Trip report – Moodlemoot’AU 2010

The following is a report of my attendance at Moodlemoot’AU 2010 during the first half of this week. The aim is to engage in a touch of reflection, outline tasks to do, and inform colleagues back at CQUniversity about the conference.

My contribution

I was mainly responsible for two presentations at the conference. THe following presentation links include a range of resources, including slides. However, the planned audio/video wasn’t generated. The two talks were:

  1. A short show and tell of the idea for adding and harnessing curriculum mapping and alignment within Moodle.
    The 3 minute limit on this presentation was interesting, but was kept to (sort of). Some interest expressed by folk and a couple of links to follow up.
  2. A presentation showing off BIM and talking very briefly about limitations in developing innovative pedagogy.
    I decided to focus mostly on showing off BIM and how it worked. That was, I think, a good move. Though as it turns out a bit more though on the limitations side might have gone down well. Some good feedback on this presentation via twitter, more on that below.

I was also somewhat associated with two presentations from the Indicators project. Almost all the work for these presentations was done by Colin Beer and Ken Clark, and a great job they did. Seems there is growing interest in the indicators project, the next year or so looks like being very interesting.

Reflections

For me personally, the conference was – for a variety or reasons – perhaps the most valuable I’ve been to in recent times. Most of the reasons had nothing to do with the actual presentations. There were some interesting presentations, however, it was the connections made and the possibility of future work (in a range of sense) that made it incredibly worthwhile.

This is especially important given that it wass obvious that adoption of Moodle is rapidly expanding with UNE, LaTrobe and Monash announcing moves to Moodle in the months leading up to the conference. Each of these institutions had groups of staff at the conference. In addition, a number of non-Moodle universities also had representatives at the conference. Checking out the competition was the reason given, though I do suspect there are likely to be a few more Australian universities adopting Moodle in the coming years.

This suggests that the institutions that get into Moodle early and effectively have the opportunity to make useful contributions. It also suggests the potential for a critical mass of institutions sharing and collaborating around Moodle and its use for learning, teaching and beyond.

The Gold Rush

The other side to this is the observation that to some extent, there was a feel of a “Moodle” (gold) rush about the conference. Perhaps the settling of the wild west is a better metaphor. Lots of excitement from new settlers exploring a new land, trying to establish how it all works and plan what the future might bring. There were also a few old hands there to help and occasionally shake their head at the new arrivals. There was certainly a sense of excitement amongst the new settlers about the possibilities. I have to admit, that at times and at least for my somewhat cynical tastes, this fervour went a bit too far and on occasion started to take on the air of a gathering of evangelical Christians.

At the same time there was also a sense of there not being any collective history. Without a connection to the land, the settlers were making some fundamental mistakes, implementing practices that don’t make sense in the new land. Reporting and discussing these mistakes at the Moot is a step toward developing a collective history, however, it was somewhat disappointing that some of the insights developed around e-learning, educational technology, distance education and many other “groupings” from past literature weren’t widely known about.

Even more scary is the observation that at times, this lack of awareness, wasn’t limited to individuals new to a field. It was also evident in some of the large scale, “strategic” organisational projects implementing Moodle.

Presentation feedback and twitter

In the past I’ve belonged to academic units where it was compulsory to product a “trip report” on return to the host institution. An almost obligatory or compulsory part of these trip reports was the

My session was received positively by those there.

statement. Given this was a case of self-reporting by the person who gave the presentation, it always felt a bit self-serving. Not to mention that the use of “self-reporting” had to bring into question the validity of the statement.

Of course, I was as guilty as anyone else of using this comment, and in the context of my presentations at this conference,

My sessions was received positively by those there.

However, we’re much more modern now, we have Twitter a tool that’s increasingly being used at conferences to make explicit what was generally implicit. At this conference there was a healthy twitter stream and due to that stream, I have some hard evidence of good comments. See the following image, click it to make it bigger.


Twitter feedback on Moodlemoot'AU BIM presentation

Of course, most of the folk shown in that image are people who follow me on twitter. So, the validity of such comments might remain questionable.

Use of innovations by other institutions

One of the nicer aspects of moving to Moodle (from an institution specific system) has been the adoption of the tools I’ve developed (e.g. BIM) by other people at other institutions. Alan Arnold used BIM as an example in his presentation with James Strong about how University of Canberra worked with Netspot to maintain the balance between “staying vanilla” and innovation with UC’s Moodle.

Though I wasn’t too sure about the naming scheme Alan adopted – “CQU BIM”. According to the re-branding, it probably should’ve been (at the least) “CQUni BIM”.

The lack of TPACK

At least for me, there seemed to be a fairly visible division between the teaching academics, the teaching support folk and the information technology folk. There didn’t seem to be a lot of really strong cross-fertilization between the different groups. And that’s before we start talking about management.

The TPACK folk argue that it’s the effective combination of the knowledge that each of these groups hold that is needed to make really innovative and high quality use of IT for learning and teaching. And at least for me, the moot experience bears this out. Most of the really interesting presentations were those that drew on effective combinations of the various different types of knowledge. An example is given below of Michael de Raadt’s presentation.

Marnie Hughes-Warrington

The conference was opened by the Monash PVC for Learning and Teaching – Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington – who linked Monash’s plans for Moodle and their broader VLE. The comment that stuck with me, probably because it mirrors my own thoughts was

learning with technology is about the connections and relationships

In describing some of the directions they are taking she mentioned that one of the first steps was listening to teaching academic staff and actually fixing the problems they’ve been reporting for the last five years.

There are lessons here for other institutions. At least currently, it appears that Monash are going to be amongst the most interesting to watch of all the institutional adoptions of Moodle. It shall be interesting to learn more about their migration to Moodle, the strategies and thinking underpinning that migration, and the resulting outcomes. In particular, would be interesting to hear from a collection of Monash teaching staff to see how/if their perspective differs from those driving the migration.

Peer review, progress bar, distributive “leadership” and behaviour change

Michael de Raadt – an information technology academic from USQ – gave a presentation on two plugins he’s developed for Moodle: a peer review assignment type and a progress bar block. As an IT academic with an interest in educational research, Michael had first hand experience of a teaching and learning problem, insights into educational solutions, and the technical ability to implement those solutions within Moodle. Both of Michael’s Moodle plugins could be useful for CQU staff and students.

I found the progress bar block particularly interesting. Michael described how students could become almost compulsive about ensuring that the bar was “all green”. The on-going presence of “red” in the bar was visible every time they used Moodle and acted as an encouragement to complete all the tasks, to be more active.

It is this sort of modifications to the Moodle and broader learning and teaching environments within universities that I am most interested in. The progress block appears to be particular effective examples of a “nudge theory” approach to improving learning and teaching.

To some extent, this type of approach is related to a presentation from some folk at ANU titled “Translating Learning Outcomes in Moodle” designed to aid teaching staff make the connection between constructive alignment and the activities available in Moodle. The approach described in this presentation offers some interesting ideas about how the Moodle environment can be extended to improve the capacity of staff to design more aligned activities. In particular, the approach has some potential to compliment the ideas behind the alignment project.

Bridging the gap between Moodle, institutional practice and academic requirements

A number of the presentations at the conference were examining the question of how to automate and/or ease the workload associated with creating Moodle course sites or integrate it with other related organisational processes (e.g. linking it with course outlines/profiles). Though none really seem to have moved beyond fairly limited “administrative automation”. The ANU outcomes approach in the last section looked at this task from another perspective.

No-one seems to be yet moving beyond these fairly limited forms of course site creation. To improving the level of abstraction.

Online assignment submission and management

Perhaps the most obvious collection of presentations at the conference were associated with various questions/issues around online assessment. For example:

  • de Raadt’s presentation that discussed his peer review assignment type;
    Essentially a Moodle assignment type that provides a higher level of abstraction to help with managing student peer marking of assignments with a reasonable level of staff oversight.
  • a presentation on the Lightwork tool for managing/marking online assignments;
    I didn’t attend this presentation, but Lightwork is a project that’s been going for a while now.
  • a presentation around a fair bit, including a Word template/document approach to marking.
    I didn’t go to this either, but know of some folk who did.

The supporting page for the last presentation does make the point that assignment marking and management remains a difficult, time consuming and expensive consideration within universities. Not something that is always done well. A practice within which there is significant capacity for innovation and improvement.

Tasks to do

Throughout a conference there are generally long lists of interesting stuff to follow up upon. After some less than perfect recollection and some reflection, the following is the list of important tasks I need to follow through upon:

  • Follow up with Michael de Raadt around getting more insight into how to make BIM “more moodle like”.
  • Prepare a video version of the BIM presentation that can be uploaded for folk to view.
    Done: video is available here
  • Give more thought to when/how I’ll start moving BIM to Moodle 2.0.
  • Talk with Col, Ken and Damien about how and when we continue the development of the Indicators project’s Moodle block.
  • Turn the idea behind the BIM presentation into a conference paper and subsequently a journal paper critiquing conceptions and attempts to implemented blended learning.

Whether or not I work on the following list of tasks depends more on the outcome of imminent job applications and interviews (not to mention work on the thesis):

  • Follow up with the ANU crew about how and what we might do in partnership around alignment.
  • Follow up with Jonathan Moore from Remote-Learner about connections between the alignment project and the work they are doing around K-12 standards in Moodle.
  • Try and figure out how the alignment project can be progressed beyond a thought experiment into something concrete.
  • Think about how the increasing number of Australian universities adopting Moodle can most appropriately harness this new community and the open source nature of Moodle.
  • Think how the insights from OASIS can be combined with other work around online assignment submission and management to develop innovations and improvements, especially given issues at my current institution.
  • See how and if both the alignment and indicators projects can be turned into successful cross-institutional projects and also successful ALTC grant applications.
  • Would love to see how different Australian universities might review each others Moodle migrations in an attempt to make reporting on these projects more independent and hopefully useful for future action.

There is much, much more to think about and do arising from presentations and conversations at Moodlemoot. I’ve only captured a small sample.

Integrating alignment into Moodle and academic practice: A proposal and a RFI

I’m off to the 2001 Australian MoodleMoot next week. The conference program includes a collection of 3 minute show and tell sessions on the Tuesday afternoon. The following is a summary of what I think I’m going to talk about and a call for suggestions.

