on a scholarly approach to teaching enhancement

image of bookshelves and a mobile device showing wikipedia

I’ve meant from the start to write a post about the blog title. Why Digital Academic? Why not Digital Shifts or TEL Tells or.so on… there were enough reasons but always something else to write about instead.

18 months on, it’s come to the forefront…

I was told by a colleague this week that I’m not an academic because I don’t have an academic contract. My professional services contract defines what I do.  Since changing from an A to a PS contract I’ve wondered what the difference means in practice. What should I change?  Stop learning? Stop researching?  Look different?

cartoon image of an owl sitting on a book

We were discussing our restructure. My job description as Academic TEL Advisor always differed from the other TEL Advisors because Technology had been replaced with Pedagogy. Our recent plans for a learning design approach (which might or might not include the T word) originated from this difference. Putting pedagogy first is attracting the more digitally shy or resistant to the table – those we might not usually get to talk to.

During the restructure conversation,  I said I wanted to have scholarship made explicit in our new roles as Teaching Enhancement Advisors. By this I meant:

  • Scholarship as per the HEA’s 2015 research into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ScoTL).
  • Scholarship as in being research informed and research engaged.
  • Scholarship which includes
    • having conceptual frameworks,
    • being a ‘research-led form of professional development’
    • having ‘the potential to inform policy and practice at institutional level, for example, in career development and in the promotion and recognition of teaching excellence’ See the HEA Summary Report

Teaching excellence is everywhere these days! HE is currently on the crest of the big data wave informed TEF (or Tsunami, depending on your POV). Like it or not, the TEF is here and affects perception which in turn effects student cohorts, curriculum design, learning spaces, public engagement etc.

The TEF might be drawing attention to T&L but shouldn’t all our teaching enhancement interventions be underpinned with scholarly approaches anyway – pedagogy first rather than technology determinism?

image showing open book, glasses and mobile phone

So what does it mean to be scholarly?

I don’t think by definition it’s only a postgraduate occupation although at institutions where you already need a doctorate to become a lecturer, it’s even more important those on professional services have the opportunity to study.   Librarians do doctorates. Administrators do too.  I struggle with time constraints and self-funding but think of my PhD as a privileged opportunity to get up close and personal with the processes of knowledge construction and dissemination – the heart of the HE endeavour. A professional services contract does not and should not exclude you from professional development although where it means you have to be self-funding it does becomes discriminatory and unequal.

Back to contract status.

What difference does having (or not having) the word academic in your contract mean?  Isn’t ‘academic’ itself a state of mind? Shouldn’t we all be exercising our sociological imaginations and asking questions, making the familiar strange.*’ Isn’t being scholarly just a case of seeing the larger picture and using evidence to justify your position?

art gallery showing questions and answers processes

There’s never been a greater need for scholarly critique. The future is precarious. Climate change is happening. The bees are troubled and the internet transforming what it means to be posthuman.

There’s no escape from the social impact of the internet. Digital divides between people like myself, with physical and virtual identities, and colleagues who openly state they ‘don’t do technology’ have never been deeper. The question is what to do about it. Should institutions be insisting on digital engagement and if so – how? It all comes back to digital shifts.

cartoon showing the devil relating torture to powerpoint

I might be wrong. They may not matter – clearly they’re not relevant to some – but if you work in HE you’re connected to the student experience and I’d suggest being aware of the implications of teaching or learning in a digital age is part of what you do.

Back to the war of the words. The clinching phrase from the original conversation was ‘you may want to be on an academic contract but you’re not.‘  That’s me told then!

Am I bovered?

Having chosen to put this in the public domain it might look like I am, but tbh, so long as it isn’t detrimental, I don’t mind what I’m called. It’s more about the semantics than the status. I’ll always be a reader, thinker and writer. I’m comfortable with a ‘digital academic’ identity but also have a fundamental belief that what you do has more credibility when informed by the appropriate literature**.  Just because an employment contract says PS and not A, it should never preclude a scholarly approach.

teddy bear reading a book


*  from C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

** Mark Carrigan offers an interesting persepctive on ‘the literature’  https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/25/what-is-the-literature/  a topic for another blog post in the future


#digifest17 asks if digital technology is changing learning and teaching

computing technologies

We all know determinists. Excited about the new. Putting tech in place. Waiting for transformation. Any failure is blamed on it being the wrong time, place or connections, but there’s much more than this to digital education. We have to go deeper.

