Category Archives: Education Support People

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.

 

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.

Thoughts on: The Herckis research in progress into barriers to TEL in Higher Ed

L. Herckis, personal communication, July 10, 2017

I’ve been banging on about this a bit here recently but that’s only because I’m enjoying the new perspective on this issue, which is kind of at the heart of my day to day work and my own research. Unlike most if not all of the other research that I’ve read in this space, this comes from an anthropological background and seems far more interested in looking beyond what academics say to explore what they actually mean when it comes to talking about their teaching and learning (and particularly TEL and innovation practices).

I don’t think that people often go out of their way to be deliberately deceptive in the way they discuss or think about their teaching practice (we have committees and office politics for that – zing) but I think we all also like to consider ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives and this can get in the way of truly understanding what (or who) gets in the way of innovation and iteration. (I don’t believe in change for change’s sake either, just to be clear – I think it’s just as important to identify and celebrate the things that we do that works and support them, but that’s a matter for another day)

As a baby researcher (no, that sounds weird, let’s try pre-researcher – presearcher?) and one with minimal knowledge of anthropology, I won’t presume to comment on the methodology, suffice to say it seems sensible  – mixed method including an ethnographic observation, surveys and interviews – and appears to already be yielding interesting results in the early phases of the work and analysis.

Given that this is research in progress, I’ll just highlight what I’ve found to be key points so far.

The author mentions ‘refinement’ as a stage in the innovation process – which I would take to be an evaluation and iteration/modification process – which is nice but it seems to be so rarely implemented formally that it might be nice to break this into these two parts. More than anything though, these challenges indicate to me that there might need to be support from someone (or a team) that is able to offer a more holistic perspective on an innovation process – I would suggest, unsurprisingly, working collaboratively with an education design support unit (TEL edvisors if you will), so that some of the issues relating to the transitions to different stages of the process are mitigated because there is constancy of people involved.

Some nice stuff about the needs for a more collaborative model of teaching innovation. Getting this message across (for me at least) is one of my challenges – I was told pretty categorically this week by a senior member of the exec that teaching is an individual endeavour and that a community of practice is probably a waste of time (that’s paraphrased)

Overall it seems as though this work aims to lead to solid, practical and applicable outcomes. One of my greatest concerns about entering research is whether it might have a practical application, beyond just being a contribution to the wider pool of understanding. Some have told me that the latter is the primary purpose of research, which feels limiting to me so it’s nice to see a different take.

Many factors identified that impact of the success of an innovation project, including the very hard to untangle political and psychological. Interestingly, many issues seem resolvable far more simply than one would expect if there are visible career benefits or opportunities to work with respected peers, which makes me think that some of the barriers raised and emphatically identified as insurmountable are largely made of bluster.

Coming back to my earlier comment about the difference between what people say and what they think, Herckis uses techniques from her discipline to cleverly swerve around this. Framing questions in terms of ‘what would your (very similar to you) colleague think about this issue?’ lets people filter out their own personal biases and answer a question more objectively. Perhaps it lets them move past the need to be the hero of their own story and be consider it from a slightly more critical perspective.

I might just summarise the rest of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and revealing findings to date.

After surveying participants about their attitudes to SoTL (and SoTEL) and their perceptions of their institutions attitudes to the same, it emerged that the gap between these attitudes worked in different ways, depending on whether you are an early career teacher or a senior one. I have to note that different institutions have different organisational structures for their academics and there is more to this than simply being an early or late career teacher. Being more research oriented or having tenure, for example, are obviously going to shape attitudes and behaviours as well and there are always going to be a raft of local cultural factors at play too. That said, the fact that there are differences in outlook based on this seems like a pretty big deal.

When early career teachers feel that the institution values teaching less than they do (significantly), they are less inclined to innovate. With senior teaching academics however, in this instance they are more likely to do so, perhaps because they see it as their duty to help the institution raise the bar. This sounds somewhat like a question of power or privilege – don’t want to rock the boat vs not having to care – and probably more than anything else in this paper has started me thinking that different approaches need to be taken in my teaching/TEL edvisor role with junior and senior staff.

A couple of final factors come to play more than I had considered – and this is perhaps a disadvantage of my outsider role. While the ever-present time, capability and resourcing issues are at the forefront of academic resistance to revising their approaches to teaching and innovation, the prospect of working on this with an esteemed colleague, of future professional opportunities or of receiving good press can push these concerns to the background.

An overemphasis on student satisfaction measurements was identified as a major barrier, the fact that many (untrained) teachers lean very heavily on how they were taught, misalignments between institutional change and teaching needs and a belief that there is little to be learnt from teaching approaches in other disciplines also all crop up. Almost all of which I put down to issues surrounding culture, ultimately.

Definitely looking forward to the next phases of this particular research and working out how to make use of it in practice.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Responding to university policies and initiatives: the role of reflexivity in the mid-career academic (Brew, Boud, Lucas & Crawford, 2017)

Is academia a workplace like any other? Going by the normalisation of academic staff attitudes towards organisational policies and initiatives displayed in this paper, it’s hard to believe so. As a professional staff member in a H.E institution it’s kind of fascinating to see a discussion of ignoring policy and procedures treated as a norm that management needs to work harder to mitigate – ideally by offering the staff greater incentives to comply. Maybe we also see it in the higher levels of the entertainment industry, where top stars are feted to keep the show running. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, is academia showbiz for clever people?