I’m starting to add all the associated resources with the presentation to this post.

More information

Other resources/information around this idea include:

  • A blog post introducing how curriculum mapping might work in Moodle.
  • A detailed, draft grant proposal for a broader project around embedding mapping/alignment into a university.
    This proposal includes a fairly long reference list which points to some of the literature that informed this idea.

Video

The following video is a slightly extended version of the talk, using the same slides, recorded after the Moodlemoot.

Slides

The purpose

The title of this post is probably going to be the title of the talk. From that you can assume that this is not a show and tell of something that is working, but instead a proposal of an idea. The aim is to find out if there are other people interested in this project or already working on something similar. The aim is to start a conversation. The talk is also request for interest (an RFI). I’m keen to hear from folk interested in working on this idea, especially in terms of a potential ALTC grant for next year.

The proposal is based on previous ideas posted here. At the core is the idea of how curriculum mapping might work in Moodle. However, the intent is to do much more than simply modify Moodle. The broader aim is to modify the environment and processes within which teaching academics work in order that consideration of alignment (be it constructive, instructional, curriculum or graduate attributes) is part of every day practice.

A more detailed description of this idea is available here. The rest of this is a written summary of what I think the 3 minute show and tell will cover next week at the Moot.

The problem

Within Australian Universities, the alignment of what happens within a course (sometimes known as a unit) against some outcomes or graduate attributes is becoming widespread, even standard practice. For example, there’s a presentation at the Moot with the title “Translating Learning Outcomes in Moodle”. This presentation draws on Bigg’s (1996) idea of constructive alignment, which is probably the most common, currently used concept of alignment. The push toward graduate attributes for everything is perhaps the other common application of alignment within Australian higher ed.

The Moot presentation identifies as a problem the difficulty of translating learning outcomes into an effective course design within an LMS. The problem which I’m interested is connected to this, but is also a little different. The problem I’m interested in is that the every day, regularly experience of an academic doesn’t require them to think about alignment. More broadly, the everyday experience of teaching academics doesn’t encourage nor enable them to think about learning and teaching from an educational perspective. Instead the focus on low level tasks like uploading documents because of the low-level of abstraction in most LMS.

Experience is important

What people experience is important. There’s a growing body of literature from neuroscience (e.g. Zull, 2002) and psychology (e.g Bartunek and Moch, 1987) that suggests your experiences shape who you are, what you think and how you see the world. Which in turn is related to insights like Kolb’s learning cycle.

Kolb's Learning Cycle

If alignment is not something academics experience regularly, and experience within a context that encourages and enables them to reflect and experiment with alignment, then how are they expected really to learn and adopt alignment?

The proposal

The proposal aims to modify the environment in which academics operate such that they are encouraged and enabled to consider alignment as a regular component of their everyday teaching experience. To provide an environment in which they can move through all of the stages of Kolb’s learning cycle. The proposal is based on the following assumptions and propositions:

  • The most common teaching experience for university academics is teaching and slightly tweaking a course that has been taught before.
  • It is fairly simple to modify Moodle to enable the mapping of alignment relationships between Moodle activities and resources and outcomes or graduate attributes.
  • Once this alignment information is being maintained, an ecosystem of services can be added to Moodle that enable reflection, abstraction, and active testing of ideas around alignment in a collaborative and open way.
  • If such an ecosystem enabled and encouraged effective, on-going use, then the quality of learning and teaching would improve.
  • On-going use of such an ecosystem would raise interesting questions about the design and operation of Moodle.

Disclaimer: I have some reservations about alignment, however, it’s almost become a requirement within Australian higher education and I do believe that consideration of alignment could provide a useful McGuffin for learning and teaching.

The 3 minute show and tell will focus on showing some proposed screen shots of how curriculum mapping might work within Moodle and some initial ideas of how the resulting alignment information could be used to create an ecosystem of services.

Request for interest

Effectively implementing something like this is not easy. It would be improved by having a good combination of skills and perspectives. I’m keen to work with people who are interested in trying to further develop and eventually implement this idea.

I’m especially interested in hearing about projects that are related to, or already implementing something like this.

References

Bartunek, J., & Moch, M. (1987). First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach. The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science, 23(4), 483-500.

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347-364.

Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Stirling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

How curriculum mapping in Moodle might work

The purpose of this post is to provide a concrete description of how curriculum mapping of a Moodle course might work. The hope is that this will enable a broader array of people to comment on the approach and, in particular, identify flaws or problems. So, please comment.

This is being done as part of the alignment project and picks up from some earlier examination of Moodle’s existing outcomes feature.

Overview

The aim is to modify Moodle (as little as possible) to enable teaching staff to perform two tasks:

  1. Map how well the activities, resources and assessment within their Moodle course aligns with a set of outcomes.
    Related to this task is the ability to maintain this mapping as the course is modified.
  2. Use the alignment information about their course (and other courses) to enhance their course.

Each of those two tasks is expanded below.

Implementation

The implementation suggested below is based on ideas from Moodle’s existing support for Outcomes. Some of the following screen shots are using that existing support, some are slightly modified. Moodle’s existing support for outcomes (or competencies) is in terms of tracking how students are going in achieving specific outcomes or competencies. Rather than individual students, this project is mapping the activities, resources and assessments against outcomes. But the principle is basically the same.

Mapping

This task has the following steps (which are explained below):

There is also the problem of whether or not a Moodle course site can be used to map everything about a course.

Specifying the outcomes

The first step is specify which outcomes courses will be mapped against. Moodle supports two “types” of outcomes:

  • “standard” outcomes; and
    These would be created at the institution level and able to be used across all Moodle course sites for that installation.
  • course outcomes.
    These are added to a specific course and can only be used within that course.

Outcomes are placed into Moodle by direct entry via the Moodle interface or uploading a CSV file. Important or interesting values for an outcome include:

  • Both a full and short name.
  • A description of the outcome.
  • The scale to be used for measuring the outcome.

Scales are used by Moodle to evaluate or rate performance. By default this is a numeric value, however, Moodle supports the creation of custom scales. For example, the scales Moodle page talks about the cool scale that consists of the the values: Not cool, Not very cool, Fairly cool, Cool, Very cool, The coolest thing ever!

My current institution is currently rolling out its graduate attributes. There are eight graduate attributes, each of those could be loaded as a standard outcome in Moodle. The institution is currently using three levels – introductory, intermediate and graduate – and has created descriptions of these levels for each attribute. These could form the basis for a scale for each attribute/outcome.

The following is an example CSV file that can be uploaded into Moodle to achieve this.

outcome_name;outcome_shortname;outcome_description;scale_name;scale_items;scale_description
Communication;comm;"Described here http://dmai.cqu.edu.au/FCWViewer/view.do?page=7949";"CQU Graduate Attributes (Communication)";"Introductory - Use appropriate language to describe/explain discipline-specific fundamentals/knowledge/ideas (C2), Intermediate - Select and apply an appropriate level/style/means of communication (C3), Graduate - Formulate and communicate views to develop an academic argument in a specific discipline (A4)";
Problem solving;ps;"Described here http://dmai.cqu.edu.au/FCWViewer/view.do?page=7949";CQU Graduate Attributes (Problem solving);"Introductory - Manage time and prioritise activities within the University’s framework for learning (C3), Intermediate - Make decisions to develop solutions to given situations/questions (C5), Graduate - Formulate strategies to identify, define and solve problems including, as necessary, global perspectives (P5)";

Mapping against outcomes

Let’s start with an example Moodle course site with “editing turned on”. With “editing turned on” you get a collection of additional icons next to just about every element of the site. See the following image (click on it to see a larger version).

Moodle course page - editing on

Can you see the icon that looks like a hand holding a pen? This is the “edit” icon. If you click on this icon you get taken to the edit page for that item of the Moodle course site. An edit page for a Moodle item contains a number of components specific to the item, and a number of components common to all items. The following image is a portion of the edit page for a Moodle discussion forum with some additional labels added to show the specific and common components.

Moodle edit page - outcomes

Did you spot the “Outcomes” component of the above edit page? It showed a list of “outcomes” which match the graduate attributes of my current institution. Against each “outcome” there was a check box. To “map” this discussion forum against a graduate attribute, you simply check the appropriate box. It would be not a great stretch to think that “Communication” and “Team work” might be appropriate.

Important: This is all in Moodle now. No additions needs.

The “on” or “off” nature of the check box is very limited. This is due to the purpose Moodle’s current outcome support is meant to fulfill. For curriculum mapping you would want something more like the following.

Example curriculum mapping outcomes

The above has two main changes:

  1. Addition of the question mark icon.
    In Moodle practice clicking on the question mark gives you help. In terms of outcomes for curriculum mapping I would expect that at the least this would explain the outcome (in this case a graduate attribute) and the scale being used. It might include examples and might include a link to talk to a real person.
  2. Replace the checkbox with the scale.
    In this case it’s showing a drop box next to each outcome/attribute. These drop boxes, as shown by the box next to “Communication”, contains the three level scale being used by my current institution.

There is a lot more you could do with this particular interface, but the basic point is that when a teacher is editing or creating a new item for a Moodle course site, they can map that item against the course outcomes at the same time.

Maintaining the mapping

Following on from the last point, the fundamental idea of this project is that a mapping of the alignment within a course site is maintained all of the time. It’s not something done every now and then because an accrediting body is visiting. The idea is that once a course site is mapped, maintaining the mapping fits into normal academic practice. For example, common practice at my institution is that each offering of a course does not start with a brand new, empty Moodle course site. Instead, the previous course offering is copied over for the next term and then edited.

With the suggested changes, the copying of the course site would also copy the mapping. So rather than mapping the entire course site all over again, the teacher only needs to map the new items added to the site or modify the mappings of any items they might change.

The new “mapping” features of Moodle should encourage/warn the teacher when the alignment is no longer correct. The following image is an example of what a teacher might see if they have changed the Moodle item, but not updated the outcomes/alignment mapping.

Out of date mapping

Map everything?

