term.

The transfer of practices through the multiple communities of practice that practitioners are connected to also makes a lot of sense and I’m sure there must be ways to better make use of this.

(Drawing a mindmap of this chapter was actually a really useful idea – way to go brain)

Finally I guess the question of access and opportunities to engage in practices is certainly something important in my work with TELT practices.

Lots to think about but I’m really enjoying this book.






Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 3 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

Having set out the case for defining practice as the interwoven relationship between three key elements; materials, meaning and competences (I always want to say competencies here) in Chapter 1 & 2, the authors move on to examine how the elements can exist independently, how they (and by definition, practices) move from place to place and how practices emerge, disappear and persist.

I’ll be honest, it gets kind of meta in some places and there’s a degree of toing-and-froing (which they acknowledge) between the idea that in a practice, the three elements can or can’t exist without each other. We seem to land on the fact that clearly they can but the practice itself can’t exist without them all.

The good news is that the more I read of this, the more it seems like a nice theoretical hook to hang my research on. So far I can generally accept the ideas that are being put forth and I’m starting to substitute TELT practices into their other examples to see how well they fit. It’s all got me thinking about practices in a new way that I think might help me to pin down how I plan to actually conduct this research. (Spoiler alert, after having the grandest of ambitions for a massive multi-part research project last year, I’m realising that something more modest would still be perfectly acceptable)

Here are some of the core ideas put forward in this chapter, some useful supporting quotes and some of my stray ideas, questions and observations. (Quick note to self – reading this as an e-book means that there are no proper page numbers – the front cover of the book is considered page 1 – so double check the page numbers for quotes that you actually plan to use)

Practices constantly evolve while their component elements tend to stay more stable. 

As structured and situated arrangements, practices are always in the process of formation, re-formation and de-formation. By contrast, elements are comparatively stable and are, as such, capable of circultating between the places and enduring over time. We are consequently surrounded by things that have outlived the practices of which they were once a vital part… Abandoned biscuit presses, outdated computer equipment and tools for tasks no longer undertaken are obvious examples but understandings, meanings and types of expertise are also discarded as practices evolve. (p.46)

The authors make a sweeping statement that I’m still considering on a philosophical level but looking around my desk at all of the ‘made’ objects (materials), it kind of makes sense. I’m trying to think of things, skills or meanings that we don’t have a use for that we do these things with. I have half a thought that there would be practices that are “carried” or move between locations based on new ideas about uses of material items but I’m not yet sure what that means to me.

…it is only through their integration in practice that elements are reproduced, eroded or carried from one setting or population to another (p.47)

The fact that requisite elements co-exist does not guarantee that they will be linked together but the potential is there (p.47)

The question of access to specific materials needed for practices is raised and ties to the development of different technologies (trains, trucks, planes etc) that mean that access options change and thus associated practices can emerge or evolve. I’d say that the Internet sits nicely in that category of access when it comes to the material elements of TELT practices – though I’m curious about where exactly software and web services sit. They’re on one hand a thing that people use but on the other, contain certain knowledge/competences that save people from having to carry out particular sub-practices in the course of doing larger practices. But perhaps that is just what tools (materials) do? Hopefully we’ll go deeper into the crossover between materials, tools and competences.

There’s also the question of what impact the choice of specific materials in a practice means – some materials playing better with others and creating opportunities to do some things but not others. (Which feels like another of the many areas where these ideas cross paths with sociomaterial theory). I definitely think there’s room in my research for a look at what impact the choice of particular technologies has on practices.

At this point, the authors observe that in terms of practices moving from place to place, the issues faced in terms of the material elements differ from those related to competences and meaning.

Rather, the point is to recognise that whereas forms of (co)location, transportation and access are typically important for the diffusion of material elements, forms of competence and meaning circulate in  characteristically different ways (p.49)

The authors go on to explain that they appreciate the importance of the human factor in learning/developing competences but also that they are more interested in the wider question of how competences travel between practices as well as between people. I can accept that this is the nature of the theory that they are formulating but I’m also mildly concerned about the extent to which they have been discarding complexities in the pursuit of an argument.

