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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The path towards a socially just learning design

by Keith Heggart , Camille Dickson-Deane, and Kae Novak

Introduction

Ensuring that our education practice is socially just is a challenging prospect at any time; when confronted with the current challenges of unprecedented bushfires and a global pandemic, it can seem an almost impossible consideration – yet perhaps it has never been more important to design learning to be socially just in the midst of these challenges. Before discussing how to design in a ‘socially just’ way, it would be pertinent to provide a definition: social justice is a concept which describes the relationships between an individual and society.  It proposes that these relationships be fair and just behaviours as measured by choice, distribution, opportunities, privileges, indeed, any form of activity (Boyles, Carusi and Attick, 2009).  When addressing these behaviours from a learning design perspective, this suggests we need to consider how we design our learning and teaching strategies. By designing these interventions carefully we can narrow educational inequalities and thus ensure a socially just education for all.

What is socially just learning design?

The first, and most important point, is that any approach to learning design that claims to be socially just needs to be inclusionary more than exclusionary. Too often, conversations about ensuring learning and teaching is socially just become too narrow, focusing on the needs of one particular group over another. While meeting the needs of marginalised learners is important, specifically focusing on one group in such a narrow way ignores the compounding challenges presented by the intersectional nature of disadvantages (Crenshaw, 2017), as well as risking marginalizing other groups. This approach is in keeping with definitions like that proposed by Clare Hocking, who argues that a truly socially just education is one that ‘embraces a wide range of differences and explores their effects on individual learning’ (Hocking, 2010: p2) – basically a positive acknowledgement of individual differences (Cronbach and Snow, 1969; Jonassen and Grabowski, 1993).

Instead of focusing on a particular group within a class as the site for improving learning outcomes, it is possible instead to focus on the learning experience as a whole, and in doing so make it an accessible and fulfilling experience for all learners. This is the kind of approach advocated in Universal Design for Learning or UDL (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, 2014). UDL is drawn from the broader ideas in architecture which calls for a shift from focusing on the deficits of individuals, and instead arguing that the deficit lies within society, and that is where we should focus our efforts. In the education context, this means that, regardless of a learner’s characteristics, once they are registered to pursue a course or program, the learning content should have relevance to the learner’s disposition within society.  Not considering how the learner will integrate any learnings into their own experience world is counterproductive.

There are additional benefits to such an approach to learning: by designing learning experience with this level of inclusivity, we meet the needs of all learners, but also allow a greater degree of flexibility and choice within learning – and that leads to greater learner engagement with the material. For example, one of the principles of UDL calls for providing multiple means of representation. In terms of video content, this might include providing captions, and an audio only version, and also a transcript as well as the  video content. While the audio only content might be of value to visually impaired learners, it might also be of value to learners who want to listen to the material while driving, or exercising. Equally, the captions might be of value to hearing impaired learners, but also to those where English language is not their first language.

Interactivity … what it means to me (the learner)

Another key principle behind UDL relates to providing multiple means of engagement for all learners. One way of doing this is by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their interpretation through interactions. While this can be seen as a relatively straightforward pedagogical activity (although one that must still be carefully planned), instructors can be myopic in fully comprehending how this can be actioned. Most instructors adhere to their own somewhat accidentally developed pedagogical practice and are apprehensive about change. Adjusting a pedagogical approach to one where all learners are acknowledged and given the opportunity to respond can be difficult especially when looking at different modes of delivery.

We are still developing an understanding of interactivity in the online space – especially in terms of new secondary school learners and their engagement with different learning materials. This group, in particular, has grown up with digital and mobile technologies, and hence has different expectations about interactivity from previous cohorts. In trying to engender interactivity which demonstrates active learning,  institutions often allow users to do relatively simple things: liking a post, for example, or commenting on an article. These are both examples of so-called ‘interactive’ elements that are often utilised by instructors within learning management systems. While they have a place, these are often not what learners today consider to be ‘interactive’ and perhaps do little to boost engagement with learning materials.

Instead, learners are more likely to consider interactivity as something that affords them an element of control over the resources at hand. A good framework to understand this level of control is David Wiley’s 5Rs of Open Education Infrastructure. Wiley (2014) suggests that there are five key elements in how technology can be used in this way. Students can

  1. Retain material: make, own, and control a copy of the resource (eg, download and keep your own copy)
  2. Revise material: edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource (e.g., translate into another language)
  3. Remix material: combine an original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new (eg, make a mashup)
  4. Reuse material: use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly (eg, on a website, in a presentation, in a class)
  5. Redistribute material: share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others (eg, post a copy online or give one to a friend)

While these might not all be possible within the proprietary constraints of an institutions learning management systems, some of them should be – for example, students are more than capable of sharing work they’ve created more widely than within the class, and they are also capable of contributing to co-created resources, or being actively included as prosumers rather than only consuming pre-created materials (de Alvarez and  Dickson-Deane, 2018).

Bringing it all together

What does this mean for socially just learning design? Perhaps not surprisingly, Wiley’s ideas about open educational resources bear some similarity to Nancy Fraser’s (2007) three dimensional theory of social justice education. In even more ‘R’s, Fraser suggests that socially just education can be enacted through redistribution (increasing access to education for all), recognition (by reconsidering what is taught) and representation (developing authentic partnerships between students and teachers in decision-making processes). Combining these ideas with the principles of UDL, it is possible to develop a framework for socially just learning design (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Framework for socially just learning design activities

The examples below explain how such a framework might be operationalised.

1. Creating relevance by adding context to an existing OER

It’s common practice for students to be assigned a particular textbook as part of any course. Related to or based upon their reading of this textbook (and other activities as part of the course) students complete some form of summative assessment, often in the form of a written essay or report. However, using the framework above, it’s possible to make this activity both more engaging and more socially just. For example, by allowing the students to contribute or create an open source textbook on the topic, the task is automatically more authentic (as it’s a real world problem) and the future course materials are more representative towards the specific needs of the learner, their cohort and their immediate interaction within their societal base.

