Case 1: Ultraversity Project

My role was leading a multidisciplinary team of 24 including learning facilitators, software and media developers, and administrative support staff in the development and delivery of a new fully online, undergraduate degree programme. The teaching team worked remotely meaning that day-to-day communications were online with periodic face-to-face meetings for programme design and development purposes including staff CPD. Although the team were experienced school teachers, there was little familiarity of teaching in a higher education (HE) context. The degree programme developed required different working practices in response to the pedagogical design, which was based on students undertaking action research projects in the workplace. Innovations included the development of Patchwork Text (Winter 2003) as Patchwork Media for assessment purposes, using assessment e-portfolio, and support for students through facilitated online communities of inquiry. The organisation of the teaching team was discussed in chapter 3 of my phD thesis.

From the description above, it is evident that there were significant academic development requirements. As a team, we undertook some initial work to develop a project plan and from this identified gaps in our capabilities as university academics which were used to identify goals for our ongoing academic development [SO1].

In my role as the project director, I planned and led the academic development process structured as an action research project (Lewin 1973, 205-6), having at its heart the idea of cyclical interventions for improvement [SO2]. In addition, the approach developed was heavily influenced by Wenger’s (1999) idea of communities of practice (CoP); my thinking around this was based on the work I undertook co-authoring a book chapter on distributed teams and CoP (Bradshaw, Powell and Terrell, 2004). Most of the interactions between the academic team (the community) were supported through online technology as we developed a shared our practice (online teaching) for supporting students in undertaking action research projects (the domain of knowledge). This was supplemented by four two day face-to-face sessions over the course of the year, these were planned by me in consultation with the team who jointly facilitated most of the sessions, example agenda [SO2,SO3].

This seemed a logical approach to take as there was a high degree of uncertainty about what the team’s development needs would be and what shape the degree programme would take. Although the project overall was exciting work to lead, this was tempered by a degree of apprehension in knowing that we were setting out to do something that required significant development of the team’s capabilities, and I was responsible for this. Reflecting on this approach at the time, I believed that it worked well with the team growing in confidence to meeting the challenges they faced in developing and delivering the work focussed model of learning, and at the same time meeting the quality and procedural requirements of the University. However, some years later a further analysis I undertook illustrated some of the issues of innovating academic practices in the context of HE; this was explored through the Theory of Disruptive Innovation (Bower and Christensen 1995)  in my phD.

At this time, the work I undertook was not as someone who expected to be seeking Fellowship of SEDA, or even considering myself as an HE academic developer academic developer. As such, I didn’t consider using the standard evaluation techniques that I became familiar with later on in my academic development career. However, research that I undertook into the project allows for me to undertake a degree of reflective evaluation [SO4].

Not unsurprisingly, individuals had different experience of the staff development processes and activities that I led and managed. I have extracted the points [italicised] that I think best illustrate the tensions of academic development in relation to the development of innovative provision in a HE context with a brief commentary (Powell, Millwood and Tindal, 2008 p.96):

1 – Induction mechanisms – clarify expected approach, ensure adequate buy-in to new approaches and ensure they are co-owned by the team.

From my position, the action research and CoP approach was designed to address just this concern. I had a clear idea in my mind that I didn’t want to impose solutions on a project that was seeking to develop new ways of working. However, on reflection there is probably an inevitable tension between the need to deliver a coherent and high quality experience for learners within the institutional constraints, and at the same allow a team to fully own the development of a new programme which is bound up in their professional development as an individual and a tem. In this case, it is possible that the tensions were all the greater because although the academics were experienced teachers, they knew little of the constraints of HE quality mechanisms which can be very frustrating. However, I also think that this lack of familiarity allowed the team to be experimental and develop innovative ways of working. A good example of this being the adaptation of Patchwork Text to Patchwork media to take advantage of the online nature of the course.

2 – Team teaching approach – negotiate agreement of pedagogical approach; leaving room for individual personality/skills to be deployed, carry out parity check through regular monitoring

The idea of team teaching was something that I persuaded the team to adopt, coming as it did with me from my school teaching days. The approach was philosophically aligned with the model of inquiry based learning that we were developing, supported through online communities of inquiry with collaboration at its heart. Subject or discipline knowledge was not the key quality that was required of the academic team, rather it was their skills as facilitators of the model of work focussed learning that were were creating together. Explicitly delivering the programme through team teaching was, I believe, an effective staff development approach enabling us to develop our shared teaching model and establishing ways of working as a distributed team. Arguably, this resulted in us developing a more effective approach and consistent student experience than if we had embarked upon this as solo teachers.

However, for some the team teaching approach was uncomfortable, particularly if they were used to a role teaching as an individual. This highlights a tension that runs through many staff development initiatives in that we are seeking at the same time work with staff in a collaborative way, but at the same time we may be seeking to develop practice along a particular direction for good reasons.

Looking back on this experience and projecting forward to future where I face a similar set of challenges, my overriding feeling  is that I would follow a similar course of action again [SO5]. Using an action research paradigm to identify development goals, plan and implement the development processes worked well. This was a complex project, dealing as it did with the invention of  a different approach to HE, delivered by an inexperienced distributed team. The ongoing online discourse and the regular face-to-face sessions proved effective vehicles for staff development and some of the tensions that arose were probably an inevitable consequence of pushing people outside of their comfort zone. On balance, I think that I got this about right but the feedback revealed that some team members had differing views.

Bower, J., & Christensen, C. (1995). Disruptive technologies: catching the wave. Harvard Business Review, 41–53.

Bradshaw, Pete, Stephen Powell, and Ian Terrell. 2004. Building a Community of Practice: Technological and Social Implications for a Distributed Team. In Knowledge Networks Innovation Through Communities of Practice, ed. Paul M Hildreth and Chris Kimble, 18:184–201. IGI Publishing.

Powell, Stephen, Ian Tindal, and Richard Millwood. 2008. Personalized Learning and the Ultraversity ExperienceInteractive Learning Environments 16 (1) (April): 63–81.

Wenger, Etienne. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives). Paperback. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winter, Richard. 2003. “Contextualizing the Patchwork Text: Addressing Problems of Coursework Assessment in Higher Education.” Innovations in Education and Innovations in Education and Teaching International 40 (May): 112–122.