data names organisation

Does the name of a learning & teaching unit affect staff perceptions of being understood and valued?

Building blocks

The always impressive Alexandra Mihai recently shared this list of Higher Ed learning and teaching support/development units on Twitter. This led me to muse on whether someone might run an analysis on what the different names in use tell us about this part of the sector.

This is something that I tried myself on a much small data set (n = 66) gathered from a survey that I ran last year in Australia. I was mostly interested in factors that might influence the perceptions staff in these centres (‘edvisors’ in my study) have about how their work is understood and valued. The results were not statistically significant – though maybe this is overrated – but a handful of interesting themes emerged that might inform future work of this kind.

I found that there were three common themes in the naming – something education oriented (teaching, learning, teaching & learning, etc), something descriptive about their work (design or develop) and something aspirational (innovation, futures, etc). Often these were combined. I had also surveyed edvisors about their perceptions that their work was understood/valued by direct managers, other edvisors, academics and managers/leaders in other areas based on a 7 point Likert scale.

These are the notes that I put together as I was analysing some of this data – it’s really a pre-first draft.

The names of edvisor units in HE institutions may contribute to understanding and valuing of edvisor work because this is commonly where academics will be referred to receive pedagogical, design or technological support for learning and teaching. I conducted thematic analysis on the names of units provided by respondents to see if key themes would emerge in the way institutions describe edvisor units and, by association, the work they do or the purpose they serve. I found that 15 unit names included a variation of an aspirational term like transform, innovation or future and 11 included more descriptive, functional language such as design or develop. 52 unit names included either learning and teaching (or teaching and learning), learning, teaching or education. There were also overlaps where unit names could include words from several of these groups.

I compared the mean values for feeling understood and valued for edvisors working in units with names with a variant of education or learning and teaching with those working in units with a variant of future or innovation. I also compared these values for units with a name containing design/develop against those with a variant of education/learning, as well as doing a third comparison of these values between units with a variant of innovation/future and those with a variant of design develop. Within each of these comparisons I looked at whether a unit name included a term on its own, included both terms or included neither.

The names of units that they work for appear to have very little impact on the mean values edvisors’ perceptions of being understood or valued by any of the stakeholder groups. The most interesting differential in all of these values was found in perceptions of being understood and valued by academics when edvisors worked in units with variants of both education/learning and design/develop in their name.

If this is an area you are interested in working on or discussing further, I’m happy to chat.

ed tech edtech Education Support People Education Technologist higher education organisation technologist

Thoughts on Who Chooses What Ed Tech to Buy for the College Classroom? Jenae Cohn – Chronicle of Higher Education

Given my job and my interests, I probably spend more time than most people thinking about how educational institutions implement educational technologies. This is not something that gets much coverage at all in research literature about technology enhanced learning or ed tech, most likely because it is big and messy and complex. Most things I have seen about ed tech relate to specific interventions to see what impact a tool has on learning and teaching – which is, you know, pretty important. Alternatively another major strand seems to consist of feelings about ed tech – either at scale or individual wailing about the (sometimes legitimate) failings and ethical/moral problems of certain tools and approaches. Again, these can be important discussions to have.

I was excited to see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education crop up in my Twitter feed today though from Dr Jenae Cohn, the director of academic technology at California State University at Sacramento. These are certainly questions and concerns that I’ve heard before but it was nice to see them articulated so clearly and evenhandedly.

Recognising that there are, of course, cultural/operational/organisational differences between HE institutions in the US and Australia and definitely different terminology, hopefully I read and understood it as intended. My biggest response was – where are your educational technologists? These challenges sound a lot like what we work to address every day (with varying degrees of success, sure). There is a reference to ed tech professionals at the end but I do wonder what differences there are in how we work and what we do.

Anyway, from here, this is largely going to be my direct responses to some of the key points. Apologies if I’m overdoing the quotes.

“Decisions about educational technology can appear opaque to academics. On the flip side, the IT staff in charge of acquiring the technology may find faculty preferences in the classroom to be similarly hazy and ill-defined.”This is literally why we have educational technologists (and also do reasonable business analysis), to be the bridge between educators and IT.

