The realities of the ERA and L&T support services

In mid-October last year I blogged about my search for a research publication outlet. The conclusion was that in my context, the Australasian Journal of Education Technology (AJET) was probably the best fit. It is an open journal and the first round of the Australian government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative had ranked AJET as an A journal, second only to A*.

More recently that blog post got a reference in an AJET editorial (that the editors are referencing a blog post in an editorial is a good sign for AJET, especially if it is one of mine). The editors hope was

that his recommendation, written in 2009 when AJET was a Tier A journal, will not change as a result of AJET’s demotion to Tier B in the 2010 list

I’m sad to say, that it probably will!

Why?

There are two reasons why:

  1. the on-going uncertainty around L&T support services within Australian higher education; and
  2. the increasing force of having to comply with government indicators.

On-going uncertainty

Early in 2007 I moved from being a faculty-based academic in the information systems discipline to a role within a central L&T support division. Within about 6 months of taking on the role, the then Director of that L&T division was told her services were no longer needed. Apparently, they were after someone with a greater research focus, rather than on getting things done for the institution. The division limped on for around another 18 months while they failed in appointing such a person. During this time, rumour was rife that we would be restructured, though officially this was not confirmed. By the end of 2008 the restructure was complete, I was in position limbo for 6 months (theoretically better than having been made redundant, but I’m still trying to decide if that was the case) and the institution tried again (again unsuccessfully) to appoint a Professor to lead the unit.

So, as you might deduce, there has been little certainty for the folk in L&T support services. Oh, by the way, the institution has finally admitted that the last restructure was somewhat less than successful in its outcomes (of which they were informed many times back in 2008) and they recognise they need to address this problem. By another restructure. So, again, there isn’t a lot of certainty.

This is not something unique to my current institution. A regular topic of conversation at the last ASCILITE conference was around the restructuring of L&T services. It seemed that every second person from an L&T support area was going through, just been through or predicting they would go through a restructure. Just recently I heard that the Director of another L&T support area is being replaced with someone who has a more research focus. Deja vu all over again.

In the past, I have argued that this is, at least partly – if not mostly, to do with the absence of any broadly agreed indicators for the quality or impact of L&T support. Combine this with the fact (or at least strong likelihood) that every senior manager who has taught a course thinks he/she has a unique insight into how to support L&T at a university and the sheer complexity of such a task, and you have a recipe of on-going change, little or no success and little certainty for the folk within such centers.

Requirement to comply

The ERA itself is just one example of the Australian government specifying indicators of success. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an argument to be made the universities should be accountable. However, as I’ve argued before such indicators are generally very poor and at best result in compliance and at worst task corruption.

For example, I’ve seen in the last few weeks the following:

  • A faculty dean’s report to academic board spend a lot of time explaining how many A* journal publications the faculty had produced.
  • New guidelines for course (my institution uses american terms, so a course is the smallest unit of education offered by the institution, a program is a collection of courses) coordinators that specify having a graduate certificate of higher education – or the intent to get one – a desirable criteria.
  • A job in a central L&T support area that listed having a graduate certificate in higher education as the first necessary criteria.

To me these are indications that the compliance has begun. Senior management at universities have decided, regardless of other reasoning, to adopt the government indicators as prime decision criteria. This is bad because a heavy focus on these types of indicators gives a false sense of security that we’re doing the right thing. It reinforces simplistic beliefs. e.g. that if teachers with a formal teaching qualification will be better teachers. A belief that ignores a whole bunch of literature around the impact of context – i.e. if the context of a university does not value L&T, it will not be good.

It will encourage a generation of senior leaders at universities that focus on these indicators rather than a broader and deeper understanding of what it takes to encourage and enable effective teaching and important research. This is because most of the current senior leadership roles at Australian universities are short-term appointments – 3 to 5 years. You can’t effectively and broadly improve the teaching and research at a university in 3 to 5 years, but you can sure as hell pragmatically hit some simplistic indicators.

The pragmatic defense

Worse still, this combination of factors encourages academics in L&T support areas to be seen to comply with the indicators. If you’re uncertain about the value senior leaders place on the contribution of L&T support areas, the best way to ensure a place at the table is to have lots of A* journal publications, important grants etc. You need to have a place at the table because you can’t effectively battle against the short-term focus on broken indicators when you’re on the outer. Even if you don’t get to the table, given the uncertainty and a likely need to retain some sort of salary, you need to have fulfilled these indicators so you can get a job at another institution.

What’s even sadder is that you probably can’t effectively battle against the short-term focus on broken indicators even when you’re sitting at the table. Sadder again is the observation is that your focus on these indicators may end up changing you.

My potential publication outlets

Sadly, at least in the short-term, AJET has slipped down the rankings. It probably won’t be my first target for publication in the next couple of years. I have to hit the A*/A journals. Hopefully, I can find one of those that is somewhat open – I believe ALT-J has some sort of set up that is somewhat open.

Choosing a research publication outlet

I’m reluctant to post this. It’s part of a pragmatic approach to figuring out where, as an Australian academic, I should try and target publications. It seeks to identify publications in the higher education and educational technology areas that would be “best”.

I’m well aware of the questionable aspects of this approach, but if this is the game…. Especially when your institution is starting to discuss definitions of research active staff – the implication being that if you aren’t research active you don’t get time to do research – that include requirements for fixed numbers of A and A* journals within a 3 year period.

My mitigation strategy against this type of pragmatism is that I am fairly open when it comes to my research. Much of it gets an airing here first. It’s not much, but better than nothing (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself).

For my immediate purposes, it looks like AJET is a good fit. A journal that is open access.