Brew, Boud et al explore these attitudes using the lens of Archer’s modes of reflexivity (2007) to try to better understand how mid-career academics’ preferences for reflecting on and responding to the world help to define the way they respond to policies and initiatives in their institutions. This is an interesting angle to take, particularly as they are able to use it to formulate some potential actions that management can take in the formulation of these policies etc to get greater buy in. The authors interviewed a diverse set of 27 mid-career (5-10 years experience) academics in research intensive universities in the UK and Australia and categorised their responses to policies/initiatives as aligning with one of the following four modes of reflexivity:

Communicative reflexivity: exhibited in people whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in courses of action

Autonomous reflexivity: exhibited in those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action

Meta-reflexivity: characterised by internal conversations critical of one’s own internal conversations and on the look-out for difference in the social world around them

Fractured reflexivity: internal conversations intensify distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action (p.3)

A question that concerned me throughout however – and it was acknowledged at the end by the authors – was whether the authors identified these people as having one of these orientations before seeing if their attitudes or actions matched them. They did not – instead they mapped the individuals to these modes based on their attitudes and actions and accept that this is a relatively subjective approach to have taken. In the case of several participants, they even found that different things that they said in the course of their interview aligned to most or all of the four modes. As a series of signposts however, these modes generally appear to have stood up to scrutiny and reasonably reflect the set of different responses taken by the academics.

Some choice examples, including some transcripts:

A change that affected Shaun was degree accreditation by a professional body. This was deemed necessary to ensure continued student applications. His courses did not address the competencies needed in the degree. The consequence of this was that his teaching was taken away… Shaun describes this as a critical incident in his career:

[It was a] slap in the face, because an external accrediting body didn’t think my knowledge area was necessary to produce this… degree, as opposed to a university standing up and going, well no the tail doesn’t wag the dog, this is what we think is important to become a university graduate and that should inform what becomes a practitioner (Shaun, Aus, HS, SL, M, L.344-352) (P.5-6)

And this:

William refers to ‘red tape’ that surrounds teaching describing initiatives requiring writing learning outcomes and conforming to graduate outcome statements as ‘a fashion, a fad’ (L.257)

And Shaun again:

there are some faculty research priorities… which were suggested as being pillars that we had to try and perform under. I couldn’t tell you what they are, I haven’t paid attention to them because I remember looking at them and going, my area doesn’t fit under them. (p.8)

Now of course I’ve taken the more dramatic examples but there are many more that broadly paint a picture indicating that the academics in the study take a fairly self-centric viewpoint and few give much thought to bigger picture issues and needs in the institution. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also many instances of mystifying and seemingly counterproductive policies and procedures being put into place and the authors suggest that some academics would be better engaged if these were explained/justified more effectively.

Sensitivity to the ways in which those demonstrating communicative reflexivity work to maintain the status quo and the difficulties they appear to have in responding to change would suggest that attention needs to be paid to providing academics with thorough rationales for policy changes and that opportunities for these to be debated need to be provided. How such policies fit in with and/or enhance existing practice need careful consideration if they are to be implemented successfully. (p.11)

These people and those people who engage in meta-critical reflexivity, where they are able and willing to question their own internal conversations appear to be the easiest to work with in this space.

the people whose mode of reflexivity is meta-reflexivity could be the most helpful in policy implementation as their focus is likely to be on the smooth and equitable functioning of the university community as a whole. Harnessing the critical capacities of such academics and their concern for their fellow workers can be a useful asset for sensitive managers concerned to implement new initiatives (p.11)

When dealing with the autonomous reflexives, those people who – to paraphrase – pretty much just do whatever they feel is right – things get harder. (There is certainly never any question of entertaining the prospect that this behaviour is flawed)

for academics demonstrating autonomous reflexivity, teaching and learning policies are likely to pose the greatest challenges particularly if they are seen to take time away from research. For successful implementation, such people are likely to need incentives in terms of furthering their careers. (p.11)

The authors appear to largely give up on working with the final category, the fractured reflexives, those who struggle to deal with change at all

Academics whose mode of fractured reflexivity makes them unable to move forward may need professional counselling (p.11)

As a professional staff member – I would’ve said non-academic but have a particular dislike of defining things by what they are not – these descriptions do all ring true and something that I’ve been keenly aware of since I started this research (and long before, really) is that the question of culture in academia is a massive factor in the success or failure of innovation and change. In some ways this hangs on the question of whether academia is just another job – I’d be surprised to find anyone inside who would agree with that idea and maybe they’re right but maybe we also need to find a middle ground which recognises that complete autonomy and/or academic freedom simply isn’t a realistic expectation in the modern age – perhaps unless you’re working for and by yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 6 Circuits of Reproduction (Shove et al, 2012)

This chapter seemed to take forever to work through, possibly because a bit of life stuff came up in the interim but it’s also at the more complex end of the discussion. It concludes the overall examination of the dynamics of social practice and in some ways felt like a boss level that I’d been working up to. Most of the chapter made sense but I must confess that there is a page about cross-referencing practices as entities that I only wrote “wut?” on in my notes. Maybe it’ll make more sense down the road.

The good news is that there was more than enough more meaningful content in this chapter to illuminate my own exploration of practices in my research and it sparked a few new stray ideas for future directions. There’s a decent summary near the end of the chapter that I’ll start with and then expand upon. (The authors do great work with their summaries, bless them)

In this chapter we have built on the idea that if practices are to endure, the elements of which they are made need to be linked together consistently and recurrently over time (circuit 1). How this works out is, in turn, limited and shaped by the intended and unintended consequences of previous and co-existing configurations (circuit 2). Our third step has been to suggest that persistence and change depend upon feedback between one instance or moment of enactment and another, and on patterns of mutual influence between co-existing practices (circuit 3). It is through these three intersecting circuits that practices-as-entities come into being and through these that they are transformed. (p.93)

So let’s unpack this a little. There are a number of reciprocal relationships and cycles in the lives of practices. The authors discuss these in two main ways – through the impact of monitoring/feedback on practices (both as individual performances and larger entities) and also by cross-referencing different practices (again as performances and entities)

Monitoring practices as performances

A performance of a practice will generate data that can be monitored. It might be monitored by the practitioner (as a part of the practice) and it might also be monitored by an external actor that is assessing the performance or the results/outputs. (This might be in an education/training context or regulatory or something else). This monitoring then informs feedback which improves/modifies that performance and/or the next one/s and so the cycle continues. In some way, potentially, in every new performance, the history of past performances can help refine the practice over time.

