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Innovative approaches to professional development
Symposium Organiser: Janet Macdonald
Professional development at university is traditionally delivered through events, which might be complemented by texts or websites. However the challenge is to ensure that staff engage with the materials, and carry away something which is of value, and which can be embedded into practice when the practitioner is faced with a host of competing priorities. In the field of academic development, although not necessarily online, Boud (1999) has underlined the significance of approaches which are of obvious relevance to staff because they are situated or embedded within the working practices, and peer learning has clear benefits in this regard. In this context Knight, Tait and Yorke (2006) describe the relevance of Engestrom’s (2001) activity system, which provides a graphic illustration of the interplay between the specialist in educational development, the practitioner who might learn how to enhance their practice, and a range of influences including the people with whom they work, departmental policies, tools to cast understanding into practical shapes, and the division of labour within the department.
Knight, Tait and Yorke described two studies of professional development at the Open University (UK) which were undertaken in 2004. They showed that while more formal approaches were involved where staff were expected to take on a specific role, non-formal and social learning, including “on-the-job” learning, conversations with colleagues and their own experiences as students had dominated the process of general professional formation. Such findings provide food for thought: clearly the process of embedding theory into good practice can be problematic and does not simply depend on the effective design of a professional development seminar.
The Open University has a long and successful history in high quality distance education which has been underpinned by extensive use of online technologies over the last twenty years. With a rapidly increasingly pace of change, there is a pressing need to keep staff regularly updated with new working practices in learning and teaching. At the same time, the demands of delivering education at scale places specific demands on its staff, who work in ways which may be unfamiliar to traditional campus based institutions. This paper describes the working contexts and communities of staff at the university in order to provide an understanding of the constraints and opportunities for supporting successful professional development both in formal courses and resources and within informal networks.
The Centre for Open Learning in Mathematics, Science, Computing and Technology (COLMSCT) was established to reward teaching excellence and fund practitioner research to develop effective and engaging ways of using new technologies to support students at a distance. In this paper COLMSCT is presented as a case study of professional development through practitioner research in order to illustrate how the theory of experiential learning can help in understanding the processes and outcomes of that professional development.
The Digilab is a creative, informal space which enables Open University staff to experiment with technologies which have the potential to enhance learning. A series of ‘Digiquests” were developed which require staff to use a variety of accessible devices and immersive environments to support reflective learning. The resulting activities form a suite of self paced and collaborative opportunities to encounter some of the key issues, constraints and possibilities for developing technology enhanced experiential learning for learners and practitioners within a safe and neutral space.
Finally we describe a case study of two short online courses at the Open University which set out to provide professional development in online communities of distance tutors. They operate at scale: in 2009, 1000 staff have participated in the courses. The course design on both courses have in different ways supported experiential learning with opportunities for discussion and peer support, while at the same time offering some flexibility in participation. The paper discusses some of the lessons we have learnt from participants on the reasons for the success of these initiatives and the factors influencing effective engagement.
This paper illustrates the significance of distributed working in influencing the needs and relevance of professional development in a large distance university. It describes the particular context and challenges for staff who work at the Open University (UK), and the distinctive ways in which staff work together within that environment. This has direct implications for the opportunities for and success of professional development, whether that is formal provision or whether it takes place informally, on the job.
With a rapidly increasingly pace of change there is a pressing need to keep staff regularly updated with new working practices in learning and teaching. At the same time, the demands of delivering education at scale places specific demands on its staff, who work in ways which may be unfamiliar to traditional campus based institutions.
The picture is of an institution where all staff need to make use of technologies in their working practices as a requirement of the job. The extent to which they embrace these technologies and their attitudes to its adoption varies according to their context and circumstances. The adoption of technologies into the working practices of staff has been a gradual process over the last decade, driven in part by the needs of particular modules, but also by University strategy, and probably for those who work at home by trends in domestic use of technologies.
A wide range of modules and other resources are in place to support professional development, alongside the informal development which takes place in a complex web of working communities. We have illustrated how staff at the OU belong to a large number of working communities, some of them short term, others which may last for several years. Critically, many of these communities consist of staff with varied roles and responsibilities who may be academic, or academic-related, full or part-time who are united in a common goal and may have common needs for development. Staff may commonly belong to several communities at one time, for example they might belong to module teams but also have connections with a particular unit, or to a region or nation, sometimes with conflicting loyalties or perspectives. Finally, it is common for members of these communities to be geographically dispersed, so communication technologies have a central role in supporting and sustaining their effectiveness and viability.
