Support staff – continuing with the People component

I’m back to working on the People component of the Ps Framework for chapter 2 of my thesis. The last post in the blog from this section was back in mid July and examined leaders and managers. This section moves onto “support staff”. It’s the last of the sections examining groups/roles associated with e-learning.

Support staff

As early as the 1970s it was recognised that since undergraduate teaching was a major task for academics – but one for which most received no training – that university teaching might benefit from formal orientation, preparation and continuing professional education focused on improving teaching (Knapper, 2003). The rise of e-learning has added the need for skills in areas which faculty exhibit little ability or have little time to apply existing skills (Hitt & Hartman, 2002). Historically, academics could work independently to develop teaching resources and activities, however, producing artefacts for online elearning can involve ongoing work in teams of multimedia and software developers. (Coates et al., 2005). The development of online teaching and learning requires a complex combination of skills and experience from a variety of professional fields (Jones, Stewart, & Power, 1999). This section offers an overview of the people who make up these professional support fields and their impact.

In terms of supporting and offering professional development in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to support student learning the questions of who provides the support, where they are located and how it is provided do not have simple answers. Table 2.2 is a slightly adapted description of the range of people and organizational groupings within one UK-based university from which academics can gain support. While there are equivalents in most universities, there is great variation between institutions and countries in terms of the funding and location of each and combinations of groups (Shephard, 2004, p. 71).

Table 2.2 – Sources of support and professional development for use of ICT for learning by university staff (adapted from Shephard, 2004, p. 72)

Source of support

Function

Computing/Information Systems Services

Support for technical infrastructure. On-line or telephone support/helpdesk. Specific support for key institutional developments such as virtual learning environments and computer assisted learning. Generally provide direct support and opportunities for training and development.

Libraries

A wide range of support and professional development

Learning Technologists, e-Learning Coordinators, Learning and Teaching Technology Support Officers

A wide range of skills and services based within some schools and departments or more centrally within institutions. Generally provide direct support and opportunities for training and development.

Assistive-Technology Centres and Disability Coordinators

Support for staff and for students in relation to disabilities.

Centres for Learning and Teaching/Learning and Teaching Units/Learning Support Teams

Generally centrally funded to support learning and teaching innovation and development, and professional development for learning and teaching and ICT. May have a strong research focus providing opportunities for teachers to be involved in externally funded research and development projects. In some institutions such centres provide a one-stop-shop; providing support for professional development, instructional design, production of learning resources and other direct support. High variability in structure and function.

Faculty Learning and Teaching Coordinators

Broad-ranging support for learning and teaching but rarely with an ICT focus.

Research and Development Projects

The United Kingdom funds projects offering support within the funding theme and, often, sophisticated supporting resources. Sources of funding include the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Funding initiatives including the Fund for the Development of Learning and Teaching (FDTL) and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). These generally fund the provision of direct support and opportunities for training and development.

IT and Computing Technical Assistants

Some academic staff do have the support of IT technicians. These often offer only technical support for computer systems but some provide a wider range of direct support.

Academic Colleagues

Often considered to provide the most reliable and independent direct support and opportunities for training and development. Often not funded for this activity.

As shown in Table 2.2 support for e-learning encompasses a number of different professions, disciplines and organisational units. There is, however, one grouping of professions that specifically targets the combination of ICTs and learning and teaching. Information technology support staff, at least in terms of typical position requirements, bring no knowledge of learning and teaching to their support and development role, focusing solely on how to use ICTs. Librarians, disability officers and similar roles offer ICT support only in the context of a broader and non-learning and teaching purpose. A remaining group, going under a number of labels, focuses on how to effectively harness ICTs to support learning and teaching. The rest of this section focuses on that grouping. In recent years, the term “learning technologist” has been used to describe staff involved with activities associated with the embedding, development and support of e-learning in higher education (Armitage & O’Leary, 2003). However, depending on context, other labels may apply, including: learning developers, pedagogical support staff, educational technologists, academic developers, and instructional or curriculum designers. In the following, the term “learning technologist” is used to encompass support that targets the combination of pedagogy and technology to improve learning.