This isn’t all that evolves the practice; materials, competences and meanings play their part too, but it is a significant factor.

Monitoring, whether instant or delayed, provides practitioners with feedback on the outcomes and qualities of past performance. To the extent that this feeds forward into what they do next it is significant for the persistence, transformation and decay of the practices concerned… self-monitoring or monitoring by others is part of, and not somehow outside, the enactment of a practice (what are the minimum conditions of the practice?) is, in a sense, integral to the performance. Amongst other things, this means that the instruments of recording (the body, the score sheet, the trainee’s CV) have a constitutive and not an innocent role. (p.83-4)

So far, so good. This also makes me think that many practices are made up of elements or units of practice – let’s call them steps for simplicity. The act of monitoring is just another step. (This does take us into the question of whether it is a practice or a complex/bundle of practices – like driving is made up of steering, accelerating, braking, signalling etc – but nobody says they’re going out accelerating)

Monitoring practices as entities

Looking at a practice as an entity is to look much more at the bigger picture of the practice.

the changing contours of practices-as-entities are shaped by the sum total of what practitioners do, by the variously faithful ways in which performances are enacted over time and by the scale and commitment of the cohorts involved. We also noticed that practices-as-entities develop as streams of consistently faithful and innovative performances intersect. This makes sense, but how are the transformative effects of such encounters played out? More specifically, how are definitions and understandings of what it is to do a practice mediated and shared, and how do such representations change over time (p.84)

An interesting side-note when considering the evolution of practice is the contribution of business. This example was in a discussion of snow-boarding

As the number of snowboarders rose, established commercial interests latched on to the opportunities this presented for product development and profit (p.85)

This ties back to the influence of material elements (new designs and products in this case) on shaping a practice.

Technologies are themselves important in stabilising and transforming the contours of a practice. In producing snowboards of different length, weight, width and form, the industry caters to – and in a sense produces – the increasingly diverse needs of a different types of user… Developments of this kind contribute to the ongoing setting and re-setting of conventions and standards. (p.85)

This in turn brings up back to one of the other key roles played by monitoring (and feedback) in terms of practices as entities, which is describing and defining them. The language that is used to describe a practice and its component parts and also to define what makes good practice is of vital importance in determining what a practice is and what it becomes.

…if we are to understand what snowboarding ‘is’ at any one moment, and if we are to figure out how the image and the substance of the sport evolves, we need to identify the means by which different versions of the practice-as-entity relate to each other over time. Methods of naming and recording constitute one form of connective tissue. In naming tricks like the ollie, the nollie, the rippey flip and the chicken salad, snowboarders recognise and temporarily stabilize specific moves. Such descriptions map onto templates of performance- to an idea of what it is to do an ollie, and what it means to do one well… in valuing certain skills and qualities above others, they define the present state of play and the direction in which techniques and technologies evolve. (p.85)

So clearly, monitoring and description and standardisation/regulation and the dissemination of all of this is hugely important on practices. Interestingly, a Community of Practice for TEL edvisors that I’ve started recently had our first webinar yesterday looking at the different standards that Australian universities have for online course design. It probably merits a blog post of its own but I guess it’s a good example of what needs to happen to improve Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices.

The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to monitoring – which ties back to our webinar nicely once more – is mediation.

Describing and materializing represent two modes of monitoring in the sense that they capture and to some extent formalize aspects of performance in terms of which subsequent enactments are defined and differentiated. A third mode lies in processes of mediation which also constitute channels of circulation. Within some snowboarding subcultures, making and sharing videos has become part of the experience. These films, along with magazines, websites and exhibitions, provide tangible records of individual performance and collectively reflect changing meanings of the sport within and between its various forms. Put simply, they allow actual and potential practitioners to ‘keep up’ with what is happening at the practice’s leading edge(s) (p.86)

I find the fact that monitoring/documenting and sharing the practice is considered an important part of practice quite interesting. Looking at teaching, I’ve tried to launch projects to support this in teaching but management levels have not seen value in this. (I’ll just have to persevere and keep making the argument).

There’s another nice description of the role of standards

…standards, in the form of rules, descriptions, materials and representations, constitute templates and benchmarks in terms of which present performances are evaluated and in relation to which future variants develop (p.86)

The discussion of the role of feedback notes that positive feedback can be self-perpetuating, in “what Latour and Woolgar refer to as ‘cycles of credibility’ (1986). Their study of laboratory life showed how the currencies of scientific research – citations, reputation, research funding – fuelled each other. In the situations they describe, research funding led to research papers that enhanced reputations in ways which made it easier to get more research funding and so on” (p.86)

Ultimately, feedback helps to sustain practices (as entities) by keeping practitioners motivated.

At a very basic level, it’s good to know you are doing well. Even the most casual forms of monitoring reveal (and in a sense constitute) levels of performance. In this role, signs of progress are often important in encouraging further effort and investment of time and energy (Sudnow, 1993). The details of how performances are evaluated (when how often, by whom) consequently structure the careers of individual practitioners and the career path that the practice itself affords. This internal structure is itself of relevance for the number of practitioners involved and the extent of their commitment (p.86)

Cross-referencing practices-as-performances

The act of participating in a performance of a practice means that it has been prioritised over other practices – the time spent on this performance is not available to the others.

…some households deliberately rush parts of the day in order to create unhurried periods of ‘quality’ time elsewhere in their schedule. In effect, short-cuts and compromises in the performance of certain practices are accepted because they allow for the ‘proper’ enactment of others (p.87)

Shove et al examine the importance of time as a tool, a coordinating agent that helps in this process. In a nutshell, it is a vital element of every practice and shapes the interactions between practices (and also practitioners). They move on to explore the change from static ‘clock-time’ to a more flexible ‘mobile-time’. Their argument is essentially that our adoption of mobile communication technologies (i.e. smart phones) is giving us a more fluid relationship with time because we can now call people on the fly to tell them that we are running late.

