Thoughts on: The Herckis research in progress into barriers to TEL in Higher Ed

L. Herckis, personal communication, July 10, 2017

I’ve been banging on about this a bit here recently but that’s only because I’m enjoying the new perspective on this issue, which is kind of at the heart of my day to day work and my own research. Unlike most if not all of the other research that I’ve read in this space, this comes from an anthropological background and seems far more interested in looking beyond what academics say to explore what they actually mean when it comes to talking about their teaching and learning (and particularly TEL and innovation practices).

I don’t think that people often go out of their way to be deliberately deceptive in the way they discuss or think about their teaching practice (we have committees and office politics for that – zing) but I think we all also like to consider ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives and this can get in the way of truly understanding what (or who) gets in the way of innovation and iteration. (I don’t believe in change for change’s sake either, just to be clear – I think it’s just as important to identify and celebrate the things that we do that works and support them, but that’s a matter for another day)

As a baby researcher (no, that sounds weird, let’s try pre-researcher – presearcher?) and one with minimal knowledge of anthropology, I won’t presume to comment on the methodology, suffice to say it seems sensible  – mixed method including an ethnographic observation, surveys and interviews – and appears to already be yielding interesting results in the early phases of the work and analysis.

Given that this is research in progress, I’ll just highlight what I’ve found to be key points so far.

The author mentions ‘refinement’ as a stage in the innovation process – which I would take to be an evaluation and iteration/modification process – which is nice but it seems to be so rarely implemented formally that it might be nice to break this into these two parts. More than anything though, these challenges indicate to me that there might need to be support from someone (or a team) that is able to offer a more holistic perspective on an innovation process – I would suggest, unsurprisingly, working collaboratively with an education design support unit (TEL edvisors if you will), so that some of the issues relating to the transitions to different stages of the process are mitigated because there is constancy of people involved.

Some nice stuff about the needs for a more collaborative model of teaching innovation. Getting this message across (for me at least) is one of my challenges – I was told pretty categorically this week by a senior member of the exec that teaching is an individual endeavour and that a community of practice is probably a waste of time (that’s paraphrased)

Overall it seems as though this work aims to lead to solid, practical and applicable outcomes. One of my greatest concerns about entering research is whether it might have a practical application, beyond just being a contribution to the wider pool of understanding. Some have told me that the latter is the primary purpose of research, which feels limiting to me so it’s nice to see a different take.

Many factors identified that impact of the success of an innovation project, including the very hard to untangle political and psychological. Interestingly, many issues seem resolvable far more simply than one would expect if there are visible career benefits or opportunities to work with respected peers, which makes me think that some of the barriers raised and emphatically identified as insurmountable are largely made of bluster.

Coming back to my earlier comment about the difference between what people say and what they think, Herckis uses techniques from her discipline to cleverly swerve around this. Framing questions in terms of ‘what would your (very similar to you) colleague think about this issue?’ lets people filter out their own personal biases and answer a question more objectively. Perhaps it lets them move past the need to be the hero of their own story and be consider it from a slightly more critical perspective.

I might just summarise the rest of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and revealing findings to date.

After surveying participants about their attitudes to SoTL (and SoTEL) and their perceptions of their institutions attitudes to the same, it emerged that the gap between these attitudes worked in different ways, depending on whether you are an early career teacher or a senior one. I have to note that different institutions have different organisational structures for their academics and there is more to this than simply being an early or late career teacher. Being more research oriented or having tenure, for example, are obviously going to shape attitudes and behaviours as well and there are always going to be a raft of local cultural factors at play too. That said, the fact that there are differences in outlook based on this seems like a pretty big deal.

When early career teachers feel that the institution values teaching less than they do (significantly), they are less inclined to innovate. With senior teaching academics however, in this instance they are more likely to do so, perhaps because they see it as their duty to help the institution raise the bar. This sounds somewhat like a question of power or privilege – don’t want to rock the boat vs not having to care – and probably more than anything else in this paper has started me thinking that different approaches need to be taken in my teaching/TEL edvisor role with junior and senior staff.

A couple of final factors come to play more than I had considered – and this is perhaps a disadvantage of my outsider role. While the ever-present time, capability and resourcing issues are at the forefront of academic resistance to revising their approaches to teaching and innovation, the prospect of working on this with an esteemed colleague, of future professional opportunities or of receiving good press can push these concerns to the background.

An overemphasis on student satisfaction measurements was identified as a major barrier, the fact that many (untrained) teachers lean very heavily on how they were taught, misalignments between institutional change and teaching needs and a belief that there is little to be learnt from teaching approaches in other disciplines also all crop up. Almost all of which I put down to issues surrounding culture, ultimately.

Definitely looking forward to the next phases of this particular research and working out how to make use of it in practice.