Category Archives: academic developer

Research update #39: Proposal writing Day 3: “Rest day” but with some interesting revelations nonetheless

Well it was more a day where I’d made a previous commitment to sit on an interview panel for an Education Technologist position for a friend, followed shortly afterwards by a farewell party for a friend in the same unit.

I was able to take a couple of hours to glance over some of my earliest blog posts relating to this research, which were helpful in that I could see how much my question has evolved over time but perhaps lacked a little something in terms of direct relevance to the work that I’m doing now. Fortunately, the responses to the interview questions themselves did align more closely, albeit more in terms of gaining some additional background insights.

My assigned question to ask was along the lines of what technology do you see having an impact on higher education in the next 3-5 years? Something calling for a little crystal ball-gazing and my inclination was far more to give extra points to those who were unwilling to commit to specific products or brands. It was more about getting a sense of who is keeping an eye on things than getting the (impossible) right answer. Responses ranged from mobile devices (fairly likely though parts of my institution seem mystifyingly resistant to this) to AI, AR and drones. One candidate tried valiantly to steer this conversation around to rubrics and assessment and points for trying I guess.

The more revealing question was what do you think the role of an education technologist is? This was interesting because these were all people that had applied for a position with a specified set of criteria but the responses were still relatively varied. Clearly advising on and supporting the use of technology was a common theme in the responses but from there we seemed to veer into whichever areas the candidates felt they were strongest in. Fair enough, the point of the interview is to sell yourself. This included research, production of resources and information management skills. When we asked some to expand on their answers, by differentiating the technologist role from an ed designer or ed developer, things got more interesting. Before I started digging down into this field, my take was that a developer was more like a software or web developer than the more commonly used professional developer. One candidate felt that the ed dev would be building apps. Most got that the designer had more to do with course or curriculum design to varying degrees but most also recognised that there is a lot of overlap between all of these roles and the fact that they all had slightly different takes was good for me in that it reinforced what I’ve seen in the literature (and experienced in the day to day) about the fuzziness of most of these definitions.

I guess another interesting aspect of the interviews was in seeing where everyone had come from. We had people that had entered the field from graphic design, web and multimedia design, teaching and librarianship. For me, none of this disqualified anyone though the harsh reality is that in looking for someone able to hit the ground running, it’s hard not to favour someone with experience working with academics. How you get that experience in the first place is the real challenge I guess and I think I can probably expand a little on the pathways/entry point ideas section – though I don’t feel that there has been a lot of discussion of this in the literature that I’ve seen to date.

So while I didn’t write much and I didn’t find a whole lot in my previous note-taking blog posts, I still feel like I came away with a few more ideas.

Research update #38: Proposal writing Day 2 – more on edvisors, less on edvisors & institutions

I’m kind of just staring at the screen now with 27 different tabs open across two browsers so I guess it’s time to take a mental break at the very least. Going by my schedule, I was meant to have knocked out 750 words on the relationship between edvisors and institutions – or my precisely I guess institutional management/leadership. I currently have 129.

But that’s because I only wrote about 500/1000 yesterday on edvisors more broadly. I think part of my challenge is that, first draft or not, I still like to try to turn out a moderately elegant sentence that flows smoothly into the next one and advances the story or idea. What I need to do is worry less about this and just get the brutish ugly ideas down so that they might be prettied up later.

The bigger issue though is that I didn’t put enough time into getting all my sources, quotes and ideas into a single location before I started writing. I’ve spent enough time with the literature to know broadly what it says and how I want to bring it together and I know I have the citations to support this but I didn’t put them all into the notes document. They are instead, scattered through this blog, Zotero and assorted stacks of paper with pencil notes scrawled all through them. The point of blogging about many of these papers was to create a searchable archive of these ideas but with the way that the question has changed over time, the way that I have tagged these posts has not quite kept pace.

I’m still enjoying the writing and being forced to commit to particular ideas and language, I’m just slightly up in the air about whether it would be more beneficial to stop and spend the time assembling everything before I proceed or if I should just press on, write what I can as a first draft and then come up with a much improved second draft by bringing all the stray elements together. The latter seems the way to go as I’m well versed in the fine arts of procrastination and preparation, endless preparation is absolutely one of my go-tos in this regard. The other advantage of just writing is that it will let me work out the structure a little better which should make the process of searching for and gathering the quotes and citations a lot simpler.

