Social Media and the EDU

I’ve just been reading a rather interesting article by Richard Stacy, published in something called the “Capco Journal of Financial Transformation”  (Not a publication to which I subscribe; he republished it on his blog!) which is about the potential of social media to transform practices across the business sector. It also, I thought, had considerable relevance for the way we work in educational development units.

For example in terms of content, he talks about the importance of having a social space (like a blog) not because everyone is going to rush out and read it, but because it’s already optimised for social media style interaction. The point is that when others start to engage, you’re ahead of the game, because they can pick up, for example, your RSS feeds, and you’ve provided space for them to comment on what you’re doing. (Haven’t you?)

There’s also a strong emphasis in the paper on the value of losing control – or rather transferring control from yourself (that is the EDU) to the community (that is the academic community). Now I’d argue that this is exactly what EDUs are doing. Essentially we’re not in the business of delivering a holy grail of authenticated knowledge, but trying to engage with the processes that the community (or communities) are engaging in.  This doesn’t sit well with a culture of “target setting” of course and anyway conversation is a much harder asset to develop than content. Stacy suggests that businesses identify their communities and look at the conversation threads that are already there, and then identify what they have to offer, as long as what they have to offer falls within their area of expertise.  Now, I have to be honest. In my research I didn’t find much evidence that EDUs were really doing that (although there was some, at one site in particular, even though they might not themselves have thought of it that way themselves, and I did detect signs of a shift towards doing so elsewhere). I also found evidence that one site was trying to go the other way and almost set the agenda for its university.  I can’t generalise from five case studies, but it did seem to me that the older (pre-1992) universities were less flexible than the later ones in this regard.

What the EDUs in the newer universities I visited seemed to be trying to do is, I suppose, to set up “Communities of practice” around educational development. The problem they face is that strong communities of practice already exist, and for an individual to move from one in which they are comfortable to a new one is challenging.  For an EDU, it’s less of a problem, because what they’re actually doing is trying to move into academic communities, through what Lave and Wenger might call peripheral participation.  You can see it in the establishments of things like “technology” or “study skills” or “personal development planning” working groups, web sites or blogs but I think these will take a very long time to percolate through because it’s much harder for colleagues to move the other way (that is from their discipline towards educational development), than it is for EDUs to move to the disciplines. I think that’s one reason why VLE’s such as Blackboard are proving so resilient. They cater very much to what the academic community of practice wants to do, (although never exactly in the way that community would like). Perhaps social media are one way in which we can help the process of change by creating a space in which a conversation about the proper role of technology in higher education can take place. There’s some evidence of this beginning to happen elsewhere, but we’re at the beginning of a long and bumpy road, that’s going to take a lot of people out of their comfort zone.

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.

Academic identity and e-learning.

Being at a bit of a loose end this morning, I wandered into the University Library and picked up the Times Higher Education Supplement. (No, I don’t have a life!) Anyway. There was an interesting article describing a paper about academics’ reluctance to engage with e-learning, something that most of us working in educational development units can tell one or two stories about, and does get the odd mention in the thesis I’m working on. I am not saying that all academics are completely technophobic. Far from it. In my experience most are not, and I don’t think the author of the paper is saying that either.

But she does pick on something I found in my own research – that e-learning (and indeed wider attempts at “educational development”) can be seen as undermining academic identity. I think it was Ray Land who first described educational development as a “modernist project” which of course carries with it modernist notions of “improvement” and doing things “better” which implies that things are currently not being done very well. It’s hardly surprising then that it isn’t welcomed with open arms. The problem is that technology isn’t going to go away, and I think, “academic identities” are inevitably going to change. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. It’s easy to be sniffy about students doing Google searches instead of “proper” research but the fact is that, like it or not, the Internet contains more facts and arguments about them than we can carry in our crania no matter how exalted they may be. (and, yes, I know there’s more to the Internet than a Google search, and I also know that there’s as much crap out there as there is good stuff!)

I’m not saying academic identities will disappear, just that they’ll change. I think we’ll see much more openness in terms of learning resources being made available, but the most radical change may well come in assessment. I think, as I’ve probably blogged about before (and Stephen Downes certainly has), that the degree classification will in a few years be seen as much less important than the students’ blog, e-portfolio, and publicly available work. The challenge for academic staff will be ensuring that the student’s public persona is critically and disciplinary sound.

(Mind you I suspect that if and when that happens employers will start to complain that they have too much information, and wouldn’t it be better if universities summarised a student’s achievement, by oh I don’t know, describing an excellent student as “first class” and, shall we say, a less (but still very good ) student as “upper second class” student, a reasonably competent one as “lower second”…)

What is educational development, exactly?