Enthusiasm for education technology comes in waves. Last century it was CBA, CMC, VLE, then web 2.0 and social media, followed by oer and mooc, mobile devices, big data and dashboards. There were the go-to reports. Paul Anderson’s What is Web 2.0? (2007), or Peter Bradshaw’s Edgeless University (2009). Back further to Oleg Liber’s framework for pedagogical evaluation of vle (2004), Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design by Conole et al (004) or Death of the VLE by Mark Styles (2007). These are just a few and how many more predictions  from these times remain more promise and potential than fact?

advertising from jisc digifest17

I didn’t go to Digifest17 but followed as much as I could online. For me the star of the show was Amber Thomas from the University of Warwick. In conversation with Neil Morris from the University of Leeds, Amber dared to refer to digital technology as pixie dust and snake oil, suggesting what matters more are the non-digital aspects of education, namely the design of learning experiences.

There’s more than a little synchronicity here. My ex Lincoln colleague Andy Hagyard is now Academic Development Consultant at Leeds while Kerry Pinny is Academic Technologist at Warwick. Spot the similarities. We should form our own SIG. In the meantime, we’re under review at Hull and top running for our new job titles is learning enhancement rather than TEL. Amber was spot on. The future is less with the technology and more for the people.

looking for evidence cartoon

Predictions of tech-adoption are rarely realised in the way we expect. We look in the wrong places. It’s not the tech innovators or early adopters (who can be pedagogically astute but remain a minority), it’s those who self-exclude from technology events and opportunities. Who – dare I say – care more for the EL in TEL than the T itself. The solution to learning enhancement is not rocket science. It’s as simple as this. We need to talk more across our different sides of the fence.

Make the conversations less driven by technology and more about evidence of success. How do we know what works and why? Where is the scholarship of learning technology? The research informed practice? I’ve referred to existing literature critiques before in TEL-ing Tales, Evidence of Impact and Learning Design+TEL=the Future. These critiques can be powerful drivers and all the more reason for change. The brave new world of TEF and learning analytics is an optimum time to review the design of learning and how to evaluate its impact. Not just at the end, when students are moving on and it’s too late to change their experience, but by building iterative loops of feedback throughout modules and courses which tell everyone how they are doing when it most matters.

suggested list of criteria for learning design

Digifest17 was bold. …we’ll be celebrating the power of digital, its potential to transform and its capacity to revolutionise learning and teaching.

Transformation and revolution is the early language of BECTA  – remember the internet super highway? It’s worth revisiting HEFCE’s 2005 and revised 2009 elearning strategies, the Towards a Unified eLearning Strategy Consultation Document (2003) and the National Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education, otherwise known as the Dearing Report (1997). The text from the past is scarily similar to the text of the present.

rosie the riveteer

We’re still talking transformation and revolution, yet as Diana Laurillard said nearly ten years ago – ‘Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.’ (2008: 1)

Maybe technology isn’t the answer. The literature around Inquiry based learning stresses the need for fallibility so I have to admit I could be wrong. However, if technology is the answer then I’d suggest a more critical approach is needed. Here’s some suggestions. Andrew Feenburg’s Ten Paradoxes of Technology or Questioning Technology, Norm Friesen’s Critical Theory: Ideology Critique and the Myths of E-Learning, Neil Selwyn’s Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology or Distrusting Educational Technology for starters. Then lets have conversations. Let’s start reading groups which discuss the pros and cons from wider social and cultural perspectives. Let’s ask questions like why are we investing in technology in the first place? How useful is data counting footfall and logins? Where is the evidence of enhancement?

quote from Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011)Slowly but surely places are emerging where education technology is aligning with academic practice. It seems a promising way forward. Why wouldn’t we want to introduce scholarship and pedagogy, build learning design around experiential loops of action research and appreciative inquiry? Lets shift the emphasis and make the future for higher education one which is more shaped by people rather than by machines.

groups of students


Images from Learning Analytics & Learning Design Digifest17 presentation by Patrick Lynch (p.lynch@hull.ac.uk) and pixabay.com. Jisc image from Jisc