I hit the 1000 word target for the edvisors section just before lunch but later felt that a discussion of the place of credentialing might sit better in the edvisors and institutions section. I was also a little concerned that I was discussing literature without really explaining why or what I was looking for in particular, so once more I spent a little more time than planned on that section. I had initially planned on 2000 words for my discussion of edvisors in the literature but revised this to 1000 on advice from Lina. I have a feeling that I could probably hit the 2000 without too much trouble as I dig deeper into the tensions between academic and professional edvisors.

Most of my thinking until recently revolved around the bizarre love/hate triangle between academics, institutional management/leadership and edvisors and how this impacts upon collaborative relationships. I’d kind of put aside the internal tensions both between academics and professional staff – particularly in the academic developer space where there’s a big question about where scholarly research fits into edvisor practices – and also between variously located teams within institutions. Most commonly central vs college/faculty based but there is also some toe-treading that occurs between rival disciplinary teams. The good news is that it’s all just more material to work with.

So while I’m not hitting my perhaps ambitious writing targets yet, the ideas are flowing.

 

Research update #37: Proposal writing Day 1 – Edvisors lit review

writing plan dates

I’ve booked in two weeks leave from work to get at least a first draft of my thesis proposal together. There’s a loose structure in place and I’m all about just getting the words down at this stage. As a first draft, I’m allowing for it being relatively terrible – which is probably the hardest part because I do like the words that I use to work well together – and the plan is to have something to send off for feedback just before Christmas.

Given that I’m aiming for between 750-1000 words a day mostly, I think I’ll be spending the morning pulling together the various ideas, quotes and references in the morning and doing the writing writing in the afternoon.

Today the focus is on edvisors in the literature, which isn’t as easy as I’d thought given that part of the reason for the thesis is their lack of visibility in the research. Or, more to the point, the fact that a lot of what I’ve been looking at is more closely related to where they/we sit in the institution, our relationships with institutional leadership and academics and the strategies that we do and could use to improve this. What I’m left with is more the descriptive, defining kind of work. Breaking this up into the three core role types of academic developer, education designer and learning technologist should help and there’s still plenty of time to move things around.

Mostly I just need to remember that this is the literature section, so I’m really only to talk about what other people have been talking about. I guess I can talk briefly about what hasn’t been discussed but that seems like a trap in some ways as maybe it has and I just missed it. (Pretty sure this is a universal refrain among PhDers though)

If you do read this post and are aware of a strikingly significant article or book etc about the nature of edvisors (academic developers etc – I wonder how long I’m going to need to add this), please let me know.

 

Research update #36: Playing well with others

The nature of my research topic, with a focus on the status of professional staff in an academic world, feels risky at times. While I know that academic staff occupy edvisor roles as well, I have a feeling that I’ll be digging into sensitive areas around the academic/professional divide that often seem to be swept under the carpet because they raise uncomfortable questions about privilege and class in the academy and some entrenched beliefs about what makes academics special. It would be incredibly presumptuous for me to think that my ideas are all necessarily right and the point of research is to put them to the test and see where they take me but there’s a fair chance that some of what I’m going to have to say won’t always be well received by some of the people that I work with and who pay me. The other big issue is whether if my findings demonstrate a blind spot to professional staff in academics, those same academics responsible for assessing my research will see the value in my work.

Fortunately at this stage I don’t have my heart set on a career as an academic – I really do like doing what I do – but it seems imprudent to prematurely cut one’s options. I am conscious that I need to be more researcherly or scholarly in the language that I use in this space. I sent out a slightly provocative tweet yesterday, prompted by a separate (joke) tweet that I saw which said that the fastest way to assemble a bibliography was to publicly bemoan the lack of research in topic x. 

After 36 hours I’ve had no literature recommended but a university Pro Vice-Chancellor replied suggesting a collaboration on this area of mutual interest. Which surprised and flattered me greatly, considering that I was concerned that I’d come across as a little bolshie in my questions. Maybe it’s wrong of me to see academics as some kind of monolithic whole.

Maybe the trick is to just worry less and be honest. You can’t please everyone and if you can stand behind your work, maybe that’s enough.

I’m not sure. We seem to live in incredibly sensitive times.

 

 

Thoughts on: Agency and stewardship in academic development: the problem of speaking truth to power (Peseta, 2014)

In some ways this is a ‘thoughts on thoughts on’ as I’m writing about Tai Peseta’s summary reflection at the end of a special issue of the International Journal of Academic Development focusing on the politics of academic development. Specifically, it asked writers to respond to this theme:

amid the array of contested and politically difficult agendas, how do academic developers enact and imagine a future for themselves (and the profession) in ways that recognise and take seriously the business of their own political power, and in particular, their responsibility to speak truth to power (p.65)

I’ve been going to IJAD a lot in my reading because of those that I consider to be the three main edvisor roles – academic developer, education designer and learning technologist – it is academic developers that appear to dominate the research space. Which does make me wonder whether it is a role that is more dominated by people in academic (rather than professional) positions than the other two. Something I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The more time I spend looking at this particular role-type, the more I’m seeing the terms academic and educational developer used interchangeably, which doesn’t help my current line of thinking about education designers/developers primarily as people working with academics to design and built learning resources and online course sites. However it does fortunately still work with my other ideas that titles in the edvisor domain are all over the shop. 

