Thoughts on: The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff (Winslett, 2016)

While looking at three papers relating to professional staff in Higher Education recently I was conscious of two things. They were all written at least 12 years ago and they contained scant reference to people working in my domain of education support people (academic developers/education designers/learning technologists etc).

The papers were still valuable because I don’t believe that the academic/professional divide has gone anywhere and I think it does still impact on how universities are able to support TELT practices. All the same, I was keen to get a more contemporary take on things in this particular arena.

Greg Winslett  of the University of New England (Australia) lives in this space and has come at the issue from an interesting angle – exploring the ways in which top-level university strategic plans provide useful guidance to education support people in terms of setting priorities and practical directions.

Winslett favours the term Teaching Support Staff which I considered for a little while as a better option to Education Support People (or Professionals) but then I wondered whether it downplays the importance of learning. In fairness, he does refer to Teaching and Learning Support Staff at one point but mostly stuck with TSS. To be perfectly honest, all of this does feel like a minor semantic quibble to me, along the same lines as choosing between technology enhanced learning (TEL) or technology enhanced learning and teaching (TELT), but given that one of “our” issues is that academics don’t fully understand what ESPs (or TSS) have to offer, perhaps finding the right terminology can make a difference.

I’m still also torn between Education Support Professionals and Education Support People  – at least partially because the acronym ESP appeals to me – because this field is made up of both academics and professionals but “people” doesn’t seem weighty enough. I guess Teaching Support Staff avoids this question and we do spend virtually all of our time working with teachers on teaching matters. But philosophically we work in a learner-centred domain – or at least this is what we are told. Given that Winslett uses TSS in this paper, I’ll stick with that for now.

(Well that was something of a diversion)

Winslett does a number of things with the strategic plans gathered from the 39 universities in Australia. He runs them through data-mining software (Leximancer) to pull out key themes and concepts based around the clustering and frequency of key terms. These are then ranked to identify university priorities, both at a national level as well as in terms of university sub-groupings including the Group of Eight (Australia’s ‘Ivy League’), the Australian Technical Network, Regional Universities Network and Innovative Research Universities. This offers some interesting comparisons and insights into differences between the (self-selected) types of universities in this country.

He also draws on the work of Fraser (1989) in relation to “needs talk” (p.537) to discuss the concepts and themes identified and the cues they provide teaching support staff

Fraser proposes that examining ‘needs talk’ (statements that follow a conceptual structure of a needs b in order to c) makes visible the manner in which claims are made and contested and how different types of need are expressed. (p.537)

Given the high-level nature of most strategic plans and their importance in encompassing the vision of the organisation and their tendency to be more forward-looking;

most claims of need are framed as predictions for the future, rather than a more dramatic expression of an immediate need (p.542)

I think I expected less from them than Winslett in terms of practical guidance for people working on the ground. Something he finds noteworthy

and perhaps surprising is that the theme of ‘research’ does not appear in the top 10 ranking for the Group of Eight (p.539)

(in terms of themes in the strategic plans). If we accept that the plans are future focused and take an additional step to acknowledge that they will centre around improving areas of perceived weakness, maybe it’s not so surprising that Go8 unis, which pride themselves on research, take an ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude here.

The lists of themes and concepts that Winslett identifies and discusses are interesting but it is the next section that really stands out for me. Having identified the ‘claims of need’ across the strategic plans, the author explores the ones of specific relevance to TSS’ and identifies three areas where contradictory needs are often expressed that offer challenges in determining what the university executive actually wants.

“Teaching support staff need to innovate, but not too much” (p.543) 

Innovation has been a popular buzzword in government, industry and education for a good twenty years, if not longer. I’m not one to point fingers – I work in (or as) the Education Innovation Office. The first challenge that Winslett identifies is that everybody wants to be innovative but not everybody is willing to pay for it. The perceived benefits of innovation – increases in efficiency and (lower down the list) better teaching and learning –  are clearly highly desirable. These routinely collide with other needs to make more effective use of “existing resources, approaches and infrastructure” (p.544). This raises major questions:

How, for example, do teaching support staff know when to lobby for additional funding and resources? How innovative must a particular work activity be? (p.544)

“Teaching support staff need to help staff and help staff help themselves” (p.544) 

One of the practical costs of this innovation, particularly when it comes to using online tools and new pedagogies, is the extra work required to create resources and activities. And it isn’t just extra work, there are often new skillsets that are needed to create infographics, develop online quizzes, make videos and moderate discussion boards.

The strategic plans examined expressed the desire to equip academics with these skills as well as making use of the time-savings that Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching apparently promises to offer more personalised teaching and learning experiences.

I run into this dilemma on a regular basis and it really boils down to a question of what is the purpose of a teaching academic? How productive a use of their time is it to expect them to master web development or media production when there are often skilled professionals on hand to do this for them? On the other hand, if these skilled professionals build something that is beyond the ability of the academic to fix or edit when they need to,  how long should they be stuck with a shoddy or faulty teaching resource that just frustrates them and the students.

In calling for the best of both worlds, the strategic plans perpetuate the problem without understanding it.

Teaching support staff need to adopt a learner-centred approach as long as the learner wants a job”

Another of the great points of debate routinely raised by academics is that Higher Education isn’t merely vocational training. (Ironically one of the new ‘big things’ in Higher Ed. is competency based education, with a stronger focus on better learning outcomes and constructive alignment of learning outcomes with course assessment, all of which has been features of the vocational sector for decades).

Winslett makes a point here that while there is much promotion of learner-centred approaches to teaching and learning – which includes “what is taught and how” (p.545) – in the strategic plans, there is also much discussion of designing courses that create employment ready graduates and which also meet the “requirements of the nation” (p.546). He appears to feel that these are all mutually exclusive and “may present a collision for teaching support staff working within some disciplines” (p.546)

I take the argument to be that a commitment to learner-centred design is quickly made secondary to other university priorities – including the actual capacity of the university to change enough to deliver this in a meaningful way and a perceived need to engage more effectively with industry and future student employers. I’d suggest that these two aims are not necessarily as contradictory as suggested and that a great many students attend university to be made more employable at a higher level. The ‘higher-order’ skills of analysis, research, critical thinking and communication – amongst others – that are seen to set universities apart from vocational training providers are in fact the ’employability skills’ that industry is calling for in graduates.

Winslett concludes in a fairly scathing manner that top-level university strategic plans more often hinder than help teaching support staff.

At best, these plans fail to distinctively shape the tone and direction of higher education pedagogy and delivery at a national level. At worst, the statements of need relating to teaching support confuse and mystify expectations of the role. This context presents considerable challenges to teaching support staff across the sector, making it difficult to muster support for initiatives, achieve consistency across the country and achieve quality benchmarks. Perhaps worst of all, the strategic plans do not generally provide specific guidance on the favoured forms of pedagogical design and development. That is to say, there is no substantive pedagogic strategy evident in any of the plans (p.546)

He does go on to concede that this level of detail is ideally more likely to be found in the lower-level operational plans that flow on from here. Given the diversity of disciplines and thus of appropriate teaching and learning approaches in these disciplines, I would personally struggle to advocate a detailed pedagogical strategy suitable for an entire university. (Which might be why I’m not in the executive – also that whole pesky not being an academic thing).

Winslett’s broad point is well made though and entirely relevant to all of us teaching support staff members who have scoured these kinds of documents in order to better understand the best – or at least most successful – ways to do our work in supporting teaching and learning.