However some commentators are interested in the ways in which mobile messaging (texting, phoning, mobile emailing) influences synchronous cross-referencing between practices (p.88)

I’ll accept that mobile communication is changing the way we live but I’m not convinced that it is having the impact on practices that the authors suggest. Letting someone know that you’re running late particularly doesn’t change what is to be done, it just pushes it back. Perhaps letting someone know of a change of venue has more impact, in that it would allow a practice that might not otherwise have occurred to do so, but this doesn’t strike me as something that would happen regularly enough to change our concepts of time or practice.

The authors express this somewhat more eloquently than I:

But is this of further significance for the ways in which practices shape each other? For example, does the possibility of instant adjustment increase the range of practices in which many people are involved? Does real-time coordination generate more or less leeway in the timing and sequencing of what people do? Are patterns of inattention and disengagement changing as practices are dropped or cut short in response to news that something else is going on? Equally, are novel practices developing as a result? In thinking about these questions it is important to consider how technologies of ‘micro’-coordination relate to those that operate on a global scale (p.89)

Another significant idea that this generated for me was that the things that we do shape our world because we design and modify our world to suit the things that we do. This then may change our ability to do those things and we enter a cycle where practice shapes environment shapes practice etc.

Or as the authors put it:

we have shown that moments of performance reproduce and reflect qualities of spacing and timing, some proximate, some remote. It is in this sense that individual practices ‘make’ the environments that others inhabit (p.89)

I guess then, the real question is how we as TEL edvisors can make this work for us.

Cross-referencing practices-as-entities

This is the section that lost me a little but parts made sense. It’s something to do with the way that separate practices might be aggregated as part of a larger issue – such as eating and exercise both sit within this issue of obesity. Clearly obesity isn’t a practice but it does encompass both of these practices and creates linkages that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be there. This happens in part by tying in monitoring and creating a discourse/meaning attached to them all.

The authors refer to this combination of the discourse and the monitoring via measurement technologies as “epistemic objects, in terms of which practices are conjoined and associated, one to another” (p.92). (And arguably monitoring and discourse create their own cyclical relationship)

They move on to expand the significance of the elements of a practice (material, competence and meaning),

this time viewing them as instruments of coordination. In their role as aggregators, accumulators, relays and vehicles, elements are more than necessary building blocks: they are also relevant for the manner in which practices relate to each other and for how these relations change over time. (p.92)

Writing and reading – as competences rather than practices I guess – occupy a vital space here in terms of the ways that they are vital in the dissemination of practices, meanings and techniques.

They discuss two competing ideas by other scholars in the field (Law and Latour) that posit that either practices need elements to remain stable for significant periods of time to allow practices to become entrenched or that they benefit from changes in the elements that enable practices to evolve. I don’t actually think that these positions are mutually exclusive.

Other thoughts

I jotted down a number of stray thoughts as I read this chapter that don’t necessarily tie to specific sections, so I’ll just share them as is.

Is a technology a material or does it also carry meanings and competences?

Does research culture/practice negatively impact teaching practice? Isolated and competitive – essentially the antithesis of a good teaching culture.

Does imposter syndrome (in H.E. specifically) inhibit teachers from being monitored/observed for feedback? Does rewarding only teaching excellence inhibit academic professional development in teaching because it stops people from admitting that they could use help. Are teaching excellence awards a hangover from a research culture that is highly competitive?
What if we could offer academics opportunities to anonymously and invisibly self assess their teaching and online course design? 

Is Digigogy (digital pedagogy) the ‘wicked problem’ that I’m trying to resolve in my research – in the same way that ‘obesity’ is an aggregator for exercise and eating as practices? I do like ‘digigogy’ as an umbrella term for TEL practices.

Where do TEL edvisors sit in the ‘monitoring’ space of TEL practices?

This ‘epistemic objects – cycle of monitoring/feedback and discourse’ is probably going to play a part in my research somehow. Maybe in CoPs.

So what am I taking away from this?

I guess it’s mainly that there are a lot of different ways in which practices (and performances of practices) are connected which impact on how the evolve and spread. Monitoring and feedback – particularly when it is baked into the practice – is a big deal. The whole mobile time thing feels like an interesting diversion but the place of technology (and what exactly it is in practice element terms) will be a factor, given that I’m looking at Tech Enhanced Learning. (To be honest though, I think I’m really looking at Tech Enhanced Teaching)

In specific terms, it seems more and more like what I need to do is break down all of the individual tasks/activities that make up the practice of ‘teaching’ – or Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching – and find the cross-over points with the activities that make up the practice of a TEL edvisor. I think there is also merit in looking at the competition between the practices of research for academics and teaching, which impacts their practice in significant ways.

On now to Chapter 7, where the authors promise to bring all the ideas together. Looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why it’s better to be a TELT Advisor than an Education Advisor

For people working in roles like mine in tertiary education – education designers, academic developers, learning technologists etc – one our greatest challenges is being listened to and having our skills and knowledge recognised.

I think that adopting an overarching term for our roles such as TELT (Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching) Advisor might be one way to address this.

Celia Whitchurch (2008) describes a sector of the workforce in Higher Education whose day to day work overlaps the teaching and administration areas – the so-called ‘third space professionals’. She refers to a broader set of staff members than I am here – she includes curriculum developers, student study skills advisors and more – but people who support and advise academics/teachers about teaching practices without actually teaching themselves certainly fit well into the third space category.

I’ve been involved in many discussions trying to find an umbrella term for people in these roles – the academic developers (people who train academics in teaching and learning), learning technologists (people who support the use and implementation of educational technology) and education designers/developers (people who help to design and build courses and learning resources). All of these people do more than the minimal descriptions that I’ve offered and the vast majority tend to do all three of these things at different times.