Anyway, much of this is by the by. Peseta elegantly ties together the core ideas of five papers about academic developer practice across Europe, Canada and Australia into a wider discussion about how much power or influence ADs can or should exert in their institutions. The broad tone is that this power is far more than I have personally seen but she does note that there can often be a tendency in these kinds of papers to be slightly celebratory and overstate things. 

A second reading however is that while the collaboration portrayed in this account contains all the hallmarks of a cautious victory narrative, there remains an underlying question about the possible kinds of representation of academic development initiatives. In reflecting on our modes of justification, I find myself asking who is offering this story? How is the discursive field organised to enable this particular account of it?My goal is not to be cynical but rather to open up the spaces and meanings that illustrate the spectacle of academic development’s political power (p.67)

This mention of cynicism in particular brings me to what I found to be one of the most interesting parts of the author’s reflection. I must confess that in working in an environment where cynicism seemingly abounds, it is easy to travel down the same path. When mystifying decisions are handed down from on high with minimal or laughable consultation, information is fearfully hoarded by people that lack the capacity to use it well and there is a generally pervasive belief that most people don’t care about teaching and learning (vs research), it can seem like a natural progression to simply go with the cynical flow. Fortunately my job leads me more often than not to those people who do care about education and who are capable, so this at least tempers those inclinations.

It was revealing to see today in the results of the National Tertiary Education Union survey of 13500 university workers that only 27% expressed confidence in the people who run their various institutions. Sadly, clearly cynicism is the dominant culture. When we get to this state, I suspect that our ability to understand and empathise with the people that we work with and the cycle only worsens. Peseta discusses the Polish study in this issue where educational reform leaders described three institutional responses to change and characterised academics variously as:

…traditionalists, individualists, unaware, in pain, irrational, lazy, or inert. Each of these three logics permeates the policies of academic development in different ways with different reasons and leads to any number of reactions about the merits of institutional initiatives: pernicious, naive, neutral, welcome, celebratory and necessary. What is to be (or has been) our response to the contradictory reactions about our work as academic developers? What conceptual tools are at our disposal to understand the origins of these perceptions and to see arguments about them as a necessary part of an academic developer’s political repertoire. (p.67-68) 

 

There are some big ideas to unpack in this. The educational reform leaders in this study may well be right in their summary of many of the academics that they have tried to work with but they may equally have misunderstood what has led to these behaviours. They may be grossly oversimplifying the nature of their academics, which is a human thing to do when we find ourselves in opposition to someone who doesn’t share our vision. Their rejection of this vision then calls our own abilities into question and so rather than interrogate those, it’s far more comforting to attribute resistance to lesser personal qualities. (Which isn’t to say that they can’t be present as well, just to complicate matters).

At the heart of these issues (for ADs) I would suggest is the triangular relationship between institutional management, academics and academic developers. ADs are routinely forced into a position where they are tasked with effectively driving compliance to institutional policies and initiatives by offering training in ‘doing things the new/right way’ or trying to advocate best practices to the powers that be. This, to me, seems to be the issue of where and whether ADs should assert their political power. When things take the former route

Too heavy an emphasis on compliance without critical engagement leads to dull, bureaucratic box-ticking , and effectively hollows out academic development of its intellectual contribution. Similarly, accepting and lamenting resistance without considered debate or challenges entrenches tradition unthinkingly. Although both positions are productive and necessary for academic development to flourish as a critical encounter, they each contain an uneasy energy characteristic of Di Napoli’s (2014) agonistic spaces. Yet is in in precisely these spaces tha academic developers realise and grasp the power they have to form and practise their judgement, developing a feel for the game and what it means to be in it. In these spaces, the question which usually lurks is ‘what do I do with the power and influence I have?’  (p.66)

This is also perhaps where Peseta and I diverge a little – and I’ll readily accept that my experience in Higher Ed is limited to one institution – but, as a professional staff member, I’ve never had a feeling of any political power. This may simply be a reflection of my particular context or my lack of experience in politicking and the fact that the author and most of the authors of the papers in the special issue do feel that they have some degree of power has to make me wonder if ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. So this in itself has been something of a breakthrough in some ways and is giving me a lot to consider.