There’s an assumption in the above that by mapping everything item in a Moodle course site you are considering everything about the course. It’s a somewhat faulty assumption because most Moodle course sites are at best a supplement to what happens face-to-face or via other media. If this idea is to work, then thought would have to be given to how you design a Moodle course site that captures all aspects of a course.

This is by no means a simple task or one without potential problems. However, I do think that supporting people to collaborate about this question in the context of considering overall course alignment will allow interesting and useful approaches to develop. Approaches that could potentially improve the quality of Moodle course sites.

But this is something that would need to be tested.

Using the information

The previous section gave an overview of how the mapping of course alignment would be performed. This is only the first part of this project. The next, and potentially more interesting, step is what happens when people start using the availability of this information to inform quality enhancement of courses.

What people might do with this information is not something I think you can predict. The way the project was initially framed was to allow these potential uses to flow from action research cycles. However, there have been some initial ideas proposed. The following describes those which I think are some of the possibilities that are the most generative. i.e. the following ways of using this information will generate more interesting applications of or response to this information.

The three uses I talk about below are:

Visualising the alignment

The simplest use would be for a teacher taking on a course to be able to see how aligned (or not) a course is. The following is the type of visualisation that might be used. It’s taken from Lowe and Marshall (2004) and a tool developed at Murdoch University. Each graduate attribute has 4 graphs representing objectives, learning activities, assessments and contents, the size of the graph represents how often/much the attribute is covered by those course elements.

GAMP visualisation of course alignment

In the above image it’s visible that the “Ethics” graduate attribute is quite heavily covered in course objectives, somewhat in course contents, a bit less in assessment, but is not covered at all by learning activities. One of the propositions underpinning the project is that explicit representations of alignment problems is likely to encourage teaching staff to fix the problem (see the contextualise L&T support section for more on this). This type of visualisation could be especially helpful for new or casual teaching staff who taken on a new course for the first time.

A Moodle implementation could be modified to send reminders to teaching staff about apparent misalignment.

Share the alignment

Making the level of alignment within a course explicit to the staff teaching the course is only the first step. A common problem being faced by degree programs is preventing duplication of content or content holes. If all courses within a program are using this feature then it’s fairly simple to share the alignment of multiple courses into a form that can be shared. The following is another example from Lowe and Marshall (2004) and shows a visualisation for multiple courses.

GAMP program visualisation

This type of visualisation could be factored into quality assurance processes for a program at the start of a term. The program’s teaching group could adopt a collaborative process at the start of term to address any holes or duplications.

The sharing could also be more ad hoc. The visualisation of the course (the first image from Lowe and Marshall) could be extended to provide links to examples. i.e. when you see a visualisation like the above that shows that the Ethics graduate attribute is not covered by any learning activities there could be a link to other courses that do have activities covering the ethics graduate attribute. Teaching staff could follow these links to view those activities as a way of getting ideas. Which courses show up via these links could be chosen via a number of ways.

The alignment could also be shared with students. Adding the ability to view the contents of a site structured using the outcomes would be quite easy. Lots more interesting applications could be developed.

Contextualise L&T support

Above it was suggested that the visualisations of alignment could, when problems are identified, provide links to courses that can be used as examples. The visualisations could also provide links to documents, presentations, discussions and people who could provide specific support. This could help curriculum designers and related L&T support folk contextualise their assistance in a very specific way. An approach that moves towards achieving Boud’s (1999) argument that L&T support needs to be embedded within the context of academic work, that it needs to occur in or close to the teaching academics sites of practice.

References

Boud, D. (1999). Situating academic development in professional work: Using peer learning International Journal for Academic Development, 4(1), 3-10.

Lowe, K., & Marshall, L. (2004). Plotting renewal: Pushing curriculum boundaries using a web based graduate attribute mapping tool. Paper presented at the 21st ASCILITE Conference, Perth.

Qualms about the alignment project

Yesterday, I posted a draft of an application for what is currently being called, the alignment project. Stephen Downes has commented on the alignment project in is OLDaily. Stephen’s comments are

This is totally not my approach, but a careful and detailed articulation of an alternative. It should be considered…..I would criticize the duality the approach presupposes, between ‘quality’ (alignment) and the disorganized ‘lone wolf’ approach to teaching.

Stephen is not alone in having qualms about the project. I have some as well. This is an attempt to make those qualms explicit and see if I can develop an argument/perspective that addresses at least some of them. After a week or two of developing the application draft, I’m a bit too close to the idea. I need to be more critical so that the idea can be improved.

I welcome suggestions and arguments, especially those targeting weaknesses or mistakes in the application

Aside: people wonder why I post to this blog. The prime reason is exactly the type of comment Stephen has made and what it encourages and enables me to think about. The duality Stephen mentions is important and not something I would have thought to closely about without his spark.

Summary

My response to Stephen’s criticism is that I recognise that this duality is a big problem. It’s also the most likely outcome of the project, i.e. those lone-wolves who aren’t seen as being “aligned” are also seen as “poor quality”. My intent, however, is to use alignment as an idea acceptable to higher education that can be used to modify a broken system to increase the level of reflection and discussion around L&T that occurs as part of the everyday practice of teaching academics. That “alignment” is a means, not the end.

I also think it unlikely that this is what will happen.

Qualms about constructive alignment

The alignment project as described draws heavily on John Biggs work on constructive alignment. I’ve always had to qualms about constructive alignment:

  • Assumption of plan-driven or teleological design.
    Constructive alignments is a teleological design process. It assumes you can identify the outcomes at the start and use that as a basis to identify/design the actions necessary to get students there. A number of aspects of learning, even in its limited form of university-based learning, make me doubt whether or not this is really all that possible. The next point picks up on human agency, but other aspects include the inherent diversity in learners backgrounds, capabilities and aims. Even in higher education the talk is of the increasing diversity of students. Given that diversity, how do you claim to identify a set of outcomes that is suitable for all, let alone develop activities and assessments that are suitable for all?

    I have a long standing preference for ateleological design processes and have a (potentially forlorn) hope that the alignment project might be more ateleological than teleological.

  • Assumption that you can “force” students to learn.
    Here’s a quote from Biggs (2001) that illustrates the assumption that troubles me

    In aligned teaching, where all components support each other, students are
    “trapped” into engaging in the appropriate learning activities, or as Cowan (1998) puts it, teaching is “the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing” (p. 112). A lack of alignment somewhere in the system allows students to escape with inadequate learning.

    At one level I’m worried about this perspective because of what words such as “trapped” and “inescapable” can mean, what it says about the people in charge of such a system.

    My more pragmatic problem with this perspective is that I don’t think it can work. People always have some level of agency. Many university students are highly pragmatic, they will use their agency to subvert the system to achieve their ends with means they find acceptable. I’m not convinced that even the best constructively aligned course can escape the effects of compliance and task corruption.

Qualms about the reflective institution

The alignment project is essentially aimed at implementing something that approaches Biggs (2001) idea of a reflective institution. The application gives a summary of the stages involved in achieving Bigg’s goal. I’ve actually written about the idea previously back in February last year I wrote

However, the detail of his suggested solution is, I think, hideously unworkable to such an extent as likely to have a negative impact on the quality of teaching if any institution of a decent size tried to implement it. As Biggs (2001) says, but about a slightly different aspect, “the practical problems are enormous”.

I’ve been involved with the underbelly of teaching and learning at universities to have a significant amount of doubt about whether the reality of learning and teaching matches this representation to the external world. I’ve seen institutions struggle with far simpler tasks than the above and individual academics and managers “game the system” to be seen to comply while not really fulfilling (or even understanding) the requirements.

The project’s assumptions

In my head, the project is based on the following assumptions:

  • For most academics, the majority of teaching is copying a previous course, making some minor modifications and teaching it.
  • Preparation for teaching is generally driven by administrative deadlines (the bookshop needs to order textbooks on date X, teaching starts on Y etc) and systems (you use system X to order the textbook, the LMS to create your course site).
  • Most, if not all, of these systems do not encourage or enable the academic to think about the concepts of learning underpinning these decisions. They just have to choose the textbook, make sure the assignment is different from last year and ensure that there are no egregiously out of date references in the lectures.
  • Consequently, most academics (upwards of 50%) just do what they did last time, teach the way they were taught. (There are exceptions, but they are the minority).
  • If you add into these systems some minor tweaks that encourage and enable academics to reflect on the conceptions of learning within the course, and provide some appropriate support, then you might encourage the majority to start reflecting and eventually improving their teaching.

To some extent the project is based on the nature of the teaching context at the participating institutions. For example, my current institution has specified that every course will have a Moodle course site.

Qualms about the project and some possible responses

The following are the qualms that I can think about the project. Can you suggest more? For each of these, I’ve tried to describe what I think is a response.

It will die within a week

Qualm: The alignment project is still in pre-application days. There are on-going discussions with various institutional leaders about whether or not they think that this is an idea that they can support. There’s always a chance that by this time next week (or not long after) the project will be dead due to lack of support.

Response? If that happens, I’m hoping we can continue with the project on a smaller scale. Perhaps with just a single program or two at my current institution to explore some of the ideas and their impacts. At the very least, I’m interested in how/if some form of curriculum mapping can be put into Moodle.

Teleological design

Qualm: As I’ve stated above, I don’t think teleological design works. In particular, I don’t think this is the way most academics approach the design of the teaching. The draft alignment project application actually cites literature that shows academics are mostly making minor changes to existing courses. This post expands on this literature. When I’ve seen constructive alignment in action, it’s typically been as part of a large redesign of a course. For all sorts of reasons I think this is a failing.

Response? The methodology expressed in the project proposal recognises this and seeks to introduce the question of alignment in a way which fits with the focus academics have on minor modifications to existing teaching. The hope is that by making alignment a visible part of the tools and support around making minor modifications, then staff may start thinking about alignment and be able to make minor modifications that improve alignment. The aim is not massive redesign to ensure alignment. It’s about minor changes that improve alignment.

And, if I’m honest, the aim for me is not really to get them implementing constructive alignment. It’s just to create an environment that encourages and enables academics to reflect on their teaching and how they are doing it.