The variety of labels for this role, change between countries, institutions and over time, and has been a long term problem that has often represented problematic identities (Weimer, 2007). The identity of such roles is contested, slippery and raises questions around: whether or not it is a profession; are its members real academics or mere tools of manageralism (Grant, 2007). Educational or academic development, as one example of these roles, remains a complex area of specialist work that is poorly understood at several levels within higher education (Stefani & Matthew, 2002). There is great diversity in the institutional provision of this support with some institutions having it based in academic setting, some in administrative or support settings, some isolating e-learning support to specialist units and others integrating it with more generic educational development (Shephard, 2004). After nearly thirty years the organisation and culture of academic development remains the same with many ideas about its purpose, the work that should be done and who should do it (Harland & Staniforth, 2008).

Beyond diversity of nomenclature and other concerns, a more crucial problem is the observation that, despite nearly 30 years of effort, such roles have had little impact on the instructional quality across higher education (Weimer, 2007). As discussed in the Past Experience section (insert cross reference) limitations in the quality of learning and universities can be clearly seen as continuing with the recent practice of e-learning. While it is possible, however, to identify significant differences in the learning and teaching practices of many individual faculty members and students, collectively the impact of these roles is nil (Weimer, 2007). University teaching is still largely an amateur affair and efforts to make it more professional have had only limited success (Knapper, 2003).

While many of the reasons for this lack of impact lay beyond the organisational and individual practice of learning technologists, however, it is possible contributing factors arising from that practice. The following describes a small number of these. Knapper (2003) that the lack of impact is neither suprising nor depressing since learning technologists represent such a tiny fraction of professional staff in universities. Oliver (2002) identifies it as role that is of strategic importance to the institution, but at the same time is undervalued. There is a perception of marginality and lack of recognition of these roles (Little, 2008). McDonald and Gibbons (2007) suggest that the unexamined assumptions held by instructional technologists about their discipline and practice may be having a negative influence.

A part of this may be the generally significant gap that exists between the pedagogic conception of learning technologists and those of the average faculty member and student (Garrett, 2004). The increasing importance of accountability and the need to measure quality in teaching and learning has seen such roles become increasingly being required to have a strategic, or institutional, orientation to change (Hicks, 2005). An approach that can result in these roles being caught in the middle of competing agendas between institutional policies and strategic goals and the needs of academics. Further enhancing the perception of a gap between learning technologist and academic staff. The question of a gap or chasm is taken up in more detail in the following section.

References

Armitage, S., & O’Leary, R. (2003). A guide for learning technologists. York, UK: Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Coates, H., James, R., & Baldwin, G. (2005). A Critical Examination of the Effects of Learning Management Systems on University Teaching and Learning. Tertiary Education and Management, 11(1), 19-36.

Garrett, R. (2004). The Real Story Behind the Failure of the U.K. eUniversity. EDCAUSE Quarterly, 27(4), 4-6.

Grant, B. (2007). The mourning after: Academic development in a time of doubt. International Journal for Academic Development, 12(1), 35-43.

Harland, T., & Staniforth, D. (2008). A family of strangers: the fragmented nature of academic development. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(6), 669-678.

Hicks, M. (2005). Academic developers as change agents: Caught in the middle. Paper presented at the HERDSA Conference: ‘Higher education in a changing world’. Retrieved 9 August 2009, from http://conference.herdsa.org.au/2005/pdf/refereed/paper_315.pdf.

Hitt, J., & Hartman, J. (2002). Distributed learning: New challenges and opportunities for institutional leadership. Washington: American Council on Education.

Jones, D., Stewart, S., & Power, L. (1999). Patterns: Using Proven Experience to Develop Online Learning. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ASCILITE’99, Brisbane.

Knapper, C. (2003). Three decades of educational development. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1-2), 5-9.

Little, S. (2008). The role of the developers in institutional change: Tales from the edge. Paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Networked Learning, Halkidiki, Greece.

McDonald, J., & Gibbons, A. (2007). Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology Educational Technology Research and Development.

Oliver, M. (2002). What do learning technologists do? Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 39(4), 245-252.

Shephard, K. (2004). The role of educational developers in the expansion of educational technology. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 67-83.

Stefani, L., & Matthew, B. (2002). The difficulties of defining development: A case study. International Journal for Academic Development, 7(1), 41-50.

Weimer, M. (2007). Intriguing connections but not with the past. International Journal for Academic Development, 12(1), 5-8.

2 thoughts on “Support staff – continuing with the People component

  1. Pingback: PhD UPdate #20 – Progress, slowness and techno-rationality « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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

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