In the course of discussions with my colleagues, we have settled (for now) on Education Advisor as an umbrella term for our roles. Using Advisor rather than Support person was an important distinction for more than a few people because they felt strongly that Advisor puts us on a more equal footing.

We are frequently (but not exclusively) professional staff members which means that while we may have extensive experience in teaching and learning and qualifications to match, in the academic-centric culture of universities, because we are not teaching (or researching), we are not part of the tribe, we are not peers to the teachers we work with. We are Other. Even the academics that move over to roles in this area are sometimes jokingly referred to as having ‘gone over to the dark side’.

On a personal level, none of this bothers me overly. The vast majority of academics that I work with are decent people that appreciate my support and I enjoy the work that I do. Teaching & Learning and Research are the core reasons for being of universities so I can understand how the culture of the institution tends to privilege the people working directly at the chalkface – or Screenface if you will. (And the research-face as well, of course. Yes, this term started well but…).

This culture also means that there is significant pressure on academics to demonstrate their value, both in their research and (to a lesser extent still, sadly) in their teaching practice. Knowledge is the currency of the academic. To admit that you don’t know something is therefore to make yourself vulnerable. It is assumed then that academics are experts in their field (reasonably so) and also in teaching.

The assumed expertise in teaching seems curious in some ways, given that teaching is a profession and a craft in its own right and people working in this area at any level other that higher education are mandated to have relevant qualifications. There are, of course, many fantastic teachers among academics, but it’s often more by luck than design. Some do choose to undertake teaching qualifications or training but in an institutional culture that strongly favours research over teaching, there is little incentive to do so.

Education Advisors however, do tend to have these qualifications and training, as well as years of experience in teaching and learning. In spite of this, there is an intense reluctance from academics to seek or take pedagogical advice from education advisors. I don’t understand why this is but I have some theories. Seeking or taking advice on teaching, I believe, is effectively seen as sending up a signal that they lack some of the core skills that define their value to the university. It might also come down to basic tribalism in some instances – education advisors aren’t in the teaching tribe, they’re professional staff (mostly) and therefore what could they really offer. I’m sure there are other factors and this may not mirror the experiences of all of my colleagues but I’ve had university leaders say to me directly “I’m going to hire an academic to support this project because they understand pedagogy”.

This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.

Yes, it grows a little tiresome being seen primarily as the first port of call for technical questions relating to the use of the LMS or the lecture capture system or any of the other institutional ed. tech tools when we know how much more we have to offer BUT academics are far more willing to admit that they need help with education technology than with education. They’re not expected to know the tech and this liberates them to be learners.

TELT knowledge is our ticket to the conversation about teaching and learning in our institutions. Rather than burning energy trying to demonstrate that we know more about teaching and learning than just the TELT side (which, can still be what we make it), we should make the most of our niche.

Another key reason to do this is that the higher up the chain you go in tertiary education institutions, the more excitement there is about ‘innovation’ and the promise of education technology. Sometimes the excitement is because the executive actually see the benefits in teaching and learning terms and sometimes it is because it represents ‘doing something’ (and being seen to be ‘doing something’) and sometimes it is even just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses – or one-upping them. Whatever the reasons, and I hope I’m being pragmatic rather than cynical, being the local ‘experts’ in ed tech and innovation in TELT practices gives us more perceived value in these terms than other teaching support areas and creates more opportunities to do good.

So in a nutshell, we’re better off self-identifying as TELT advisors because it creates a niche, academics are more open to seeking advice and support in areas tied to technology and we sit comfortably in the innovation space, which is so hot right now.

(I’ll concede that it’s a clunky term but I’m yet to hear a better one that truly reflects our knowledge, skills and practices and which keeps the focus on teaching and learning)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within Higher Education (King & Boyatt, 2015)

This is a big post because it is about a journal article that covers some of the core issues of my thesis in progress. I’ve spent far longer looking over, dissecting and running off on a dozen tangents with it than I had expected. My highlights and scrawled notes are testament to that.

scrawled notes

In a nutshell, King and Boyatt attribute the success (or otherwise) of adoption of e-learning in their university to three key factors. Institutional infrastructure, teacher attitudes and knowledge and perceived student expectations. This seems like a reasonable argument to make and they back it up with some fairly compelling arguments that I’ll expand on and provide my own responses to shortly.

They use this to generate a proposed action plan which includes a coherent and detailed university level e-learning strategy – which includes adequate resourcing for technological and pedagogical support, academic development training, leadership, guidance, flexibility and local autonomy. Everything that they propose seems reasonable and sane yet (sadly) quite optimistic and ambitious. From their bios, I think that the authors aren’t teachers themselves but education advisors like myself but the perspective put forward in the article is very clearly from an academic’s perspective. (Well, 48 academics from a range of discplines, ages and years of teaching experience.) All the same, there were more than a few occasions when I read the paper and thought – “well it’s fine to suggest communities of practice (or whatever) but even when we do set them up, nobody comes more than once or twice”.

I guess the main difference between this paper and my line of thinking in my research is that I want to know what gets in the way, and I didn’t get enough of that here. I also found myself thinking a few times that this kind of research needs to avoid falling into the trap of forgetting that teaching is only one (often de-prioritised, depending on the uni culture) part of an academic’s practice and we need to factor in the impact that their research and service obligations have on their ability to find time to do this extra training. To be completely fair though, the authors did recognise and note this later in the paper, as well as the fact that the section on perceived student expectations was only that – perceptions – and not necessarily a true representation of what students think or want. So they propose extending the study to include students and the university leadership, which seems pretty solid to me and helps to strengthen my personal view that this is probably a thing I’ll need to do when I start my own research. (I’m still in proposal/literature review/exploration swampland for now). To this I would probably add the affordances of the technology itself and also the Education Advisor/Support staff that can and would help drive much of this.