Using it as a stick

Qualm: This is one of my biggest fears. Theoretically the project will result in the alignment (or lack thereof) to be readily visible to all folk associated with a course/program. This is going to include people in formal leadership positions. This could very easily lead to this being used as a stick to beat the “bad” teachers. In Bigg’s (2001) words, a focus on the teacher, rather than the teaching.

Response? The only defense I can see against this is ensuring that the folk in those leadership positions are intelligent folk who can see the problems with this. Or, perhaps at the least, ensure that their actions are visible enough so other more enlightened folk can mitigate their effects. In some situations, I’m not sure we’d be able to convince teaching academics of the potential success of this approach.

In the project, I think this can be addressed by having people on the project reference group that are broadly recognised as being experts in this field and having them interact closely with the members of the institutional steering committees (containing formal leaders). Hopefully during the project they can learn the lessons which inform latter practice.

Corruption

Qualm: In terms of a likely outcome, I can see – given my comments about human agency above – that some/most academics would employ task corruption once the alignment project was in place. Task corruption is where an group or individual, consciously or unconsciously, adopts an approach to a task that either avoids or destroys the task. White (2006) talks about two approaches

  • amputation – where parts of the task are no longer performed; and
  • simulation – the emphasis is on being seen to have done the task, not actually to have done it.

Response? In the end, I don’t think there’s anything that can prevent this from happening. All you can do is provide an environment in which the practice becomes valued. That’s what I think this project is about, making alignment part of the culture, the way things are done. This will never entirely successful and is likely not to succeed. However, the responses currently in the project include:

  • making alignment and the responses to it visible;
    Much current corruption occurs because university teaching is a primarily solitary act. There are questions around whether this is a good thing, about forcing one’s views on others. But then academia is supposed to be about peer review.
  • enable and encourage;
    The focus is on creating an environment that helps academics engage in this. If they aren’t engaging then the environment needs to be tweaked, hence the focus on action research. This needs to be on-going.

Technological gravity

Qualm: Related to the above is the conception of technological gravity that McDonald and Gibbons (2009) define and which I’ve posted about (and linked to edupunk). This idea is based on the idea of three major assumptions around learning and teaching:

  1. Technology I – different technologies automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
    i.e. Moodle is an LMS designed with social-constructivist principles and it’s open source. If the institution adopts Moodle then the quality of instruction will improve.
  2. Technolgy II – different techniques/methods lead people to develop quality instruction.
    i.e. if all our courses are designed using constructive alignment, then student learning outcomes will improve.
  3. Technology III – characteristics of a local situation are used to identify the technologies and methods that will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem/improve learning.
    i.e. this is the bit I think has some connections with edupunk – perhaps what Stephen describes as the lone-wolf approach above.

Technological gravity is defined as the force that seems to suck people and institutions away from Technology III and towards Technology I and II. This project is just as likely to suffer from technological gravity as anything else. McDonald and Gibbons (2009) identify three reasons for technological gravity:

  1. distracted focus;
    i.e. the institution has to get ready for a quality audit and needs to focus on that.
  2. status quo adherence;
    i.e. the changes introduced are re-interpreted (or mis-interpreted) and slightly adapted to fit with current practice. “Of course, my 3 hour lecture on the basics of theory are help the students develop critical evaluation skills.”
  3. over-simplification.
    i.e. doing X is too hard, we need to make it simpler for folk to do routinely. By making it simpler, something is lost.

Responses? In terms of focus, the aim of the project is to embed this in the institutional systems. It should just happen. Buy-in of leadership, building it into institutional systems (the LMS) etc are all steps being taken. This will be hard.

With status quo adherence, if the project works then this should hopefully be the type of problem with which the quality enhancement process focuses on. That process is focused on encouraging people to reflect, in part visibly.

In terms of over simplification, this is perhaps where the quality feasibility stage comes in. Mm, weak

The quality and lone wolf duality

Qualm: Stephen’s qualms include

the duality the approach presupposes, between ‘quality’ (alignment) and the disorganized ‘lone wolf’ approach to teaching.

I think this is based on the idea that any disorganised “lone wolf” approach to teaching is by definition not aligned and consequently can’t be thought of quality teaching.

Response: I don’t think the project can respond to this. The first stage of Bigg’s (2001) reflective institution (and consequently of this project) is to make the quality model clear. The model in this case is some sense of alignment. Being aligned is by definition quality.

If you strongly believe in constructive alignment, then this is probably not a problem. However, as I outlined above, I have qualms about constructive alignment. If you asked most people around here whether I am a lone-wolf or a quality-focused/aligned kind, most would answer lone-wolf. Given these how can I justify this project and my involvement with it?

Having thought about this, my current response has two themes:

  • the alternatives are even worse;
    Anything has to be better than what I see as increasingly common practice within Australian higher education. I’ll pick up on this more below.
  • I’m not as dogmatic as Biggs.
    In the following, I’ll argue that I’m my perspective is not as black and white as the duality Stephen has identified. Instead, I’m taking a more gray perspective. Perhaps seeing the quality model as not a dichotomy or end-point, but encouraging a dialectic.

My impression of Biggs (solely from his writings) and some of the constructive alignment practitioners I’ve met (perhaps they influence my perspective of Biggs) are of a very dogmatic perspective. Alignment provides the answer, and the answer is good. If you are not a follower of the answer, you are a heathen. If you follow alignment, you need to re-design your course so that it is 100% aligned – as approved by the constructive alignment church. There’s almost a touch of Technology II about constructive alignment.

To me, learning and teaching is much more complex. I can see how a perfectly aligned course could have horrendously horrible outcomes, depending on the context. I can also see how an apparently mis-aligned course can generate good quality outcomes. For me, the aim of the alignment project is not to achieve perfectly aligned courses and hence quality student learning outcomes. The aim of project is to modify everyday teaching practice so that it encourages and enables academics to start asking questions, rather than simply following administrative processes. Am I trying to make use of a Technology III perspective of alignment?

So, why use alignment at all? Because the system is broken – I pick this up in the next section.

So why do it

All of the above has got me thinking about why I’m pushing this project. Here are my answers.

I have a job

At the simplest and most pragmatic level, I have a job. The institution pays me to do certain things that it deems important and ALTC grants are pretty high on the list of importance. If I want to continue to have a job, I need to demonstrate I’m fulfilling their goals.

That’s not sufficient though. I also think I could enjoy the job (eventually) and generate some benefit broader than my personal employment.

The system is broken

As it happens earlier this week I was listening to this discussion Stephen had in Argentina. One of the topics covered was that, in his opinion, the current educational system in which his “audience” were working within, is broken. One point being that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to use a lot of his approaches within such a broken system.

In terms of the higher education sector in Australia, I agree with Stephen, the system is broken. Even worse, for some time I have been dismayed at the increasingly prevalent broken approaches that are being adopted in the quest for improving the quality of L&T within that broken system. It’s a common theme on this blog. What is currently being done within Australian universities to improve L&T will, at best, offer slight improvements for the folk who were already improving, or at worst, significantly decrease the overall quality of L&T (while at the same time showing “evidence” of improvement).

At this stage I come back to some thinking about inside-out versus outside-in that was sparked by questions from Leigh Blackall. In my job I think I have to come up with approaches that can change the system from the inside-out. It’s an aim likely to fail.

To do this, you have to have some connection with what is being done within the system. Alignment is broadly and generally unquestioningly accepted within higher education, especially amongst the leadership. This project will be attractive because of this acceptance. Most have accepted the value of alignment. More importantly, in my experience most people can, from a common sense perspective (“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen”), accept the idea of alignment as a good thing. It’s also a fairly simple thing to understand (though difficult to implement).

What this means is:

  1. Management can see the rationale for this and how it fits with the external demands they are having to deal with.
  2. Teaching academics can (hopefully) see the initial sense of the idea, at least enough to start talking about it.

i.e. this helps get the idea accepted and helps the project introduce into everyday practice some discussion about L&T that moves beyond administrative tasks. It helps introduce a change that might move the system in the right direction (but won’t fix it).

In summary, alignment is a means to an end. It’s not what is fundamental about this project. What is fundamental is encouraging a bit more reflection around L&T into everyday practice. I don’t really care how aligned the courses are, as long as academics are working in an environment that helps them reflect on their L&T and do something about it.

Of course, translating that view into reality and avoiding alignment being seen as an ends, is another story all together.

References

Biggs, J. (2001). The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 221-238.

McDonald, J., & Gibbons, A. (2009). Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology Educational Technology Research and Development, 57(3), 377-392.

White, N. (2006). Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective. Higher Education Research & Development, 25(3), 231-246.

More thinking about the alignment project

The following is the latest, and first close to (but not there) complete, draft of the proposal explaining the alignment project. While informed by good discussions with a range of folk, the following is still a bit limited. Should be improved over the next couple of weeks.

Even if the application doesn’t get off the ground it has helped me make connections bit a range of different bodies of work (complex adaptive systems, connectivism, distributive leadership and distributed cognition). Some of which I’ve been aware of and some I’ve ignored. It has helped develop my interest in thinking about how to combine some of the principles underpinning these bodies of work with behaviour change, hopefully to do some interesting things in the future.

As always, any comments/suggestions are more than welcome.

Executive summary

The aim of this project is to build distributive leadership capacity into institutional systems and processes to encourage and enable alignment and quality enhancement. It aims to make consideration of alignment a regular, transparent, supported and integrated part of common teaching practice, supported by effective systems and processes. The project aims to fulfil the suggestion by Biggs (1996), that attempts to enhance teaching should seek to address the system as a whole, rather than simply adding “good” components such as new curriculum or methods. It seeks to build distributive leadership to empower academics to actively engage in alignment and move towards achieving what Biggs (2001) calls ‘the reflective institution’.

For most teaching academics, the consideration of alignment in their courses and programs is not a part of everyday teaching practice. Consideration of alignment is typically limited to events such as significant re-design of courses and programs of visits from accreditation or quality assurance organizations. The dominant teaching experience for academics is teaching an existing course, generally one the academic has taught previously. In such a setting, academics spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content (Stark, 2000). Given this focus, it does not appear surprising when Green et al (2009) report that “many academic staff continue to employ inappropriate, teacher-centered, content focused strategies”. If the systems and processes of university teaching and learning practice do not encourage and enable everyday consideration of alignment, is it surprising that many academics don’t consider alignment?

