Case 3: role as an academic developer

I joined my current employer in May 2015, and now work as a full-time academic developer. In this case, I reflect on a project that I have recently become involved in and try to connect this to my previous experience.

The CARPE project is a European Union funded initiative between universities in Holland, Finland, Germany, Spain and the UK. The particular activity that I have been involved in is the development of an International Summer School for staff development in the domain of teaching and course design. Our first substantive planning meeting took place in Utrecht on the 20th November 2015, although this was in the context of an ongoing relationship between the project leads at each of the institutions.

There were two main aims of this meeting: to develop an overall vision for the Summer School as a whole; and to start the planning for the different elements of the summer school. The meeting concluded with three proposed sessions to run in parallel in each institution over two days on the 20-21st if June, the first one in the list below was and is the focus of my efforts:

  1. Co-designing for future learning (looking at shared curricula and resources)
  2. Modern Pedagogy x New Technology x CARPE (looking at new learning environments)
  3. Times are changing – are you? (looking at how teachers can become more flexible and open)

It is our co-design process that I went through with colleagues from Utrecht, planning our summer school that I will evaluate. The culmination of our efforts are captured by this one page description of the summer school that we will offer [SO1].  

Although the focus of our activity was to develop an academic development opportunity for a wider set of colleagues with experience as teachers and innovators, at the same time this was our own professional development activity where each of us took on the roles of leading and facilitating our design activities [SO1-4].

This felt like a deeply collaborative process, with all of us drawing on our previous experiences and work contexts, respecting and appreciating what each of us brought to the task at hand. I have in the past worked with colleagues from different countries and institutions, and have always found this to be rewarding with much that can be learned. On this occasion, we started with a discussion about our teaching philosophy and found a good deal of common ground that enabled us to settle on our summer school approach ‘Co-designing for Future Learning’, which I think captures our pedagogical intent and philosophical position [SO1-3]:

This short course will provide you with inspiration, exchange, challenges and collaboration for future learning, and give you on international co-design experience

How: Working online and offline on building learning and innovation networks

Why: Bring about change in your own practice and work with colleagues from other partner organisations.

Learning outcomes:

  • design a module in higher professional education using innovative methods
  • analyse co-design opportunities from a systematic perspective
  • identify opportunities and barriers in designing educational activities

Assessment: Negotiated choice of media, co-assessment

design processOur planning process involved working through our ideas under a framework that I relate to the business model canvas (BMC elements italicised), although this emerged in the session from our different experiences and perspectives on design rather than as a pre-planned approach. We first identified candidate student through a scenario building approach to help us identify our target market segment. Once this was done, we explored the key issues from our own practice that had worked as barriers or enablers to curriculum development and implementation and from that began to identify the capabilities that we believed are important for the curriculum designers of the future to develop our value proposition. Most importantly, we were in agreement that it is through the practice of design that offers the best opportunity for learning in this domain and that, in effect, the process that were were going through was the one we wanted to design for course participants, an experiential approach to learning. Our roles as facilitators of that process would be to expose participants to appropriate models and theories and to act in what could be identified as a consultancy capacity. The experience would utilise both face-to-face and online delivery channels, the partners were at this stage Utrecht and Manchester.

This first meeting was followed up by a one day meeting in Manchester on the 18th of February.  By then, the group had grown to include colleagues with the Finnish institution now also represented. This session was run in a similarly collaborative way, but interestingly drew out the differences between the professional development contexts in which we work in our respective institution [SO5]. In summary, we agreed to a simple schedule of three webinar sessions with each run by a different partner in April, May and June as a prelude to the two day summer school [SO2]. As discussed our ideas further, we explored three ideas: those of the different roles participants could take; what the needs of those who participate might be; and metaphors to describe the experience. 

Manchester outcomes

Drawing by Patrick van der Bogt


In the second meeting, a difference that emerged between the institutions can be encapsulated by the notion of openness, the extent to which the resources and activities are made freely available to anyone who wishes to participate, or whether there are any restrictions. One way of understanding this design discussion is through the recent debate around MOOCs, the “phenomenon of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and trends towards greater openness in higher education and to think about the implications for their institutions.” (Yuan and Powell 2013). From my institution’s perspective, I explained our desire to have an open course with all of the teaching material created, including the workshop design, to be freely available under a creative commons licence. There are practical reasons for this as well as philosophical, not least the need to market the summer school widely to recruit sufficient participants. In our metaphor discussion, this equated to a festival where there are numerous entry points and anyone can join up until the last minute for the event on the main stage, the 2 day face-to-face event.

For colleagues in other institutions, this was not a notion that had surfaced for them, instead thinking along the lines of a standard VLE course where participants register well in advance. Recruitment was not seen as an issue as they were confident of having sufficient internal candidates. After a period of discussion, there was agreement that each institution could take this forward in a way that suited their context. This was a good outcome, but it did make me think again about the skills set of  academic developers. As well as the dimensions captured in SO1-5, there is also something important about the ability to act in the role of a persuader. That is someone who is able to build effective relationships and accommodate differences of opinion and priority in an effective way.

This whole experience  was very creative that is one I would seek to replicate in the future. I think that its strength lay in its open and collaborative nature with few constraints placed on it at the outset.

Yuan, Li, and Stephen Powell. 2013. MOOCs and Open Education : Implications for Higher Education A White Paper. JISC CETIS.