Analysis: Is prodigy finally ready to prosper?

August 16, 2002

Teaching agency the LTSN has won many friends - but can it keep them? asks Pat Leon

While City brokers measure success by the bulge of their business portfolio, higher education brokers believe in "evaluation". The newest broker on the block, the Learning and Teaching Support Network, has had its fair share of evaluations since its launch more than two-and-a-half years ago, and there are more to come.

Sir Ron Cooke, retiring vice-chancellor of York University, is leading a team that will for the next five months be sizing up the work of the LTSN and three other agencies involved in improving the quality of teaching in universities - the Institute for Learning and Teaching, the Higher Education Staff Development Agency and the Quality Assurance Agency. The outcome will be yet more remapping of the teaching terrain.

The cost of the LTSN - £40 million over five years - is far higher than that of Hesda or the ILT, with which it was initially co-located and by which it is still managed. The ILT, however, is a membership organisation, whereas the LTSN is a public programme, which makes the arrangement more odd as time goes on, according to some.

Against such an uncertain backdrop, LTSN staff based in 24 subject centres in universities across the UK and at its executive and generic centre in York are mulling over a draft of the third biannual evaluation to see how it fits the medium-term quality enhancement agenda the Cooke team is developing.

The evaluation by Lancaster University researchers gauges the academic community's awareness of the LTSN brand and whether the network is making a difference to teaching.

The news is pretty good. "The data generated thus far paint a picture of an active and dynamic network that has won allies and is recognised and supported," the researchers said.

The LTSN's unique selling points are the disciplines at the heart of academic identity. As one pro vice-chancellor says in the draft report, this approach "is potentially extraordinarily radical and revolutionary".

The model has attracted attention from abroad, particularly from Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and the US. Peter Knight, a member of the Lancaster team and director of the Open University's Centre of Outcomes-based Education, said: "It looks like it could be a world-class act."

But can the momentum be sustained given the time pressure on academics and the conflict between research and teaching cultures? The bottom-up nature of building a teaching knowledge network can also clash with top-down policies such as widening participation and employability.

Richard Blackwell, generic centre senior adviser, said: "The LTSN is increasingly having to take on board government funding priorities. That pressure wasn't so strong when we started."

The survey reveals discontent about the short-termism of funding for centre staff and the low level of recognition of the generic centre, where some see the biggest overlap with the work of the ILT.

The generic centre looks at issues that cross subject boundaries, such as assessment or e-learning. This work filters through to the subject centres and education development units.

Cliff Allen, LTSN programme director, said that the core role of subject centres was to collect and collate evidence of good teaching. "But it is hard to extract. Most departments do not document, collate or celebrate it in the same way as research. There is an embarrassment about talking about teaching.

"Subject centre staff have had to put a lot of effort into visiting departments and talking to staff and to convince of the value of recording good practice," he said.

Subject centres employ four or five people. From their host institutions they build a network of contacts particularly with subject associations, and organise workshops, seminars and conferences.

The web has been an integral part of building their profiles and collating and disseminating material. Design may differ, but all are stamped with the LTSN logo. Most make use of department heads to get a link representative.

"Local contacts, whether the head of department, a learning and teaching fellow or just someone who's been fingered, are starting to get on the institutions' teaching and learning committees," MrAllen said. These committees are pivotal in forming institutional learning and teaching strategies.

Some 17 subject centres have built research into their mission statements, and 22 are commissioning research on teaching and learning. The LTSN offers a brokerage service for researchers seeking partners.

About 20 centres have taken up a small grants scheme, which offers £5,000 for miniprojects such as writing case studies or for other activities that are close to the shop floor. But there is a problem. "In some disciplines it is more difficult, if not impossible, to get acceptance because the discipline research culture is so strong and high-status rewards depend on your profile," Mr Blackwell said.

Nevertheless, subject centre staff are involved in at least five of the shortlisted bids for phase three of the Economic and Social Research Council's teaching and learning research programme.

Proposals include staff from the materials, physical sciences and built environment centre working on problem-solving for science and engineering students, and geography centre staff involved in enhancing disabled students' learning experience.

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told the second LTSN annual conference in Birmingham in February that he was impressed with how the LTSN was garnering expertise.

"All the money and kudos presently flows in the direction of research. We need to assure those who devote their creative efforts to teaching that they will not go unrewarded," he said.

This has given teaching enthusiasts hope. As George Gordon, director of Strathclyde University's Centre for Academic Proactive Practice and a review consultant, said: "Membership organisations, such as the ILT, have the potential to reach 10 or maybe 20 per cent or more of workforce, the LTSN has potential to reach 100 per cent."

SURVEY RESULTS

* Researchers from Lancaster University's Centre of Educational Research found that junior staff were more likely to have heard of the LTSN than readers, professors or deans, at 90 per cent and 79 per cent respectively.

* Smaller departments were less likely to have heard of it(80 per cent) than medium or large departments (93 per cent).

* The influence of subject centres at departmental level was positive. Forty-nine per cent said their work was already changing and 67 per cent that the LTSN had the potential to affect teaching and learning.

* Professional subject associations said the activities complemented their work and half thought it was changing their work.

* The researchers contacted 455 departments at 18 higher education institutions and received responses from 219.

* They interviewed each university's pro vice-chancellor(teaching and learning) and the education development unit head as well as 35 subject associations.

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