This paper reports on a study of how academic development units facilitate the online learning of their academic staff. Flexible learning opportunities for the professional development of academic staff have become possible because of changes in the workplace, higher education and technology. These online learning environments are designed to enable university teachers to reflect on their teaching practice. They aim to clarify academic staff's understanding of effective teaching and learning in their particular context and share these insights and experience with colleagues within and across disciplines.
As new technologies become more widely used in academic staff development there is a need to identify and explore ways in which the interaction by academic staff can be made more effective. This study reviews a number of online learning programs within Australia and in the UK to determine whether these practices meet the varied aims of academic staff development. The paper considers which contexts demonstrated the World Wide Web as a useful means of professional development and the quality of the participants' learning in those contexts.
Online learning refers to teaching and learning mediated by a computer connected to a network as distinct to a personal computer. It typically involves the range of applications available on the Internet, which can be summarised as email, the World-Wide Web and computer file transfers. A typical learning environment would integrate these applications to provide email to participants, a discussion forum that stores threaded discussions, interactive time-tables, links to alternative web sites, content pages that can contain a variety of media including video and sound, and assessment through multiple-choice questionnaires.
The difficulty in judging the usefulness of these learning environments is that they are not a single entity and are therefore open to multiple interpretations. Educational technologists rightly demonstrate the exciting potential for these technologies and the range of possibilities they represent for teaching and learning. Academic staff developers are often more cautious given the collaborative focus of their practice. Meanwhile, university management appears seduced by the technology with its novelty occupying the foreground of their attention despite the lack of evidence that technology impacts on student learning in any significant way. How online learning manifests itself in academic staff development will depend on all these interactions and connections. While it would be impossible to get agreement between technologists, staff developers and managers on what this network of associations represents, it is possible to determine what practices are embodied in their designs for online staff development.
Through this process the current pattern of use of online technology in academic staff development emerged and the interplay of three important factors identified. Firstly, each ADU operates within a specific institutional context that influences its orientation towards academic staff development. Secondly not all interactions are considered appropriate for online technology and finally, online materials development requires a commitment to collaborative work practices.
The first two factors are key to the construction of meaning embedded within online materials, while the third determines the limits of any online development project. By exploring the intersection between the orientation to academic development, technology and technology development, it was possible to develop a framework for looking at online technology in context and identify the characteristics that would support further developments within each context. Having created a series of possible alternatives for professional development with online technologies, it is possible to set future research agendas in the area of academic staff development.
Moses (1988) was among the a first to identify that academic staff development can be targeted at three levels of the university; individuals, curriculum development and institutional change. In some universities this results in three separate units while in others it is a single unit with accountability in three areas. Boud (1995) still saw curriculum development as the responsibility of individual academics when he suggested that there is pressure from university managers to take over staff development for their own goals, resulting in two competing conceptions of staff development in higher education. The first conception Boud considers to be a mirror of academic scholarly practice which views staff development as grounded in educational research. The emphasis on being " an academic" is stressed as a way of gaining credibility with academic peers across the university. The second conception stresses staff development as the focus of professional practice in its own right. The aim is to be credible to senior management who have influence on the strategic directions of the university.
Johnston (1997) likewise describes the contemporary ADU as attempting to balance these two orientations. She summarises their influence as a seesawing of strategies that focus either on grassroots, bottom-up or institutional and top-down. The shift Johnston identifies is away from working primarily with individuals to addressing issues at the policy or institutional level. While these tensions are still there to be observed, curriculum development has returned as an important third element in the development of academic staff.
Curriculum development constitutes a focus on courses and the development of learning materials and other curriculum projects. Where curriculum development may not have featured prominently in traditional lecture-based courses, the growing importance of information and communication technology in traditional classrooms has created a contested space around who supports the development and design of the curriculum. The relationship between media development units and teaching or staff development is still in a state of reorganisation, with the trend towards greatest investment in supporting technology-mediated teaching.
Media development brings with it a third orientation to working with academic staff. Developers of online learning environments interviewed described their work as a form of staff development. It can be argued that their practice straddles the two orientations observed by Boud and Johnston. Decisions of pedagogy remain the responsibility of the academic while the university provides the policy framework within which they operate. This frees online developers from making educational decisions so they can focus on producing technically robust, widely applicable learning materials that will be judged by their peers on their "look and feel" rather than their ability to promote student learning.
While this product orientation appears well suited to the current climate of outcomes planning, few universities actually budget for the full cost of educational innovation. This has placed staff development at the centre of a three-way struggle for resources that many ADUs appear to be losing. Encouraging staff to participate in demonstrating good teaching is increasingly recognised as not simply something that takes place in workshops and seminars. It requires the daily attention to a shared responsibility to learn and improve. It is in providing opportunities to learn and improve beyond the boundaries of traditional staff development that flexible learning strategies offer the greatest promise (Kandlbinder & Peseta, 2000).
In the same way university teachers have three orientations to their teaching, there are three options for an ADU to adopt when implementing online teaching and learning. It is most common for ADU's to describe online learning approaches as supplemental to their mainstream activities. The majority plainly view the Internet as unproblematic, that is, it will only have limited application to how they go about developing academic staff. Examples of supplementing staff development with online technology are email contact with presenters, providing workshop handouts online and notices of up-coming events. It can be seen that the development of academic staff would continue if for some reason access to any of these technologies were unavailable. Ramsden found this orientation in university teaching resulted in the presentation of authoritative content or the demonstration of procedures (Ramsden, 1992: 111). This describes an information-centred approach to online learning where staff development is considered to take place as long as quality information is available to academic staff. Success is assumed unless there has been a technical impediment to the delivery of this information.