“Yet decisions surrounding digital tools — and the professional development necessary to use them effectively — seem to have no clear catalyzing origin for either faculty or staff members.” Agreed there is definitely a need for better communication, but at the same time, I’ve tried to explain the complexities of these processes only to see people’s eyes glaze over.

“Staff members and administrators often do not know why or how instructors intend to use certain ed-tech tools. The staff and administrative role is just to facilitate their purchasing and support.” So this is possibly a US/Australia thing – by administrators do you mean institutional managers/leaders (many of which are academics) or IT dept leaders? Here at least, IT dept leaders seldom make these kinds of calls without direction from the senior academic leaders in the institution. And, again, this is why we have educational technologists.

“Meanwhile, faculty members seem to think that some amorphous administrative body just decides to buy random ed tech purely for the sake of buying the latest fancy technology. Sometimes that perception aligns with reality; sometimes it doesn’t.” Again, these top end decisions here are frequently driven by senior academic leaders but the point about an amorphous admin body is well taken and sometimes decisions can even surprise the ed tech units too.

“Poor channels of communication. Because the faculty and the staff operate in separate spheres on most campuses, whether communication about teaching technology is clear and consistent often depends on where, and how, the ed-tech staff members are housed in an institution. On a single campus, you might find some ed-tech staff members in an IT department. Others are in campus teaching centres. Still others may be housed in an academic-affairs office or as part of a distinct online-learning division.” Certainly a challenge – in Australia at least, most ed tech units with the power to roll out ed tech uni wide sit in a central Learning and Teaching division and work with uni IT. There are often local ed techs in discipline based teaching centres (which we call faculties or colleges). There can also be a cultural component in HE institutions where academics tend not to talk that much to professional staff about these kinds of issues.

“Lack of representation. While faculty perspectives often shape campus technology choices, the mechanisms for collecting those perspectives may not always be representative. Some institutions have designated faculty-senate groups to discuss the choice and implementation of educational technology. But those committees may not be representative of the full range of faculty and staff voices and needs. In addition, those governance committees may not always consistently communicate with the staff members who are directly responsible for getting the technology up and running.” Any decent tech implementation project should first examine the business (learning and teaching) needs – which necessarily involves understanding what educators need (and want). An education technology will usually also need to address other institutional needs however (technical, security, financial, policy, etc), so educator input can’t be the only consideration. The question of how representative these representative groups is a fair one, with the potential for more senior educators who teach less to fill their ranks. One thing I’ve seen in Australia is that we will often seek out known ‘power-users’ or innovators in a faculty to inform decision making – which may still offer a skewed understanding of the needs of ‘average’ educators.

“Instructors going rogue. Faculty members may opt to use online teaching tools without the explicit support or licensing of their institution — turning the ed-tech environment on any campus into an idiosyncratic jumble that differs from one course to the next.” Certainly presents some challenges – ed technologists and central units actually don’t want to discourage innovative teaching practices and frequently do whatever they can to support localised implementations. Where value is demonstrated, with potential to be used more widely, they will even work to embed these new tools in the enterprise/institutional ed tech ecosystem. BUT there can be problems with integrating with existing systems (the LMS, student management etc), problems with support, accessibility, security and privacy and often problems when the person who was a big driver of using a tool moves on, leaving their colleagues abandoned.

Two suggestions:   

1) Give faculty members with expertise in college teaching a joint appointment in administrative units where they can directly influence campus decision-making about teaching — especially around purchases of educational technology.

Decision making in this space rarely happens quickly so there would likely be long periods where this person/people may have little to do. Developing stronger models for input (which many ed tech units are at least mindful of) might be more valuable. Also revisiting the weighting of priorities in the evaluation and procurement of new tools, while recognising that learning and teaching aren’t the only factors at play. Also, how would such people be found and, more pragmatically, how would we deal with institutional politics of it all? Would STEM academics accept someone from the humanities? How many would we need then? Some kind of embedding sounds useful but…

“2) Rethink the role of educational-technology professionals on campus and allow them to engage in a mix of scholarship, teaching, and administration. That way new research on college teaching directly influences technology procurement, testing, and implementation”.

