Some stories from teaching awards

This particular post tells some personal stories about teaching awards within Australian higher education. It’s inspired by a tweet or two from @jonpowles

Some personal success

For my sins, I was the “recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Quality Teaching for the Year 2000”. The citation includes

in recoginition of demonstrated outstanding practices in teaching and learning at…., and in recognition of his contribution to the development of online learning and web-based teaching within the University and beyond

I remain a little annoyed that this was pre-ALTC. The potential extra funds from a national citation would have help the professional development fund. But the real problems with this award was the message I received about the value of teaching to the institution from this experience. Here’s a quick summary. (BTW, the institutional teaching awards had been going for at least 2 or 3 years before 2000, this was not the first time they’d done this.)

Jumping through hoops

As part of the application process, I had to create evidence to justify that my teaching was good quality. That’s a fairly standard process.

What troubled me then and troubles me to this day, is that the institution had no way of knowing. It’s core business is learning and teaching and it had no mechanisms in place that could identify the good and the bad teachers.

In fact, at that stage the institution didn’t have a teaching evaluation system. One of my “contributions to the development of online learning” was developing a web-based survey mechanism that I used in my own publications. This publication reports response rates of between 29-41% in one of my courses.

It is my understanding that the 2010 institutional evaluation system still dreams about reaching percentages that high.

Copy editing as a notification mechanism

Want to know how I found out I’d won the award? It was when an admin assistant from the L&T division rang me up and asked me to approve the wording of the citation.

Apparently, the Vice-Chancellor had been busy and/or away and hadn’t yet officially signed off on the result, or that I could be officially notified. However, the date for the graduation ceremony at which the award was to be given was fast approaching. In order to get the citation printed, framed and physically available at the ceremony the folk responsible for implementation had to go ahead and ask me to check the copy.

Seeing the other applications

I actually don’t remember exactly how this happened. I believe it was part of checking the copy of the citation, however it happened I ended up with a package that contained the submissions from all of the other applicants.

Double dipping

The award brought with it some financial reward, both at the faculty level (winning the faculty award was the first step) and the university level. The trouble was that even this part of the process was flawed. Though it was flawed in my favour. I got paid twice!

The money went into a professional development fund that was used for conference travel, equipment etc. Imagine my surprise and delight when my professional development fund received the reward, twice.

You didn’t make a difference

A significant part of the reason for the reward was my work in online learning and, in particular, the development of the Webfuse e-learning system. Parts of which are still in use at the institution and the story is told in more detail in my thesis.

About 4 years after receiving this award, recognising the contribution, a new Dean told me not to worry about working on Webfuse anymore, it had made no significant different to learning and teaching within the faculty.

Mixed messages and other errors

Can you see how the above experience might make someone a touch cynical about the value of teaching awards? It certainly didn’t appear to me that the recognition of quality teaching was so essential to the institution’s operations that they had efficient and effective processes. Instead it felt that the teaching award was just some add on. Not to mention a very subjective add on at that.

But the mixed messages didn’t stop there. They continued on with the rise of the ALTC. Some additional observed “errors”.

Invest at the tail end

With the rise of the ALTC it became increasingly important that an institution and its staff be seen to receive teaching citations. The number of ALTC teaching citations received became a KPI on management plans. Resources started to be assigned to ensuring the awarding of ALTC citations.

Obviously those resources were invested at the input stage of the process. Into the teaching environment to encourage and enable university staff to engage in quality learning and teaching. No.

Instead it was invested in hiring part-time staff to write the assist in the writing of the ALTC citation applications. It was invested in performing additional teaching evaluations for the institutional teaching award winners to cover up the shortcomings (read absence) of an effective broad-scale teaching evaluation system. It was invested in bringing ALTC winners onto campus to give “rah-rah” speeches about the value of teaching quality and “how I did it” pointers.

Reward the individual, not the team

Later in my career I briefly – in-between organisational restructures – was responsible for the curriculum design and development unit at the institution. During that time, a very talented curriculum designers worked very hard and very well with a keen and talented accounting academic to entirely re-design an Accounting course. The re-design incorporated all the right educational buzz words – “cognitive apprenticeship” – and the current ed tech fads – Second Life – and was a great success. Within a year or two the accounting academic received an institutional award and then an ALTC citation.

The problem was that the work the citation was for, could never have been completed by the academic alone. Without the curriculum designer involved – and the sheer amount of effort she invested in the project – the work would never have happened. Not unsurprisingly, the curriculum designer was somewhat miffed.

But it goes deeper than that. The work would not also have been possible without the efforts of a range of staff within the curriculum design unit, not to mention a whole range of other teaching staff (this course often has 10s of teaching staff at multiple campuses).

I know there are some ALTC citations that have been awarded to teams, but most ALTC citations are to individuals and this is certainly one example where a team missed out.

Attempt to repeat the success and fail to recognise diversity

But it goes deeper than that. The work for this course was not planned. It did not result from senior management developing a strategic plan that was translated into a management plan that informed decision making of some group that decided to invest X resources in Y projects to achieve Z goals.

It was all happenstance. There were the right people in the right place at the right time and they were encouraged and enable to run with their ideas. Some of the ideas were a bit silly, they had to be worked around, manipulated and cut back, but it was through a messy process of context-sensitive, collaboration between talented people that this good work arose.

Ignoring this perception, some folk then mistakenly tried to transplant the approach taken in this course into other courses. The failed to recognise that “lightning doesn’t strike twice”. You couldn’t transplant a successful approach from one course context into another. What you really had to do was start another messy process of context-sensitive, collaboration between talented people.

Quality teaching has to be embedded

This bring me back to some of the points that I made about the demise of the ALTC. Quality teaching doesn’t arise from external bodies and their actions, it arises from conditions within an university that enable and encourage messy processes of context-sensitive, collaboration between talented people.

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