Instructional (Cohen, 1987), curriculum (Anderson, 2002) and constructive (Biggs, 1996) alignment are all built on a similar foundation: the recognition that student learning outcomes are significantly higher when there are strong links between those learning outcomes, assessment tasks, and instructional activities and materials. Cohen (1987) argues that limitations in learning are not mainly caused by ineffective teaching, but are instead mostly the result of a misalignment between what teachers teach, what they intend to teach, and what they assess as having been taught. The importance of achieving and demonstrating alignment with expected outcomes is also a central component of outcomes-based accreditation and quality assurance approaches that are increasingly widespread within higher education.

Consequently, the main tasks of this project are based on the three stages which Bigg’s (2001, p. 221) identified as encouraging institutional reflective practice. These are:

  1. Make explicit the quality model.
    Alignment should be explicit if it is to be seen as a key to quality student learning outcomes. The systems, technology, processes and support practices around learning and teaching should therefore enable and encourage alignment to be an everyday consideration. This support will enable: a) the level of alignment within a course, or group of courses, to be mapped and understood; and b) information about the alignment of a course or courses to be used in the everyday learning and teaching practice.
  2. Build in support for quality enhancement.
    An institution must also establish mechanisms that allow it to review and improve current practice, as it is not sufficient to simply make the quality model explicit (Biggs (2001, p. 223). This stage aims to help teachers to ‘teach better’ through the provision of responsive, appropriate, and contextualised support that responds to insights gained as a result of a greater focus on alignment and other factors.
  3. Institute a process for quality feasibility.
    An institution can only enhance quality if it actively identifies and removes factors that inhibit quality learning (Biggs, 2001, p. 229). This requires formal leadership, processes and hierarchies at the participating institutions to be actively involved in the removal of these inhibiting factors. For the project this involves factors identified through the quality enhancement process and also, more broadly, factors inhibiting the project’s aim of building distributive leadership capacity.

This project will help teaching academics to more regularly consider alignment through context sensitive and collegial methods by building distributive leadership capacity into the participant institutions. . This improved capacity will empower and encourage teaching academics to develop and grow their conceptions of teaching and learning and engage in ongoing improvement of teaching. This process is aided by the active removal of inhibiting factors. The combination of all these actions should lead to significant improvements in student learning outcomes.

Background and rationale

While it is common to describe leadership as a concept that eludes comprehensive definition (Southwell & Morgan, 2009), Parker (2008) suggests that some level of conceptual clarity around leadership within higher education has emerged from the ALTC leadership grants. This emerging view sees leadership in universities as inclusive and distributed, as opposed to the “deeply entrenched association of leadership with hierarchy and authority” (Parker, 2008). Lakomski (2005) argues that the growing recognition of distributed leadership within organisational theory is helping debunk the leader myth of traditional leadership theories. This project, like a number of previous ALTC Leadership projects, is based on the concept of distributed or distributive leadership.

Parrish et al (2008) define distributive leadership as the distribution of power through a collegial sharing of knowledge, of practice, and reflection within a socio-cultural context. Zepke (2007) argues that this is more than the delegation of tasks and responsibilities, and more than collaborative practice. Spillane et al (2004, p. 9) argue that, based on its foundations in distributed cognition and activity theory, distributive leadership is not limited to people, but can also be attributed to artefacts such as language, notational systems, tools and buildings. Leadership activity is distributed through an interactive web of actors, artefacts and situation (Spillane et al., 2004, p. 20). Spillane et al (2004, p. 11) define Leadership as

the identification, acquisition, allocation, co-ordination, and use of the social, material, and cultural resources necessary to establish the conditions for the possibility of teaching and learning.

Over thirty years of research (Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2003; Ramsden, Prosser, Trigwell, & Martin, 2007) has produced abundant empirical inquiry and theory that links the quality of student learning outcomes with: (1) the approaches to learning taken by students; (2) the students’ perceptions of the learning context; and (3) the approaches to teaching practiced by teaching staff. In turn, this research confirms the findings of other leadership studies by illustrating that variation in teaching approaches is associated with perceptions of the academic environment (Ramsden et al., 2007). As Biggs (1999) argues, it is the alignment of all aspects of the system that contributes to higher quality outcomes. Conversely, misalignment within an institutional system is likely to contribute to a lowering of quality outcomes. In particular, while pedagogues may hold a higher-level view of teaching other contextual factors may prevent use of those conceptions (Leveson, 2004).

A fundamental assumption of this project is that there is a misalignment between the importance of instructional and curriculum alignment to student learning outcomes and its prevalence within the teaching and learning systems and processes of universities. This misalignment is seen as a major contributing factor to Barrie’s et al (2009) observation that despite significant espoused intentions around graduate attributes,

Australian universities have not generally been successful in deliberately and systematically refocussing the curriculum in ways that foreground the development of these attributes as opposed to the acquisition of factual disciplinary content or the accumulation of isolated and unrelated knowledge, skills and dispositions

This project aims to address this misalignment through making alignment a prevalent component of the teaching and learning systems of the participant institutions. It seeks to move consideration of alignment beyond a focus on program review or accreditation purposes, towards making consideration of alignment as a part of everyday teaching practice. To achieve this goal, the project must deal with a number of problems. The approaches this project will adopt to address these problems are described in the following.

Most teaching practice is not alignment focused

The practice of most academics does not separate planning from implementation, and rather than starting with explicit course objectives, starts with content (Lattuca & Stark, 2009). The dominant setting for academics is teaching an existing course for which they spend most of the time making minor modifications to material or content (Stark, 2000). For most staff teaching a course starts with the existing course materials such as outlines, assignments and website. The general description of these existing courses embedded in these materials may be non-specific and not systematically explain the content of teaching and the outcome of learning (Levander & Mikkola, 2009). This make it difficult to understand just how aligned a course is both within itself and with other courses in the program. This problem is compounded by the increasing casualisation of academic staff that leads to a context where there is high staff turnover, lack of ownership and lack of institutional support (Green et al., 2009).

The project will embed consideration of alignment into everyday practice by modifying the main institutional learning and teaching information system used by teachers and students, the LMS. The intent is to map alignment of a subset of existing courses within the LMS through a collaborative process between teaching academics and support staff. As described above, standard practice for most academics is to copy the course site from the last offering and make minor modifications to material and activities. The LMS modifications will enable and encourage teaching academics to modify the alignment mapping of their course as they make these minor modifications. Importantly, the project also aims to identify and experiment with additional LMS modifications that enable teaching staff and students to make use of the alignment mapping within the LMS.

Teaching is an isolated, solitary practice

The norms of the higher education community encourage autonomy and independence (Uchiyama & Radin, 2009). Lowe and Marshall (2004) describe academic life as often isolated and that even when this isolation is overcome, few academics will discuss course design and teaching practices with peers. The planning and implementation of teaching has largely been a private issue creating the possibility that the actual delivered teaching represents the teacher’s implicit, internalised knowledge and not that described in published course descriptions (Levander & Mikkola, 2009).

Enabling examination, comparison and discussion about the alignment and how it was achieved amongst groups of courses, teaching academics and other stakeholders is a major aim of the project. Initially this may focus on leveraging the alignment information for staff teaching courses within the same program, including program coordinators. The L&T support section below describes how the project hopes to enable and encourage connections between teaching academics and L&T support staff.

Alignment is difficult

Levander and Mikkola (2009) describe the full complexity of managing alignment at the degree level which makes it difficult for the individual teacher and the program coordinator to keep connections between courses in mind. von Konsky et al (2006) describe how the sharing of courses between programs and a variety of outcome types (e.g. graduate attributes and course, program, discipline accrediting body learning outcomes) significantly complicates curriculum design and review. In reporting on the status of curriculum mapping, a significant task associated with alignment, Willet (2008) reports on the need for more research on effective political and electronic strategies for the construction and maintenance of curriculum maps, especially those that improve faculty participation and buy-in.

The overarching aim of the project is to build distributive leadership capacity into the systems (mostly in the form of modifications to the LMS) and processes (mostly aimed at helping teaching staff overcome these difficulties) of the participant institutions. The project aims to reduce, if not remove, the difficulties associated with this task. It seeks to achieve this by adopting an action research methodology that draws heavily on the skills, experience and insights from a broad array of project participants. The action research methodology recognises that a major part of this project is focused on learning about these difficulties and how best to reduce them within the host institutions. The following table summarises how participant selection will help reduce the impact of difficulties.

Participants Contribution
Reference group Members: chosen due to expertise and experience gained from previous ALTC leadership grants (e.g. ???) and related alignment and mapping work (Lowe & Marshall, 2004; Oliver, Jones, Ferns, & Tucker, 2007).
Responsibilities: critique and offer suggestions for improvement of project plans and results.
Institutional steering committees
(1 per institution)
Members: Institutional members with expertise/responsibility for aspects of institutional strategic aims or operational environment.
Responsibilities: planning how project activities are integrated into each institution, and fulfilling quality feasibility task.
Project team Members: Institutional L&T support staff with expertise and insight into alignment and related issues.
Responsibilities: collaborating with and helping participating teaching academic staff map and respond to course alignment.
Teaching academic staff Members: Teaching staff responsible for courses selected (using process developed by institutional steering committee and reviewed by reference group) for participation in the project.
Responsibilities: Engage reflectively on the process and its outcomes.

Concerns around learning and teaching (L&T) support

Academics come to teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning (Weimer, 2007). Given this limited knowledge and the complexities and importance of learning and teaching knowledge universities have provided various types of L&T support (e.g. staff development, instructional design etc). How this support is provided and questions about its impact of the quality of L&T remain problematic. Parker (2008) identifies the on-going tension between centralised and devolved L&T support. It is widely recognised that the activities and resources associated with L&T support are used by small numbers of teaching academics, and usually not those most in need of the support (The National GAP, 2009). Weimer (2007) argues that despite nearly 30 years of effort, L&T support roles have had little impact on the instructional quality of higher education.