The author and the authors of the papers in the special issue spell out a number of strategic approaches to developing and exercising their power that are worth exploring. Many of them seem highly valuable but a handful I’d question.

From them we learn something about how teaching and learning issues unfold into urgent institutional problems; we develop an insight into the different ways academic developers read the rhythms of their contexts, draw on research, assemble arguments, and galvanise people and resources to reformulate and address the challenges before them. Most importantly, we get a sense of how a particular course of action is justified and argued for over others (p.67)

This to me positions ADs as providers of frank and fearless advice that draws on scholarly practices that senior academics and institutional management (generally the same thing) are more likely to respond to. It puts advocacy front and centre (alongside research) as a key practice of ADs. This is something that I’ve rarely seen specifically listed in job advertisements and position descriptions for these kinds of roles, although maybe it sits under ‘advise’. This certainly lends weight to my feeling that Peseta and the other authors largely see AD roles as being occupied by academics. This is extended in the discussion of the Norwegian paper

… we are privy to the insights of a very experienced group of academic developers and this shows in several ways: in their description of the political context and their participation in it; in their deployment of expertise (institutional know-how and educational research); their sense of what to argue for and what to withdraw from; and more generally, in the way they understand the possibilities and limits of academic development (through their choice of a sense-making framework: discursive institutionalism. This piece really shines when the sense-making apparatus kicks in: levels of ideas (policy, programme and philosophy); types of discourses (coordinative and communicative); and types of ideas (cognitive and normative)… It seems to me that one of the compelling lessons from this paper is about inducting academic developers into the scholarship of the field as an opportunity to debate and defend a set of views about higher education (p.68) (emphasis mine)

This quote leaves me a little unclear as to whether Peseta is suggesting that ADs should be inducted into the scholarship of the discipline being taught or broader scholarship about teaching and learning. (That’ll teach me to only read a summary of a paper and not the paper itself. Fear not, it’s on the long list). One question or idea that has come up a number of times in discussions within the TELedvisor community is whether academics need to better understand what edvisors do but I can see a strong case for going the other way. (Even when we assume that we know). If it is about delving into disciplinary scholarship (e.g. microeconomics) I’m less convinced, as much for the sheer feasibility of it all. Maybe being to ask questions about approaches to teaching and learning that align better to disciplinary practices and scholarship is a practical middle-ground.

Moving on to the study in the special issue by Debowski, Peseta notes a different strategic approach being taken by Australian ADs.

We find an Australian academic development scene keen on a model of partnership with its political allies: from external quality agencies to teaching and learning funding bodies. The politicisation is plausible enough but the distributed nature of the political game carries noteworthy and worrying epistemological effects. The first is that the job of academic development shifts to one of ‘translation’ and ‘implementation’, suggesting in part that the intellectual puzzles of learning and teaching in higher education have more or less been settled. Moreover the thorny and substantial issue of what (and whose) knowledge is being ‘translated’ and ‘implemented’ is left unattended. A second effect is tying oneself too closely to the external political game is that it can divert attention away from a commitment to the project of knowledge-making. (p.68)

Part of me has to wonder whether this different approach – between Norway and Australia – is reflective of national cultural characteristics or if it is simply a matter of the specific examples being examined. If my feeling that ADs don’t carry a lot of power in Australia is widely true, it would make more sense to lean on other authorities to help get things done.

Peseta draws her reflection to a close by reasonably asking

whether academic developers are eager to imagine themselves in the role of steward, where there is a job to be done in caring for the field – its history, ethics and politics – in ways that are future looking. It does seem to me that a condition of scholarship lies in academic developers’ disposition to scholarliness and scholarship, as well as a desire to know and immerse themselves in the peculiarities that comprise the field. If we are to better support academic developers in navigating the messy politics of the agency game, then we need more occasions to dispute, debate and deliberate on what it is that we offer learning and teaching in higher education. We need occasions to test our politics with others in and outside of the field. (p.69)

I would love to see this happening but having had a taste of institutional and academic culture where this absolutely does not happen, I can completely understand ADs wanting this but choosing to spare themselves from banging their heads against a brick wall. (And I thought I was going to be less cynical in this post). Maybe banging our heads against walls is a necessary part of a practice though.

I’ll wrap this post up with one more quote that I want to include but couldn’t find a way to fit into the discussion. I’ll certainly be reading more of this special issue as it clearly speaks directly to my research and hopefully I can also use it to spark wider discussion in the TELedvisor community.