Well, I don’t know, exactly. But recently, I have been doing a lot of research into models of educational development units and I have come to the conclusion that slightly different perceptions are held by those who work in them, by those who pay for them, and by those who use their services.  This is actually a massive oversimiplification but essentially the first group see themselves as working collegially with academics to enhance the quality of learning and teaching, the second see the units as a mean to achieve specific objectives, (e.g. getting more students into university and keeping them there, or making more use of the technologies that institutions have spent a lot of money on) and the third see them as a sort of support service, especially with regard to using technology.  That isn’t a negative critique – there are valid reasons why they might hold such positions, but they do lead to misconceptions.

I raise this because this quote, taken from Jim Groom’s admirable bavatuesdays blog made me think a little bit more about how these different perceptions affect the technology aspect of our work. 

“For too long, instructional technology has been enveloped within the broader notion of information technology. We need to drive a permanent wedge between those two areas of university life in the understandings of our communities. Information technology makes our phones and networks and computers and smart boards work, and collects and protects student, staff, and faculty data so that we can get credits and get paid. This is crucial stuff. But it doesn’t foreground teaching and learning.

Instructional technology is about pedagogy, about building community, about collaboration and helping each other imagine and realize teaching and learning goals with the assistance of technology.”

Just as “information technology” is not “instructional technology”, “educational development is not staff development”.  Yes, of course they have things in common, possibly even a shared foundation, which is why I’m not entirely sure about the image of “driving a wedge” between them. But we still have work to do in getting the fact that they are growing apart (quite rapidly) to our colleagues.

Structure and Agency in the Educational Development Unit

I gave a seminar with this rather overblown title in the Centre for Educational Research and Development’s seminar series last Tuesday (24th February, 2009.) Essentially my argument was that educational development units, through their agency, are actually making a change in the way government policies relating to higher education are implemented.  My argument is that there has been a move from a normative “you must do it this way” sort of cast of mind, to a much more collegial “lets work together to bring about this” sort of approach. In some cases that means some policies do get less priority than others and they all get revised or subverted

Anyway, here’s a brief podcast based on my talk – it’s very heavily abridged, as I don’t really think I can say what I want to in the time available but I try and get across my main findings in the short time. I’m working on producing a fuller journal article. If I get it published I’ll let you know!

Structure and Agency (MP3 file)

Podcast transcript (PDF file)

More thoughts on Educational Development

Just finished reading Ray Land’s 2004 book “Educational Development: Discourse Identity and Practice” which covers a lot of the same ground as I’m covering in my doctoral thesis. (Wish I’d found it a bit earlier!) Anyway, if I’ve grasped his argument his theory seems to be that educational development is extraordinary complex and multi faceted activity and there are orientations to educational development, which rather than being personal attributes of individual developers derive from a combination of stances towards change in organisations which in turn is heavily influenced by the strategic terrain in which they operate. That’s echoed by the work of David Gosling too, and does form (pretty much) the basis of what I want to say in my thesis. Though I am rather tempted to part from Land over the exact nature of some of the orientations he identifies. At the risk of being overly picky I don’t really feel that a “managerial” orientation and a “professional competence” orientation as he describes them are all that different. That shouldn’t be taken as implying that the orientations are not valid. I think my own unit has moved from a very managerial orientation to a much more entrepreneurial approach.

Further, my own findings, (and I accept that this is still a little tentative) suggest that educational development is much less of a modernist project than it might have been when the book was written. I found most of the developers I met were quite comfortable with the idea that there are shifting cultures within the organisation, and had become quite adept at playing organisational politics, and moving through shifting cultures. They also seemed to be quite comfortable with the ideas of liminality and troublesome knowledge, accepting that they were working near a border across which (to parphrase mediaeval cartographers) “there be dragons”. It may be that there is a thirteenth orientation, which I am tempted to call “pragmatic-holistic”, which seems to derive from a much more post-modern attitude to the University as an organisation. To some extent, I think that’s my own orientation so I’ll have to go over the findings with a fine toothcomb to ensure it’s not just coming from my own personal preference.

There is a theme running through the book which seems to see developers as primarily responsible for innovation. I found that they certainly saw themselves as an important locus for innovation, but they also saw themselves as playing other roles, for example a bridge between the respective cultures of the senior management and the faculties, but they also took their support role very seriously (Land’s “Romantic” orientation). In fact if anything they saw themselves as supporters of innovation by others rather than innovators themselves.

A great deal of food for thought anyway.