Laura Hills, Steve Swithenby
Practitioner research is now long established as a means of professional development for academics in higher education, resulting in well documented benefits for the practitioner researcher and their students. What is less well documented is the process by which individual academic members of staff develop as practitioner researchers and how their engagement with the realities of practice and research influences their learning. This paper is a case study of professional development through practitioner research at the Centre for Open Learning in Mathematics, Science, Computing and Technology (COLMSCT) at the Open University, UK. COLMSCT was established in 2005 to reward teaching excellence and to fund practitioner research into develop ‘effective and engaging’ ways of using new technologies to support students at a distance. A total of 63 two-year projects have been supported through COLMSCT, involving both full-time academics and part-time distance tutors. The effects of the practitioner research projects have been evidenced at the level of student experience, personal transformation, colleagues, the institution and the wider higher education sector and include: changes in individual practice, increased involvement in research, modifications to assessment at module and programme level, and conference presentations and journal publications. The paper uses the theory of experiential learning, and in particular Kolb’s learning cycle, to explore the process of professional development through practitioner research. Kolb’s phases of learning, namely concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation, are used as a lens through which to examine the process and effects of practitioner research on the individual, their students and the wider institutional and higher education context. The paper provides examples of how the processes and effects of practitioner research, such as observing practice, engagement with theoretical approaches and implementing change, relate to these phases of learning. It also demonstrates that when these phases interact, so when practitioner researchers bring abstract concepts or theoretical insights into their observations of practice, transformation, or learning, occurs. It examines the factors which influence this learning and concludes that the professional development opportunities provided by practitioner research are, in part, determined by the role that the individual practitioner researcher occupies in the ‘outside world’ of practice.
Keren Mills, Non Scantlebury, Jo Parker
This paper examines an innovative approach prototyped to deliver staff development at The Open University (OU). The Digilab creative space was built within The Open University Library for staff to engage “hands on” with technologies which have the potential to enhance learning, both for experimentation and for familiarisation.
Initially users were encouraged to explore the technologies at their own pace in the Digilab, but a survey of OU staff carried out in 2007 indicated that whilst in the main staff embraced the idea of working with new technologies, many lacked the confidence to tackle using them without support.
‘Digiquests’ are supported by a mixed team of elearning professionals from academic and academic related backgrounds. These quests require staff to navigate their way through technology themed topics using a variety of accessible devices and immersive environments to support reflective learning, the main objective being maximising hands-on experimentation. The resulting activities form a suite of self paced and collaborative opportunities to encounter some of the key issues, constraints and possibilities for developing technology enhanced experiential learning for learners and practitioners within a safe, informal and neutral space. Shorter, self-paced ‘digibytes’ have also been developed. Participation in Digilab activities is steadily increasing, and in addition to the original aim, of developing the skills of academic staff, a number of additional uses of the space have been realised.
Feedback has been positive, indicating that participants appreciate the nature of the space, the opportunity to interact with the technologies provided there, and recognise that the experiences help support new ways of thinking about technology.
The Digilab team will continue to work closely with other units to integrate our hands-on activities into the university’s staff development offerings. The Digilab is also increasingly being used by course teams and developers to test course materials on different platforms, such as mobile phones and game consoles, or to explore the integration of technology enhanced learning into course models.
Janet Macdonald and Anne Campbell
Professional development has long been associated with the provision of events or alternatively of accredited courses, often supplemented by texts or websites. At the same time we are aware that much of what is learnt about university teaching happens “on the job”, as staff try out new approaches, or meet each other for a chat in the corridor. In a distance environment such ad hoc arrangements are less likely to take place particularly for part-time staff, and both online courses and informal communities have a particular role in joining staff who otherwise have little opportunity to meet.
We have been exploring the opportunities for harnessing the potential of peer learning in two online professional development courses at the Open University (UK) both of which are concerned with the adoption of new online tools for teaching and learning. This paper describes a case study of the two initiatives which deliver professional development at scale: some 2000 staff have undertaken the courses to date, including an astonishing 1000 staff over the last 12 months. We discuss some of the lessons we have learnt on the reasons for the widespread success of these initiatives and some of the factors influencing effective engagement on the courses.
We have demonstrated the value of a near-synchronous strategy in a small cohort which enhances a sense of presence, while providing sufficient flexibility to accommodate working practices. An experiential approach which gives participants the opportunity to experience first hand the sense of being an online student is valued by many staff who are new to it, and it provides a safe environment in which to try out new techniques and tools and to reflect on what is a pressing concern for many staff. The affective, confidence building aspects of this experience seem to have been important to many participants. At the same time we have also found that a self study route can work for some individuals who value the added flexibility to work on their own.
Further work will be needed to establish the extent to which the courses have resulted in new or enhanced working practices. But if we have succeeded in helping staff to develop the confidence to experiment for themselves, then this will have been a worthwhile endeavour.