I do still think that there is merit in what they are exploring though, so it might just need to be a matter of remembering to re-add these factors down the track when I’m doing my research. The practice of in-person learning-by-doing in a teacher/student relationship seems kind of pertinent when we’re looking at interventions to pass along skills and knowledge (competences), rather than looking at them in the abstract. Maybe we’ll get back to this later in the book – I believe the next chapter is about how people are recruited to practices.

When looking at how competences travel, particularly between different contexts, the authors talk about ‘abstracting’ and ‘reversal’ as core parts of the process. By ‘abstracting’, they mean stripping away localisations in the knowledge/skill that wouldn’t apply everywhere to leave the essential ‘knowledge’. On arrival at the new location, this ‘abstracted’ knowledge needs to be ‘reversed’ so that it again becomes contextually relevant.

Personally I don’t feel that ‘abstracted’ or ‘reversed’ (moreso the latter) really work well in terms of capturing these concepts. My video background makes me lean more towards encode (or code) and decode, from the Codec software used in the process of creating and sharing video files. (But maybe these aren’t perfect either).

The basic idea that knowledge has to be ‘abstracted’ form a local situation before it can travel, and that it needs to be ‘reversed’ when it arrives in some new destination, complicates popular interpretations of knowledge transfer as a simple process of sending and receiving. This representation is, however, consistent with an account of practices as integrative performances in which elements are conjoined. The suggestion that abstract knowledge circulates between such moments or sites of enactment is also relevant in thinking about how competences circulate (p.49)

This new space that the competences can sit in between the start point and destination is another thing that I’m still trying to grasp. Is it just a verbose way of describing publishing and documenting of knowledge of activities within practices?

Theories of abstraction and reversal depend on distinguishing between local understanding on the one hand, and what Disco and van der Meulen (1998) term ‘global-level cognitive ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge, that is, knowledge that has been dis-embedded from its local origins and is consequently capable of travelling widely whilst maintaining its own integrity. As discussed in Chapter 2, this idea brings with it the related, and somewhat strange, image of knowledge temporarily existing in limbo, contained in what Arie Rip describes as a dislocated holding tank or reservoir, carried by what one might call an epistemic community and knowledge users pick up their own new combinations from the reservoir (1998). This vision of a gigantic depot of abstracted, de-contextualised buy not yet re-embedded knowledge is intriguing, as is the related suggestion that resources like libraries and the Internet, along with material objects and systems of regulation and certification, harbour pools of knowledge that have been variously certified, legitimated and prepared for travel (p.50)

I find the idea of the Internet acting as a reservoir of ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge interesting but would argue that there is an abundance of local knowledge as well. Fortunately, the authors choose not to dwell on the reservoir, though I imagine I’ll go back to this, and move on to questions around what “has to be done to make knowledge movable (decontextualization and packaging), to let it move (infrastructure) and to make it work elsewhere (contextualization, standardization) (Deuten, 2003: 18)” (p.50)

Having the skills to decode is seen as it’s own special form of know-how and Shove et al suggest that this ability is often tied to pre-existing related knowledge of the competence.

This suggests know-how can only travel – by means of abstraction and reversal – to sites in which practitioners are already prepared to receive it because of prior, first-hand, practice based experience (p.50)

I’m broadly ok with this but think it ignores the capacity of teachers at the arriving end to teach inexperienced people these new skills. Maybe (and I’d suggest often) the teachers come from the originating place to run training and then leave. Clearly it’s easier for people to learn something (and teach it) if it can be connected to existing scaffolded knowledge but it’s far from impossible otherwise. I guess learning how to learn comes into this somewhere as well. The importance of standards and regulations relating to practices can’t be underestimated either, in that it increases the quality of the practices which would be an incentive to participate.

The extent to which competences can be used in a number of different practices is also a key factor in their transportability.

