Academics – the next part of the People section

The following is the next part of the People section for chapter 2 of my thesis. The People section was started a week ago with this post. This one takes up the task of saying something about academic staff, subsequent and soon to be completed sections will look at management, academic staff developers and technology staff.

While I think some of the stuff in the following is important and overlooked, I just can’t help feeling that it is, not to put to fine a point on it, crap. But hopefully it is good enough for the thesis. Happy reading.

Academic staff

A common definition for the term ‘academic’ is not simple to arrive at as the characteristics that define an academic are increasingly problematic (Williams 2008). Defining what it is to be an academic is not a given, but is a matter of dynamic relationships between social and epistemological interests and structures (Barnett 2000). In addition, the nature academic work has changed with time. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the USA academic work included tasks associated with the supervision of dormitory accommodations and ministerial work in the community (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006). In spite of these problems this section seeks to provide an overview of some of what is known about academics, teaching, learning and e-learning.

While change in the tasks academics perform continues and there is increasing diversity between academics, there is a minimal, shared understanding that the occupational role of an academic involves two distinctive responsibilities within the context of a university: research or scholarship, and teaching (Williams 2008). It is through the performance of these tasks that academic faculty members can be said to be the essential production force of universities (Xu and Meyer 2007). While fairly common, the balance between these two tasks suffers from the same temporal change and increasing diversity as definitions of academics. In comparing the distribution of effort by academic staff between the early 1970s and late 1980s, Finkelstein, Seal and Schuster (1998) reveal a drop in the amount of time spent teaching – from 60-66% to 54% – and an increase in time researching – 14% to 20%. This in contrast to the increasing pressure within this new century to refocus academic attention on student learning (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006).

Calls to recognise the profession of teaching as the central role of the academic can be traced back to the arguments of many mid-19th century reformers at Oxford who saw such recognition as crucial for both the survival of the university and of academe as a career (Engel 1975). There have been questions about what profession an academic fulfils. Is an academic a discipline expert/researcher or a teacher or educator. Piper (1992) suggests academics are discipline experts. This conclusion is based on academics generally lacking any teacher training and the lack of status arising from them demonstrating teaching qualifications, knowledge and experience. In addition, when academics leave universities it is generally to return to discipline-based roles and not that of educators (Piper 1992). Taylor (1999) suggests that when it comes to teaching academics are craft workers who learn to teach largely through imitation. It is as researchers, as discipline experts, that academics display professional attributes, not as teachers (Taylor 1999). Similarly, academics are typically not trained as teachers or course designers, but as disciplinary experts (Ziegenfuss and Lawler 2008). Academics come to teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning (Weimer 2007).

Academics are discipline professionals, not teaching professionals. While there are growing trends towards short teacher training courses for academics, it is unreasonable on that basis alone to expect a comparable level of competence between research specialisations and teaching (Booth and Anderberg 2005). Graduate students – academics in training – traditionally do not receive instruction on how to teach (Folkers 2005). Where training in teaching is available, many advisors of these students actively discourage them from engaging in such training (Stice, Felder et al. 2000). The graduate student experience appears to socialize aspiring academics primarily to a vision of academic work that emphasises research and disciplinary expertise, in spite of rhetoric about the growing importance of student learning (Austin 2002). The majority of an academic’s knowledge of how to teach is gained while teaching through observation, imitation and trial and error (Passmore 2000).

Academic interest and focus on teaching is further impacted by exposure to ambiguous, even contradictory, role expectations. Academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger 2005). There is no question that funded research and publication of results in scholarly journals is the dominant criteria in universities world-wide and this is, at least a contributing, if not causal factor in this limitations of university learning and teaching (Knapper 2003). While a review of promotion criteria and weightings from UK universities found widespread adoption of formal parity between teaching and research for mid-range academics, it found that promotion to senior ranks were based almost exclusively on research excellence and did not allow applications based on teaching activities (Parker 2008). Fairweather (2005) found that spending more time teaching in the classroom remains a negative influence on academic pay and that the trend is worsening most rapidly in institutions whose central missions focuses on teaching.

Through their position as discipline experts, academics possess high levels of scientific capital and consequently have been difficult to manage (Kolsaker 2008). A difficulty increased by conceptions of academic freedom that see it as freedom for the academic to speak their minds, teach in accordance with their own interests and to enjoy security of tenure (Nixon, Beattie et al. 1998). Individual academics are, by definition, very autonomous individuals and there has generally been no tradition for tightly controlling the actions of faculty members within universities (Waeraas and Solbakk 2009). Academics are knowledge workers (Jones, Gregor et al. 2003). For knowledge work, the means of production is the knowledge held by knowledge workers and it is totally portable and an enormous capital asset (Drucker 2001). Consequently, academics have considerable autonomy about how they perform tasks, a fact that enables and encourages diversity. It would be difficult to find two academics who take identical approaches to teaching the same content (Mishra 2005). Academics recognize no boss and see themselves as individual entrepreneurs with little desire for collective action and little interest in the larger university (Dearlove 2002).