This paper sparked a number of ideas for me but perhaps the most striking was the question of what are the real or main reasons for implementing e-learning and TELT? Is it simply because it can offer the students a richer and more flexible learning experience or is it because it makes a teacher’s life easier or brings some prestige to a university (e.g. MOOCs) or (in the worst and wrongest case) is perceived as a cost-saving measure. There is no reason that it can’t be all of these things (and more) and that makes a lot of sense but some of the quotes from teachers in the article do indicate that they are more motivated to adopt new tools and teaching approaches if they can see an immediate, basically cost-free benefit to themselves. Again, I’m not unsympathetic to this – everyone is busy and if you’re under pressure to output research above all else, it’s perfectly human to do this. But it speaks volumes firstly about the larger cultural questions that we must factor in to explorations of this nature and secondly about the strategic approaches that we might want to take in achieving the best buy in.

From here, I’ll include the notes that I took that go into more specifics and also include some quotes. They’re a little dot pointy but I think still valuable. This is most definitely a paper worth checking out though and I have found it incredibly useful, even if I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of practical detail about successfully implementing the strategies.

 

“In addition, the results suggest that underpinning staff motivation to adopt e-learning is their broader interest in teaching and learning. This implies a bigger challenge for the institution, balancing the priorities of research and teaching, which may require much more detailed exploration” (p.1278)

Glad to see this acknowledged.

This paper focuses on Adoption. What are the other two phases in the Ako paper?
Initiation (a.k.a adoption), Implementation and Institutionalisation
Getting people to start using something is a good start but without a long term plan and support structure, it’s easy for a project to collapse. The more projects collapse, the more dubious people will be when a new one comes along.

Feel like there are significant contradictions in this paper – need for central direction/strategy as well as academic autonomy. Providing people with a menu of options is good and makes sense but that makes for huge and disparate strategy.

The three core influencing factors identified. (How well are they defined?)

Institutional infrastructure
Definition:
Includes: institutional strategy, sufficient resources (to do what?), guidance for effective implementation.

Question of academic development training is framed with limited understanding of the practicalities of implementation. Assumption that more resources can simply be found and allocated with no reciprocal responsibilities to participate.

Support needs identified:
Exploration of available tools and the development of the skills to use them
Creating resources/activities and piloting them
Developing student skills in using the tools
Engaging with students in synchronous and asynchronous activities
Monitoring and updating resources

Unclear over what time frame this support is envisioned. Presumably it should be ongoing, which would necessitate a reconsideration of current support practices.

“Participants suggested the need for a more coordinated approach. A starting point for this would be consideration of how available technologies might be effectively integrated with existing pedagogic practices and systems” (p.1275)

Issues basically boil down to leadership and time/resourcing. Teachers seem to want a lot in this space – “participants in this study reported the lack of a coherent institutional-wide approach offering the guidance, resources and recognition necessary to encourage and support staff.” At the same time, they expect “ongoing consultation and collaboration with staff to ensure a more coherent approach to meet institutional needs” (both p.1277).

If you want leadership but you also want to drive the process, what do you see leadership as providing? I do sympathise, this largely looks more like a reaction to not feeling adequately consulted with however my experience with many consultation attempts in this space is that very few people actually contribute or engage. (This could possibly be a good question to ask – phrased gently – what actions have you taken to participate in existing consultation and collaboration processes in ed tech)

“A further barrier to institutional adoption was the piecemeal approach to availability of technologies across the institution. Participants reported the need for a more coordinated approach to provision of technologies and their integration with existing systems and practices” (p.1277)

Probably right, clashes with their other requests for an approach that reflects the different disciplinary needs in the uni. How do we marry the two? How much flexibility is reasonable to ask of teachers?

Staff attitudes and skills
Definition:
Is this where “culture” lives?

Includes:
“including their skills and confidence in using the technology” (p.1275)

“A key step for broadening engagement is supporting staff to recognise the affordances of technology and how it might help them to maintain a high-quality learning experience for their students.

[teacher quote] There’s a lot of resistance to technology but if you can demonstrate something that’s going to reduce amount of time or genuinely going to make life easier then fine” (p.1275)

Want to know more about the tech can do – a question here is, for who. Making teaching easier or making learning better? Quote suggests the former.

What about their knowledge of ePedagogy? (I need to see what is in the Goodyear paper about competencies for teachers using eLearning. Be interesting to compare that to the Training Packages relating to eLearning too)

A big question I have, particularly when considering attitudes relating to insecurity and not knowing things – which some people will be reluctant to admit and instead find other excuses/reasons for avoiding Ed Tech (”it’s clunky” etc) – is how we can get past these and uncover peoples’ real reasons. It seems like a lot of this research is content to take what teachers say at face value and I suspect that this means that the genuine underlying issues are seldom addressed or resolved. There are also times when the attitudes can lead to poor behaviour – rudeness or abruptly dropping out of a discussion. (Most teachers are fine but it is a question of professionalism and entitlement, which can come back to culture)

In terms of addressing staff confidence, scaffolded academic dev training, with clear indicators of progress, might be valuable here. (Smart evidence – STELLAR eportfolios – Core competencies for e-teaching and some elective/specialisation units? This is basically rebuilding academic development at the ANU from the ground up)

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences. While staff recognised that support was available centrally, they suggested that it needed to be more closely tailored to the specific needs of staff and extended to include online guidance at point of need and communities of practice that facilitated sharing between colleagues” (p.1278)

These seems to strengthen the case for college/school level teams. I am well aware that teachers tend not to engage with academic development activities and resources outside their discipline area – which I think is partially tribal because the Bennett literature suggests that there are actually few differences in teaching design approaches from discipline to discipline. This seems like a good area for further investigation. What kind of research has been conducted into effectiveness (or desire for) centralised Academic Dev units vs those at a college level?
Perceived student expectations
Definition: Students expect their online learning world to match the rest of their online experiences.