Well, as an education technologist, clearly, I think this is ingenious. I have actually been advocating for this for a while but breaking down some of these perceived barriers between academics and professional staff and giving ed techs this richer experience of an academic’s work and needs can only help everyone.

This article is timely for another reason in that I’ve recently been looking at revising a Twine branching scenario game that I built with some colleagues (Wendy Taleo, Stephanie Luo and Kate Mitchell) in 2019 about choosing and implementing ed technologies. Bear in mind that it is a work in progress but enough is done to play through the process in around 20 mins.
Cohn, J. (2021, June 3). Advice | Who Chooses What Ed Tech to Buy for the College Classroom? The Chronicle of Higher Education.
edvisor Instructional Designer organisation thesis

Thoughts on: The Organizational Structures of Instructional Design Teams in Higher Education: A Multiple Case Study (Drysdale, 2018) (Thesis)

I carried on a bit about how great Uibelhoer’s thesis was recently in covering some much neglected ground and offering some new ways to think about the research I’m doing in my own one. This thesis is one that I’ve had on the pile for a while but I did note that it was also well referenced in Uibelhoer’s. I’ve just finished pulling together some 7000+ words of notes and quotes and ideas from it, so this will not be a post at the same scale but I’ll mention some key reasons why this one is also great.

I’m not sure why I avoided the American literature for so long – I guess because my focus was on the work of edvisors in the Australian HE context. But really, there are so many common issues between the two sectors and I’ve found so much stuff (some written well after I started looking, to be fair) that speaks to things that I had thought to be major gaps in the literature that I am lightly kicking myself.

In a nutshell, Drysdale explores the question of what kind of organisational structures in HE institutions enable edvisors to have the most impact in the work they do supporting (in this case) online learning. I think that it is because many of the researchers that I’ve been reading lately are also Instructional Designer/Edvisor practitioners (rather than interested academics) that I’ve been finding a deeper understanding of some of the nuance in these situations. In particular, ask any edvisor and they will tell you that there are centralised teams and there are faculty based (using the Australian meaning relating to colleges/discipline areas, not faculty=teachers) teams and frequently never the twain shall meet. On top of this, some edvisors as classed as academics and report to academics and others are professional staff with other reporting lines. (To my knowledge, for the most part in Australia, few edvisor units report to IT or other administrative units but this is something that I do need to pursue)

Drysdale does three case studies of ID/edvisor teams supporting and/or leading online learning initiatives in 3 different unis with different structures:

“a centralized dedicated instructional design team with academic reporting lines and distributed curricular authority,

a centralized dedicated instructional design team with administrative reporting lines and distributed curricular authority,

a decentralized or blended-structure instructional design team,
with either academic or administrative reporting lines, and distributed curricular authority.”

Drysdale, 2020 P.54

Spoiler alert, he found that overall, IDs/edvisors working in a centralised structure, with academic reporting lines (I assume they also held academic roles) were the most effective and encountered the fewest barriers in leading online learning initiatives.

Obviously this is a relatively small study, interviewing an ID, an academic and a leader in each of the institutions and there could well be more at play (institutional culture for instance) but Drysdale does a decent job in allowing for this as much as possible in the work.

For now, I might just highlight some of the most valuable ideas that I found in the thesis. Lots of great new literature resources for one – again, I don’t know why I didn’t look beyond Australia for the most part in my earlier scans. That said, it’s interesting that in all the US theses that I’ve read recently, nobody seems to be aware of Whitchurch’s work on Third Space workers in Higher Ed. So maybe we can all be a little insular at times.

