Author Archives: Colin Simpson

Week #3 SOCRMx – Discourse Analysis

When I first stumbled across Foucault in some paper since cast to the depths of my mind, my immediate response was that it was wanky and unhelpful theoretical tosh. I’ll admit that I struggled to get my head around it but my broad takeaway was that it sat too far in the whole post-modern create your own reality school that has since brought us ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump.

Imagine my surprise then as I worked through the resources relating to Discourse Analysis – and particular five different theoretical approaches to doing it – only to find the Foucauldian Discourse Analysis might in fact be the closest thing to what I need in exploring the language used around Edvisors to see if and how it shapes their status and identity in tertiary education institutions. The other option is Critical Discourse Analysis, which kind of works in the same way but seems slightly angrier about it. Maybe not angrier but you seem to need to start from the position that there is an existing problem (which there probably is) and then dig into what you’re going to do about it. Both are on the table for now anyway.

The great news is that from what I knew of this a week ago – that it existed and a couple of people had mentioned that it sounded like what I wanted to do – I now think that can see why and how it might be valuable. Not that I know how to do it yet but that will come with time.

So once again the EdinburghX SOCRMx MOOC is coming through for me. I had hoped to have explored 2-3 additional topics by now but came down horribly sick late last week and am barely just functional again now.

For what it’s worth, here are my other scratch notes on Discourse Analysis taken from the course so far:

Qualitative approach to the study of language in use – spoken or text.

Covers diverse sources from interviews/focus groups to secondary material such as archival material, policy documents, social media and so on.

Various ways of doing it from the micro (sentence by sentence) to the macro (overall impact of how language is used) depending on the theoretical framework chosen.

References: Discourse – David Howarth and Analysing Discourse – Norman Fairclough (more practical)

Common criticisms of DA – it’s idealist (the world is just a product of our minds) and relativist (anything goes). Also that Discourse Analysts confuse changing the way that we talk about a thing with actually changing the thing itself. Maybe, maybe not.

“Critical discourse analysis is actually really interested in the ways in which systems of representation have actual material effects and asymmetrical effects on the distribution of burdens and benefits on particular social groups, access to resources and so on and so forth” (MOOC video introduction)

There are many different types of discourse analysis, including conversation analysis, which analyses talk in detail (see Charles Antaki’s excellent web site for a good introduction to conversation analysis), and critical discourse analysis, which pays particular attention to how relations of power and domination are enacted through discourse. “”

An important aspect of discourse analysis, for our purposes, is that it treats language as action. As Gee puts it, language “allows us to do things and be things… saying things in language never goes without also doing things and being things” (Gee, 2011, p.1). It also places importance on context: “to understand anything fully you need to know who is saying it and what the person saying it is trying to do” (ibid, p.2).

Not Conversational Analysis for my work

Critical Discourse Analysis – about power relationships and social issues. Almost seems too loaded? Documents that seek to present particular political positions

Foucauldian Discourse Analysis might be relevant – how language shapes identity

There was also an assignment for us to try it out with. One of my major interests is job advertisements, which is perhaps not the best place to start given how formalised the structures of these things are but I did it all the same. Outlaw Country!

This is the sample text:

*This is a new open-ended, part-time (0.5 FTE) post in the E-Learning Development Team, which has been created to support the development of the University’s online distance learning provision. The role holder will provide application management support to academic programme teams for the delivery of fully online courses. In the performance of these duties the role holder will coordinate the registration of courses, students and staff on the University’s Canvas learning management system (LMS).

The post will provide first-line user support to staff and second-line support to students, responding to queries on the Canvas LMS. The post requires a combination of good technological skills, awareness of course and user administration processes and expertise in delivering training and support services. Creative approaches to problem solving and the ability to learn and apply new skills quickly will be necessary, as well as good organisational skills, excellent interpersonal skills and above all, a strong commitment to customer service.

The role forms part of a small team working to the highest standards and best practices for online learning. You will be expected to work on your own initiative, leading staff training and user support services, as well as working effectively within a team.*

These are my responses.