Collegial or Corporate

Well, I’ve been going through the data again, and I think actually that EDUs try and work in a very collegial way – the more successful ones seem to listen to what their client groups want and try to meet their needs. That’s not to say they don’t challenge outdated practices where they see them. In some cases, I found they can take quite sophisticated approaches to this “challenging” -Well, they have to because laying down the law about what colleagues should and shouldn’t be doing would never work anyway. But I remain convinced that they (well, we, I suppose) have to get out into the disciplines. I like the notion of a permeable membrane through which developers and academic staff feed off each other while remaining separate. You need the separation because Educational development seems to be  becoming a discipline in its own right, and developers can’t take on every aspect of every discipline, otherwise they’d be physicists or historians or whatever, and not ed. developers.

While on this theme though we had an awayday yesterday and one of our principal teaching fellows made the (I thought) quite telling observation that we, as a development unit were doing a fantastic job in helping the academic department do the things that it didn’t really want to do. That wasn’t a criticism of CERD but I think of the external pressures on the University – for instance we were doing a great job in helping them deal with large classes. But they’d rather not be teaching large classes at all. It’s a good point and something I need to work into my own research somehow. Anyway I’m breaking my own rule about not working after 9 p.m. now, so that’s enough for today.

The nature of truth

A pretentious title if ever there was one! But, it is something I am going to have to address, if I am to write a convincing methodology chapter. Perhaps the question is “What characteristics of a proposition or phenomenon convince me that it is true”. But, then again, need I go into that? If I start with Cartesian doubt – (that I should be properly sceptical of everything except the fact that I exist – for, logically,  I must exist to think that  I am thinking) it doesn’t get me very far. Because, other than the cogito, I have no rational basis for believing that anything else is true. Empiricism would seem to be a better bet. Even if nothing is true, for all practical purposes, I can trust my senses. Hume’s remark about being free to leave by the window (from the third floor!) if I really didn’t believe in an objective reality seems to me a better guide to what course of action to take. Whether the world really exists or not, isn’t really relevant, because we all have to operate within it and we have a sufficiently shared perception of it to identify appropriate courses of action.

But there’s still a weakness. What I am interested in is other people’s interpretations of an empirical reality, because that provides a better guide to how they act than the actual reality itself. If you believe there is a mouse under the table you will act as though there is a mouse under the table, even if there is not. Human beings disagree about many things, especially in the social world. Which party has the better economic policy? What is beautiful?   I can certainly listen to their descriptions, although they may mislead me. (Especially if they are misleading themselves.)  Take the expresssion “That’s a good film, album, TV show, or whatever”. All I can conclude from that is that the speaker is saying is that they liked whatever it was, and perhaps that they would expect me to like it as well, were I to see or hear it. There’s nothing inherently “good” about it. It all depends on the extent to which I share their values, and empricism seems less helpful here.  So a good strategy for a future post will be to articulate my own values.

In the context of the research I can look at what others have done, how they organise their workspace, but here I can only use my interpretations of why they have done those things. In looking at the output of an EDU (let’s call it x) I can think “Why would I have done x?” and compare it with their answer to the question “Why did you do x“. But do these approaches help with predicting whether, and why another person (z) might do x in the future?  Maybe not, but they do help to arrive at an explanation, which informs why x was done in that spatial and temporal context.  Is that enough?

Even this little post is helpful because it is pointing me towards the case study as a research method. If I believe that my perception reality is heavily influenced by my values, then I am clearly going to have problems with a quantitative approach because I would be deciding what is worth measuring, which may not reflect objective reality. Also of course, I’d be attaching values to particular scores. (for example, a high percentage of whatever I measured, is better than a low percentage.)

Case Study Protocols

I started to begin to develop the case study protocols based on the project overview I referred to yesterday, and you know what? It’s a really helpful exercise, especially creating  table data shell – essentially thats a matrix of questions, and likely sources for answering them (along with some blank spaces for the answers. I felt that the whole thing is beginning to come together although I really do need to get a better sense of the theory that’s informing the whole research. Essentially it’s that Educational Development is actually hindered by the target culture that has been embraced by the public sector. (Actually, the impression I picked up from the web sites of my potential case study sites is that it isn’t – but there again, a web site is by definition, a political document that is intended to present a particular face to the world. My experience of working in such a unit tells me that it is.)

Well, I now have a first draft of my first chapter, a  (somewhat crude) research instrument, and a basic case study protocol. I think it’s time to stop faffing about, and discuss these with my supervisor(s), and then actually contact the research sites. While I’m sorting that out and waiting for responses I can give some thought to the methodology chapter. I need to develop a clear philosophy with what I regard to be true and why, and how my research is going to unearth that truth as it relates to the Educational Development Unit.

