The EDU: an idea whose time has gone?

The title of this post was inspired by a colleague who suggested that I use it for an article. I might still use it, but as you’ll see below, I’m not sure that the question mark isn’t the most important part of the title.  Anyway, it arose out of some research I have been doing into educational development units, and it’s intended as more of a reflective piece on the role these units play in the 21st Century University.

I’ve just completed a reread of the second edition of  Diana Laurillard’s “Rethinking University Teaching” (Yes, I know, I should get out more !). I think her model of teaching and learning as an iterative conversation has a lot of merit. The notion that learners can simply absorb information from a lecturer, a book, video, or other “narrative” medium (to borrow Laurillard’s phrase) does seem to run a very high risk that the learner will misinterpret or misconceive whatever it is they are supposed to be learning. Obviously, if the learner has an opportunity to articulate their conceptions, then a teacher is in a position to identify those misconceptions and “correct” them, even if this takes several cycles.

 One of the key outcomes of reading Laurillard’s book for me though is her argument that  those misconceptions are themselves a source of data about how students come to know. We should analyse students’ submissions for common errors, and try to devise some form of understanding about why these misconceptions arise.  I can already hear the choruses of “That’s all very well, but who has the time to do that?”  And of course, that’s only one suggestion for what we need to know about students learning. How do we make learning materials customisable for different disciplines?  Not only that, how do we show that they are easily customisable? As Laurillard admits there is no real tradition of collaboration between university departments, and certainly not between universities. Indeed one might argue that the uncritical admiration of politicians for all things “Business” since 1979 has led to an inappropriate stress on “competition” between universities, which simply leads to a lot of re-inventing the wheel as they try to outdo each other in providing slightly better versions of the same service.

 Now, I didn’t really mean to start this post by pontificating about teaching or even about Government Policy – it was meant to be more of a reflective piece about the implications of Laurillard’s arguments for Educational Development Units. The research I’ve been doing into these units does tend to suggest that those working in them do see themselves as operating in a conversational framework that is not unlike the one Laurillard developed as a model of how students (and in her later chapters, organisations) learn.  This is important because, given the recent announcement about cuts to the teaching grant that was slipped outbefore Christmas, I suspect that such units are even more vulnerable than they were before.

 Actually, I do accept that EDUs have not been as successful as they might have been in bringing about a total transformation of the Higher Education landscape, but this is because they have never been large enough to play the full part in the conversation that they need to.  And, they’ve shown, in my view a quite proper reluctance to impose models of learning on academics. There is no one model of learning that is appropriate across every discipline, and to attempt to impose one would have been to guarantee failure. It’s also true that there are quite high epistemological walls between the different disciplines, by which I mean that physicists don’t take much notice of what historians are doing. (Why should they? Well, they’re actually in the same business – teaching!)  Please don’t think I’m pathologising academics as “failing” here. My argument is that they are so hemmed in by disciplinary structures not to mentionorganisational structures, that there needs to be some unit that performs the EDU’s role.  

What the EDUs can do and have been doing, is actually help to rebuild some misconceptions about learning that are still commonplace in Higher Education. (e.g.,the idea that posting PowerPoint slides on a VLE constitutes “e-learning provision”.) They can help colleagues explore the wilder shores of the VLE to find ways, such as wikis, discussion groups, course web sites, and so on to allow learners to articulate their conceptions and show staff that they need to engage with those (mis)conceptions.  They also play a vital role in helping staff to develop innovative approaches to teaching, by working with IT and other support staff to ensure that, for example, new technologies are introduced in ways that don’t compromise the safety of networks.  They could do more. The sort of research into student misconceptions described above, provided it was done together with disciplinary colleagues, would be an example, as would be a similar analysis of validation or course review documents. 


So, no I don’t think the EDU is an idea whose time has gone. If anything, that time is still to come. There is a lot of work still to be done. Yes, too many courses still accept that a presence on the VLE consists of a few PowerPoint files and fail to provide opportunities for students to participate, through mechanisms like wikis and blogs. But as more and more students are getting and benefiting from this kind of approach, then more and more students will demand it. If you want to change the practice of academics then you have to do it through their experience of dealing with their students. There has to be someone in the University who can co-ordinate and share this kind of practice.