1.Significance: The nature of the text is highly specific and directive. The requirements expected of the reader are made explicit with the use of terms like “The post requires”, “will be necessary” and “ you will be expected”. As a job advertisement this is fairly standard language. The use of “and above all” gives extra weighting to the need for a “strong commitment to customer service”

2. Practices: This text is being used to describe a recruitment process

3.Identities: This text describes in detail the characteristics that the (suitable) reader should possess and explicitly states their relationships with other people and groups described. This positions the writer very much as the person holding the power

4.Relationships: The text defines the relationship between the reader (if successful) and stakeholders in the university and also the relationship between the reader and writer (employee/employer)

5. Politics: The nature of a job advertisement is to describe ‘how things should be’. It broadly pushes a line that the institution cares about quality teaching and learning and also quality customer support.

6. Connections: Everything is relevant to everything else in this piece of text because it has a singular focus on the specific goal of recruiting the right person.

7. Sign systems and knowledge: Some of the language used assumes that a certain type of knowledge relating to technology enhanced learning is possessed by the reader. It is heavily factual and not supportive of different interpretations of what is written.

 

I don’t know if I’m ‘doing it right’ particularly but it did make me think a little more about the nature of the power relationships expressed in job ads and the claims that they make to reflect an absolute truth in reality. So that seems like a thing.

I haven’t taken a look at the discussion posts for the other topics but the fact that there are only 3 other posts about Discourse Analysis in this MOOC after 3 weeks makes me wonder whether it’s simply a topic that people are engaging with or whether people aren’t really engaging with the MOOC overall. Hopefully it’s the former, because I’m getting a lot out of this.

Week #2 SOCRMx – Surveys

Week 2&3 of the EdinburghX Social Research Methods MOOC sees us starting to dig into a couple of methods from a list of about 8. Being a nerd who really wants to get my head around 4 or 5 of them (surveys, discourse analysis, interviews, focus groups and social network analysis) I think I’ve already over-committed but the readings and the activities are great.

For surveys, I now need to design a simple survey of 6-8 questions exploring some aspect of the use of social media by a specific group of people. Big surprise, I’m going to delve into how TEL advisors (academic developers, education designers, learning technologists) use social media as part of their participation in a community of practice. Given the nature of the participants, I am assuming a reasonable level of understanding of the concepts.

I think some of these questions might be more complex than I need them to be but I figure they’re a work in process. (And now I’m wondering if WordPress has some kind of cool survey building tool that I can put them into. Ok, looking for plugins is a rabbit hole – text is just fine.)

  1. Do you use social media platforms as a part of your professional community of practice as a TEL advisor?

[ ] Yes  [ ] No

2. If yes, which of the following social media platforms do you use to participate in your professional Community of Practice (CoP). (Choose as many as are applicable)

[ ] Twitter  [ ] Facebook [ ] LinkedIn [ ] Google+ [ ] Instagram [ ] Tumblr [ ] Wechat [ ] other ___________ (please list)

3. Of the social media platforms that you use in your professional CoP, rank them from 1 (most useful) to (least useful) where is the final option

[ ] Twitter  [ ] Facebook [ ] LinkedIn [ ] Google+ [ ] Instagram [ ] Tumblr [ ] Wechat [ ] other ___________ (please list)

4. Approximately how long have you used social media as part of your professional CoP

[ ] 0 years (I don’t) [ ] Less than 1 year [ ] 1 – 2 years [ ] 3-4 years [ ] 5 or more years

5. Approximately how many people are you connected with in the social media platforms that you use for your professional CoP? (Including people that you follow and those that follow you)

[ ] Under 20 [ ] 20 – 50 [ ] 51- 99 [ ] 100 – 500 [ ] 501 – 1000 [ ] More than 1000

6. Rank in order of importance to you from 1 (most important) to n (least important) the reasons why you use social media with your professional CoP

[ ] To get help [ ] To promote your work [ ] To belong to a community [ ] To keep up to date [ ] To share ideas [ ] Other ________________ (please list)

7. How important is it for you to separate your professional life from your personal life when you use social media platforms?