“One student expectation reported was the availability of digital resources accessible anytime and anywhere: participants suggested that students expected to access all course materials online including resources used as part of face-to-face sessions and supplementary resources necessary to complete assignments.” (p.1276)

Seems like there are a lot of (admittedly informed) assumptions be made of what students actually want by the teachers in this section. Maybe it is reasonable to say that everyone wants everything to be easier. But when does it become too much easier? When they don’t need to learn how to research?

Student need to learn how to e-Learn

“These findings suggest that for successful implementation of e-learning, students need to be supported to develop realistic expectations, an understanding of the implications of learning with technology and skills for engaging in these new ways of learning and make the most out of the opportunities that they present” (p.1277)

Interestingly phrased outcome – DO students need to learn more about the challenges of teaching and/or the mechanisms behind it? Is this just about teachers avoiding responsibilities? It sounds a bit like being expected to study physics or road-building before going for a drive.

“However students confidence with online tools and resources was perceived to vary and the finding suggest that students need to be supported to develop skills to engage effectively with the opportunities that e-learning affords…

It is not clear whether this is an accurate portrayal of student views or whether staff attributed their own views to the students. It would be valuable to ascertain whether this perception is a true representation by repeating the study with students.” (p.1278)

Again, nice work by the authors in catching the difference between student perspectives and teacher assumptions. I guess the important part is that whether the students hold the views or not, the teachers believe they do and this motivates them to use the technology.

Students don’t want to lose F2F experiences and they don’t want eLearning forced upon them when it seems like a cost-cutting measure. They do want (and expect) resources to be available online.

Outcomes

Proposed elearning strategy

“Reflecting on the factors that influenced the adoption of e-learning, participants suggested the need for an institutional strategy that :

Defines e-learning
Provides a rationale for its use
Sets clear expectations for staff and students
Models the use of innovative teaching methods
Provides frameworks for implementation that recognise different disciplinary contexts
Demonstrates institutional investment for the development of e-learning
Offers staff appropriate support to develop their skills and understanding” (p.1277)

I’d add an additional item – Offers staff appropriate support to develop and deliver resources and learning activities in TELT systems.

I have a lot of questions about this strategy – what kinds of expectations are we talking about? Is this about the practical realities of implementing and supporting tools/systems which recognises limits to their affordances? Modelling the use of innovative teaching practices – just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is good. I’d avoid this term in favour of best practice and/or emerging. Is modelling really a valid part of a strategy or would it be more about including modelling/showcasing as one of the activities that will achieve the goals. The goals, incidentally, aren’t even referred to. (Other than the rationale but I suspect that isn’t the intent of that item)

Overall I think this strategy is an ok start but I would prefer a more holistic model that also factors in other areas of the academics responsibilities in research and service. The use of “e-learning” here is problematic and largely undefined. There’s just an assumption that everyone knows what it is and takes a common view. (Which is why TELT is perhaps a better term – though I still need to spend some time explaining what I – and the literature – see TELT as)

Support:
Face to face support complemented by online guidance (in what form?)
Facilitated CoPs to support academics sharing their experiences. (Can we anonymise these?? – visible only to teachers (not even exec). If one of our problems is that people don’t like to admit that they don’t know something, let them do it without people knowing. )

Wider marketing of support services in this space to academics. (I don’t buy this – I think that teachers get over marketed to now by all sections of the university and I’ve sent out a lot of info about training and support opportunities that get no response at all)

Faculty or departmental e-learning champion (Is that me or does it need to be an academic? Should we put the entire focus onto one person or have a community. Maybe a community with identifiable (and searchable) areas of expertise

Big question – how many people use the support that is currently available and why/why not?
My questions and ideas about the paper:

Demographics of the sample reasonably well spread – even genders, every faculty, wide distribution of age and teaching experience as well as use of TELT. No mention of whether any of the participants are casual staff members, which seems an important factor.

It’s fine to look at teaching practices but teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum for academics. They also have research and service responsibilities and I think it would be valuable to factor the importance of these things in the research. The fact that nobody mentions them – or time constraints – suggests that they weren’t part of the focus group or interview discussions.

My overall take on this – the authors expand on previous work by Hardaker and Singh 2011 by adding student expectations to the mix. I’d think there is also a need to consider the affordances of existing technology (and pedagogy?) and perhaps also a more holistic view of the other pressure factors impacting teachers and the university.

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences.” (p.1278)

There are a lot of reasons that TELT is actually implemented in unis and while this might be the claim as the highest priority, I would be surprised if it made the top 5. Making life easier for the uni and for teachers, compliance, cost-cutting, prestige/keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and canny vendors all seem quite influential in this space as well. Understanding how the decisions driving TELT implementations are made seems really important.

King, E., & Boyatt, R. (2015). Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within higher education: Factors that influence adoption of e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1272–1280. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12195

Thoughts on: National Students as Partners Roundtable 2016

I was recently invited by @UQKelly – Kelly Matthews of the University of Queensland – to attend the National Students as Partners Roundtable on a glorious Brisbane Spring day. (For which I am grateful almost as much for the chance to escape a particularly bleak Canberra day as for the exposure to some interesting ideas and wonderful people working in this space). This isn’t an area that I’ve had much to do with and I was invited to bring a critical friend/outsider perspective to proceedings as much as anything.

Students as Partners (which I’ll shorten to SaP because I’ll be saying it a lot) more than anything represents a philosophical shift in our approach to Higher Education, it doesn’t seem like too great a stretch to suggest that it almost has political undertones. These aren’t overt or necessarily conventional Left vs Right politics but more of a push-back against a consumerist approach to education that sees students as passive recipients in favour of the development of a wider community of scholarship that sees students as active co-constructors of their learning.