2. Adjusting rubrics to accommodate for any media-delivery

Another way of ensuring more socially-just approaches of learning design is by assessing student responses based on the communication of the assessment content and not on the foundational base of medium in which assessed content is delivered.  Whilst this can be difficult for some course content, if we restrict students to only provide responses to learning objectives within one medium this actively creates hurdles for students. If understanding of the content is what matters, then allow them to communicate it in the best way they know how. We can develop the above example about contributing to a textbook further: by allowing students to submit a different form of assessment (a short video, a webpage, an interactive learning object), it is also possible to allow students to make use of multiple means of expression. In this way, we have allowed greater representation, more means of expression, and made use of the revise and redistribute principles from Wiley (2014).

3. Giving learners choices in assessments

Learners have to manage their times differently.  Either redesigning assessments that can provide the opportunity to students to be selective in submission (phased submission in parts or delivery all at once) or a choice of three out of five assessments to complete allows learners to regain control of their own learning and customise it to themselves whilst still adhering to course intended outcomes.  Focusing the assessment to all students to fully access the disciplinary knowledge within their own context allows for redistribution of relevant and vital knowledge (Fraser, 2007).

Conclusion

In short, socially just learning design has significant potential to improve outcomes – not just for students in marginalised groups, but for all students. By combining Fraser’s 3D social justice model with aspects of UDL and the 5 R’s for Open Education into a cohesive framework, it is possible to design learning in such a way that all students have the opportunity and resources required to succeed.

Dr Camille Dickson-Deane is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Learning Design, Faculty of Science, University of Technology, Sydney (E: Camille.dickson-deane@uts.edu.au). Dr Keith Heggart is a Lecturer in the School of International Studies and Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney (E: keith.heggart@uts.edu.au). Kae Novak ABD is a doctoral student in the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado-Denver (E: novak.kae@gmail.com).

References

Boyles, D, Carusi, T, and Attick, D (2009) ‘Historical and critical interpretations of social justice’ Handbook of social justice in education  New York, NY: Routledge pp30-42

Crenshaw, KW (2017) On intersectionality: Essential writings New York: The New Press

Cronbach, LJ, and Snow, RE (1969) Individual Differences in Learning Ability as a Function of Instructional Variables Final Report Stanford, CA: School of Education, Stanford

Fraser, N (2003) ‘Social justice in the age of identity politics: redistribution, recognition and participation’ in Fraser, N and Honneth A (eds) (2003) Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange London: Verso pp7-109

Fraser, N. (2007). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. Global inequality: Patterns and explanations, 252-272

Hocking, C. (2010). Inclusive Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: a Synthesis of Research. York: Higher Education Academy.

Jonassen, DH and Grabowski, B (1993) Individual differences and instruction New York: Allen and Bacon

Meyer, A, Rose, DH, and Gordon, DT (2014) Universal design for learning: Theory and practice Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing

de Alvarez, MS and Dickson-Deane, C (2018) ‘Avoiding educational technology pitfalls for inclusion and equity’ TechTrends 62(4): 345-353

Wiley, D (2014) ‘The Access Compromise and the 5th R.’ in An Open Education Reader https://openedreader.org/chapter/the-access-compromise-and-the-5th-r/


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Curating Academic Knowledge

by Emil Toescu

We live in interesting times in higher education. In the immediate, the pandemic imposed the use of distance learning, leading to a different educational experience and a very different dynamic in the relationship between students and lecturers. And so academic teaching goes on, just displaced from the physical to the virtual space.

But there is another, more fundamental development in European academia: the initiation of a range of multi- or cross-discipline courses. These range from the now fashionable Liberal Arts and (Natural) Sciences 3-4 year degree course (developed mainly in The Netherlands and the UK), developed from the more established US educational model, to a variety of term- or year-long optional courses that aim to provide a multidisciplinary and sometimes interdisciplinary perspective on a particular theme. As an example, for two years I have run for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences students in Birmingham, UK, a course titled ‘Emerging Modernity’ that aims to provide a wider understanding of what ‘modernity’ is by looking at what it means from a variety of perspectives (historical, philosophical, sociological) and how it came about in a range of disciplines (biology, physics, sociology, economics). 

These initiatives acknowledge, de facto, that beyond the traditional disciplines, the real world is complex, full of interlinked problems, that do not easily yield to reductionist approaches, They require a capacity for engaging with multiple perspectives. Examples frequently used in such discussions are sustainability, climate change or gender studies. Nearer to the present moment, the global economic and other consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the policy responses required can be best understood via the lenses of: philosophy (utilitarian theory – what is good for the most of people); history (past plagues); geography (spatial human interaction patterns); politics (government and power structures). We can also user basic science approaches (understanding scientific research methodology and protocols) while taking into account the issues of the limitation of technology (assuming it will solve all our problems). 

Beyond the crucial importance of specialisms, and paying attention to the smallest details, we also  need to see the bigger picture. Like anything else, this capacity to move focus from the wood to the trees and back, this experience in zooming in and out with grace and fluidity, requires training.

Dealing with the intricate issues of today also requires an ability and willingness to view issues from different angles and to scan for multiple perspectives. This is akin to developing a conceptual tri-dimensional vision, rotating and inspecting an issue from various planes. Such an ability requires, again, training and exercise.

Interdisciplinarity is a key concept in approaching these topics. There are many definitions of the concept, that are applicable both to interdisciplinary research (IDR) activities and interdisciplinary education in academia (IDEA) [1], all starting from the view that interdisciplinarity describes an “interaction that may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organising concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organisation of research and education in a fairly large field.” [2] One way to avoid the possible, and frequent, confusion between the terms multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, is to point to the integrative nature of the interdisciplinary efforts, rather than the simpler, but still important and relevant, juxtapositions that characterise the multidisciplinary approaches. 