[ ] Highly important [ ] somewhat important [ ] neutral [ ] somewhat unimportant [ ] highly unimportant

 

Ok, overall I’m reasonably happy with these questions – they’re possibly a little wordier than I’d like but I’m trying to be pretty specific. Bringing ranking in is possibly also more complex than it needs to be, particularly when I’m not asking people to rank all the options, only those that they selected or find relevant. May be overreaching there.

All in all though, I think this could result in some pretty rich data. Not sure what to do about people who don’t use Soc med – maybe that’s a screening question? Though it would kind of be useful to get a sense of the proportions

Can I get a method: The EdinburghX SOCRMx Social Research Methods MOOC Week #1

MOOC Week #1 question responses

Making a blog post is part of the participation in the MOOC. I’m just going to put my answers here at the top so people don’t need to read the rest of my post about the MOOC and methods etc.

I’ve been working on this PhD for a little under two years now, so most of these questions I’ve covered in previous posts but will answer for the sake of the exercise.

  • What kind of topics are you interested in researching?

The relationships between edvisors (academic developers, education designers, learning technologists etc) and academics and institutional management

  • What initial research questions might be starting to emerge for you?

What strategies are used in HE to promote understanding of the roles and value of edvisors among academic staff, and more broadly within the institution? Which among these strategies are effective and why?

How do edvisors see their role and value in Higher Education institutions?

How are edvisor roles understood and valued by academics and HE management?

  • What are you interested in researching – people, groups, communities, documents, images, organisations?

People, groups/organisations, documents

  • Do you have an initial ideas for the kinds of methods that might help you to gather useful knowledge in your area of interest?

Currently leaning towards survey/interview and document analysis – job advertisements and organisational structures

  • What initial questions do you have about those methods? What don’t you understand yet?

Is this the best way to do what I want to do? Are there better alternatives?

  • Do you perceive any potential challenges in your initial ideas: either practical challenges, such as gaining access to the area you want to research, or the time it might take to gather data; or conceptual challenges; such as how the method you are interested in can produce ‘facts’, ‘truths’, or ‘valuable knowledge’ in your chosen area?

Not sure yet. I’m conscious that there might be sensitivities and politics to deal with.

Ok, so that’s the end of the ‘homework’ part of the blog. This next bit is what I’d already started writing about why I’m here and so on. 

One of the nice things that comes up from time to time when I discuss my research with academics is that they’ll excitedly start telling me about the methods and methodology that might be helpful. It’s a shame that no single suggested approach to data collection or analysis has been the same and that I don’t have a rich enough understanding of all the options to be able to make a comparison. It absolutely all gets noted down though and I will give all of the options extra attention as I come to some conclusion about what I plan to do.

A couple of things strike me about this variety of opinions – chief of which being that it can seem almost ideological in some ways. I’ve had people that I’ve barely finished describing the broad research question to swear up and down that their magic potion is the only one that will possibly cure my ailments. This is before I’ve even gotten down to what kind of data I think will be helpful or what my underpinning theories are.

Now I don’t question the sincerity of these people for a second and I even find it slightly touching that they can be so supportive and encouraging to a complete stranger. I’m sure that they’ve worked through any number of methods and learnt hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t and are keen to see other people spared some of those difficulties. It does seem though overall that once you’ve landed on a methodological tribe, that’s where you live. (But honestly, this is definitely supposition, I’m sure there’s more nuance than that – or at least I hope so).

If this is the way that things work, I can see positives and negatives. On the positive side, I would hope that pretty well any method or methodology can be valid if you can make a strong enough case for it. On the negative side, if there is an ingrained tribalism to a method and your reviewer lives in a different tribe, will you get the fairest hearing? Scholarship is meant to be grounded in objectivity but if a scholar has sunk part of their soul into a particular theory or a particularly approach to scholarship, might you not have to work a little harder if you choose a different angle?

Working out the angle in the first place is my real challenge. I have some ideas about where I’m going and what I want to explore, and I think there are some theories will inform this but I still feel that I’m very much in the unknown unknowns territory when it comes to methods. There was a mandatory research methods unit when I did my Masters way back when but at the time I had no intentions of moving into further research so I left it until last. Without seeing any particular application for the unit, I did the base level of work needed to finish it – actually I’m being ungenerous there, I still managed a Distinction – and promptly forgot everything.