Work to do

  • Find out how much value is placed on the difference between A and A* journals.
  • Check the final lists from the government to see if rankings have changed.

What’s your suggestion?

What’s the “best” publication outlet?

I’m assuming that when it comes to writing a paper based on that research that the first step is to choose the outlet. Which journal or conference are you aiming the paper at? I think you need to answer this question as there is a part of the writing process that has to respond to the specifics of the outlet (e.g. address the theme of a conference etc.).
In answering this question, I can think of at least the following dimensions to consider:

  1. Quality.
    There are two common strategies I’ve heard: top down or bottom up. Bottom up folk go for the “worst” journal based on the hope that their poor article will get accepted. The top down folk suggest starting at the top because you never know, you might get lucky, and if you don’t you will at least get good feedback to improve the paper. At this stage you prepare it for submission to outlet #2.
  2. Fit.
    i.e. the one which best fits the topic or point of your paper. Which may be to visit Hawaii (conference) or might be a topic match (the paper “Gerbils preference in social software” might be a good fit for the journal “Studies in Gerbil Selection of Social Software”.
  3. Speed of review.
    How quickly will the journal accept and publish your paper.
  4. Openness.
    Are the papers published in a closed or open manner? Can you circulate copies? Is the journal an open access journals .

The rankings approach that is increasingly prevalent tends to suggest that “Quality” is the first choice. The following focuses on the quality dimension, however, in operation there needs to be an appropriate balance with the other factors.

How to judge the top quality publication?

The “top quality publication” dimension begs the question, “How do you know what is the top quality publication?”. In some disciplines this is a clear cut thing. You can’t be a researcher within a field without knowing. The trouble is that in some other fields, it’s not so clear. Especially if you’re new to the field.

Those wonderful folk in the Australian government, following the lead of their British colleagues, are making it easier for us poor Australian academics. As part of this work they are developing “discipline-specific tiered outlet rankings”. i.e. if you want to play the game, you follow their rankings – while trying to balance the other dimensions.

While the Oz government lists are still under development John Lamp is providing a nice interface to view the rankings as part of his broader site. There’s a but field of research method and a search. This is provided for two lists from the Australian Research Council – an early draft one and a more recent one. The recent one isn’t that integrated into the database – so the following information is a bit out of date, but it gives an indication.

In the following I’ve selected those journals of potentially most interest to me – I could be mistaken and have left some important ones out – but it’s a start. I’ve added a link to the journal home page and made some comments from my look at their online information.

My main interests are in educational technology within higher education, so that’s the focus. Suggestions and comments welcome.

One of the outstanding tasks I have, is to determine how much of a difference folk are making between A and A* journals.

Higher education

Most of these are selected from this list

Ranking Journal Comments
A* Higher Education Research and Development Max 7000 words
Closed access
6 issues a year
A* Studies in Higher Education Max 7000 words
Closed access
8 issues a year
A Higher Education Quarterly

Associated with Society for Reseach in Higher Education
Closed
A Higher Education Review 5K to 10K words
Copyright is assigned to Tyrrell Burgess Associates with a fee? to cover all rights. Author allowed to circulate with acknolwedgement
This is interesting

HIGHER EDUCATION REVIEW is committed to a problem-based epistemology. In all countries there is an urgent need to formulate the problems of post school education, to propose alternative solutions and to test them. The policy and practice of governments and institutions require constant scrutiny. New policies and ideas are needed in all forms of post school education as new challenges arise.

A International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

he specific emphasis of IJTLHE is the dissemination of knowledge for improving higher education pedagogy.

Review process ~ 3 months
Open
4K to 7K words
3 types of article: research, instructional (designed to explain and clarify innovative higher education teaching methods) and review

A Journal of Higher Education 6 issues a year
Paper-based submission!!!
Max 30 pages, double-spaced
12 months submission to publication (usuaully)
closed
A Teaching in Higher Education One aim of journal “identifies new agendas for research”
3K to 6K words
6 issues a year
closed

Coming out of that table, the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education sounds interesting, at least for me. It’s open access, shortish review times, promise of good feedback, has a couple of types of articles and is related to the scholarship of learning and teaching which is connection to an aspect of my current position.

Educational technology journals

Most of these came from this list

Ranking Journal Comments
A* British Journal of Educational Technology Closed
Various suggestions it’s the top journal in this sort of field.
Only 4000 words
Not clear about hosting your own sites
6 issues a year
A* Computers & Education Closed
8 issues a year
Impact factor higher than BJET?
Apparently horrible restrictions on reuse
Authors suggest reviewers!
No max length
A ALT-J 3 times a year
Basically closed
5K words
A Australasian Journal of Educational Technology Open access
5k to 8K words, with occasional flexibility
A Australian Educational Computing 2 issues a year
Closed
A Educational Technology & Society Open access
7K words
About 4 issues a year
A Educational Technology Research and Development Closed
Claimed two month review process
5K to 8K words
A Journal of Computer Assisted Learning Closed
3K to 7K words
A Technology Pedagogy and Education Closed
3 issues a year
B International Journal on E-Learning Closed
AACE journal
B Internet and Higher Education Closed
10 to 30 pages double spaced
C Studies in Learning Evaluation Innovation and Development Open
3K to 6K
Disclaimer: I’m associated with this journal

Discipline specific and curriculum

Sometimes I do work with discipline folk, some of the following might be interesting. More of these journals here. I’ve only included links for these.

Ranking Journal
A* Management Learning
A* Nursing outlook
A* Science Education
A Computer Science Education
A Journal of Engineering Education