At the same time academics wield a relatively large amount of power, including the ability to set, or at least influence, organizational processes (Folkers 2005). It is unlikely that any reform within a university will succeed without the support of academics (White and Myers 2001). Since technology use continues to remain an individual choice, how faculty members perceive and use technologies is important (Xu and Meyer 2007). Teaching academic staff are at the heart of the on-going negotiation between teaching, learning and new technology (Goodson and Mangan 1995). They are key to the successful integration of educational technology in the teaching and learning process (Zellweger 2005).

New technologies at most enable rather than dictate change (John and La Velle 2004). While technology may be the stimulus, the essential matters are complex and will be the purview of academics (Oblinger, Barone et al. 2001). The success of e-learning is primarily a result of faculty buy in (Lynch 2002) and the extent to which faculty are supported as they develop innovative approaches to using technology in teaching. Addressing the concerns of faculty is an important factor (Nichols 2007). Improved integration of technology can be facilitated by understanding current faculty trends and issues and by adapting specific strategies suited to the needs and contexts of faculty within their individual institutions (Howell, Saba et al. 2004).

Technology is restructuring the fabric of higher education and influencing the work done by academics (Valimaa and Hoffman 2008). Teaching staff are often suspicious of any changes to traditional pedagogies and are often expected to adopt innovations whilst under significant workload (Jones 2008). E-learning can directly challenge traditional pedagogies and consequently are likely to generate resistance (Folkers 2005). Several writers have described how the lack of compatibility with existing pedagogies may cause academics to resist using technology in learning and teaching (Holden and Wedman 1993). Left to their own paradigms academics will generally use their university’s course management system as a supplement to their preferred teaching style (Ullman and Rabinowitz 2004). Academics only use e-learning tools if they are aligned with their beliefs about teaching and learning (Elgort 2005).

As mentioned in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) research into teaching within higher education has developed a rich body of knowledge that links the quality of student learning outcomes with the conceptions of learning and a link between the conceptions of teaching held by academics and their approaches to teaching (Kember and Kwan 2000; Norton, Richardson et al. 2005; Eley 2006; Gonzalez 2009). A relationship captured in Figure 2.1 adapted from Trigwell (2001). The conception of learning held by teachers has a major influence on the planning of courses, the development of teaching strategies and ultimately on the what and how students learn (Alexander 2001). In order to change the way teaching staff approach teaching, it is necessary, and very difficult, to change their conceptions of teaching and learning (Trigwell and Prosser 1996).

Trigwell's model of teaching

The predominant form of learning within universities remain the teacher-centred, classroom education (Piccoli, Ahmad et al. 2000). The majority of existing academics have not studied using a Learning Management System (LMS) nor have they seen how e-learning can be used in a range of teaching situations (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Consequently, their experiences and values are predominantly those of the face-to-face paradigm (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Universities are replete with resources in the form of intelligent individual who are rarely appropriately directed to pedagogical innovation nor are self-motivated to radically transform their teaching (Salmon 2005).

One result of this tendency has been for academics to be characterised as barriers to e-learning and labelled technology averse, luddites and digital immigrants (Xu and Meyer 2007). In opposition to this view are observations that find academics using computers in both their everyday lives and their research. Academics make extensive use of technology in research and scholarship, in many cases this use drives the evolution of the technology to meet their particular needs (Duderstadt, Atkins et al. 2002). Xu and Meyer (2007) report on a 1998 survey that shows 70% of academics had a computer at home. Jones and Johnson-Yale (2005) report on a survey of over 2000 academics that finds that academics have long-term exposure to the Internet and computer use.

There are a number of explanations arising from the literature that offers possible reasons for the mismatch between academics’ general use of technology and their limited or non-existent use of technology for teaching. The effort required to master new technologies, contend with glitches, or to bend their teaching to fit technologies provided on campus hinders rather than helps their teaching (Jones and Johnson-Yale 2005). In terms of technology, McGill and Hobbs (2008) found that even when academics perceived high levels of institutional support for e-learning they were less than satisfied as they perceived that the learning management system did not support their teaching activities.

Barriers to instructor acceptance of e-learning has been categorized into: personal, attitudinal, and organizational (Pajo and Wallace 2001). The time required to learn about new technology has been suggested as an important, and in some cases, the most significant factor inhibiting use (Pajo and Wallace 2001; Newton 2003). Career-minded academics are skeptical of investing time in e-learning believing the effort to have low returns both financially and intellectually (Ruth 2006). This is, at least in part, due to universities marginalizing the importance of e-learning within the promotion and tenure process (Schell 2004). Green (2002) identifies a continuing irony of campus efforts to promote e-learning is the fact that few institutions provide formal recognition and reward for faculty efforts. Often, personal satisfaction may be the greatest, even only, reward for the adoption of new technologies (Jones and Johnson-Yale 2005). It remains that case that in the majority of institutions, recognition and promotion arises from research activity and not innovative teaching developments (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006).