There are research training opportunities available at my current uni but they are virtually entirely catered for on-campus, full-time students so it’s up to me to find my own way. It’s only recently that I’ve felt that I had a reasonable grasp on my topic so I’ve been happy to stay focused on the literature and put the how-to-research part on the back-burner. Which is all a very long-winded way of talking about why I’ve started the EdX EdinburghX SOCRMx Social Research Methods MOOC. From what I can see, this offers the overview of options that I need – they seem to favour creating one’s own bespoke set of methods, which suits my personal approach – and I’m hopeful that this will give me the focus that I’ve been lacking. I’ll obviously be keeping an eye out for the approaches that have already been commended to me, hopefully I’ll get a better picture of where exactly they sit on the map.

There’s a couple of other things that I’m already liking about this MOOC – there seems to be a manageable number of participants (~94 posts in the introduce yourself forum) and the MOOC moderators seem quite keen on the use of our own blogs for reflections and communication.

Oh and now I’m completely sold – I know this is pretty basic tool but this is essentially exactly what I’ve been looking for. They’ve used a multi-choice quiz to provide detailed feedback about methods that might suit particular research preferences. (Kind of like a buzzfeed quiz that isn’t harvesting your personal data for fun and profit). (All the answers are right)

mooc methods questions

There was also a nice video explainer of Epistemology – which I kind of knew was essentially about ways of knowing of but wasn’t clear why it mattered and perhaps also the nature of the different ways of knowing (e.g getting information from an authority figure vs experience/logic/science/tradition etc).

So yes, pretty happy with what I’ve seen so far here

Research update #33: Making it my own

There’s been something about the updated research questions that I’ve been working with that just hasn’t been sitting right. These are the questions:

What strategies do edvisors in HE use to promote understanding of their role and value(s) among academic staff, and more broadly within their institutions?

What are the roles and value(s) of edvisors? (as seen from their perspective)

How are those roles and value(s) seen from the academics’ and institution’s perspective?

Which among these strategies are particularly successful?

It’s only a small thing perhaps and maybe it’s important in sharpening focus but it bugs me that there is an implicit assumption that it is the sole responsibility of edvisors to make academics and the institution value them and their work. I can understand that this isn’t the job of academics – though it would be nice if some of them made more of an effort – but surely the institution itself, and by that I guess I mean institutional management, has a part to play as well. After all, why provide expert support if you don’t intend for it to be used and for it to work as effectively as possible.

So I’m changing the question. This is partially also because I think it will be valuable to gather some data about how different institutions organise their edvisor support units and what impact this has on their efficacy. With the old questions, there isn’t really room for this.

I’ve also found the sub-questions a little clunky and while I think that the value/values issue is interesting, I can still cover that in the survey and interview questions.

Which brings me to this.

What strategies are used in HE to promote understanding of the roles and value of edvisors among academic staff, and more broadly within the institution?

How do edvisors see their role and value in Higher Education institutions?

How are edvisor roles understood and valued by academics and HE management?

Which among these strategies are the most effective and why?

The ordering still seems slightly odd and while it’s been suggested to move the main question (what strategies…?) to question 3, this seems to miss the main point of the research. (Which is a worry in itself but maybe that indicates that I need to communicate a little more with my supervisors)

All of this brings me to the Pat Thomson journal question suggestion du jour – “The best advice I’ve been given about the PhD was…” that it’s My PhD and I need to own it. This doesn’t mean that I won’t change things based on advice but I need to believe in what I’m writing and I didn’t believe the promoting understanding was the sole responsibility of edvisors.

I attended the ASCILITE Spring in Research Excellence School this week – 2 solid days of workshopping and discussing research ideas. I was hoping to pin down a methodology – I think I know what I want to do but I’m not sure if it’s the best way because I don’t know what all of the options are and what the language is surrounding my approach. I now have two well regarded books on the matter though – Creswell’s Research Design: qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches (2014) and Saldana’s The coding manual for qualitative researchers (2015) so I’m hoping that between the two of these, I can figure it out.