Because of its potential for integration of different perspectives and approaches, interdisciplinarity has been a buzz word in academia for some time. In research, in the UK, the REF framework for assessment of the quality of academic output has many examples of such efforts in the impact cases submitted for assessment (also illustrated by striking infographics [3]). The REF in 2021 will have a whole section, Area Studies, dedicated to IDR [4]. In academic education, interdisciplinarity is by now a keyword on most UK Universities’ prospectuses, reviewed in a lengthy report by the Higher Education Academy [5].

There is one important teleologic characteristic that features in many discussions: interdisciplinarity is not an end in itself, but instead an approach, a tool to be used to answer specific, identifiable questions of needs [6]. While this perspective is immediately relevant for the research activity, it also has consequences for delivering interdisciplinarity in academic education. An interdisciplinary course should be organized, ideally, based on a theme: an issue, an idea, a topic, an era. [7] The point is that different disciplinary perspectives on the theme are integrated and provided as readings and assignments. In such courses, the lectures will reflect a balanced mixture between the specialist and visionary perspectives and show a mutual respect between these two approaches, a respect frequently missing as one view is considered too narrow-minded and the other one too superficial. This purpose can be achieved by taking a different approach to academic education: curating academic knowledge

The concept of ‘curating’ is rather fashionable. Until recently its use was restricted to a category of museum professionals who were in charge of maintaining museum collections and organising exhibitions. The job title has its origins in the Latin cura meaning ‘care’ and designating a person that ‘has care of’ or ‘takes care’, not only in the physical but also in the spiritual sense. 

The meaning evolved, as OED notes, from the stricter “one who cares for the souls” (1432) to a more practical “manager or steward” (1632) and “keeper or custodian” (1661). As the parish curate looks after the parishioners and their spiritual well-being, so a museum curator takes care of the museum collections and also perhaps the visitor’s well-being. 

Since the mid-1990s, curating started to have another dimension and be seen as a creative activity, and the curator is, more and more, an auteur who  proposes an idea for exploration and experiments with different formats, different ways of experiencing the art, and creating different meanings. Old views and formats are challenged and new forms are invented and proposed.

In the wake of this development of meaning, curating has become a buzz word in popular culture, and nowadays one can curate almost anything, from web content, or experiences, to performances, music or even food. Thus curating becomes more akin to conceptualising ideas and selecting, juxtaposing and interpreting items to provide an illustration of a central idea. It is time, maybe, to extend this curatorial concept to education and use it in the development of the new multi- and cross-disciplinary academic courses, in which the course organiser becomes a curator. 

In universities, any course organiser is, by definition of his or her terms of employment, a specialist in one particular discipline or field of learning. As such, in erecting the scaffolding of a new cross-disciplinary course, s/he cannot provide the texture and the fine grain of other disciplines, neither of concepts or methodologies, and a specialist in that topic will be required. This is even more relevant when the courses attempt to bridge the science-humanities divide. Humanities, with their softer and fuzzier discipline boundaries provide a better environment for the development of interdisciplinary approaches, and it is not surprising that most of the liberal arts and interdisciplinary courses in various universities are in humanities. Disciplinary boundaries in sciences are arguably more defined and the methodologies working within those field are perhaps more specific, but all these should not detract from the effort to create interdisciplinary modules.

The academic curator will thus provide the theme, the guiding lines and the cross-disciplinary perspective and from this position will interact with academic colleagues, or other necessary contributors, to bring to life the proposed academic theme and give students the opportunity to engage with the subject from a variety of perspectives. 

At the very least this will provide a multi-disciplinary context, in which the various contributors will engage with the central theme from their specialist perspective. But such an approach has also the potential to provide a true interdisciplinary experience. The presenting specialist is now able to engage with another discipline, and the students will get a feel for how to integrate knowledge into a more inclusive framework of analysis.

Museums are places of learning and recently became more active spaces: through smart curating they are creating an environment that fosters making new connections and encourages discoveries of new perspectives. Through a similar creative academic curation, academia can create a new student-centred environment, helping the development of the professionals of the 21st century. 

Dr Emil C Toescu is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, and Deputy Director, Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries, Medical School,  at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is working on researching the interfaces between science and humanities as seen from a science perspective, and can be reached at emiltoescu.ac@gmail.com.

References

[1] Klein, JT (2017) ‘Typologies of Interdisciplinarity: the Boundary Work of Definition’, in Frodeman, R, Klein, JT and Santos Pacheco, R (eds) (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity

[2] Heckhausen, H (1972) ‘Discipline and interdisciplinarity’ in: Apostel, L, Berger, G, Briggs, A and Michaud, G (eds) Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities Paris: OECD

[3] interactive graph: https://www.digital-science.com/visualizations/ref-case-study-similarity-network/; background presentation of analysis: https://www.digital-science.com/resources/digital-research-reports/digital-research-report-the-diversity-of-uk-research-and-knowledge/. 

