Monthly Archives: July 2016

Thoughts on: Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education (Whitchurch, 2008)

As I’ve delved into the place of Education Support People (academic/educational developers, designers and technologists) in shaping TELT practices in Higher Education, there have been repeated references to “Third space professionals”.

This paper by Celia Whitchurch from the University of London is routinely cited in these discussions, papers and presentations so I thought that I might have come across one of my first “seminal” papers. And it’s not bad at all, with a number of interesting ideas and keen observations about the emerging world of employment in Higher Ed. but it’s not entirely what I had hoped it would be.

My take on “third space professionals” until this point has been focused on education support professional staff – non-academics working in universities in areas (teaching and learning) generally considered to be within the academic domain. (As opposed to non-academics working in conventionally “non-academic” areas such as administration/finance/HR/IT/maintenance etc).

My use of the term Education Support People/Professionals (ESPs) is quite deliberate as there are several differentiatable roles in this sphere, with some people focusing on curriculum design and development, others helping to create educational resources, others providing professional development to academics in teaching practices and others still supporting Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices and systems. Many people work in roles that encompass most or all of these responsibilities.

Recent discussions with a number of peers have indicated that there are also a great many academics working in these capacities and I find myself now trying to decide whether it is the nature of the work or the nature of the organizational position (academic vs professional) that is of the greater importance. For now, I think it is the nature of the work, so People seems more helpful than Professionals.

Whitchurch, on the other hand, in this paper at least, largely avoids this sector of work and focuses more on professional staff working in management roles (and project management) in areas that have conventionally considered to be within the academic domain.

She notes

the emergence of broadly based, extended projects such a student transitions, community partnership and professional practice (Whitchurch, 2006a). These have contributed to the creation of a third space between professional and academic domains, requiring contributions from a range of staff. In this space, the concept of administrative service has become reoriented towards one of partnership with academic colleagues and the multiple constitutencies with whom institutions interact (P. 378)

Based on interviews conducted with 54 professional staff members at universities primarily in the UK but also Australia and the U.S, Whitchurch observed that she could classify professional staff as sitting within one of four distinct categories, related to the nature of their role and the extent to which they were confined by its “boundaries”

  • Individuals who located themselves within the boundaries of a function or organizational location that they had either constructed for themselves, or which had been imposed upon them. These people were characterized by their concern for continuity and the maintenance of processes and standards, and by the performance of roles that were relatively prescribed. They were categorized as bounded professionals”

  • Individuals who recognized and actively used boundaries to build strategic advantage and  institutional capacity, capitalizing on their knowledge of territories on either side of the boundaries that they encountered. They were likely to display negotiating and political skills, and also likely to interact with the external environment. These were categorized as cross-boundary professionals and, as in the case of bounded professionals, boundaries were a defining mechanism for them

  • Individuals who displayed a disregard for boundaries, focusing on broadly-based projects across the university such as widening participation and student transitions, and on the development of their institutions for the future. These people undertook work that might be described as institutional research and development, drawing on external experience and contacts, and were as likely to see their futures outside higher education as within the sector. They were categorized as unbounded professionals

  • A fourth category, of blended professionalswho were being recruited to dedicated appointments that spanned both professional and academic domains… worked in areas such as regional partnership, learning support, outreach and offshore provision, and were likely to have mixed backgrounds and portfolios. (P382-384)

Whitchurch’s primary emphasis was on the first three categories, only expanding to define the fourth in her second round of interviews with professionals outside the UK. This is probably the area of greater interest to me and I’ll investigate further to see whether she returned to this in subsequent research.

There is still a lot of material in the Bounded / Cross-boundary / Unbounded categories of note though.

Whitchurch Higher Education workforce map

This diagram maps out current academic and professional domains in the Higher Ed workplace and proposes a location for the Third Space. It also showcases where on the spectrum the various types of professional staff might sit.

Whitchurch goes on to say that

a number of respondents used organic imagery to describe this process of joint working, seeing the building of communicative relationships and networks as more significance than the observance of organisational boundaries, so much so that third space work may occur in spite of, rather than because of, formal structures (P.386)

As I mentioned at the start, the absence of Education Support People in this paper means that much of the management content is lost on me but I still took away a couple more key ideas.

She points out that it is essential for Third Space professionals to find a common language that speaks to both academics and other professional staff. This ties in some ways to the importance of building credibility, which tends not to come from position but from successful projects completed with academics. This suggests to me that there is still something of a cultural divide between academics and professional staff but given that I’m far more likely to judge someone based on their actions than their words or title, I can understand it. It does make me wonder how seriously academics take the titles/positions of their peers when it comes to credibility and this may well be a path for further investigation.

Given that Whitchurch appears to come from a management / HR perspective in her other research, it shouldn’t surprise me that she seems relatively unconcerned about the job security of third space professional staff but it is still disappointing. The undertone is that TSPs can be more effective in a flexible, short term contract/project based role and that this should be taken advantage of to benefit the university. Which, sure, fair enough but what happens to them after the project seems of little interest. The fact that projects often need to be maintained and don’t simply end also doesn’t seem to be on the radar.

Nonetheless, thinking more about the value that professional staff can bring to a university and looking for ways to support their work is a positive first step.


Research update

The formal “research” part of my pre-research – the literature review essentially – has gone off the rails a little in the last couple of months. I’ve been collecting things to read here and there but not reading them and clearly not digesting and blogging about them.