I have a few new theoretical frameworks to explore – Systems theory (Patton, 2015) which explores how organisational systems work. There are also a few takes on leadership – Transformational Leadership, Authentic Leadership and Shared Leadership. The idea that leadership practices are influenced by organisational structures makes a lot of sense but is something I haven’t considered in depth until now. (Sometimes I do really wonder how much my thesis is actually about education at all compared to sociology and organisations and power)

There’s a lot to think about as well in terms of where control of curriculum and course content sits and what impact this has on institution level learning and teaching initiatives. Building on that, something that I don’t think anyone has really explored but which I do hear regularly as an argument for faculty/decentralised edvisor units is how disciplinary needs and focuses do necessitate discipline specific learning designer (etc) approaches. I can appreciate that there are truths to this but unpacking that from the need to feel special is a job of work. (One that absolutely needs to be done though)

Role clarity – more accurately the lack of it – absolutely came up. Holding academic positions with parity to “standard” academics in these cases did certainly seem to minimise that though. I have many conflicting positions about academic vs professional roles. I’ve always held a professional role and believe that the skills and knowledge of the edvisor should be recognised regardless, but at the same time, I understand that people in organisations can live in any number of tribes that are important to them.

A few other things came to mind that I haven’t yet seen covered but which are absolutely emerging in the sector – where do edvisors/IDs from external (often corporate) providers sit in this picture?

Questions about what it actually is that IDs do are perennial and there is some nice work in here exploring what the literature has to say and some of the practitioners. This is absolutely something that I am also focussing on. An interesting stat to emerge was that most IDs spend <50% of their time actually doing instructional design. Much of the rest of administration, training and tech support. (I’ll leave the bigger question of whether those things are also design in essence to another time). The kinds of training that IDs/edvisors provide is touched on, referring to work by Meyer and Murrell (2014) showing that it is a mix of tech and pedagogy training, with the tech side valued less but perhaps done more.

It’s been fantastic looking at the recent work being done in this space – I can still see that mine is adjacent but aligned, so I’m not concerned about not bringing something new to the party. Many of the issues that we as edvisors face do appear to be fairly global and it’s great to be a part of the conversation surrounding it.

academic developer academic development attitudes benchmarking change education design Education Support People edvisor higher education management organisation

Research update #51: Been a long time Been a long time Been a long lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely time*

Actually it hasn’t been that lonely at all, life is pretty good on that front, but it certainly has been a long time since I last posted here – coming up to 3 months.

So why is that? Well, I moved cities and changed jobs for one thing. After 16 years in Canberra and three at ANU, I’ve finally returned to Melbourne to work as a Senior Learning Technologist at Swinburne University of Technology. It’s a step up in many ways and it also gives me an opportunity to develop some insights about how a centralised TEL support unit works.

In the times that I have found to work on revising my thesis proposal, which my supervisor has assured me can be a little late because life changes are factored in, I’ve been looking at some significant structural issues and fleshing out the core areas that have been a little thin or overlooked. Conducting more empirical research on edvisor numbers, origins and edvisor unit structures absolutely makes sense, given the paucity of existing data – it’s virtually all feelpinions, the closer I look at it – and I’m also starting to realise that while I like Bourdieu’s ideas about power and belonging, I have nothing to say that smarter people haven’t already said about it or used it for.

I’m also trying to work out how this research can dovetail with the wider objectives of the TELedvisors SIG and how both can inform the other. It hadn’t occur to me that this was something that I could talk about in my research proposal but Peter sees it as a strength, so that sounds good to me. This does mean that I need to explore some new ideas (such as Participatory Design and Development) to see if that can give this a framework but my ducks are now all in a row and I’m well into the process of actually rewriting draft 2.

There is a mountain more to learn in my new role – far more management and operational responsibility than I’m accustomed to – and we’re in the midst of some massive projects (transitioning from Blackboard to Canvas, rolling up Echo360 ALP upgrades and training, looking for an ePortfolio, looking at badges, developing an education technology evaluation pipeline) but I’m incredibly glad to be here.

Yesterday’s TELedvisor SIGs both look like they could be particular helpful in both work and study as well. Check them out below.


organisation PhD writing

Research update #47: Proposal writing day (I don’t know, stuff, like 15 or something) – Tinkering and tweaking

I’ve reached that glorious part of holidays where you have to check which day it is. I’ve been pecking away at the proposal on most days to different degrees and the biggest realisation that I had in this time was that in giving myself permission to write the lit review section badly, I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It is all over the place and parts of it make me feel like I’m being a petulant whiny child, railing at the many injustices dumped on the edvisor class.

