Developing understanding of how people learn
Some of the most valuable work that I have come across in understanding the higher education (HE) teaching context is that of Entwistle and Peterson (2004). They take a systems based view and identify a number of related concepts that there is evidence for in being influential in students learning in higher education.
I find their proposed framework usable and accessible to the students that I teach and frequently use this adapted version as a discussion stimulus to raise awareness. The central point that I understand from their work is that students and their teachers are the product of previous life and educational experiences, and how students experience and academics design and deliver will be a product of this. From the point of view of student characteristics, this influences their motivations for learning, their relationship with academia and their view of the status of knowledge, and their proficiency and preferences for learning.
Secondly, I have a simple model for how to develop the conditions for learning informed by the cybernetician Gordon Pask and his conversational learning theory made popular by Laurillard (2002) in a HE context, albeit from the perspective of the question of how can increasingly sophisticated technology support learning. It can be seen as a complicated model to use and understand, but I think that at is heart there can be simplicity. In essence, the vehicle for learning are feedback loops between the teacher and the students and the students and the learning process designed by the teacher. These two processes continue in parallel and to be effective require the opportunity for the expression of ideas and the receiving of evaluative feedback. In my work as a higher education teacher, students have often been undertaking action research in a work context and so the responsibility to frame the topic of learning (as described by Laurillard) as in a classroom context is diminished.
Lastly, in writing this I reflected back on my early experience of leading staff development in a HE context for a group of inexperienced staff. I came across a book by Brockbank and McGill (1998). which I found to be very influential, “Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education.” They propose a simple idea that one of the most important aspect of teaching is to model the desired behaviour that you want of your students as critically reflective learners (1998, 53), which neatly summarises one of the most important influences about how I think students learn.
Practising in ways that are scholarly, professional and ethical
In my work as an academic developer I have a self image of someone who is a curious action inquirer. By that I mean that I am driven to do more than find out about new theories and perspectives, and where I can I seek to deploy them in my practice. A significant area of interest for me, in which I have researched and published, is applying systems thinking to the design and delivery of education (Powell and Millwood 2012; Powell, Olivier and Yuan 2015). This way of thinking informs my analysis of the higher education system which, I think, finds itself at a very interesting point at this moment in time. We have the development of an increasingly globalised higher education system with increased competition for students, and the increasing development of national and global league tables (Blackmore and Kandiko 2012). The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework can be seen as another example of this in the UK context. Alongside this, there is an increasing maturity of technology and this new infrastructure and tools open up the possibility of new business, learning and organisational models, MOOCs being a good example of this (Yuan and Powell 2013).
All of the above has implications for a changing world for academics teaching in higher education institutions. Indeed, thinking about higher education in business terms is problematic for many people, and yet in the UK it would be hard to make a case that Universities are not at least some sort of pseudo business, with students paying for tuition, albeit through government soft loans.
With the changes above comes a raft of ethical considerations born out of the changing power relationships between staff within institutions as new managerialist approaches take root (Deem and Brehony 2005). In addition, the rise of student as customer is bringing about a second changing power relationship between institutions and their students. Most working in HE have experienced or at least heard stories about how some students are beginning to view their time at university as an expensive investment and sometimes question the value they are getting. The extent to which these and other changes are good or bad is something for individuals to wrestle with. However, there is an onus on us as professionals to seek to have informed views and opinions.
Working with and developing learning communities
It is hard to envisage being an academic developer without being deeply involved in working with and developing learning communities, but the forms that these can take are many and varied. For example, I work on the organising group for the #LTHEchat, and with a colleague from a different institution am running the sessions this term. This group established by Chrissi Nerantzi and Sue Beckingham uses the medium of twitter to have focussed ‘hotseat’ discussions between higher education professionals on a weekly basis. This is a very informal group, using Wenger’s (1999) Community of Practice (CoP) vocabulary, there is a lot of legitimate peripheral participation with the core community being quite small. I think it is fair to say that the group does, however, exhibit many of a CoP in that there is a shared domain of interest (innovating in HE teaching and design) and shared set of practices (supporting academics in teaching design).
The work of Trowler (2008, 51), is I think useful when considering how to work with learning communities within an institution highlighting the importance of Teaching and Learning Regimes (TLR) as focus for curriculum change. In contrast to CoP theory, TLR are defined by the subject being taught and include not just the academics but the full range of other professionals who come together to deliver a course. According to Trowler, TLR have distinct sub cultures that can be very resilient and resist change. The implication of this is that bespoke approaches are required to bring about change and externally imposed requirements are likely to be unsuccessful. There are also implications for development models that draw groups of people together from across and between institutions as these individuals, however inspired and skilled they become may struggle when back in the context of their own TLR. My reflection is that having the TLR analysis makes it more likely that an individual will be able to influence and bring about change, I don’t see it as a negative but an important insight into thinking about developing and working with learning communities in a higher education context.