By making alignment an everyday consideration of teaching practice, the project aims to directly address some concerns around L&T support by drawing on important insights from the literature. Numerous authors (Biggs, 1999; Michael Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Ramsden, 1998) have argued that the focus of L&T support should shift from techniques and technologies towards the facilitation and support of a more reflective approach to teaching. Encouraging reflection at all levels is a fundamental components of the project’s aims to move towards Bigg’s (2001) idea of the reflective institution. The quality enhancement task of the project is most closely associated with encouraging a reflective approach to teaching. Biggs (2001, p. 227) argues that the fundamental problem with L&T support is the focus on individual teachers, rather than on teaching. Following his approach, this project maintains the on-going focus on the alignment of courses, not on individual teachers. Boud (1999) argues that L&T support needs to be embedded within the context of academic work, that it needs to occur in or close to the teaching academics sites of practice. The aim of the quality enhancement phase is to make consideration of alignment an important site of practice for teaching academics and to provide the L&T support necessary as part of this site of practice.

Limitations of quality assurance

While outcomes-based quality assurance has been a prevalent component of higher education for a number of years, there remain significant concerns about how it is implemented and the subsequent outcomes. Raban (2007) observes that the quality management systems of most universities employ procedures that are retrospective and weakly integrated with long term strategic planning. He continues to argue that the conventional quality management systems used by higher education are self-defeating as they undermine the commitment and motivation of academic staff through an apparent lack of trust, and divert resources away from the core activities of teaching and research (Raban, 2007, p. 78). Barrie et al (2009) identify a bureaucratic approach to quality assurance as a potential contributor to the limited engagement of university staff in graduate attributes curriculum renewal. Biggs (2001) defines this type of quality assurance as retrospective and argues that its procedures are frequently counter-productive for quality and that most of its indicators concentrate on administrative procedures. He cites Bowden and Marton’s (1998) opinion that “retrospective QA actually damages teaching”.

Bigg’s (2001) conception of the reflective institution and its use of prospective quality assurance is presented as a solution that can make retrospective QA redundant. This project seeks to build distributive leadership capacity that enables the development of prospective quality assurance based around the everyday teaching practice of academic. Bigg’s (2001) defines prospective quality assurance as being, in part, as a bottom-up, systemic and supportive process with a priority on educational or scholarly outcomes. Such an approach has a focus on the teaching, not the teacher. These characteristics have significant connections with Southwell and Morgan’s (2009) description of Fullan’s (2008) “new leadership”, which they describe as having many of the hall marks of distributed leadership.

Long-term systemic change

As an attempt to build distributive leadership capacity the fundamental problem facing the project is to encourage long-term, systemic change. The change should not disappear once the project completes, it should become part of everyday operations. To achieve long-term, systemic change the project will:

  1. Ensure participation of formal institutional leadership and integration with institutional priorities.
    Beyond simply expressing support for a project, this project requires the active participation of formal institutional leadership roles in the institutional steering committees. These committees are responsible for developing the institutional implementation plans for two cycles of alignment embedding. These plans are intended to ensure that the project integrates appropriately with institutional priorities and practices. They are tasked with Bigg’s (2001) quality feasibility task that aims to increase institutional alignment.
  2. Action research perspective, flexible responsive.
    There is recognition that the type of fundamental change being attempted by this project is difficult, complex and replete with uncertainty. A critical success factor for the project is the ability to identify and respond to new insights. The projects action research methodology and the very nature of Bigg’s (2001) idea of a reflective institution aims to achieve on-going learning and improvement.
  3. Having a scholarly, not bureaucratic focus.
    As described above, the very nature of prospective quality assurance (Biggs, 2001) is bottom-up, systemic, supportive, and with a priority on educational or scholarly outcomes.
  4. Modifying an institutional information system.
    A fundamental enabler of this project is the presence of an information system that is embedded into the everyday practice of teaching and learning (for both students and staff) that encourages and enables consideration of alignment. Rather than develop a stand alone tool, this project seeks to modify the institutional LMS, a system to which the institutions are already significantly committed. In addition, both institutions have adopted the open source LMS Moodle as their institutional LMS. As an open source system, it is not only possible to make the changes, the subsequent changes will become available within the broader Moodle community. This increases the likelihood of on-going support both within and outside the participant institutions.

Project outcomes

The project aims to build leadership capacity within two institutions that enables consideration of alignment to become part of everyday teaching practice. The outcomes of that aim will include:

  • Within both institutions a number of courses that have had their instructional alignment mapped, made visible and reflected upon.
  • Increased availability and knowledge of resources around alignment and course mapping, especially those produced by ALTC projects, within the participant institutions.
  • For some of these courses, evidence of changes over time in the alignment and structure of the course.
  • Evidence of whether or not there have been changes in the conceptions of learning and teaching held by teaching staff participants.
  • Evidence of whether or not there have been changes in student learning experience or outcomes.
  • Availability of extensions to the Moodle LMS that enable the mapping of instructional alignment within and between courses.
  • Availability of extensions to the Moodle LMS that leverage course alignment information to provide a diverse collection of learning and teaching services.

Methodology

The project will use an eight stage process that has at its core two action research cycles. Each action research cycle consists of 3 stages:

  • plan,
    The institutional steering committee with input from other institutional project members formulates a plan for the research cycle. Institutional plans are shared between participant institutions and reviewed by the reference group.
  • embed, and
    At its core, the project team work with selected teaching academic participants to map, understand and respond to the alignment within their courses. A key part of this stage will be identifying how having the alignment information of the course within the LMS can be leveraged for improving L&T. This will typically proceed over the course of an entire term.
  • review.
    A formal process of reviewing what happened during the embed stage involving all project participants.

Given that two action research cycles with the above three stages, there are two remaining stages. These are focused on the broader tasks of establishing and completing the project.

References

Anderson, L. (2002). Curricular alignment: A re-examination. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 255-260.

Barrie, S., Hughes, C., & Smith, C. (2009). The national graduate attributes project: integration and assessment of graduate attributes in curriculum. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347-364.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Biggs, J. (2001). The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 221-238.

Boud, D. (1999). Situating academic development in professional work: Using peer learning  International Journal for Academic Development, 4(1), 3-10.

Bowden, J., & Marton, F. (1998). The University of Learning. Oxford: Routledge.

Cohen, S. A. (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet. Educational Researcher, 16(8), 16-20.

Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Green, W., Hammer, S., & Star, C. (2009). Facing up to the challenge: why is it so hard to develop graduate attributes? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(1), 17-29.

Lakomski, G. (2005). Managing without Leadership: Towards a Theory of Organizational Functioning: Elsevier Science.

Lattuca, L., & Stark, J. (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Levander, L., & Mikkola, M. (2009). Core curriculum analysis: A tool for educational design. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 15(3), 275-286.

Leveson, L. (2004). Encouraging better learning through better teaching: a study of approaches to teaching in accounting. Accounting Education, 13(4), 529-549.

Lowe, K., & Marshall, L. (2004). Plotting renewal: Pushing curriculum boundaries using a web based graduate attribute mapping tool. Paper presented at the 21st ASCILITE Conference, Perth.

McKinney, L. (2010). Evaluability assessment: Laying the foundation for effective evaluation of a community college retention program. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 34(4), 299-317.

Oliver, B., Jones, S., Ferns, S., & Tucker, B. (2007). Mapping curricula: ensuring work-ready graduates by mapping course learning outcomes and higher order thinking skills. Paper presented at the Evaluations and Assessment Conference. Retrieved 17 Feb, 2010, from http://www.eac2007.qut.edu.au/proceedings/proceedings_ebook.pdf.

Parker, L. (2008). Leadership for excellence in learning and teaching in Australian higher education: Review of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) Program 2006-2008. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Parrish, D., Lefoe, G., Smigiel, H., & Albury, R. (2008). The GREEN Resource: The development of leadership capacity in higher education. Wollongong: CEDIR, University of Wollongong.

Prosser, M., Ramsden, P., Trigwell, K., & Martin, E. (2003). Dissonance in experience of teaching and its relation to the quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(??), 37-48.

Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: SRHE / Open University Press.

Raban, C. (2007). Assurance versus enhancement: less is more? Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31(1), 77-85.

Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to Lead in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Ramsden, P., Prosser, M., Trigwell, K., & Martin, E. (2007). University teachers’ experiences of academic leadership and their approaches to teaching. Learning and Instruction, 17(2), 140-155.

Southwell, D., & Morgan, W. (2009). Leadership and the impact of academic staff development and leadership development on student learning outcomes in higher education: A review of the literature. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Spillane, J., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. (2004). Towards a theory of leadership practice: a distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36(1), 3-34.

Stark, J. (2000). Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form. Instructional Science, 28(5), 413-438.

The National GAP. (2009). Key issues to consider in the renewal of learning and teaching experiences to foster graduate attributes. Sydney: The National Graduate Attributes Project.

Uchiyama, K. P., & Radin, J. L. (2009). Curriculum Mapping in Higher Education: A Vehicle for Collaboration. Innovative Higher Education, 33(4), 271-280.

von Konsky, B., Loh, A., Robey, M., Gribble, S., Ivins, J., & Cooper, D. (2006). The benefit of information technology in managing outcomes focused curriculum development across related degree programs. Paper presented at the 8th Australian Conference on Computing Education, Hobart, Australia.

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

Wholey, J. S. (2004). Evaluability Assessment. In J. S. Wholey, H. P. Hartry & K. E. Newcomer (Eds.), Handbook of practical program evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Willett, T. (2008). Current status of curriculum mapping in Canada and the UK. Medical Education, 42(8), 786-793.

Zepke, N. (2007). Leadership, power and activity systems in a higher education context: will distributive leadership server in an accountability driven world? International Journal of Leadership in Education, 10(3), 301-314.

Blurb for the alignment project

The following is an early attempt at an “executive summary” for the alignment project. It’s meant to get folk who know nothing about the project excited, or at least interested, in the project. The main audience, at the moment, is probably limited to institutional leaders around learning and teaching and those likely to be evaluating ALTC grant applications.

Suggestions and criticisms more than welcome.

I’m particularly interested in literature references that support some of the observations/claims e.g. that consideration of alignment is not part of everyday teaching practice for teaching academics.