[4] https://www.ref.ac.uk/about/blogs/a-disciplinary-perspective-on-interdisciplinary-research-area-studies/ 

[5] Lyall, C, et al (2015) Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges https://documents.advance-he.ac.uk/download/file/4604

[6] Council of Graduate Schools (2014) University Leaders Issue Statement on Interdisciplinarity in Graduate Education and Research https://cgsnet.org/university-leaders-issue-statement-interdisciplinarity-graduate-education-and-research

[7] Encyclopedia of Education (2020) Interdisciplinary Courses And Majors In Higher Educationhttps://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/interdisciplinary-courses-and-majors-higher-education


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Supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’: the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives

by Bing Lu

The SRHE event on doctoral supervision and assessment, followed by a celebratory book launch, in February this year had at first struck me as pretty ambitious. The description on the website said that, as members of the research community, we should strive to undertake new research through supervising and assessing ‘the new generation of researchers’. With doctoral supervision being my own doctoral research field, I cannot help contemplating whether our research community has already moved into a new generation. How does this ‘new generation of researchers’ differ from the older generation in terms of research interests when they first embark the research journey? And how much intellectual tradition we should keep in such a fast expanding community which is increasingly marked by globalization and individuality? With this curiosity in mind, I arranged my trip to London, hoping to find answers from the presenters and other attending researchers.

The six speakers were authors of the six newly published books in the Success in Research series. Referred to as being ‘interactive and practical’, these publications aim to add value to doctoral education, and cover six themes: inspiring doctoral researchers, collaboration and engagement, seeking funding, publishing, mentoring, as well as doctoral assessment and supervision. The event was attended by a wide range of researchers coming from different universities, experienced and novice supervisors, research developers, recently graduated doctoral students, and postgraduate students who are undertaking doctoral studies like myself. It was a pretty fun and productive day led by the positive and energetic ‘lady gang’, as Pam Denicolo from University of Surrey amusingly called themselves.

As the first presenter, Pam articulated ‘inspiring’, a major theme that would go through the whole session. By inviting the audience to think over the question, ‘what is inspiring supervision?’, she reminded supervisors and researchers of proactive participation in the research community by doing things like deliberately creating ‘lucky opportunities’, and reflecting on actions that make supervising/being supervised enjoyable. Julie Reeves, a research developer from University of Southampton, then presented on the value of collaboration and engagement. We were invited again to reflect and discuss with other members the nominal value of inspiring collaboration and why it matters in research supervision. It was a fun-filled experience of listening to others and sharing my own views with them in the group discussion. Also I noticed how effectively the first two presenters led us to think by deliberately posing reflective questions and encouraging us to talk. By doing so, I felt the boundary between presenters and audience was blurred, as we all contributed to each theme by listing our ideas on posters, with many of them indeed being ‘inspiring’.

The four presenters in the afternoon also demonstrated their topics with the same strategy, posing enlightening questions and prompting original thoughts. Marcela Acuna Rivera, research development manager, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed a practical speech on seeking funding. Her presentation kindly provided a nuts-and-bolts guide navigating research funding with an emphasis on preparing the application, and reminded us why having a holistic view of the research landscape matters so much. The presentation up next was on publication, given by Dawn Duke from University of Surrey. She offered 10 top tips regarding publication strategies, and posed powerful questions about why impact matters in research community and who cares/should care about one’s own research. Funding and publication are always valued and even prioritised in research community, and sometimes the two issues cause anxiety among novice researchers. The two speakers presented both topics in a fun and productive way, pinpointing the significance of being confident and prepared for success.

Mentoring in the research community is a field I had known less about before, but was able to gain more understanding thanks to the fifth speaker, Alison Yeung, from University of Surrey. As an experienced mentor in helping postgraduates with writing skills, Alison explained the relationship between mentor and mentee, narrated her own stories of mentoring students, and invited us to think over the value of mentoring in assisting supervision. Sue Starbuck, from Royal Holloway, University of London contributed the wrap-up speech on doctoral assessment. She declared that doctoral assessment should be inspiring and empowering, and invited us to work in groups reflecting on the factors and motivators stimulating us to improve productivity in the assessment process. Again it was a quite fun discussion.

Have the questions that I posed at the beginning of this post been answered? I think yes. The global research community is fast expanding and changing today, and the rate is being accelerated by different facilitators like technology and increasingly professional training support. Having said that, in the doctoral education, as the main site for cultivating modern researchers and an area of practice for a large number of researchers/supervisors, there still exist essential traditions that can be followed. These traditions are people-oriented, characterized by inventiveness, curiosity and everlasting pursuit of answers. This productive event again verified the power of posing questions and sharing perspectives as a strong support to any volatile situation in the research community.

SRHE member Bing Lu (Warwick) is a second-year doctoral researcher from Education Studies, investigating how academics who have returned after a doctorate abroad conduct doctoral supervision in their home countries. Twitter @BingluAlice


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Troubling transitions: re-thinking dominant narratives surrounding students’ educational transitions

by Karen Gravett

This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.

In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.

Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.

Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.

Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:

You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)

I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)

It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)

In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.

Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.

This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.


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Professors in Preparation: Supporting 21st century professorial leaders

by Julie Hulme and Deborah Lock

Becoming a professor is not easy but for some reason becoming a professor in teaching and learning, or from a professional practice base, appears to be harder than most. Part of this is because there is no consensus about what a pedagogic or practitioner professor looks like, and part of this is linked to uncertainty about appropriate selection criteria, and the type of evidence required to demonstrate professorial behaviours and activities (Evans, 2015a, 2015b).

There is a lack of guidance and role (and real) models that aspiring professors (education, scholarship and/or professional practice) can turn to for advice about teaching and learning career pathways (Evans, 2017). According to McHanwell and Robson (2018): “There are relatively few teaching-focussed staff in more senior positions who can review, mentor and support teaching staff; act as role models for junior staff who are seeking to develop a teaching/education career (Fung and Gordon, 2016); and help individuals to collate a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence that provides a clear sense of their teaching achievements.”

The Professors in Preparation network (#ProfsInPrep) was established in October 2018, following a discussion about these issues on the PFHEA email list in which leaders in higher education were commenting on the challenges of gaining reward and recognition for their education and scholarship achievements. We decided that the time had come to instigate change for ourselves, and arranged what was to be the first of a number of workshops, webinars, and other events. The network found an online home on OneHE, and the community now hosts around 150 aspiring professors, plus professorial mentors (many from the National Teaching Fellow community).