The concept of transferable skills is relevant in this regard. Having been mastered in one setting, competences like those of controlling a ball or speaking in public can be carried over and reproduced in others… This does not necessarily involve recognizable stages of abstraction and codification. Instead, specific competences are transferable because they are common, or at least common enough to a number of different practices (p.51)

This leads us to the question of whether we can reframe the way that we think about the contexts in which certain practices prevail as a way to foster the transfer of competences. In order to help sell more home appliances (e.g washing machines), there was a push in the late 18th century to move the ‘efficient practices and attitudes’ of the business world into the home. This was largely intended to change attitudes to housework that made it easier to sell the time/labour saving benefits of the new technology. (It probably wasn’t done with a specific understanding of social practice theory but they knew what they were doing)

Developing these ideas, certain elements of know-how bridge between practices not by means of abstraction and reversal but by somehow constituting – and potentially changing – the texture and the quality of the social fabric in which many such practices were rooted (p.52)

This brings us along neatly to the final element of the trio, meaning.

One thing that occurs to me here is the necessity of shifting the culture in Higher Education to one that is more willing to embrace TELT practices. I’ve been considering trying to appeal to the notion of scholarship in this regard – academics don’t suddenly stop researching and learning about their disciplines so why should teaching be any different. At the same time though, it is different and getting academics to look at teaching from a different mindset than their research one is a clear goal. Whereas research is a relatively individualistic practice, teaching is better explored collectively. I don’t kid myself that getting this message across will be easy but I think it’s valuable.

On that note, emotions and feelings seem to be an important factor in determining what practices a teacher will and more importantly will not embrace. My suspicion is that they have far more impact than any rational arguments in favour of doing a thing and my question is, how do we examine and address them. Do they sit in the meaning element or kind of alongside? Is this an area that people have looked into deeply – I’ve seen plenty of work about attitudes but I don’t think this is what I need.

The authors accept that the question of meaning is complex and it could be very easy to get caught up in discussions about local/personal meaning and disputed meanings. Once again, they choose to simplify this to pursue their core ideas about “how elements of meaning diffuse and what this means for the circulation of practices in and of which they are a part” (p.53)

Linking new knowledge, ideas and meanings to existing ones is identified as a core element of this. Firstly however, the authors identify the need to isolate meaning related to practice from the meaning attached to which groups in society (and their attendant status) participate in this practice.

The dynamic relation between the status of participants and the meaning of the practices they carry is widely discussed, usually with the aim of understanding how social and cultural hierarchies are reproduced and sustained. By participating in some practices but not others, individuals locate themselves within society and in doing so simultaneously reproduce specific schemes and structures of meaning and order. In Bourdieu’s terms, all cultural practices are ‘automatically classified and classifying, rand ordered and rank ordering’ (1984: 223). … In other words, the interest in what Nordic Walking says about the person who does it, not in how meanings like those of outdoor life circulate between practices or in how they combine with or break away from other symbolic constructs. By contrast, we want to put the element of meaning at the centre of our enquiry (p.53)

While it’s not what the authors intend, this discussion of the ties between status and meaning suggests to me that, in my work, I should consider opportunities to link the use of TELT practices with being a more well-rounded scholar.

Shove et al clarify what they hope to do by shifting focus from the people to the meanings nicely here

But in the context of the present discussion the question is not ‘Who determines whether smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars is transgressive or cool?’ but rather “How are categories like those of being cool, healthy or youthful populated with practices, how does this population change and with what consequences for these frames of meaning?’ (p.54)

Discussion of meaning meanders a little here, largely because the authors acknowledge that it is complex and not something that any one practitioner is able to shape. They point out that meaning changes and is “extended and eroded as a result of dynamic processes of association” (p.54) and also that meanings can merge into larger meanings – such as youth culture becoming seen as part of ‘Americanization’ (p.54). Their key point though is that meaning is often mediated – or at least people/groups attempt to mediate it and spread it though the community.

The catch is that while the media has a vital role in disseminating ideas, pictures and texts, there is no guarantee that these will stick. As with the abstraction and reversal of competence, the decoding and appropriation of meaning is an inherently local, inherently uncertain process. In addition, opportunities for association and re-classification are, to a degree, constrained and enabled by existing patterns and distributions of meaning (p.54)

In other words, you can try to shift meanings to embed new practices but don’t count on being able to do so. (This is perhaps where the authors’ preference for simplifying complex ideas lets them down.)  I can still see the value in trying though and off the top of my head, I would think that desirable meanings to have associated with TELT practices would include; innovation/ being up to date, caring, quality and connection.

