HERDSA 2011 – day two

After a game of learning and teaching lingo bingo, designed to help visitors from other education systems gain understanding of the Australian higher education context, day two started with a key note by Professor Ann Austin, Michigan State University. Professor Austin is the author of Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education’s strategic Imperative (http://edwp2.educ.msu.edu/aaustin/?p=107) and a contributor to Becoming an Academic (http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?PID=346778). In her speech, she echoed Bradley’s thoughts – that governments are recognising that higher education institutions are central to economic success, although with reductions in funding and increased competition through the various rankings, both internal and external.

The implication for academics is that academics need to understand the fiscal environment, and that we are often asked to be more entrepreneurial – finding ways to engage funding for our work. This also means that academics need to understand how to explain learning outcomes, and to explain the importance and relevance of their work. There is a greater accountability of what we do. Professor Austin argues that these implications and expectations need to be addressed by all academics – not just our central governance. At the same time we have the increased pressure to provide high quality education that can cope with diversity and increased student numbers – not just in Australia.

This all places a lot of pressure on academics – a need for flexibility and agility. This is being pushed as something new, but perhaps it is just a changing focus? Academics have always had to be flexible and agile – in our research and in our teaching. We need to change our thoughts and approaches rapidly as our research validates or exposes hypotheses; we need to change the way we teach in response to student feedback. But perhaps what it is is that there is more frequent demand for agility from more avenues? Perhaps there is also more expectation of agility and flexibility across more areas for academics – new technologies that open more opportunities and introduce more expectations from colleagues and students; greater communication that is not as constrained to scheduled portions of our day. Professor Austin identifies this 24/7 aspect of modern academia as one of the greatest challenges facing academics. Greater flexibility in how we do our job does not mean that we do everything that we do all of the time.

What is of concern to many current academics, and discussed in many venues, is the fate of aspiring academics. Universities are responding to increased pressures, in part, with the introduction of new types of appointments, including teaching intensive and research intensive appointments. For potential and early career academics, this introduces a new pressure, one of identifying their career path at an early stage, and without (currently) well formed promotion or career pathways. Larger numbers of sessional staff, and correspondingly reductions in full-time, tenured positions means that potential academics face lower salaries, higher teaching loads and reduced job security while they are trying to establish, in some cases but not all, research reputations.

Professor Austin spoke of the concerns of these staff, and something which had not occurred to me: a reduction in the collegial atmosphere of the academic workplace. An atmosphere that attracts potential academics, but one that is not being delivered in modern universities. There is a call to balance competition with collegiality; to rethink the way that we communicate with our colleagues, how we engage and mentor new academics, and how we balance our lives. Equity, one of the most important ideals of a university, is a requirement of all aspects of a university – the way that we treat our students and our staff – calling for respect for the diverse range of academics that contribute within the higher education sector, rather than only for those that deliver on ERA.

As always at a conference, much of the day is spent rushing from session to session, where small snippets of information waft around, waiting to embed themselves into your head. I say that as it is very difficult to present a complete idea in fifteen minutes – the required skill of a conference presenter. So often, for myself at least, I manage to glean a few interesting pointers, thoughts and often questions, from a presentation rather than a coherent picture of a complete project. Here are some of the pointers from today’s sessions:

Talent pushing talent – the design of an honours college bulit upon Joseph Renzulli’s work analysing talent development (three rings of giftedness, and school wide enrichment model). An interesting part of this presentation was the analysis of students who dropped out of the honours stream, specifically identifying the common reasons of the balance between the increased workload, and perceived benefit.

Leading on the Edge of Chaos – a longitudinal case study of an institutional merger, looking at how staff felt about the process over time, and their engagement with the process. Merger is a dramatic process, requiring a sudden change in organisational structures, day to day processes and culture. Literature recommends both top down leadership (CSU is an example here) and also participatory leadership. Unsurprisingly the appointments process during a merger is crucial, with multiple senior management teams merged into one and a potential for negativity around issues of balance in the merged managerial team from the initial teams, motivations behind appointments, and balance of power between initial groups; conflict at a management level leading to unrest throughout an institution. Interestingly, when faced with a culture of uncertainly, the general culture of the academics can become quite passive. One interesting idea discussed here was based around the concept that some architects leave the finalisation of pathways until they observe where people walk – in any new process, where processes etc may be defined after a period of adjustment, people need to be told that this will happen so that they don’t feel left to walk in the mud.

A pilot study on the implementation of the ALTC peer review of teaching process, which provided some fascinating insights into the difficulties of this process – the work and effort required, the need to engage senior staff as reviewers, and the stress that can be incurred by all staff involved. Overall, though, this discussion highlighted the usefulness of the ALTC resources, including training for reviewers involved in a peer review process, which may be of benefit even if a modified peer review process is used.

Although I was unable to attend as I was at HERDSA branch lunch, I am very interested in the program leader resources launched at the program leaders lunch, http://www.griffith.edu.au/education/program-leaders, including a National Program Leader Summit in October, 2011.

After lunch, I attended several sessions on assessment. Some key pointers from these: team based learning (Michaelson and Smith, 2008, http://www.teambasedlearning.org/), in particular the ALTC project looking at embedding generic skills in business curriculum, http://www.altc.edu.au/project-embedding-development-grading-macquarie-2008; developing coherent assessment across a program by using common language and guidelines (or rubrics) to describe tasks, creating a stream of tasks, with increasing complexity, across a program, and adhering to discipline conventions (processes, language, etc) from an early stage; Towards Fairer University Assessment by Flint and Johnson, http://www.taylorandfrancis.com/books/details/9780415578134/; authentic assessment tasks within engineering, referencing work by Hughes on understanding and articulating assessment tasks (http://www.uq.edu.au/uqresearchers/researcher/hughescp.html?uv_category=pub); Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe; Assessment Futures, http://www.iml.uts.edu.au/assessment-futures/; McLean, Bond and Nicholson’s HERDSA 2011 paper on feedback (detailed reference list on reconceptualising feedback and assessment).

The discussion of rubrics above reminded me of the usefulness of the ERGA rubric collection, which provides a multi discipline collection of rubric examples that may be useful to academics: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/erga/rubrics/

I am also interested by the UQ teaching fellowship program: http://www.uq.edu.au/teaching-learning/?page=120522. I have seen several interesting projects come out of this, so it appears that this structure provides sufficient time to undertake the work required, and interestingly, requires fellows to spend some of their time within their Teaching and Education Development Institute. I will need to follow this up, regarding budget and organization etc…

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