Valuing diversity and promoting inclusivity (needs more)
Much of my work in HE has had as a starting point developing opportunities for a higher education for those who can not take advantage of existing provision through designing personalisable curricula, the Ultraversity project being the most successful example of this (Powell, Millwood and Tindal 2008). Although not a primary design consideration, the approach was overwhelmingly attractive to female students, with a large proportion of them being in their 40’s having left school at 16 or 18. This was because the course was designed for people in full-time work who wished to make their job the focus of their study, delivered wholly online with the model of online communities of inquiry (Bradshaw, Powell and Terrell 2005). A large proportion of those who signed up worked as teaching assistants in schools as they had an appropriate context in which to undertake inquiry projects (the teaching and learning approach) and the schools workforce, especially teaching assistants, is overwhelmingly made up of female workers.
From this experience, I learned that there is a great deal of variety in peoples’ life chances. However, when given the opportunity, people who thought that the possibility of a university education was no longer feasible were capable of becoming successful students to a high level of performance. Connecting this experience with the work of Entwistle and Peterson (2004) that explains why we can expect to have a high degree of diversity in our student groups, gives me a clear moral starting point for the way in which I approach my own teaching. I believe that a starting point for all teachers should be to work with the students in front of you, value what they bring, and whatever the challenges they will learn and be successful. I connect this with Brockbank and McGill (1998), and believe that it isn’t so much through logical argument that I can promote inclusivity and value diversity but it is through the way in which I behave, that is modelling the desired behaviour I would like to see in others. I hope I achieve this in my work as a curriculum designer and as a teacher myself.
Continually reflecting on practice to develop ourselves, others and processes
I would argue that throughout my time working first in school and then higher education I have sought to develop myself as a reflective practitioner, taking many guises in how this was undertaken. I subscribe to the notion of reflection in and on action as a useful distinction (Schön 1991). As I teach I try to be aware of what is unfolding in front of me, reflecting as best I can to make adaptations. However, I think that the big prize is gained through reflection on action using structured approaches as I have explained elsewhere in this submission. I believe that there is little point in reflection or research without it translating into action “Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice (Lewin 1973, 203). In doing this, I believe that as an academic developer it is more than the staff that we seek to develop who need our attention. The processes and systems in which they work also require a critical spotlight to be shone on them if we are to create the conditions where individuals are able to reflect and feel able to take actions for improvement. Perhaps even more difficult in our role removed from the management structures of teaching departments is trying to influence the culture towards one where if colleagues try new approaches and things don’t work out, the climate is a supportive one.
Blackmore, Paul. Camille Kandiko. 2012. ‘Change: processes and resources’, in Strategic Curriculum Change, Global Trends in Universities, eds. P. Blackmore & C. Kandiko, Abingdon, Routledge, pp. 111–127.
Bradshaw, Pete, Stephen Powell, and Ian Terrell. 2005. Developing Engagement in Ultralab’s Online Communities of Enquiry. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 42 (3) (January): 205–215.
Brockbank, Anne, and Ian McGill. 1998. Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. Higher Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Deem, Rosemary and Kevin Brehony. 2005. Management as ideology: the case of “new managerialism” in higher education. Oxford Review of Education, 31(2), 217–235.
Entwistle, Noel, and Elizabeth Peterson. 2004. “Conceptions of Learning and Knowledge in Higher Education: Relationships with Study Behaviour and Influences of Learning Environments.” International Journal of Educational Research 41 (6): 407–428.
Laurillard Diana. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Laurillard Diana. 2013. Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. Taylor and Francis.
Lewin, Kurt. 1973. “Action Research and Minority Problems.” In Resolving Social Conflicts, ed. Gertrud Lewin, 201–216. London: Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic) Ltd.
Powell, Stephen, Ian Tindal, and Richard Millwood. 2008. Personalized Learning and the Ultraversity Experience. Interactive Learning Environments 16 (1) (April): 63–81.
Powell, Stephen, and Richard Millwood. 2011. A Cybernetic Analysis of a University-wide Curriculum Innovation. Campus Wide Information Systems 28 (4): 258–274.
Powell, Stephen, Bill Olivier, and Li Yuan. 2015. “Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE : Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies. Research in Learning Technology 23: 1–14.
Schön, Donald. 1991. The Reflective Turn: Case Studies In and On Educational Practice, New York: Teachers Press, Columbia University.
Trowler, Paul. 2008. Cultures and Change in Higher Education: Theories and Practices (Universities into the 21st Century). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wenger, Etienne. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives). Paperback. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yuan, Li, and Stephen Powell. 2013. MOOCs and Open Education : Implications for Higher Education. Centre for Educational Technology & Interoperability Standards (Cetis).