Executive summary

Instructional (Cohen, 1987), curriculum (Anderson, 2002) and constructive (Biggs, 1996) alignment are all built on the recognition that student learning outcomes are significantly higher when there is a strong link between those learning outcomes, the assessment and the instructional activities and materials. Cohen (1987) argues that limitations in learning is not mainly caused by ineffective teaching, but instead is mostly the result of a misalignment between what teachers teach, what they intended to teach, and what they assessed as having been taught. The importance of achieving and demonstrating alignment with expected outcomes is also a central component of outcomes-based accreditation and quality assurance approaches that are increasingly widespread within higher education.

For most teaching academics, however, the consideration of alignment in their courses and programs is not part of everyday teaching practice. Consideration of alignment is typically limited to events such as significant re-design of courses and programs of visits from accreditation or quality assurance organizations. This lack of regular consideration of alignment may be a significant contributing factor to the on-going limitations of university learning and teaching and its quality assurance processes. For example, Barrie et al (Barrie, Hughes, & Smith, 2009) make the observation

despite the rhetoric of graduate attributes policy and despite the espoused claims of statements of course learning outcomes, the reality is that teaching in some courses has not changed from a model of transmission of factual content.

Through a collaborative action research process this project seeks to build and grow distributive leadership capacity within the systems and processes of the two participating institutions that encourages and enables consideration of alignment, and action-based on that consideration, to become a regular, transparent, supported and integrated part of common teaching practice. Through this the project seeks to explore steps towards adoption Biggs’ model of the reflective institution. As a result the project aims to develop approaches that can systemically enhance learning and teaching through enabling and encouraging teaching academics to question and change their conceptions and practice of learning and teaching and through this on-going consideration of alignment significantly improve student learning outcomes.

References

Anderson, L. (2002). Curricular alignment: A re-examination. Theory into Practice, 41(4), 255-260.

Barrie, S., Hughes, C., & Smith, C. (2009). The national graduate attributes project: integration and assessment of graduate attributes in curriculum. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347-364.

Cohen, S. A. (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet. Educational Researcher, 16(8), 16-20.

Leadership as appreciating resistance

Am busy reading and trying to do up a grant application, when I should be working on the PhD. However, I couldn’t bypass this quote from FUllan (2001: 65)

Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict is a sign of decay … investing only in likeminded innovators is not necessarily a good thing. They become more likeminded … If you include the naysayers, noise in the early stages will yield later, greater implementation.

It resonates strongly with me for two reasons:

  1. the increasing prevalence of the opposite definition of leadership; and
    The trend towards increasingly corporate approaches within universities means that increasingly there are short-term management positions which have to deal with increasing demands for accountability from government etc. The simple and increasingly prevalent approach is to stomp all over resistance and naysayers. “You’re not a team player” and “Why so negative” are the common statements I’ve heard from this approach.

    This type of success is the “I deny your reality and substitute my own” approach to leadership. It’s an approach that only ends up annoying people and failing in the long-term.

  2. the importance I place on this definition.
    Given the above, it should be no surprise that diversity of opinion is important to me. Increasingly, it is something I seek to encourage in the groups I work with, though it can often be very difficult to do. First in terms of people recognising the value of diversity of opinion. For example, I was on an interview panel where one member refused to consider someone for a job because they didn’t know a particular body of literature that the panel member thought important.

The really difficult distinction to make is between “appreciating resistance” and recognising the idiots. To often resistance is equated as being an idiot, and there’s a danger that appreciating resistance may mean paying too much attention to idiots.

References

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

The alignment project as leadership

The following signals a slight change in direction around the curriculum mapping project. First, the project is now going under the label “alignment project” (curriculum mapping is just one aspect of the project). Second, the project is likely to be re-framed as an application for an ALTC leadership grant. This post is an attempt to begin this re-framing. It’s really just thinking out loud.

As a result, I am very interested in suggestions and criticisms. In terms of suggestions, I’m particularly keen for insights onto better/alternative theoretical frames. It has become a bit confused as I’ve tried out different lines of approach.

Note: In the following a “course” typically means the smallest unit of teaching offered by an institution. A “program” is a group of courses that form a degree or perhaps a major.

Summary of the alignment project

Alignment is an increasingly core component of teaching in Australian universities. At a basic level, alignment is where the learning resources, learning activities and assessment of learning all align with the stated outcomes or aims of teaching (in a course/unit or program/course). Such alignment is a core component of various “movements” within university learning and teaching including: graduate attributes, quality assurance, and improvements in learning and teaching. However, consideration of alignment is not a regular, everyday part of teaching or learning at universities.

The majority of academic teaching practice involves the teaching of an existing course, one the academic has usually taught before, and as such most “teaching practice” revolves around making minor modifications to material or content (Stark, 2000). Academics are not often required to engage in the development of new courses or major overhauls of existing courses (Stark and Lowther 1988). Alignment is most considered during the development of new courses, major overhauls of existing courses or in response to external quality assurance needs.

The following two sub-sections try to summarise the alignment project. The first is a more concrete description, the second more abstract or theoretical. The thinking behind this project has changed many times, the following are likely to change. Suggest away.

Process and intent

As currently thought, the alignment project can be described as four main tasks:

  1. Modify Moodle to allow mapping of alignment.
    Moodle has been chosen because it is the institutional e-learning system at both institutions that are part of the project. As such, support for Moodle is embedded into the institution and will continue to be supported. In addition, Moodle is an increasing part of the everyday practice of teaching academics. Lastly, Moodle, for a number of reasons, is very flexible and easy to modify and any modifications made could be usable by other institutions. The point of this project is not the Moodle modifications, it’s simply the best solution for embedding these changes into the institutions.

    The changes will focus on enabling the alignment of outcomes (be the course learning outcomes, program learning outcomes, those from accrediting bodies, graduate attributes etc) with the assessment, activities and resources within a course site. Having this functionality is a foundation for the rest of the project.

  2. Work with teaching staff to map their courses.
    Mapping the alignment of a course within Moodle is not going to be straight forward. Teaching staff are likely to be busy and may not be entirely familiar with the concepts around alignment and mapping. The content and design of a Moodle course site may not be currently appropriate in terms of developing a useful mapping of alignment. Using the alignment mapping functionality added to Moodle may not be straight forward.

    For these and other reasons staff from the L&T support services will have to work collaboratively with academic staff to overcome these problems. This will be the first cycle of action research and will identify specific problems and insights into potential solutions.

  3. Work with teaching staff to embed alignment into everyday practice.
    Once the initial mapping of alignment is complete, the focus moves onto helping academics maintain and reflect on the level of alignment within their course and programs. On helping them embed alignment considerations into everyday practice.

    This is the second cycle of action research and will likely include the development of models, tools and processes that address questions such as:

    • How do you encourage reflection and action based on the everyday consideration of alignment?
      Identify the support, processes and tools do teaching academics and program leaders need to encourage and enable reflection and action?
    • How do you measure and give feedback upon action based on the everyday consideration of alignment?
  4. Develop on-going and embedded institutional processes that take the lessons learned from the everyday consideration of alignment and use it to remove barriers within the institutional context.

Theoretical perspective

The alignment project is seeking to take the first steps towards what Biggs (2001) called the reflective institution. It seeks to do this by modifying the institutional systems around learning and teaching in ways suggested by Biggs (2001). These are:

  1. Make obvious the quality model.
    Most institutions espouse the theory of alignment, however the teaching systems and processes employed by institutions do not make this theory explicit. The first step is to modify these systems so that a focus on alignment is made explicit as a part of every day teaching practice.

    This is partly achieved through the modifications to Moodle to enable mapping of alignment. But more importantly it is achieved through the changes in L&T support, systems and processes that support academic in using those new Moodle capabilities. In part, these changes are the next step.

  2. Provide appropriate support for quality enhancement.
    Further modify these systems and process to enable and encourage teaching staff to reflect and improve their teaching through a focus on alignment. The modifications build on the changes in the previous stage to enable this support to be highly contextualised to everyday teaching practice. A focus on helping in what academics do most often, the fine-tuning of existing courses.
  3. Inform the quality feasibility process.
    Quality feasibility is the removal of factors in the teaching environment that are not conducive to good L&T. The everyday consideration of alignment will identify a range of barriers in the institutional setting, many of which will require the engagement of institutional leadership to remove.

ALTC leadership grants

The guidelines for the ALTC leadership grants scheme describe the grants as being for (my emphasis added)

projects that build leadership capacity in ways consistent with the promotion and enhancement of learning and teaching in contemporary higher education, and which reflect the ALTC’s values of excellence, inclusiveness, diversity and collaboration, and its commitment to long-term, systemic change.

The scheme has three priorities which can be summarised as being focused on: institutional leadership capacity building; disciplinary and cross-disciplinary leadership; and building on earlier projects. The alignment project seems to be best suited to Priority one

institutional leadership to enhance learning and teaching through leadership capacity-building at the institutional level.

  • Funding range: $150,000 to $220,000
  • Project duration: up to 2 years

In completing a lit review around leadership for the ALTC, Southwell and Morgan (2009) make the observation that

Leadership for Excellence in Learning and Teaching Program is expected to be a ‘demonstrable enhancement of learning and teaching through leadership capacity building’

What is leadership?

It seems required when discussing leadership to make the observation that “leadership eludes comprehensive definition” (Southwell and Morgan, 2009). Southwell and Morgan (2009) reference Marshall (2006) and Jameson (2006) as folk who have made that observation. Having made this claim, the idea is that you then define your familiarity with the broad array of perspectives, understandings and definitions of what leadership is. I’ll postpone that bit for now.

Southwell and Morgan (2009) draw on Leithwood and Levin (2005) who suggest that the core of most conceptions of leadership are two functions generally considered to be indispensable:

  1. Direction-setting: helping members of the organization establish a widely agreed on direction or set of purposes considered valuable for the organization; and
  2. Influence: encouraging organizational members to act in ways that seem helpful in moving toward the agreed on directions or purposes

Leithwood and Levin (2005) arrive at these two functions by adopting a definition where “the primary effect of organisational leadership would be significant change in a direction valued by the organisation”. In defending their definition or understanding of leadership, Leithwood and Levin (2005) agree that this may not be a precise definition, but that attempts to too narrowly define a complex topic like leadership is “more likely to trivialise than help bring greater clarity to its meaning”.