Fortunately, this is ok because there are still some good salvageable bits and it’s given me something that I can reorganise into a more coherent discussion of the literature. Working backwards through my scattered but semi-organised notes to fill in the gaps is also bringing up a few ideas that I’d missed and I have a much clearer sense now of what I’m looking for in the various papers and articles and books spread around the (digital) house.

The revised target to send draft 1.5 off for feedback is now a hard end of year – but ideally 30/12. Estimates always blow out a little, it’s just the nature of the beast. Back to it.


organisation Professional staff reflection TEL edvisors TELT advisors

Research update #23 – The ‘troublemaker’

I went to a cross institute training thing last week and for some reason we did an icebreaker exercise where we had to introduce the person that we were sitting next to to the room.

I was sitting with a long-time colleague from the central IT unit, who said that he was going to introduce me as a ‘troublemaker’. At first I laughed and suggested that ‘disruptor’ is probably a better term. I won’t deny for a second that I care about what we do and how we do it as a university and I will ask challenging questions and push for change where I think it’s necessary. I certainly don’t buy into the logical fallacy of appeal to authority as a source of all wisdom.

He did say that he appreciated the fact that I was reasonable and put forward logical arguments in my advocacy. He said it was also appreciated that I wasn’t overly demanding and didn’t constantly hassle the IT team. This just made me wonder if this wasn’t why I generally don’t feel like I’m actually achieving much of what I set out to in my dealings with the central teams. Maybe I need to be less reasonable and more persistent.

The fact that I’m considered to be a ‘troublemaker’ rather than an engaged participant in the system suggests to me that our system is flawed, particularly in terms of the relationships between the central units that ‘own’ the systems and people in the college teams that work the most closely with the people that the systems are intended for – well, the teaching side of this at least. This isn’t to say that the central units don’t work with teachers and students but it’s rarely a long term relationship. For all the talk of cooperation and collaboration, the communications and governance structures are very much set up in such a way that the central units dictate the conversation and the policy directions – and I’ve been told directly by them that they don’t exist to serve the needs of the teachers and learners, they exist to serve the university executive.

Fortunately this reinforces a discussion that I had with my supervisor Peter last week, where I mentioned once again that I feel like the work that I’ve been doing and the things that I’ve been reading are all heavily oriented to ideas around how H.E. institutions work and particularly in relation to TEL edvisors / Third Space TEL workers. I feel that this is an important part of the question (what can TEL workers do to better support TEL practices in H.E) but it’s far from all that I want to cover. That said though, the broad vision that I have – what do TEL workers do, how do they sit in the organisation, what do teachers do, what are the overlaps that create opportunities for better collaboration – is probably far too large to do justice to in a thesis. Peter suggested that a solid mapping of how different TEL support units in Australian institutions work could grow to be a significant piece of work in itself. I think this still lets me explore what TEL edvisors/works are and do, so maybe this is enough. I’m sure there’s also a decent discussion to be had about how different universities create opportunities to support TEL practices by the ways that they structure their support teams. All of this seems a little removed from teaching and learning per se to me – considering that it’s a PhD in Education – and almost more tied to organisational/management type ideas. Maybe it’s just broadly sociological or anthropological or something.

Anyway, it’s given me more to think about and should make it easier to dive into the literature once more.

On a side note, I came across an article about some anthropological research into why professors don’t adopt innovative teaching methods – which was kind of the initial premise of my research – and, surprise, it’s at least partially to do with not looking foolish in front of their students. (Which I’ve suspected for some time – my reasoning being that one’s capital in a university is one’s intelligence and looking like you don’t know something appears to be regarded as a cardinal sin. Which is crazy because it’s impossible to know everything – particularly when it’s not your discipline – and admitting this (and trying to rectify it) is clearly an indicator of intelligence. Anyway, it’s well worth a read – I do wish they’d cited the actual research though. (I also recognise that it’s a more nuanced issue than I’ve painted) 


academic development academics attitudes Education Support People organisation

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.