One of the things that I’m liking the most about this book is that the authors are strong on their structure and their process for building an argument. They start and end each new idea (or set of ideas) with a robust summary of the key points. There’s a solid summary of the six key ideas that we’ve just worked through on page 55. (I’m not including it because I think I’ve covered it already) . They then return to the central theme, that the elements are interdependent in practice.

Although we have discussed them separately, competence, material and meaning are often so closely related that if one element should travel alone (abstracted and packed in isolation), it is likely to remain dormant until joined by others capable of bringing it into the frame of a living practice. This observation reminds us that the relevant elements need to co-exist if practices are to extend or endure (p.55)

Emergence, disappearance and persistence

The final section of this chapter is somewhat shorter than the rest but continues to explore interesting territory. I’ve previously looked at this idea under the concept of ‘change and continuity’ – introducing new practices but supporting effective current ones as well. The tertiary education sector in Australia (and I imagine globally) has undergone massive change in some ways over the last 30+ years and this has, I believe, led to change-fatigue and a mistrust of ‘innovation’. This mistrust of innovation in general dates back far further than this, clearly – remembering the Luddites – and the authors find a great quote to sum it up

innovation of this sort disrupts and destroys. It changes the technology of process or product in a way that imposes requirements that existing resources, skills and knowledge satisfy poorly o not at all. The effect is thus to reduce the value of existing competence, and in the extreme case, to render it obsolete. (Abernathy and Clark, 1985: 6)  (p.56)

In TELT terms, this makes me think of the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Replacement) model, which sets out perhaps a gentler set of steps to climb in innovation.

Shove et al’s main point here appears to be that as some practices emerge, they replace others which fade into redundancy. Their component elements may or may not go down the same path, depending on whether they can be repurposed elsewhere.

Practices themselves might change – such as the act of writing with ink, which went from quills, to fountain pens and then to biros. The competence stayed largely the same – though the skills needed to manage the materials changed – but the materials changed greatly. The meaning of using a fountain pen 80 years ago (functional) also changed in comparison to those who use it now (luxurious).

It was at this point, as I was reading about changes in practice and materials that I noted that I was writing notes on a printed piece of paper with a pencil while leaning on the back of a new iPad. I had read previous chapters as an eBook on the iPad but wasn’t happy with the way that I was able to take notes and make comments directly on the text. I’m not entirely sure what this means but it seems interesting at the very least. I guess it’s that the material still needs to be fit for purpose and we will change our practices based on what works best for us. Perhaps there’s something in there about the precise affordances offered by the materials and the emotional responses that we have to them – I do like the tactile nature of pencil.

Writing on paper, leaning on an iPad

The text that I was reading at the time seems particularly apt

For our second example, we home-in on the relation between materials and competence. In organising and scripting human and non-human actors, objects and infrastructures determine boundaries of competence, certain aspects being delegated to the technology, others remaining with the human. In some situations, materials stabilise and obdurately reproduce know-how from the past, but in other cases the effect is the reverse. As we have seen, radical technological innovations can undermine the value of established skills and knock rival artefacts and systems out of the way. These processes are often linked. As things fall out of use, the know-how associated with them tends to disappear as well (p.57)

There’s a particular point made in here about machines removing the need to have know-how to do certain things, effectively taking over competences. This is definitely something that I’ll be thinking over in more depth.

Shove et al sum up this section as follows

In describing instances of emergence, disappearance and persistence we have noticed that relations between elements may vary as patterns of participation change. We have shown that material elements transform, carry and preserve forms of competence; that instructions are useful in keeping knowledge in circulation but that more [performance] is required to keep it alive; and that elements of meaning are capable of hopping from one practice to the next (p.59)

So what do I take away from this?

It’s useful to consider how the elements function and move and evolve in their own right and it is equally important to remember that their relationships with their other elements have a significant impact on what forms they take.

In terms of my research into how TELT advisors (or possible TEL edvisors – toying with a terminology change) support TELT practices, this can inform strategies for implementing change as well as creating additional lines of inquiry into what the barriers to TELT practices are.

Next chapter up is about how people are recruited to practices – though it’s been a while since I’ve done a research update here so that seems kind of important too.














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)