#ProfsInPrep aims to provide aspiring professors with a supportive community through which the pooling of knowledge through the sharing of and reflection on ‘lived’ experiences, and identity stories to aid successful applications (Waddington, 2016, Macfarlane and Burg, 2019). The network is based on the premise of a virtuous circle in which members who achieve professorship continue to contribute and provide support to the next generation of professors. In other words, we have established a ‘pipeline’ community for those who contribute to higher education through educational or practitioner-based careers.

The goals of the network are not only to support reward and recognition. Recent media coverage has portrayed academia as a competitive, individualistic professional environment, framed in terms such as “upward toxicity”. Psychological research suggests that transformational leadership, which builds collegiality and strong team identities, can improve mental health and wellbeing of individuals, reduce staff turnover, and produce higher quality work (Cheng et al, 2016). Likewise, Holliman et al. (2016) suggest that “academic kindness” can support productivity, and professional development within higher education, for both students and colleagues. Our review of academic promotions criteria suggests that promotion frequently depends upon research outputs and grants, which are largely individually driven (although we recognise not always), even within educational pathways. A focus on individual success can reduce motivation for academic citizenship and collegiality that could facilitate academic kindness and potentially counter the supposedly toxic culture. We suggest that promotion pathways need to reward such collegiate behaviour.

Increasingly, universities are offering educational and practitioner pathways to promotion, and some are building academic citizenship and service into their criteria. However, the progression of individuals along these pathways has not yet enabled the centrality of education within the mission of higher education to be adequately reflected. We suggest that promoting academics to the professoriate who embody the values of inclusion, collegiality, and caring, often located within those on educational and practitioner-based careers, can help to change the culture of academia, and bring kindness, instead of toxicity, to the fore. Those who achieve promotion via these routes will then be available to act as role models, and, as well as helping other aspiring professors to understand the ambiguity of promotion criteria and facilitate the progression of more minoritised groups, such as women and BAME individuals.

Ultimately, our intention is to facilitate the development of a professorial community that represents the rich diversity that exists within the sector, and that can self-propagate through mentoring and support. We suggest that an academically kind professoriate, promoted for service to students, education, and professional practice, will provide the leadership that is needed within 21st century higher education.

Join #ProfsInPrep at:  https://bit.ly/pipjoin 

Julie Hulme is a Reader in Psychology at Keele University, a Chartered Psychologist, National Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow of the HEA. Deborah Lock is Deputy Head of College and Professor of Inclusivity and Innovation in Teaching at Lincoln International Business School, and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. Together, Julie and Deborah founded the Professors in Preparation network in October 2018.

References

Cheng, C, Bartram, T, Karimi, L and Leggat, S (2016) ‘Transformational leadership and social identity as predictors of team climate, perceived quality of care, burnout and turnover intention among nurses’, Personnel Review, 45(6): 1200-1216

Evans L (2015a) ‘What academics want from their professors: findings from a study of professorial academic leadership in the UK’ in Teichler U and  Cummings W (eds) Forming, recruiting and managing the academic profession. Vol 14 of The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective series. Cham: Springer

Evans, L (2015b) The purpose of professors: professionalism, pressures and performance. Stimulus paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. London: LFHE

Evans, L (2017) ‘University professors as academic leaders: professorial leadership development needs and provision’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership 45(1): 123-140

Fung, D and Gordon, C (2016) Rewarding educators and education leaders in research-intensive universities York, UK: Higher Education Academy

Holliman, AJ, Hulme, JA and Wilson-Smith, K (2019) ‘Transition and adaptability in educational and organisational contexts’ Psychology Teaching Review 25(1): 4-11

MacFarlane, B and Burg, D (2019) Women professors as intellectual leaders Leadership Foundation: University of Bristol and University of Southampton

McHanwell, S and Robson, S (2018) Guiding principles for teaching promotions York, UK: AdvanceHE

Waddington, K (2016) ‘The compassion gap in UK universities’ International Practice Development Journal 6(1): 10


This is the fourth in a ‘virtual symposium’ series which began with Jane Creaton’s blog on 28 February 2020: Leadership in a Changing Landscape.

Marcia Devlin


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Reimagining the lecture

By Marcia Devlin

The research around university learning and teaching shows that didactic teaching and passive reception do not result in deep, lasting or meaningful learning for most students. It is curious, then, that despite knowing this, we persist with lecturing at students in large groups in most universities. Worse, one of the most common lecturing practices is to ‘stand and deliver’ notes and/or PowerPoint slides.

It is important to acknowledge that lectures probably worked as a form of teaching for many academics – who were, as students, particularly intellectually able, intrinsically motivated and keenly focused and clear on their educational and vocational goals, that is, to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their career through research and teaching. But it is equally important to acknowledge that this approach is not effective for the majority of students, who go on to fill other roles and pursuits outside of academia. The challenge is that the lecture persists and is assumed to be the basis of effective teaching practice when it may or may not be, depending on the student and context.

If you doubt my argument, take the time to stand at the back of a typical lecture theatre (if many – or any – students have turned up at all past Week 5) and scan the students’ screens. You’ll see Facebook, Messenger and other social media channels getting a good workout, along with search engines and search terms that may or may not be related to the lecture topic. That kind of workout happens much less often in smaller classes where the teaching is interactive and the students are co-creating their learning through being engaged and active.

It should be said that not all lecturing is bad. A lecture hall can be led by a gifted, enthusiastic, well organised teacher with outstanding communication skills, who builds and maintains rapport, shows respect for students and their learning, engages all present in activities and critical thinking, enables collaborative approaches to problem solving within the class, provides stimulus for deep thinking during and after the lecture, makes concepts come alive through examples and the use of various media, provides ‘aha’ moments for those in the room, and so on.