What feels fresh and thrilling to me is that the lens of political ontology unlocks two important aspects of the work. First, it draws attention to the matter of justificatory politics, inviting us to interrupt the discourses that structure the accounts of our work as academic developers. While institutional capture provides academic development with much sought-after leverage and profile, it has the uncanny effect too of infantilising academic developers’ professional imagination such that our identities, values and actions can appear to outsiders as inseparable from what an institution requires. Second, the focus on ontology locates these interruptions as individual and collective acts of political agency, inciting us to lead more public conversations about our values at exactly the time when higher education’s purpose has multiplied. Without these conversations, there may be a temptation to position academic developers flexible and enterprising operators advocating on behalf of greedy institutions (Sullivan, 2003) regardless of their own professional and personal values. Many of us would baulk at this suggestion while reflecting on its distinct likelihood (p.66)

No punches pulled there.

 

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.

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Academic developers as change agents: Caught in the Middle (Hicks, 2005)

Maybe it’s just a happy coincidence but I picked up a paper that I’d made a note to read in full after skimming it a while back and I don’t think I could’ve found something that aligned more with the questions that I asked myself in my post here about values vs value and the way that edvisors sit between teachers and the institution.

Hicks, who leads an academic development unit in an Australian university, delves deep into this issue of the two masters that academic developers serve – the institution and the academics/teachers. As far as I can make out, she uses the relatively well established definition of academic developers as people providing professional development training to academics. She references Nunan, George and McCausland to specify that this is

directed towards both inducing change towards institutional directions and working with teachers in areas of change that they initiate in their local contexts (Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000 p.85) (p.176)

I have to assume that the “they” in “they initiate” refers to the teachers, though it could be read as the academic developers as well. Teachers kind of makes more sense.

She ran a handful of focus groups with a small sample of academic developers – it’s not apparent whether it was at her own institution or not, which seems significant because even if you made it clear that you’re wearing a researcher hat, I would suspect that this would potentially inhibit completely open discussion. But then, I don’t know what kind of relationship she had/has with her team.

What emerges from these focus groups is that the space occupied by academic developers sees them torn between supporting the implementation of change that comes down from “management” and trying to serve the needs and interests of teachers/academics in their own practices. Despite numerous references to management, it’s not explicitly stated whether this is at a Chancellery level, with policy direction coming from former academics at the top of the university tree or “professional” management. Probably both although, again, I’d suggest that the professional management side has little to nothing to do with educational policy and few institutions would accept them trying to dictate the kind of behaviour that academic developers are tasked with embedding.

Hicks draws heavily from the ideas of Bourdieu to frame this conflict in terms of power relationships and this works for me for the most part, as navigating these is a pretty substantial factor in this kind of work. It was a little bit of a shame though that they didn’t really lead to any particularly meaningful conclusions

If universities are to get the most out of their academic development function in times of change, then these tensions need to be recognised, understood and dealt with in a way that takes account of all perspectives – management, academic staff and academic developers (p.182)

I certainly agree that this isn’t the most useful state of affairs but ‘something really should be done by someone’ doesn’t offer much in the way of a direction forwards. She does state that this is part of a broader research project, so I guess I’ll explore this for further clues. This should also not be taken to say that this isn’t a valuable paper – it lays out very clearly the issue and makes solid use of transcripts from the focus groups to highlight the voice of the academic developers.

There were a few other questions though that I felt went begging somewhat. It wasn’t explained whether the academic developers were in professional or academic roles (or came from academic roles), which I think makes a difference in the way that they are perceived by academic staff (and presumably also by management.) The lack of clarity about who management is I think is also a missing piece. I agree that being a change agent with a sometimes excessive focus on compliance can be a substantial part of the role (although if you want to talk about being the compliance police, look more at the VET sector) but I think we’re missing the continuity part of this role. The support of current, successful practices that are largely independent of change. In fairness, this wasn’t the thrust of the argument and it is the change aspects that bring the tensions between ‘management’ and academics into sharp relief.

There were also some great references for me to pursue – Land has been recommended before but it was particularly interesting to see that Land (2001) has

identified twelve different orientations to the practice of academic development (p.176)

A final question that came to mind, which once more seems to come back to my favourite paper of recent times by Brew et al (2017) about academic resistance to university initiatives, is exactly why there is so much conflict about change between academics and management. Is it that management is pushing clearly bad policy (not impossible) or that academics just don’t see the personal benefits of it (also feasible). Presumably a far more complex mess than either of these but one which could help take some of these ideas a little further.