Thoughts on: The process of designing for learning: understanding university teachers’ design work (Bennett, S., Agostinho, S & Lockyer, L. 2016)

When this paper was recommended to me because I’m currently looking into the work and role of university teachers (academics/lecturers/whathaveyou), I was hesitant because I thought that it might be more focused on the solutions area of my research and at this stage I’m more interested in understanding the problems. Nonetheless I read it because, well, I’d be an idiot not to listen to my supervisor and also because I was taught at one point or another by all of these women when I did my Masters and I have a lot of time for them and their work.

It explores one of the fundamental activities that makes teachers teachers – learning design – and examines the approaches that a group of 30 university teachers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds take in either developing a new course or redesigning an existing one. As I’m finding in a lot of education research, this is something that has been explored far more in research into teaching in Primary and Secondary teaching but scantly in Higher Ed.

I might just digress for a moment to a question of language because the more time I spend in this space, the more keenly aware I become of how seriously it is taken. Bennett et al make an interesting deliberate decision to use the term ‘teachers’ instead of academics, lecturers or even tutors, (professor being more of a title perhaps), which are the  terms commonly used in Higher Ed. Personally, I prefer it because in this specific context of teaching, teacher seems more accurate. ‘Academic’ also incorporates research and ‘lecturer/tutor’ are both tied to relatively specific teaching activities but ‘teacher’ captures all aspects of the act of teaching. I don’t yet feel confident enough in my role as an education advisor / professional staff member to use it however, because I worry that some of the ‘teachers’ that I work with would take it as diminishing their stature. I’m not saying that’s fair by any means and in fairness I know many more who wouldn’t give it a second thought – I think. I guess a question to consider here is also whether we can compartmentalise an academic’s activities so that they are variously a teacher or a researcher. And where does ‘scholar’ sit in that? So instead I do a little linguistic dance where I jump between academic and lecturer for the most part when I think what I’m really talking about in the context of my work is someone that teaches. In keeping with the style of the paper, I’ll stick with teacher here and ponder further use later.

The authors explain that Higher Education in Australia since the 1990s has experienced a major period of change and this has

brought significant pressure on educators to adopt new and innovative educational approaches within a relatively short time. Design support services exist centrally or within the faculties of all Australian universities, but these are limited resources for which there is strong demand, leaving many university teachers to rely on their own skills. This is a particular challenge for discipline experts, who often have limited pedagogical training and are expected to balance teaching work with research, professional service and administrative responsibilities (p.9)

(And this is before we even start to consider the impact of the increasing reliance on international students and ongoing casualisation on the sector)

In an attempt to identify opportunities to empower teachers to design better learning experiences, the authors set out to understand their existing design processes. They conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 teachers that had been found by contacting professional organisations in Australia and vetted to ensure a diverse sample of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience. They were asked about their process and experiences in designing new units and/or redesigning existing units and given generic prompts to expand their responses.  Wherever possible they were encouraged to discuss multiple examples to minimise possible biases that might be encountered in discussing single experiences. The responses were coded and arranged into categories to create a hierarchical structure. (I hope you don’t mind the inclusion of these relatively dry methodology descriptions – I’m still working out my own). I’m mindful of the difference between this approach in understanding the ways that teachers work and that taken in the Goodyear study in a recent post of mine, where teachers provided a description of their work and thoughts as they did it, rather than months later. Given the complexity of design in comparison to responding to forum posts, there are clearly major practicalities to consider however I’d imagine that there is probably a happy middle ground. (To their credit, the authors do acknowledge the time distance as an improvable factor in their research)

There were a few notable findings, most significantly that the discipline area of teaching had virtually no impact on the design process that the teachers undertook. While there was roughly a 50/50 split between teachers who identified learning outcomes first versus those who identified the content they wished to cover, essentially all worked through a reasonably iterative process where they started with the broad considerations of the course and gradually focused on specific details. The content/outcomes focus was sometimes influenced by the fact that the teacher hadn’t previously taught a unit and needed to refresh their own understanding of the core concepts. This was generally part of a course redesign. It was also interesting to note that course re-designs were sometimes also deemed necessary because a new teacher to the subject found that the previous curriculum was too tightly aligned with the specific research interests of the previous teacher, which they didn’t share.

The interviews led to the creation of this model of general design processes

photo-28-10-2016-2-48-46-pm

One random observation that I also found interesting – none of the participants sought design assistance or used existing learning design models or tools. The authors comment that

it may be that the use of these approaches and guides has been integrated into the tacit practices of higher education teachers, or it may reflect their limited adoption. Further research is needed to resolve this question. Although this study helps to understand what teachers currently do, with the intention of informing further support strategies, there is clearly a related question of what teachers should do that also needs to be addressed as part of an overarching research goal” (p.16-17)

Bennett et al acknowledge several areas for improvement in their research – 75% of the participants were teachers with 10 or more years of experience which doesn’t offer insights into the perspectives of early career teachers, who may arguably have a greater need for support in learning design. Selecting participants based on their membership of relating teaching organisations would also have tended to load the study with the kinds of people that already have an enhanced interest in teaching practices too.

From my personal perspective, while I agree that there can only be benefits in taking more sophisticated approaches to learning design, I would have liked to have seen an examination of the quality of the courses that these teachers were actually designing and/or the impact that they had on student learning. For all we know, these courses could all have been designed uniformly badly. My main takeaway though was that, in the absence of formal training and in the presence of unfortunately (and inexplicably) under-resourced support units, Higher Education teachers may gradually work out at least what works for them in terms of learning design and evolve this across the course of their careers.

A few other areas seemed to be lacking that I think needed to be factored in as well – the timing of course design. In Higher Education in Australia, the weeks before the beginning for Semester 1 coincide with the application period for Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and this can be a time of significant pressure for academics to sustain their research, which still contributes more substantially to their standing within the university than their teaching does. While it makes for a much messier question, ignoring these impacts on academics’ activities may not provide us with the complete picture that we need to better support their teaching.