The challenge is that the vast majority of lecturing is not like that, which is why students generally don’t bother coming and instead either watch it online (at double speed – ask a current student) or skip the class altogether.

At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia, we are acutely aware of the massification of higher education, the worldwide widening participation movement and the increased student diversity that this brings. We know that students’ lives are increasingly characterised by multiple and competing priorities in a distracting and at times overwhelming digital context. We understand that students want personalised, flexible learning opportunities that enable them to manage their multiple work, family, social and other commitments outside of university, while getting the most out of the financial and time investments they have made in study.

With all of this in mind, VU has radically and successfully reimagined our approach to learning and teaching by drawing on the evidence base of what works. We have, therefore, done away with large, passive lectures in first and second year and will do the same in third year in 2020. We have replaced semester-long units of study with a structure where students focus on and study one unit at a time over an intensive four-week period, in small classes of no more than 30 students, and through active, engaged, collaborative and deep learning with their teacher and fellow students. This is supplemented by both high quality online materials and wrap around, just in time, study and learning support. We call this The VU Way.

The focus is on the individual learner and their success. The impact has been extraordinary, with pass rates, grade distributions and retention dramatically improving in the units where this model has been introduced in both first and second year. This approach helps us address both our promise to be the University of Opportunity and Success, and the increasing accountability inherent in measurements of teaching and learning and in performance-based funding being introduced in Australian higher education. We hope that this approach and its extraordinary successes in terms of learning will continue to help us be competitive in a global tertiary education marketplace where transnational and globalised approaches to education are growing.

As the Australian economy moves, albeit very slowly, from a reliance on mining and manufacturing, to a new era in which new knowledge and ideas are precious commodities, universities have a critical role to play. Internationally, the role of universities is even more important as innovation, the transformation of businesses, technology and access to knowledge and education take place amid prevailing inequalities, political tensions, environmental challenges and huge economic changes.

While we tend to revere research that creates new knowledge in universities – and there is good reason to do so – we are significantly less enthusiastic about sharing that new (and existing) knowledge through our other core business of teaching. We need to be cognisant of the tendency to chase the prestige of research at the cost of effort and resource being put into university teaching quality and into university teachers.

Sharing knowledge more effectively

Many universities will be hesitant to move away from traditional modes of learning and teaching. Institutional culture, an undervaluing of teaching compared to research and the effort and the volume and breadth of the resources required to make a major transformational change in learning and teaching all probably play a part in the sector’s reluctance to significantly change teaching practices.

Of course, there are many alternatives to didactic, PowerPoint-driven stand-and-deliver lecturing that are currently used across the sector to great effect by individual teachers and teaching teams, including:

  • Blended learning, incorporating the integration of modern and interactive eLearning;
  • Flipped classrooms;
  • Problem-based learning;
  • Work-integrated and work-based learning of a wide range of types;
  • Simulations and other opportunities to develop practical skills; and
  • Collaborative approaches to constructing and sharing knowledge, incorporating multidisciplinary contributions from: internal colleagues (‘peeragogy’); external MOOCs; industry educational offerings; and formal recognition of prior and concurrent student real-life learning outside the classroom.

Much of what I have listed in this incomplete list will be familiar to many. There is, of course, significant innovation and outstanding teaching practice going on in pockets of the sector by individuals and small and larger teams. However, VU is the only tertiary institution in Australia to completely throw out the old way – including lectures – and truly transform university teaching and learning.

The VU Way won’t suit all institutions, and for those who would benefit from using it, the change may simply be too hard (it is certainly very hard). What is important is that the approaches to teaching used in universities must align and keep pace with the disrupted and changing contexts in which university education takes place and with the changing needs and preferences of students.

The lecture has never been recognised as the best way for the modern university student cohorts to learn. As the global, digital and societal upheavals we are experiencing continue, and we begin to see more examples of ‘the student-free lecture’ where no-one but the well-meaning, well-prepared lecturer turns up, the lecture as the staple approach to university teaching should probably start to go the way of the once ubiquitous handwritten overhead transparency. Both have probably had their day.

Professor Marcia Devlin is Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University, Australia and a Fellow of SRHE.  An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review in September, 2019.


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The Impact of TEF

by George Brown

A report on the SRHE seminar The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice

This seminar demonstrated that the neo-liberal policy and metrics of TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) were not consonant with excellent teaching as usually understood.

Michael Tomlinson’s presentation was packed with analyses of the underlying policies of TEF. Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka considered  the theme of students’ perceptions of excellent teaching. Her research demonstrated clearly that students’ views of excellent teaching were very different from those of TEF. Stephen Jones provided a vibrant analysis of public discourses. He pointed to the pre-TEF attacks on universities and staff by major conservative politicians and their supporters. These were to convince students and their parents that Government action was needed. TEF was born and with it the advent of US-style neo-liberalism and its consequences. His final slide suggested ways of combating TEF including promoting the broad purposes of HE teaching. Sal Jarvis succinctly summarised the seminar and took up the theme of purposes. Personal development and civic good were important purposes but were omitted from the TEF framework and metrics.

Like all good seminars, this seminar prompted memories, thoughts and questions during and after the seminar. A few of mine are listed below. Others may wish to add to them.

None of the research evidence supports the policies and metrics of TEF (eg Gibbs, 2018). The indictment of TEF by the Royal Statistics Society is still relevant (RSS, 2018). The chairman of the TEF panel is reported to have said “TEF was not supposed to be a “direct measure of teaching” but rather “a measure based on some [my italics] of the outcomes of teaching” On the continuum of neo-liberalism and collegiality, TEF is very close to the pole of neo-liberalism whereas student perspectives are nearer the pole of collegiality which embraces collaboration between staff and between staff and students. Collaboration will advance excellence in teaching: TEF will not. Collegiality has been shown to increase morale and reinforce academic values in staff and students (Bolden et al, 2012). Analyses of the underlying values of a metric are important because values shape policy, strategies and metrics. ‘Big data’ analysts need to consider ways of incorporating qualitative data. With regard to TEF policy and its metrics, the cautionary note attributed to Einstein is apposite: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts.”