Nonetheless, I still feel as though my ideas are coming along. This has mostly been as a result of attending a couple of major Higher Education events – the ACODE Benchmarking summit and the HERDSA 2016 conference. (Australasian Council of Online & Distance Education and the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia)

One of my initial goals with this research was to generate some helpful resources for people in my field/trade/craft – Education Designers/Developers/Technologists. The more I look into the issues around supporting TEL in Higher Ed., the more I realise that this is the area of the most interest to me. I had thought for a while that focussing on the work of professional (non-academic) staff in this space could be a great way to explore larger questions of university culture and the impact that this has but speaking to a number of colleagues at these events, I’ve realised that there is a combination of academics and professional staff providing educational support and that this sector – which I’m going to call Education Support People (ESPs) for now because writing Education Designers/Developers/Technologists is tiresome and clunky.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t multiple factors – that I think may require varying research methodologies to properly explore – that affect the uptake of TELT practices in Higher Ed. but given the central position of ESPs in the organisation, there is a better than even chance that I’ll be able to hang most things on this hub. (To mangle a metaphor)

I’m also starting to think about the dichotomy of rational and emotional reasons for using/avoiding TEL practices. The literature offers many solid, evidence based reasons to use TEL but actual uptake often seems tied to the attitudes of the key players. They might further muddy the waters by raising a (legitimate) rational barrier to TEL practices – we don’t have the time/resources to do this – but the next words in the sentence take us closer to the heart of the emotional response to the issue. They could be … ‘so how can we get around that and do it anyway?’ or ‘… so you can’t make me do it’ when they simply don’t want to.

Finding these core gut responses I think will be interesting and challenging.

The project plan that I showed here a few posts ago has blown out a little, so I’ve tweaked some of the timeframes. I moved University as Organisation to begin after ESPs a few weeks ago but this is my current interest (and I’m not altogether sure what I mean by University as organisation – beyond something to do with the complexity of the educational ecosystem) and I’ve now extended my time to read up on ESPs and pushed back the Uni section a couple of weeks. I was hoping to neatly tie everything to months but there is no compelling practical reason for this, just neatness.

I also spoke to several people at HERDSA – who really were all great, thoughtful and generous people – about interest in creating a Special Interest Group for ESPs (not necessarily that name) and will pursue this in the near future. Big wraps for HERDSA – I have to say that I think it has been one of my all time favourite edu conferences. There wasn’t a single slot that didn’t have at least one presentation that I was interested to see.

The conference also helped me to discover the work of Carroll Graham at UTS, who recently finished a PhD on the impact of professional staff on student learning outcomes. Her website – Higher Education Professionals – I think will be a rich resource

Research journals relating to education in business and economics

Sometimes you need to spend hours poring over a list of 20,000+ academic journals looking for those related to education in business and economics. I’d advise against it.

Here are the ones that I found, so you don’t have to.

I’m not a discipline specialist, so I can’t speak to quality but I’ve included their ratings which will hopefully help.



Academy of Management Learning and Education (A*)—Education.aspx

Statistics Education Research Journal (B)

The International Journal of Management Education (C)

The Journal of Economic Education (B)

Global Perspectives on Accounting Education (C )

International Review of Economics education (C )

Issues in Accounting education (A)

Journal of Accounting education (A)

Journal of Applied Finance: Theory, practice, education (B)

Journal of Business Ethics education (B)

Journal of Economics and Finance Education (C )

Journal of Education for Business (C )

Journal of Financial Education (B)

Journal of International Business Education (C )

Journal of Management Education (B)

Journal of Marketing Education (B)

Journal of Statistics Education (B)

Marketing Education Review (C )

Technology innovations in Statistics education (C )


Quick thoughts on: 10 Principles of Organization Design, Sethi et al

With the new month, I’ve moved into the project plans that I’ve designed for my research and some new ways of working. One of these is writing and reading more quickly with a focus on a particular theme.

This month the theme is the university as an organisation. It seems valuable to begin by thinking about the space that TELT happens in and how it works at a macro level, with a particular focus on change.

So I’ve started in a not particularly academic space with a blogpost about 10 principles of organization design from – looking at things to consider in a restructure. (One of the authors is a partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers, so, not small fry in this field)

The first question to mind is how relevant this is to higher education, given that it is more about large corporations and there are variations in cultures and motivations. We’re still talking about large, complex organisations though so I feel there are a few valuable ideas and at least one contradicts my current views, which is always a healthy place to start.

Getting caught up in previous practice is often a trap in a renewal process, so the authors’ first point is to “declare amnesty for the past“. Accept that what was done, was done and refocus on what is needed and the best ways to do it. This dovetails nicely into a point that I struggle with but am considering, which is to “benchmark sparingly, if at all“. Their point is that competitors might have radically different strategies and it is hard to say whether it is even a good one. This may not apply to Higher Ed but up until this point I’ve been concerned that universities tend to be too introspective and having a greater understanding of the environment could only be healthy. Definitely food for thought either way.

Promote accountability” – without micromanaging people seems fairly obvious but is worth emphasising and they make an interesting final point about “accentuate the informal“. This refers more to the fact that “norms, commitments, mind-set and networks are essential in getting things done” and these are rarely formalised in the same way that org-charts are. Finding ways to support these elements that tend to be generated from the bottom-up in response to immediate needs can help to support formal structures.

So, as I say, this is probably tangential in some ways to my research question – how to support TELT practices in Higher Ed – and it is probably also more about looking for solutions than fleshing out the questions and issues but the ideas are interesting all the same.