The motivation to use online technologies from an information-centred perspective is to save costs. Efficiencies are brought about by decreasing repetitive and routine tasks through some degree of automation of administration, such as general inquiries. Answers to frequently asked questions about what the ADU does, its mission and who to contact with specific enquires can be transferred to online technologies freeing staff developers to focus on development activities. Further economies can be made in distributing written material online and thereby shifting the cost of printing to the reader. By automatically registering participants into large workshop programs, or distributed course questionnaires online, networked technology can minimise the cost of producing, distributing and analysing routine administration.
ADUs that see the Internet as extending their repertoire of tools and techniques for working with academic staff could be described as operating in a mixed mode, partially providing traditional staff development and partially online learning environments. This corresponds with Ramsden's second theory that conceives of teaching as organising activities (Ramsden, 1992: 113). This activity-centred approach aims at improving teaching through a process of extending the repertoire of techniques rather than about changing his or her understanding of effective teaching and learning. In the online context these activities form a range of learning objects such as discussion forums, tutorials and guided simulations, writing aims and objectives that provide examples of new approaches to teaching for academic staff.
Those who use the potential of online technologies to create a learning environment for staff development recognise that online learning requires staff developers to work in quite different ways. They adopt neither the academic information-centre nor professional activity-centred position but accept that all educational technology requires an intensive process of curriculum design. High quality online teaching is both time and labour intensive. Toohey (1999) argues that course design in higher education involves a two-stage process, the first involving the course design team building a shared understanding of the beliefs, values and ideologies that inform the course design. Toohey cautions that this requires highly developed facilitation skills but once completed the second stage of developing the materials is relatively straightforward by comparison.
Ramsden outlines a similar orientation in his third theory that describes teaching as making learning possible. Ramsden describes this as teaching, students and the subject content are all linked together in an overarching framework or system (Ramsden, 1992: 114). An inquiry-focused approach to online academic staff development likewise combines information and activities through collaborative course design that involves finding out the students' (academic staffs') misunderstandings and creating a context of learning that encourages students actively to engage in the subject matter (Kandlbinder, 1999). This suggests that online staff development evolves into entirely new practices, in forms conducive to critical inquiry. The limited examples of inquiry-centred approaches to online staff development are the result of the requirement to work more like a course team than an academic development unit.
Registration for workshops
Student Feedback Questionnaires
|Award courses in Higher Education|
|Curriculum||Dissemination of research|
Guidelines for the use of IT
|Providing hardware or expertise|
Evaluation of software
|Institution||New staff induction|
Advice to senior managers
|Meetings via video conference|
Policy and report development
|Quality in teaching and learning|
At the curriculum level the focus on new technologies gravitates the use of online environments towards a focus on the flexible delivery technologies. Programs aimed at understanding flexible learning environments, for example, are among the few that make extensive use of online environments. The self-reflexivity of these programs makes them fundamentally inquiry focused. Participants are typically asked to notice their own interactions while using a technology and to comment on the suitability of these techniques for their own practices. (for example, http://cedir.uow.edu.au/CEDIR/developer/flexdel.html)
This table also shows that some areas are considered unsuitable for online technologies. Outside the special case of using flexible learning to teach about flexible learning, high quality staff development will only occur when the technology isn't allowed to get in the way of inquiry. Take as an example student feedback questionnaires. Simply publishing the instruments online reduces them to a information-centred procedure. Reducing staff development to the level of information encourages a non-reflective use of student feedback, which has been shown not to result in a lasting change in teaching (as it is neither reflexive nor speculative, as suggested by Ramsden, 1992: 115). On the other hand an inquiry orientation to student feedback could be supported online by undertaking an institutional inquiry into good feedback practice similar to surveys of quality teaching conducted at many universities (for example, http://www.csd.uwa.edu.au/altmodes/)
Secondly experimentation in the area of the flexible delivery of learning will continue as long as higher education management remains committed to distributed teaching and learning. This is in part responsible for the trend in ADUs to work with departments and groups and the move away from individual orientations to institutional orientations. The real opportunities for online technologies are in creating collaborative work environments with an institutional focus. This offers tangible benefits in academic staff development without major reorganisation by providing access to academic staff in remote locations. Finally whatever technology ADUs adopt will create a different relationship with their clients. The challenge is to determine the appropriate use of these technologies.
Johnston, S. (1997). Educational development units: Aiming for a balanced approach to supporting teaching. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(3), 331-342.
Kandlbinder, P. and Peseta, T. (2000). Online professional development for postgraduate supervisors. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.
Kandlbinder, P. (1999). Valuing collaboration in design for the World Wide Web: A creative team approach. A paper presented at the HERDSA Annual Conference. Melbourne 12-15 July.
McInnis, C. (2000). The Work Roles of Academics in Australian Universities. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.
Moses, I. (1988). Academic staff evaluation and development: A university case study. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London, UK: Routledge.
Toohey, S. (1999). Designing courses in higher education. Buckingham, UK: SRHE & Open University Press.
|Author: Peter Kandbinder, Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Sydney|
Phone (02) 9351 4872 Fax (02) 9351 4331 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Kandlbinder. P. (2001). Peeking under the covers: Understanding the foundations of online academic staff development. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 372-378. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/kandlbinder2.html