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our Way through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge University Press.








academic development academics community of practice discussion ed tech education Education Support People higher education organisation pedagogy students teachers teaching theory tools

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
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
Is this where “culture” lives?

“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.


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)

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.

culture discussion education design Education Support People methodology organisation research Uncategorized

Thoughts on: ‘Sleeping with the enemy’: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff (Wohlmuther, 2008)

At this stage of looking at the matter of professional staff and academic staff in Higher Education, I feel that I’m somewhat flogging a dead horse and everything that needs to be said, has been said. So why am I still looking at this paper? Initially I was concerned that it grated on me because it doesn’t fit with my current narrative that there are significant cultural factors in universities that make it unnecessarily difficult for professional staff – particularly those in education support roles – to be heard when it comes to discussing teaching and learning.

If this was the case, I’d clearly not being doing my best work as a scholar – open to new information and willing to reconsider my world view in the face of it. Having looked over the paper a few times now though, I have to say that I think it’s just not that great a piece of research. A number of assertions are made that simply aren’t supported by the evidence presented and some of the reasoning seems specious. Events from four years prior to the publication date are referred to in the future tense but there is no discussion of whether they happened or what the consequences were.

Assuming that this is poor research – or perhaps poor analysis – it makes me happy that I’ve reached a point where I can identify bad work but also a little concerned that I’m wrong or I’m missing something because this was still published in a peer reviewed journal that I’ve found a lot of good work in previously. (Then again, I assume that most journals have their own favoured perspectives and maybe this was well aligned with it). I searched in vain to find other writing by the author but she appears to be a ghost, with no publications or notable online presence since the paper came out.

In a nutshell, based on an anonymous online survey of 29% of all staff – academic and professional at her institution, which included questions about demographics, perceptions of the nature of their roles, the ‘divide’ and the value of different types of staff in relation to strategic priorities, the author concludes that there is minimal dissension between academic and “allied” staff and most of what little there is, is felt by the allied staff.

Now it’s entirely reasonable that this may well be the case but there are a few elements of the paper that seem to undermine the authors argument. Wohlmuther asks survey participants about their perceptions of a divide but doesn’t dig directly into attitudes towards other kinds of staff, which McInnis (1998), Dobson (2000) and Szekeres (2004) all identified as central factors. She looks at the perceptions of contributions of academic and allied staff members to the strategic goals of the organisation which obliquely explores their ‘value’ within the organisation but it seems limited. Given the ambiguous value of some higher level strategic goals (Winslett, 2016), this would seem to tell an incomplete story.

The greatest weakness of the paper to my mind is that ‘allied’ and ‘academic’ work roles are unclear.

Survey respondents were asked what percentage of their time they spent on allied work and what percentage of their time they should spend on allied work. The term ‘allied work’ was not defined. It was left to the respondent to interpret what they meant by allied work (p.330)

With no further examination of the responses via focus groups or interviews, this alone (to me anyway) seems to make the findings murky.

She found that only 29% of staff – all staff? that is unclear – felt that there was “good understanding and respect for the significance of each others roles and all staff work well together” (p.331) across the institute, however doesn’t take this to be an indicator of division.

Looking over the paper again, these are probably my main quibbles and perhaps they aren’t so dramatic. This tells me that I still have a way to go before I can truly ‘read’ a paper properly but I’m on the way

Wohlmuther, S. (2008). ‘Sleeping with the enemy’: how far are you prepared to go to make a difference? A look at the divide between academic and allied staff. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 30(4), 325–337.
Winslett, G. (2016). The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(5), 534–549.
Szekeres, J. (2004). The invisible workers. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(1), 7–22.
Dobson, I. R. (2000). “Them and Us” - General and Non-General Staff in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(2), 203–210.


culture education design Education Support People organisation Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Well that was something of a diversion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winslett, G. (2016). The struggle to satisfy need: exploring the institutional cues for teaching support staff. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(5), 534–549.
Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices: power, discourse and gender in contemporary social theory (Reprinted). Polity Press.




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