Research update #32: ‘Pen’ to paper

Not literally pen to paper clearly because who uses pens for anything other than signing things and as a left-hander the side of my hand dabs onto the still wet ink and turns into a big fleshy rubber stamp – but it is time to start putting down some words.

I can’t remember where I saw it – probably Twitter – but someone was talking about the need to write the SFD, the shitty first draft. It will be awful but it’s only by forcing ourselves to commit to some words that we start to make decisions about what we want to discuss. (That said, I did map out a loose structure for feedback because I do like to have a sense of where a thing is going and how it all links up)

Also, it’s ‘just’ the thesis proposal – the 10k-ish document that kind of determines whether or not I get to continue with this research project. Looking at some of the longer of these blog posts, I’ve knocked out 3000 words just banging on about one particular paper, so I’m not worried about writing enough words. Just writing enough good ones.

I can’t really see much on my Pat Thomson PhD topic list – pretty sure that “I can best organise my time by…” won’t be coming up too soon, nor “The PhD goals I’ve already reached are…” – unless one of my goals is boring everyone I know to death because this is what I think about night and day kind of now. Probably not a goal.

Digging in to the methodology needs to be a priority. I have a reasonable understanding of what I want to look into – the perceptions held by edvisors, the institution and academics of edvisors and how this is manifested in their actual practices (e.g. job ads, position descriptions, academic papers, edvisor team structures and place within the uni) as I think it’ll be interesting to be able to compare what people say/think they believe and what their actions indicate. The analysis of this I think I can nut out, being surrounded by smart people doesn’t hurt but it is pretty vague right now.

I surprised myself the other day when I was putting the outline of the proposal together and I got to the theory section by realising that there is actually probably some legitimate space to include the ideas of French sociologist thinker Pierre Bourdieu. His work has come up in my reading but, to be honest, drawing on a French intellectual felt a little pretentious. The fact is though, that his main thing is cultural capital, the markers that indicate belonging or prestige (I’m paraphrasing this terribly) in particular cultures/social groups. I’m not sure where I want to go with this yet but given that edvisors struggle to achieve status in HE yet possess significant knowledge of education, it seems like possessing an education or knowledge may not always carry the cultural capital that Bourdieu believes. Or, I assume and hope, he’s dealt with this question and has a handy solution. Either way, it offers a lens to discuss culture in HE, which more and more seems to be a major factor in the questions that I’m asking. I almost feel like I’ve earned my first leather elbow patch. (No jacket yet, I’m not getting that far ahead of myself)

Research update #31: Commonalities and differences

Coming back to the ever-reliable Pat Thomson list of things to PhD blog about:

Things that I have in common with other PhDers

We’re all on the same kind of journey and I assume are facing the same questions and concerns about how to go about doing it and what it’s all for.

We have a deep enough interest in what we’re researching to be able to stick with it.

Things that I don’t feel that I have in common

I’m doing this part-time (while working full-time) and at a distance. This means that I don’t have that at-hand network of peers and the opportunities to participate in the many and varied seminars, presentations, workshops, social events and whatever else happens when you’re a full time PhD student studying on campus. This means that I need to bore my friends and some trusted colleagues stupid with questions, thoughts and ideas that are more often met with blank looks than engagement. There is also my wider online community of peers in practice and I am thankful for them and their wisdom every day – but still, sometimes it would be nice to have those personal conversations too. Particularly when I’m still not quite good enough at expressing the nuance of what I want to say in online discussions and it all comes out a bit wrong.

Not much to do about that other than press on really though.

On the plus side, I think I’ve read enough now and teased through my ideas sufficiently to put some kind of research proposal together – the next step in progressing the PhD research. I had a structure and a project plan that went hopelessly awry as I realised that it wasn’t really about what I need to explore, so I guess the next step is to nut out the outline and create a new plan.

My former housemate is hopefully today nutting out the very final tweaks to her thesis before she submits it on Monday. Even though she’s in an entirely different discipline, we had some great chats about all aspects of PhD life.

