A never-ending learning story

January 20, 1995

Teaching and studying methods must be revolutionised if lecturers and students are to meet the challenges of modern life, says Patricia Partington.

Reforms are necessary in learning and teaching processes in higher education. Former methods of teaching were heavily tutor-dependent. Lecture, seminar and tutorial were both necessary and appropriate. In times when printed knowledge was rare, its oral transmission was essential; and tutor dependency was realistic because of the small numbers involved.

The possibilities for learning are now very different, with comparatively rich library resources and unprecedented advances of information technology. And how necessary these resources are to assist in the learning development of students who face radically different career patterns and for whom learning to learn will be the most significant lesson.

Traditionally the preparation of academics for their work relied on role-modelling through close association with their tutors. Now that the role itself can change within a short timespan, preparation for it needs to be thoroughly reviewed.

The initial preparation and continuing professional development of tutors for their work with students needs to be related to their overall role and responsibilities. Comparisons have been made with the preparation of teachers elsewhere in education, and the lack of obligation for academics to undertake formal teacher training has been criticised. The role of an academic is, however, different from that of a teacher.

Organising and supporting pupils' learning in schools is the essence of the teacher's role. In a university department the role changes to include research and a narrowing of teaching responsibilities to areas of specialism, rather than the broader remit of general learning support. The training required for these similar but distinctive roles needs to be different.

Professional development for an academic must reflect the full range of tasks involved and the emphasis on the subject specialism, which is at the core of the learner-tutor relationship.

Attempts to make compulsory those programmes of development which focus on teaching only, and narrowly on general pedagogy, are likely to face understandable resistance, perhaps most particularly in universities in which most academics carry out both teaching and research. This is not to argue that there is no obligation to be professionally prepared for the tasks, rather that those tasks need to be analysed with the tutors involved, before a programme is shaped to the needs of academics within their particular discipline and culture.

Many universities have undertaken such analyses with the guidance of their staff development units, in some cases working with academic colleagues. The results and progress made have been impressive. There exists now a range of approaches to academic staff development, which reflects the varying needs across differing universities. Most higher education institutions have by now developed programmes which induct staff into their responsibilities and include guidance on their roles as teacher and researcher as well as, in some cases, pointers to the effective management of both areas of work. All these strands need to be carried forward in personal and professional development programmes, in order to prepare academics for their diverse and changing roles.

In recent years training for teaching has captured most attention -- understandably, since it had been neglected compared with opportunities for research development. Several institutions have developed their own qualification programmes -- at certificate, diploma and masters levels -- in higher education teaching and learning, and some have made them obligatory for newly appointed staff. In several institutions the undertaking of such courses through extended induction programmes or award-bearing programmes, is included in the conditions of service of academics. There has also been a development towards a national scheme of accreditation for programmes of teacher training, formulated by the Staff and Educational Development Association. Further detail of examples of all the above schemes can be gained from the Universities' and Colleges' Staff Development Agency.

The availability of programmes does not guarantee their effectiveness and there remains a question about the impact these sorts of training programmes -- how many staff value them and how effectively they improve students' educational experience.

There is also concern that they have been driven by external pressures to demonstrate aspects of quality assurance systems, rather than by intrinsic motivation of staff to develop their teaching to the changing needs of students. A superficial and possibly short-term "flirtation" may be being encouraged with a professional area which deserves more attention. But how is this to be achieved? It is doubtful that pushing academics on compulsory programmes of development secures a career-long commitment to effective teaching, particularly if the staff involved have had little involvement in shaping them, and the programmes are not discipline-related.

Nonetheless our students do have a right to expect assured standards of teaching and assured quality of educational experience; and this implies continuing development and training.

So where should we go from here? A review is needed of the level of demand by academics for such programmes; the professional development needs as perceived by academics; the content and range of existing programmes, and the future requirements of academics given the developing nature of their roles and contracts.

UCoSDA is to support a survey early in 1995 which will encompass some of these elements. The data and results of such a review would provide the information-base for individual institutions to shape or reshape their provision. This might lead to career-long, professional development programmes, which integrate preparation and continuing renewal for research, learning development, teaching -- with a discipline-specific focus; and related management. Academics could then take advantage of the different components at appropriate career stages, based on continuing career development plans.

However, this is to prejudge the findings of a survey and from the perspective of someone who might be seen to have a vested interest. Experience of discussions with staff in institutions has indicated that staff developers together with senior staff, constrained by external policies and politics, must resist the temptation to force training provision on staff with insufficient consultation, which therefore caters neither in content for their needs nor in style for their taste. They would be criticised for such practice with students.

The obligation of senior staff and staff developers is to have adequately resourced, a range of training provision for academic staff for their particular needs within their environment, and to ensure that students have an educational experience of quality. This might include both non-qualification and award-bearing programmes of teaching development to address diverse career aspirations of staff.

Such programmes might also incorporate "tailored" developments such as the recent Engineering Professors' Council/UCoSDA materials and courses designed for engineering tutors, which is to be continued with other disciplines. If institutions were to put resources into the development of flexible schemes, which embrace all aspects of the role then academics might see the value of personal and career development planning, as well as appreciating training.

One of the major concerns of all staff is with preparing students for their changing and challenging futures. The ability to learn, to continue to learn and to be amenable to change are key to that preparation. One of the most successful ways of developing those habits and attitudes in students is to ensure that they are reflected in our own behaviours and practices.

Patricia Partington is chief executive of the universities and colleges staff development agency.

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