Project Overview

Another busy week gone, and still the actual research hasn’t started. On the other hand, I had a trip to Sheffield yesterday because I wanted to treat myself to an iPod. Which I did. And the first thing I downloaded was a JISC podcast about web 2.0! How sad is that? If you’re interested it’s at 

 Anyway the point is that I took the opportunity of the train ride back to give some serious thought to where I want to be with this research, and I think I’ve got somewhere. I had a good go at coming up with an interview schedule, but following Michael Yin’s (1994) advice I sat down and wrote myself a project overview.  Why am I doing it, and what are the main issues. So here it is

Primarily it is for my doctoral thesis. But also I am interested in what is driving the educational development unit from a professional point of view. My own feeling is that we (meaning the educational development community) have spent far too much time responding to managerial imperatives, like


1)      The  need to increase the bottom line (putting in project bids that, if we are successful run the risk of taking time away from what we should be doing.) Actually, that is putting it far too crudely. I think what I’m getting it is that the agenda risks being subtly changed from the requirements of the institution to the requirements of the funder. (Actually, in practice, I don’t think that has happened with the only bid I’ve been successful with, because it was relevant to what my own institution wanted to do.) But it does raise a question about the value of bidding per se.

2)      Responding to National Student Survey – problem here, is that we are likely to be picking on one area, (in which we did least well) and concentrating on that to the exclusion of other things where we may be more effective. And of course, whatever that weakness is, there is an assumption that it is not influenced by the context in which it is showing.

3)      Skills development programmes – Appears to be a belief that students need “skills development”. Actually, I see little evidence of this. Some, certainly are very weak indeed in basic skills. The elephant in room is of course the question of what are they doing at University at all, but given that they are, and accepting that “skills” programmes can make any difference, how do we identify and support those students who need them? Because, surely, inflicting such programmes on those who do not need them is a waste of everyone’s time.

4)      Technology for the sake of it.   Here I mean the uncritical rush to technological solutions that are, to coin a phrase, looking for problems. Actually, this has become less of an issue in recent years as commercial providers have got a better handle on what is needed. But we should be thoughtful about our use of technology, and it’s true that it is a bit more difficult. If you want to innovate you sometimes have to create an environment in which people can – and that really needs a crystal ball.


Those are examples of the sort of thing I mean. I (as you’ve probably guessed) am somewhat sceptical about their value, but I certainly accept that they matter to University Senior managers and that no EDU can safely ignore them. The challenge is to make them relevant to the innovative work of the unit


But what then is an EDU to do?. Well, I think if all the things above have anything in common, it is that they’re external to what we might call the teaching and learning environment. I think the effective EDU may well be one that builds relationships within its own institution. Examples might include.


1)      Project based Teaching awards such as teacher fellowships. But even here, you have to be careful to set your selection criteria to the teaching and learning cultures in the different departments.

2)      Involvement in teaching and learning and e-learning strategy development. Again, based on  finding out what is going on within different departments, and getting involved with senior management too.

3)      Researching into how technology might solve people’s needs.  Not necessarily accommodating someone who wants a particular bit of software, but thinking about how a VLE might solve the problem of need within a particular department or faculty – but also how best to deploy that technology, which depends on a complete understanding of the teaching and learning environment.

4)      Working to develop a fuller understanding, and articulation of the teaching and learning environment.  This seems to me to be crucial for innovation. The problem though is likely to be that a university can contain multiple environments and it is going to be very hard to develop a working model.

5)      Building relationships.  It seems to me that this is crucial, (and let’s face it, it’s never been a personal speciality of mine!)  Nevertheless, I don’t see how you can do educational development without a good range of relationships across all faculties. And of course, I can get on perfectly well with people. In fact it’s important to maintain a level of “customer service” (ghastly phrase, but until I can think of a better one, it will have to do.) No, actually, it won’t do, “customer service” has too many connotations of insincerity. I don’t think the checkout girl in Sainsbury’s actually cares whether I have a nice day!


Well it’s a start.  The next thing is to show how my proposed methodology will address these issues. I’ve already come up with an  admittedly rather crude research instrument, well, OK then, interview schedule, and I need to spend some time bringing them together. But that should form a sound basis for the methodology chapter of the thesis.  Anyway, my reading light has just blown it’s bulb, which might be a sign that I’ve probably done enough for today.


Yin, R. K. (1994) Case study research: Design and Methods, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.