SRHE member George Brown was Head of an Education Department in a College of Education and Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology of Education in the University of Ulster before becoming Professor of Higher Education at the University of Nottingham.  His 250 articles, reports and texts are mostly in Higher and Medical Education, with other work in primary and secondary education. He was senior author of Effective Teaching in Higher Education and Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education and co-founder of the British Education Research Journal, to which he was an early contributor and reviewer. He was the National Co-ordinator of Academic Staff Development for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK) and has served on SRHE Council.

References

Bolden, R et al (2012) Academic Leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education London: Leadership Foundation

Gibbs, G (2017) ‘Evidence does not support the rationale of the TEF’, Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 10(2)

Royal Statistical Society  (2018) Royal Statistical Society: Response to the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework, subject-level consultation


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Beyond TEF Cynicism: Towards a New Vocabulary of ‘Excellence’?

By Steven Jones

One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.

Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.

Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.

I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.

But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.

Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.

TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.

But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?

The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.

The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The view expressed here are his own.


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The scholarship of learning and teaching: a victim of its nomenclature?

by Nathalie Sheridan

Scholarship historically suggests there are elements of reading, of engaging with other scholars’ and researchers’ thoughts and publications. It is a historical exercise analysing and critiquing a body of existing knowledge. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) also necessitates a strong element of reflectivity – or better reflexivity – to become a meaningful activity. However, SoTL is more than ‘just’ scholarship. Indeed, it would be of little use for educators, if it would not involve for instance researching the impact of learning and teaching strategies, or interventions.

There is debate about the definition for SoTL and it has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion or sound framework, despite attempts such as that by Miller-Young and Yeo (2015). However, most of the publications trying to explore positioning SoTL assume that it involves some form of research, as they speak of methods, methodology, and theories. That SoTL tends to focus on a specific context, very often a narrow view of a classroom, a course, programme or a faculty, does neither mean it is not research. Nor that the way we collect data should not adhere to research processes and standards (Reinman, 2019). If educators in their subject disciplines aim to gain meaningful insights about their practice, the data needs to be meaningful and this is done by research design.

The nomenclature is confusing. I would like to get away from the notion of equating a term for a specific context with the meaning behind it. The actual philosophies, methodologies, and approaches to which this this subfield of educational scholarship and research relates are the same as those employed generally in scholarship and research in education. SoTL is the context of educational research in higher education, with an emphasis – but not exclusionary – on exploring the effects of learning and teaching strategies on the students’ learning experience and often attainment and retention, usually with a very specific focus. However, the content of SoTL, the stuff people who ‘do’ SoTL engage in, is research and scholarship of education within the higher education context. Therefore, SoTL ought to use the same tools and rigour as educational research (and scholarship). When teaching my masters level course ‘Approaches to Educational Inquiry’, I try to convey that SoTL goes beyond an evaluation of a new classroom activity, or the use of end-of-course questionnaires as the sole measurement for course evaluation.

As an Erziehungswissenschaflter (Learning Sciences Scientist, there is no actual translation for my discipline) who moved into the English language context, it never sat easy with me that my Wissenschaft ‘science’ – simply because I changed language – suddenly was a little less and I am not a scientist anymore. Educational research has attracted a barrage of not unreasonable critique as to its quality. But it also attracted critique which demonstrates a lack of understanding of Erziehungswissenschaften (learning science, education).

A recent critique (Hazel, 2019) was that educational research does not even use the scientific method. This point of critique is based on a flaw in thinking; unlike in a chemistry or engineering lab, the variables and factors affecting our learning and understanding cannot be controlled nor can all of them be observed (at the same time). In our team we joke about learning following the Heisenberg principle; one cannot observe all variables at the same time, and the act of observing will change at least some of them.

To suggest testing and modification of hypotheses as a reasonable approach to understand an effect on learning shows a clear lack of understanding the complexities of learning. Learning is a social, neurological, cognitive, and personal process. The effects of one learning instance cannot often be predicted. As an example, if you have been teaching for a while, you will have noticed that an activity which worked well with one cohort, completely flatlined with a different cohort, or the same cohort on a different day. Experienced educators might be able to draw from tacit knowledge and make decisions that lead to planned outcomes but this is a whole other debate. However, we need to remain vigilant in addressing the various levels of theoretical framing and not confuse worldviews, theories, paradigms, methodologies and methods. If we, for the sake of simplification, cut out these steps it will just lead to more confusion and less sound scholarship or research.

Valid points in the aforementioned critique (Hazel, 2019) were the lack of replicability and sharing of data in educational research. Sharing data about our learners might appear to be in conflict with open science. However, there is an imperative for the public sector to share data, and institutions work towards making it ethically possible (UKRIO, 2018). The often narrow focus on exploring the effect of an intervention cannot tell us much more than an analysis of a conjunction of circumstances within a certain period of time. Will we know that evaluating one cohort’s reaction to a change in assessment, is transferable to another cohort, in another year? If so, how do we know? To ensure replicability we need to attempt to answer these questions. Replicability is a complex issue, which I can’t address fully within the word-limit here. Maybe one point to make would be to explore the emergence of patterns amongst similar projects. I was taught that any educational research which claims an undisputable truth is flawed, due to the complexity of influencing factors. It is near to impossible to isolate influencing variables and draw conclusions that are generalisable; this is due to human nature not due to lack of research rigour.