How the alignment project fits

Taking the emphasised phrases from the above purpose of the ALTC projects, I’d suggest/argue that the alignment project fits in the following ways:

  • leadership capacity;
    In terms of the above set of functions, the project is aiming to build into the systems and processes of each host institution the capacity to make consideration of alignment an every day part of practice. It helps establish a widely agreed direction for L&T and helps influence organisational members in moving towards that agreed direction.
  • promotion and enhancement of L&T;
    The educational literature is replete with evidence that consideration of alignment changes the conception of L&T held by academics and that it also results in improvements in student learning outcomes.
  • contemporary higher education;
    The project recognises and seeks to fulfill the increased requirements for accountability from a range of diverse source, however, it seeks to achieve it in a way that offers significant greater benefits that existing methods. As part of this the application seeks to engage with the on-going argument over centralised or devolved L&T support services by aiming for a focus on an approach to L&T support services that seeks to contextualise such support into the every day practice of teaching academics.
  • inclusiveness, diversity and collaboration; and
    The action research process suggested for use by the project is largely based on recognition within the project that engaging with the full diversity of higher education is essential. It recognises that this diversity will result in different approaches and benefits and that the process needs to enable this to happen. Similarly, collaboration is seen as essential to the project. Not just in the process used in this project, but in the aims of the project. An important aim of the project is to increase the collaboration around consideration of alignment in teaching.
  • long-term, systemic change.
    The project aims to embed consideration of alignment into the everyday practice of teaching staff. i.e. the aim of the project is long-term, systemic change. The process and approach being used is designed to achieve that aim.

The alignment project as leadership

Contemporary higher education is placing increasing importance on the concept of alignment in learning and teaching. In terms of quality assessment, program accreditation, graduate attributes and generally improving L&T alignment is broadly seen as a necessary component. However, many university courses are not all that well aligned and one explanation for this is that consideration and discussion of alignment is not a regular part of everyday teaching practice. Alignment is often only considered at the time of course and program reviews or accreditation.

The aim of the alignment project is to build leadership capacity into the system and processes of education within a university so as to encourage and enable effective and informed consideration of alignment as part of everyday teaching. This embedding of alignment into everyday practice then serves as the foundation for a range of other possibilities.

The alignment project is an example of leadership as it is attempting to encourage significant change – in the form of increased consideration of alignment at all levels – that is valued by the individual universities and the broader higher education sector. In addition, there is broad agreement in the education literature that alignment has significant positive effects on student learning outcomes.

The alignment project intends to fulfill the two indispensable functions of leadership identified by Leithwood and Levin (2005):

  • direction-setting; and
    By making considerations of alignment a visible and hopefully key aspect of everyday teaching, there should be an increased emphasis placed on learning outcomes, graduate attributes and other “outputs of learning”. This should encourage and assist academics teaching the same course or in the same program to increase discussion of these outcomes. To increase discussion of the purpose or direction of a course or program.
  • influence.
    A specific aim of the alignment project is to modify the teaching environment so that considerations, discussions and reflection upon alignment are directly encouraged and enabled. It encourages and enables them to think about how to move towards the stated directions or purpose.

Still not happy with that division. First attempt to make it concrete. Another query that arises from this is whether or not this project builds leadership capacity at two or more levels. For example, one approach is that it builds capacity at both the:

  • Institutional level; and
    At an institutional level it enables curriculum/program alignment, but also accountability etc.
  • Instructional level.
    This is the level between student and course/teacher. It makes alignment an more regular component of instruction.

Outcomes

If successful, the project should result in the consideration of alignment should becoming an every day component of teaching practice. This should/could generate the following outcomes:

  • Changes in the conceptions of L&T held by teaching staff;
    Being required to consider alignment encourages a different way of looking at teaching. This should encourage changes in the conceptions of L&T held by teaching staff towards those considered more appropriate.
  • Improvements in student learning outcomes;
    Effective considerations of alignment should increase the alignment within courses. The educational literature suggests that increases in alignment will result in improve student learning outcomes. In addition, it is likely that one of the likely additional outcomes will be making alignment more visible to students. Which should also encourage improved student learning outcomes.
  • Improvements in the quality and timeliness of quality assurance; and
    In terms of demonstrating alignment against outcomes or attributes, current quality assurance practices rely on special “mappings” that are held every few years. By embedding alignment considerations and mapping into every day teaching practice, the there is no longer any need for special “mappings”. “Mapping” information can be generated at any time as it is maintained as part of normal practice.
  • A variety of additional outcomes.
    Embedding alignment considerations as an everyday practice is the foundation of the project. The availability of “mapping” information and the on-going consideration of alignment will generate a range of additional outcomes. However, the diversity inherent in universities and higher education, combined with the fundamental change in everyday practice which this project aims to achieve means that it is unlikely we can predict successfully all of these outcomes.

Theoretical foundations

The ALTC place significant emphasis on applications having a sound and obvious theoretical base. The theoretical work that have informed my thinking about this project, and which may influence the project, include the following.

Project intent or outcome

Biggs (2001) presents an argument for a reflective institution that focuses on prospective, rather than retrospective quality. Having just re-read the paper, it seems to provide a good fit for a theory/model for the overall intent of the project.

The model is based on the idea of three aspects of AQ:

  • Quality Model.
    i.e. an espoused theory of teaching, for Biggs this is constructive alignment. For the alignment project this might be alignment a little more broadly.
  • Quality enhancement.
    A “teaching delivery system” that is designed in accordance to the quality model, i.e. one which encourages and enables alignments. In addition, the teaching delivery system should also have built-in mechanisms to continually review and improve current practice.
  • Quality feasibility.
    A process by which impediments to quality teaching are removed from the “teaching delivery system”.

The “quality model” is underpinned by a large, overlapping and diverse collection of literature from various areas including: outcomes-based quality/evaluation, instructional alignment (Cohen, 1987); curriculum alignment; graduate attributes; and, of course constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2007; Biggs, 1999 ).

Understandings of universities and organisations

My personal conceptions of most organisations, but especially those like universities, are informed by Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework and complex adaptive system.

Understandings of leadership

This is obviously an area which needs more consideration, beyond the summary given above.

Based on my limited reading, I like the description of “new leadership” (related to distributed leadership) attributed to Fullan (2008), which include:

  • respect of employees, rather than simplistic judgmentalism;
    A specific focus of this project is to help teaching staff consider the alignment of their courses. It is not to judge them. Biggs (2001) makes the point that under the type of reflective institution he outlines, the focus is on the teaching, not the teacher.
  • connecting peers with purpose and ownership;
    By embedding indications of alignment into the LMS the aim is to create connections between other teaching staff, academic leaders and also teaching support staff. The clear purpose is around considering alignment.
  • building employees’ and systems capacity; and
    This is the specific aim of the project. Building into the institution the capacity in both the employees and its systems to engage regularly in consideration of alignment.
  • transparency of practice and results.
    At the very least, the aim of this project is to enable teaching staff within the same program (i.e. group of courses/degree etc.) to see each others practice. To show what is aligned, where (or where not). It opens up the teaching practice to colleagues, hopefully in a way that is not judgmental.

Process

Based on some of the above and below, I’m leaning very much towards an action research process. The practice of L&T within a university is a complex-adaptive system. As we introduce change into the system, the system will change around us and unexpected event will happen. The type of change suggested involves a fairly widespread change in the practice of teaching academics, but also the institution. In addition, as far as I’m aware, no-one else has tried and reported on this type of change, hence it is novel. While driving towards a particular goal, we have to aim on learning as much as we can during the process.

In addition, Biggs (2001) offers the following

action research, a methodology designed precisely to generate and evaluate in-context innovations (Elliott 1991). As a result of engaging in action research, teachers change their conceptions of teaching, and teach more effectively (Kember 2000).

This type of approach also fits very closely with what is known about staff development.
i.e. the current recommendations are that staff development should be as contextualised as possible. My conception of how teaching staff would be helped to consider the alignment of their courses contains a very heavy assumption on contextualised staff development. In fact, the presence of alignment information and the transparency between courses is aimed at helping this support and development to be increasingly contextualised to the every day teaching practice of the teaching staff.

Teaching practice

One of the fundamental models/theories underpinning this project for me is the observations embodied in the following.

How academics design their teaching is not described by a rational planning model (Lattuca and Stark 2009). In part, this is because the dominant setting for academics is teaching an existing course, generally one the academic has taught previously. In such a setting, academics spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content (Stark 2000). Academics are usually not often required to engage in the development of new courses or major overhauls of existing courses (Stark and Lowther 1988).

The practice of most academics does not separate planning from implementation, and rather than starting with explicit course objectives, starts with content (Lattuca and Stark 2009). In the absence of formally documented teaching goals, the actual teaching and learning that occurs is more in line with the teacher’s implicit internalised knowledge, than that described in published course descriptions (Levander and Mikkola 2009). Formal descriptions of the curriculum do not necessarily provide much understanding about how teachers put their curriculum ideas into action (Argyris and Schon 1974)

References

Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Oxford, England: Jossey-Bass.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Biggs, J. (2001). The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 221-238.

Cohen, S. A. (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet. Educational Researcher, 16(8), 16-20.

Fullan, M. (2008). The Six secrets of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jameson, J. (2006). Leadership in post-compulsory education: Inspiring leaders of the future. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Kember, D. (2000). Action Learning and Action Research: Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Lattuca, L., & Stark, J. (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Levander, L., & Mikkola, M. (2009). Core curriculum analysis: A tool for educational design. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 15(3), 275-286.

Marshall, S. (2006). Issues in the development of leadership for learning and teaching in higher education (Occasional paper). Sydney: Carrick Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Stark, J. (2000). Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form. Instructional Science, 28(5), 413-438.

Stark, J., & Lowther, M. (1988). Strengthening the Ties That Bind: Integrating Undergraduate Liberal and Professional Study. Ann Arbor, MI: Professional Preparation Project.

Southwell, D., & Morgan, W. (2009). Leadership and the impact of academic staff development and leadership development on student learning outcomes in higher education: A review of the literature. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.