Fostering collaboration in staff training through a top-down and bottom-up approach
Gustavo Espinoza-Ramos explains how pairing top-down and bottom-up approaches to staff development can promote collaborative learning among university staff at all levels
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The rapid adoption of online teaching methods in the past two years has highlighted digital capability gaps among academics that need to be urgently addressed to improve the quality of university education long term. Online teaching requires a more collaborative approach to course design and delivery, drawing on the expertise across different departments of a university. So it is important to get “buy-in” for improving digital skills from staff at all levels and to foster productive working relationships among everyone in an institution.
The University of Westminster developed a top-down training programme focused on how to use technological tools available for online teaching such as the virtual learning environment (VLE). This was supported by a bottom-up approach that saw lecturers sharing their insight and best practice learned when using the online tools in their specific teaching contexts. This advice was shared through video tutorials and provided advice customised to lecturers’ needs in online teaching. By involving staff in shaping the training process, this dual approach has fostered a much greater sense of collaboration.
Top-down training pros and cons
The training programme set out to address the digital skills gaps among teaching teams who needed upskilling in the new VLE as well as a better understanding of the functions of other teaching and communication platforms such as Blackboard Collaborate, MS Teams, Zoom, Padlet, Poll Everywhere and Panopto.
This training programme took a predominantly prescriptive approach where academic leaders and learning innovation professionals determined the training and development needs and sought to align these with the technological tools available within the university.
This offers advantages such as scheduled training and development opportunities, a virtual space where attendees could watch video recordings of workshops, and most importantly a space for attendees to share their concerns and experiences about online curriculum delivery.
However, the disadvantages to such formalised training include the time commitment to attend, a potential lack of “tailoring” to individual needs, and insufficient time for discussion.
To mitigate these disadvantages, a parallel approach should be sought that benefits time-constrained staff and better meets the specific practice needs of lecturers. This should support the development of a space where lecturers can share their own good practices in online teaching with one another.
Developing bottom-up support
While working for a telecommunications company in Peru designing training plans, I found it most effective to invite employees to determine their own training needs and then involve some of them in the delivery of training.
I’ve since applied this strategy within the university context. Many colleagues had good tips for using the ed-tech tools but did not have a space or platform via which to share their insight and expertise with the rest of the teaching team. The solution was the creation of a repository of video tutorials produced by lecturers that not only showed the practical basics of how a technology tool worked but also revealed good pedagogical practices and tips.
So how can one best engage lecturers to produce and consume such videos?
Demonstrating value and empowering lecturers
The first step is to clearly demonstrate and communicate the benefits, in order to reduce resistance to change and convince lecturers to both record and view others’ video tutorials. Empowering lecturers to plan and direct their own learning and professional development promotes a collaborative organisational culture and improves the sense of identity across the team.
The value of such a repository of video tutorials was seen initially in the School of Management and Marketing. Videos developed by management and marketing lecturers were shared to groups across the wider business school and within weeks had been shared across the whole of the university. This helped provide evidence of the value of both creating and viewing such peer-to-peer advice content.
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Flexible training delivery
Our collaborative approach to improving the digital capability of academic colleagues also involved delivering training and development in a blended format so participants watched instructional videos and answered questions online in their own time, before attending live sessions where the training and answers were discussed and any issues or challenges could be raised.
Ongoing feedback and communication
As the technology and teaching approaches evolve, the video tutorials need updating to stay relevant and useful. This requires an ongoing process of collating feedback from viewers and inviting new insight and best practice from across the sector. Regular promotion of the benefits of the repository of video tutorials at a department and school level is key. Ideally, make the repository part of the induction material for new teaching staff.
Tying top-down and bottom-up strategies together
For the wider benefit of the institution, it is essential for bottom-up initiatives to meet top-down programmes halfway. This will facilitate efficient use of the support and development resources available and reduce the likelihood of confusion and duplication of resources, which waste staff’s precious time.
Involving staff at every level in the training and development process guarantees greater buy-in by academic colleagues to improve digital capability – something that is needed across most institutions to ensure digital teaching tools transform the student experience for the better.
Gustavo Espinoza-Ramos is a researcher, co-module leader and lecturer at the Westminster Business School at the University of Westminster.