Thoughts on: Strategies to win: Six steps for creating problem statements in doctoral research (Blum & Preiss, 2005)

I thought it might help to get back to basics with my research and dig into some of the papers and articles in my “how to PhD” reading list. This paper by Blum & Preiss in the Journal of College Teaching & Learning describes the process that they use at the University of Phoenix for creating problem statements – essentially the first stage of developing research questions.

As an institution they’ve had some problems in the last decade but I liked this guide because it offers a pretty straightforward (and brief) overview and I was able to quickly knock together a first pass at a statement that reasonably sums up what I’m trying to do. They also cite some fairly reputable sources, including Creswell (2004) and it all seems to align with things that I’ve heard before.

In a nutshell, they suggest beginning with the problem. “The problem is… what… for who… where” (p.48). Then select the research design needed to explore the problem – “this type of design (qualitative, quantitative) will do what (explore, describe) what (topic) by doing what (interviewing, observing) who (subjects or population) where (location). If the study is qualitative, students should explain how research patterns would be triangulated (p.49)

From here they offer advice on ensuring relevance and citing research to strengthen ideas and theory. Now maybe this all seems slightly cookie-cutter (one of their problems institutionally) but I’ve still found it useful as a structure to organise my core thoughts. After each described section they offer an exemplar that shows that you don’t have to follow the model precisely and they finish with a basic checklist to ensure clarity, relevance and methodological rigour.

This is what I ended up with:

The increasing sophistication of TELT practices in Higher Education that are afforded by emerging technology (add citation) has necessitated a new class of support staff to assist academics in this space. Whitchurch (2008) labels this domain, sitting across professional and academic roles, the “third space” (p.378) and it is inhabited by workers carrying a plethora of titles (add citation) that might broadly sit under the umbrella term of ‘educator advisors’ (edvisors).

The problem is that edvisor advice about implementing better TELT practices often goes unheard by academics and institutions in the Australian HE context because they don’t understand the roles, benefits or values of these workers.

This mixed-methods study will survey and interview edvisors, academics and institutional managers in Australian Universities to gather information about the perceptions held of edvisors, their roles, benefits and values. It will also gather data on institutional practices relating to the employment of edvisors and placement within organisational structures to triangulate this evidence relating to perceptions.

This research will seek to clarify understanding of the roles, benefits and values of edvisors and identify strategies that edvisors can (and do) use to establish greater understanding of these things which can result in more effective collaborations between edvisors, academics and the institution.

Looking at it now there is still plenty of room for polishing but it does seem to capture the broad ideas and aims of my research. So that feels like something. For a five and a bit page paper, it has helped me feel that I’m slightly more on track.

Research update #30: Coping with inadequacy

The Pat Thomson topic of the week is: “What I do when I feel inadequate”

I suspect the intention is to share positive coping strategies but honestly I don’t know if I have any. Mostly I just try to distract myself, lying on the couch listening to music and reading twitter on my phone or playing video games on the Playstation are highly effective for this. Playing games – particularly repetitive mastery type games like TrackMania (car racing, mainly trying to set the fastest time on a series of crazy tracks with increasing difficulty) – can be a problem of it’s own though as this gives me time to think about the work that I should be doing. Sometimes I go a little sideways and consider that the mastery that I’m trying to achieve is like practicing piano, which is something else that I can then feel guilty about.

Looking at the posts in the Slack channel for my school (study school, not work school) certainly doesn’t help with these feelings. They are almost all related to areas of theory that don’t seem applicable to my work – epistemic fluency crops up pretty regularly, which I at least feel like I kind of get the gist of now but don’t see the relevance to my particular questions – and even the language that people are using to describe their research and their questions feels far more sophisticated than my somewhat pedestrian research questions.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to strengthen my focus on my questions so I’ve printed them up on A3 and am sticking them in prominent places – above my work desk and on the fridge at home. I may also make it my home PC desktop though that might be too depressing.

my desk and questions

Ultimately I guess doing something, anything is better than feeling bad about doing nothing, so perhaps that’s my way forward.

Thoughts on: Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: implications for academic development (Boud & Brew, 2013)

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.