Issues associated with academic staff adoption of e-learning can be correlated with the Rogers (1995) diffusion of innovations (Newland, Jenkins et al. 2006). Where the rate of adoption is driven by a complex combination of factors including the nature of the institution and associated social systems, the efforts by organizational change agents, the type of communication channels used to share information, how e-learning is perceived by academics and the type of innovation decision they are allowed (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003). Perceptions are influenced by other factors including demographic and professional characteristics (Xu and Meyer 2007). Beyond this it is possible that two individuals could, and usually do, perceive the a given innovation differently (Jones, Jamieson et al. 2003).

Spotts (1999) found that faculty decide to use technology if they perceive technology to provide a relative advantage in terms of improving student learning, enhancing instruction or making their job less demanding. However, for some staff e-learning is perceived to be of lower quality, perhaps due to subjective attitudes toward an approach with which they are uncomfortable, unfamiliar and which is perceived to threaten their job (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003). E-learning is also perceived to bring pain factors that minimise any relative advantage (Black, Beck et al. 2007) such as excessive preparation time, conflict over intellectual property rights, lack of recognition, and technical, operational and administrative difficulties.

Much of e-learning has been driven by early adopters who were technology champions, however, there is evidence to suggest that many academics are reluctant to adopt e-learning and yet may feel pressure from their institutions (McGill and Hobbs 2008). In the early 1990s, Geoghegan (1994) suggested that this second wave is slow in adopting technology not because of an aversion to technology, but due to an aversion to risk, inadequate support and the lack of a compelling reason to disrupt existing practice. The ways in which academics experience their work inhibit them adopting what the research consensus suggests are ways to be better teachers (Knight and Trowler 2000). There is a yearning for safety which underpins much of what an academic does in research – filling in the details of dominant research paradigms – and teaching – reliance on pedagogic methods that give both teacher and student an easy time (Barnett 2000). Amongst a list of factors limiting adoption of technology Stewart (2008) lists the following fears: technology taking away real learning, job loss, technophboia, and loss of autonomy through conformity.

Much of the e-learning literature contains an assumption that if the virtues of e-learning are demonstrated then academics will adopt it (Oslington 2005). Learning to teach in new ways requires more than applying new theoretical knowledge disseminated using formal modes, it requires a culture in which innovative teaching is expected and rewarded, where teams or departments replace isolated individuals as the unit of change, strategies which involve collaboration and reflection and support through encouragement, recognition and resources (Johnston 1996). Academics are not likely to simply adopt e-learning if its virtues are demonstrated, instead adoption is only likely if it is within their interest to do so (Oslington 2005). The limited quality and quantity of e-learning within higher education (insert cross reference to Past Experience) is often not due to a set of easily overcome deficiencies, barriers or misunderstandings, instead, it is a product of the wider game of higher education and the strategic interests of those who play it (Selwyn 2007).

It is then not surprising that faculty may be more willing to adopt e-learning if they are not forced to quickly abandon long-established practices (Howell, Saba et al. 2004). The invoking of an earlier pedagogic regime within a new environment is an attempt to give academics reassurances of stability and continuity (Cousin, Deepwell et al. 2004). The ability for academics to draw on their own pedagogic repertoires, practical wisdom and relative control to shape the ways innovation is implemented should limit reliance on over-deterministic accounts of global tendencies and focus attention to take account of local conditions and the range of possible responses to particular pressures (Clegg, Hudson et al. 2003). The interpersonal and cultural issues may well overshadow the, by comparison, simple issues of funding and technological infrastructure (Folkers 2005).

Self-identified change is a key component of successful implementation, while change that is perceived as imposed is not (Hersey and Blanchard 1988). A gentle and affirming change strategy, with an emphasis on interpersonal and social activity, can minimise the anxiety and uncertainty academics tend to associate with change and lead to effective diffusion (Nichols 2007). Rather than focus on the techniques and technologies associated with teaching, initiatives aimed at developing academic practice should focus on facilitating and supporting a more reflective approach to teaching (Ramsden 1998; Biggs 1999; Prosser and Trigwell 1999). When implementing e-learning within existing Universities staff engagement is the most complex and important success factor (Collis 1998).

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3 thoughts on “Academics – the next part of the People section

  1. Pingback: Leaders and managers – the next bit of People « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  2. Pingback: PhD update #17 – You know you’re losing your way when…. « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  3. Pingback: Lessons for e-learning from people « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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