Let’s embrace the chances for gathering rich data and gaining in-depth understanding which the use of SoTL permits us, and explore how to strengthen the validity and reliability of our approaches to data collection and analysis.

Nathalie Sheridan is a lecturer in academic and digital development at the University of Glasgow (LEADS). Her first degree is in Erziehungswissenschaften (Learning Sciences, TU Dresden) with an MPhil (University of Glasgow) and PhD (University of Strathclyde) in education. She has worked in culture and museums education throughout her studies and been teaching in higher education since 2006. Her focus is the translation of creative learning and teaching practices into higher education, through active pedagogies and rethinking learning spaces with the aim to improve the student experience and include disenfranchised learners and educators.


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Making knowledge more explicit in the English for Academic Purposes classroom

by Mark Brooke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. This special issue aimed to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which are accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

In 2000, Moore (2000: 33) wrote that the ‘curriculum of the future should be the curriculum of knowledge’. He argued that knowledge should be accessible to all members of society and, in this way, education should promote social and educational justice. However, we find that the educational climate for such an objective is not wholly welcoming. In many university settings, academic language courses tend to be devoid of a theoretical approach to education that places the teacher in the role of linguistic expert. Indeed, courses prominently feature notions such as grammatical accuracy instruction based on isolated clauses at the lexico-grammatical level or independent self-directed learning and study habits. Unfortunately, in these cases, the focus of instruction may first be decontextualised as extracts, which oversimplifies the meanings in the texts; and second, a theory of language or knowledge may play a backseat role or even be entirely absent. As many researchers have pointed out, focusing on common errors in a de-contextualised way is probably not effective. Additionally, independent learning, although a useful process, is often given too much focus. This detracts from the time spent with a qualified tutor as knowledge provider, taking the onus away from what the teacher does. In the case of independent learning instruction, what is being foregrounded is ‘the social circumstances of knowers’ (Maton, 2014: 5), not knowledge.

In contrast, the main goal of our research is to provide knowledge to students in the form of analytical lenses to enable them to deconstruct and judge information effectively. What we strive to do is move away from educational ‘knowledge blindness’ (Maton, 2014). Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) as a sociological framework has guided our educational practices to do this. The basic premise of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is that knowledge is power. LCT is a toolkit for analysing socio-cultural practices and uncovering what constitutes the ‘rules of the game’ that provide the means to that power. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a gaze or ‘a mode of thinking, acting and being’ (Dong et al, 2015: 8) through the explanatory power of the codes. In this research we seek to develop our students’ critical gaze. We achieve this by applying the dimensions of specialisation (including cosmologies) and semantics.

Specialisation determines principles of privilege in fields of practice. Practices that emphasise epistemic relation and downplay actors’ dispositions view specialised knowledge as the basis of achievement (ER+). We believe a curriculum should primarily be built on ER+. Practices that emphasise social relations, and downplay epistemic relations, are represented by the knower codes (SR+). Independent learning is an example of this, which has often been given too much focus in our field. Knower codes can be explored in greater depth through the use of the concept of ‘axiological cosmologies’. Maton (2013) defines cosmologies as ‘constitutive features of social fields that underlie the way social actors and practices are differentially characterised and valued’ (p 152). In identifying how clusters are formed, we can help students to understand the means by which experts and authors attempt to persuade the reader to align with a position on a particular issue. ‘Semantics’ is a dimension from LCT that ‘conceives social fields of practice as semantic structures whose organizing principles are conceptualized as semantic codes’ (Maton, 2014: 2). Using Semantics, it is possible to explore the relations that exist between knowledge structures and, in particular for this purpose, how to apply a critical lens to a social phenomenon or text to analyse it. 

We conducted research between 2015 and 2017 at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. Our findings, from three parallel case studies within the broad framework of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), provide results from classroom-based action research working with semantics, specialisation and axiological cosmologies from Legitimation Code Theory. Each case study is outlined, explaining how these LCT dimensions have guided practice in the teaching of English for academic writing. Specifically, LCT has been applied in the development of our students’ critical dispositions by teaching them how to apply critical lenses to analyse texts and to make informed judgements. The first case study explores semantics as a strategy for teaching how to use lenses for the theoretical framework section of an IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Research and Discussion) research paper in the social sciences. The second is set in a standalone EAP module and describes the use of a systemic-functional linguistics-informed pedagogical tool as a lens to analyse academic discourse so learners can better understand the meanings including the assumptions, unsupported claims, or biases in texts. The third regards the embedding of LCT approaches for students engaged in writing hortatory blogs in a unit entitled Public Writing and Communication. Students are taught to explore ‘axiological cosmologies’ to understand how evaluative meanings form patterns of clusters that enable the writer to create a persuasive expository text.

References

Dong, A, Maton, K and Carvalho L, (2015) The structuring of design knowledge The Routledge Companion to Design Research, pp38-49 London: Routledge.

Maton, K (2008) ‘Knowledge-building: how can we create powerful and influential ideas?’ Paper presented at Disciplinarity, Knowledge and Language: An International Symposium Sydney: University of Sydney

Maton, K (2013) Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education Routledge: London

Maton, K (2014) ‘Building powerful knowledge: the significance of semantic waves’ in Barrett, B and Rata, E (eds) (2014) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum, pp181–197 London: Palgrave Macmillan, Palgrave Studies in Excellence and Equity in Global Education.

Moore, R (2000) ‘For knowledge: tradition, progressivism and progress in education – reconstructing the curriculum debate’ Cambridge Journal of Education 30(1): 17–36

Mark Brooke is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research and teaching in two fields: English for Academic Purposes and the Sociology of Sport. He can be found on Google Scholar, Facebook and LinkedIn.The full article by Mark Brooke, Laetitia Monbec and Namala Tilakaratna (all National University of Singapore), ‘The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses’, is in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 428-443