It involves having genuine input from students in a range of aspects of university life, from assessment design to course and programme design and even aspects of university governance and policy. SaP is described as more of a process than a product – which is probably the first place that it bumps up against the more managerialist model. How do you attach a KPI to SaP engagement? What are the measurable outcomes in a change of culture?

The event itself walked the walk. Attendance was an even mixture of professional education advisor staff and academics  and I’d say around 40% students. Students also featured prominently as speakers though academics did still tend to take more of the time as they had perhaps more to say in terms of underlying theory and describing implementations. I’m not positive but I think that this event was academic initiated and I’m curious what a student initiated and owned event might have looked like. None of this is to downplay the valuable contributions of the students, it’s more of an observation perhaps about the unavoidable power dynamics in a situation such as this.

From what I can see, while these projects are about breaking down barriers, they often tend to be initiated by academics – presumably because students might struggle to get traction in implementing change of this kind without their support and students might not feel that they have the right to ask. Clearly many students feel comfortable raising complaints with their lecturers about specific issues in their courses but suggesting a formalised process for change and enhancements is much bigger step to take.

The benefits of an SaP approach are many and varied. It can help students to better understand what they are doing and what they should be doing in Higher Education. It can give them new insights into how H.E. works (be careful what you wish for) and help to humanise both the institution and the teachers. SaP offers contribution over participation and can lead to greater engagement and the design of better assessment. After all, students will generally have more of a whole of program/degree perspective than most of their lecturers and a greater understanding of what they want to get out of their studies. (The question of whether this is the same as what they need to get out of their studies is not one to ignore however and I’ll come back to this). For the students that are less engaged in this process, at the very least the extra time spent discussing their assessments will help them to understand the assessments better. A final benefit of actively participating in the SaP process for students is the extra skills that they might develop. Mick Healey developed this map of different facets of teaching and learning that it enables students to engage with. A suggestion was made that this could be mapped to more tangible general workplace skills, which I think has some merit.

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As with all things, there are also risks in SaP that should be considered. How do we know that the students that participate in the process are representative? Several of the students present came from student politics, which doesn’t diminish their interest or contribution but I’d say that it’s reasonable to note that they are probably more self-motivated and also driven by a range of factors than some of their peers. When advocating for a particular approach in the classroom or assessment, will they unconsciously lean towards something that works best for them? (Which everyone does at some level in life).  Will their expectations or timelines be practical? Another big question is what happens when students engage in the process but then have their contributions rejected – might this contribute to disillusionment and disengagement? (Presumably not if the process is managed well but people are complicated and there are many sensitivities in Higher Ed)

To return to my earlier point, while students might know what they want in teaching and learning, is it always what they need? Higher Ed can be a significant change from secondary education, with new freedoms and responsibility and new approaches to scholarship. Many students (and some academics) aren’t trained in pedagogy and don’t always know why some teaching approaches are valuable or what options are on the table. From a teaching perspective, questions of resistance from the university and extra time and effort being spent for unknown and unknowable outcomes should also be considered. None of these issues are insurmountable but need to be considered in planning to implement this approach.

Implementation was perhaps my biggest question when I came along to the Roundtable. How does this work in practice and what are the pitfalls to look out for. Fortunately there was a lot of experience in the room and some rich discussion about a range of projects that have been run at UQ, UTS, Deakin, UoW and other universities. At UoW, all education development grants must now include a SaP component. In terms of getting started, it can be worth looking at the practices that are already in place and what the next phase might be. Most if not all universities have some form of student evaluation survey. (This survey is, interestingly, an important part of the student/teacher power dynamic, with teachers giving students impactful  marks on assessments and students reciprocating with course evaluations, which are taken very seriously by universities, particularly when they are bad).

A range of suggestions and observations for SaP implementations were offered, including:

  • Trust is vital, keep your promises
  • Different attitudes towards students as emerging professionals exist in different disciplines – implementing SaP in Law was challenging because content is more prescribed
  • Try to avoid discussing SaP in ‘teacher-speak’ too much – use accessible, jargon-free language
  • Uni policies will mean that some things are non negotiable
  • Starting a discussion by focusing on what is working well and why is a good way to build trust that makes discussion of problems easier
  • Ask the question of your students – what are you doing to maximise your learning

These images showcase a few more tips and a process for negotiated assessment.

students as partners tips negotiated assessment process

There was a lot of energy and good will in the room as we discussed ideas and issues with SaP. The room was set up with a dozen large round tables holding 8-10 people each and there were frequent breaks for table discussions during the morning and then a series of ‘world cafe’ style discussions at tables in the afternoon. On a few occasions I was mindful that some teachers at the tables got slightly carried away in discussing what students want when there were actual, real students sitting relatively quietly at the same table, so I did what I could to ask the students themselves to share their thoughts on the matters. On the whole I felt a small degree of scepticism from some of the students present about the reality vs the ideology of the movement. Catching a taxi to the airport with a group of students afterwards was enlightening – they were in favour of SaP overall but wondered how supportive university executives truly were and how far they would let it go. One quote that stayed with me during the day as Eimear Enright  shared her experiences was a cheeky comment she’d had from one of her students – “Miss, what are you going to be doing while we’re doing your job”

On the whole, I think that a Students as Partners approach to education has a lot to offer and it certainly aligns with my own views on transparency and inclusion in Higher Ed. I think there are still quite a few questions to be answered in terms of whether it is adequately representative and how much weighting the views of students (who are not trained either in the discipline or in education) should have. Clearly a reasonable amount but students study because they don’t know things and, particularly with undergraduate students, they don’t necessarily want to know what’s behind the curtain. The only way to resolve these questions is by putting things into practice and the work that is being done in this space is being done particularly well.

For a few extra resources, you might find these interesting.

International Journal for Students as Partners – https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/ijsap 

Students as Partners Australia network – http://itali.uq.edu.au/content/join-network 

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