Analysis: 'What is your subject centre doing for you?'

November 17, 2000

That's one of the first questions Hefce chief Sir Brian Fender will be asking staff in universities he visits. Claire Sanders and Alison Utley report on the new Learning and Teaching Support network.

The Learning and Teaching Support Network was launched last month, with a brief that boils down to improving student learning in universities. Sound familiar? With an often bewildering array of departmental and institutional quality control procedures to contend with, not to mention the Quality Assurance Agency reviews and initiatives flowing out of the fledgling Institute for Learning and Teaching (that has its base in York in the same building as the support network), why does HE need another body to encourage good practice in teaching? Particularly with the next research assessment exercise looming.

Brenda Smith, head of the support network's generic centre, stresses that the centre has no role as an agent of quality control, nor in monitoring departmental performance, despite being set up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "There is a lot of good practice out there but it is often isolated in small pockets and not available in the rest of the sector," she said. "It is my job to make it available."

The generic centre exists to collect together know-how and expertise on generic learning issues and to support universities in delivering their learning and teaching strategies. Dr Smith will be building links between the 24 subject centres set up this year to offer teaching expertise within a discipline-specific context (see map).

"The subject focus recognises that for many lecturers it is at this level where most networking and exchange of learning and teaching practice takes place," Dr Smith said. "But, at the same time, most teaching issues are generic. We want the subject centres to identify problem areas. We may not necessarily hold all the expertise in the centre, but we know who does."

Those working in the subject centres can pass on specific concerns to the centre. In the following profiles of five subject centres, it is clear that while they share many concerns - such as impending visits from the QAA - they also have different perspectives. For some, the international perspective is important, for others it is the relationships with professional bodies, and for yet others it is copyright issues as centres struggle with disseminating good practice in a global market.

Psychology

York University is host to the Psychology Subject Centre. The director, Nick Hammond, said his aim was not to be the sole source of expertise in the teaching of psychology, but to develop a network for lecturer support in campuses around the country. Integral to this will be the appointment of two groups of specialist consultants to encourage discussion on teaching and learning issues and to stimulate debate. One group will be recruited for their knowledge in a particular branch of psychology, and the other will have experience of different educational methods, such as small group teaching or support for mature students.

"Our consultants will be expected to take an active part in engaging the community by, for example, setting up email discussions or workshops," Dr Hammond said.

The centre has already sent out a preliminary survey of the needs of heads of psychology departments, which is intended to direct the activities of the centre. And there has been a request for psychologists everywhere to suggest mini-projects relating to teaching or assessment. These will be a way of getting new techniques, which have already been explored on a small scale, to a wider audience. About seven or eight projects are likely to be funded each year, backed by a grant of about £5,000 each. One idea already under way will create video libraries to aid the teaching of social and developmental psychology.

"While it is sometimes difficult to describe adequately what people do, there is no reason these days why students should not watch them doing it," said Donald Laming of Cambridge University, who suggested the mini-project. The aim is to collect together suitable video material, to be stored digitally and downloaded by students as they need it.

Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Brian Chalkley, director of the Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, is keen to stress that the centre represents just that - three disciplines - and is not to be shortened to the national centre for geography. Like so many of the centres, it brings together a number of interested communities, and plans to provide a focal point that will simplify an area littered with acronyms, small initiatives and independent, but burgeoning, networks.

The original bid for the centre came from the University of Plymouth, which matched Hefce's £0,000 in the form of a suite of offices and support services, with representations from the professional bodies. The bid included comments from heads of department at old and new universities.

Helen King, centre manager, said that the centre had involved old and new universities in equal measure. "There are variations," she said, "because earth sciences are taught more in old than in new universities but, on the whole, we are not talking to any one part of the sector."

The centre staff reflect the many communities it has to reach. Professor Chalkley's background is in human geography and, crucially, he was a member of the QAA geography benchmarking panel. Geography, like law, was one of the first subjects to be assessed under the old teaching quality assessment system and so will be one of the first to go through academic review.

Dr King's background is in geology with physics and the centre's senior advisers have backgrounds in the three academic disciplines covered, as well as in information technology.

The centre has had about a 50 per cent response rate to its needs analysis questionnaire and has so far identified the integration of key skills, the impending academic review and fieldwork as hot topics.

Fieldwork is particularly crucial to all three of the centre's disciplines and there is some anxiety that virtual teaching will replace it in universities with large numbers and limited resources. One of the centre's first conferences, at the end of November, will be on how to use information technology to enhance fieldwork.

The centre is building an electronic information gateway that will allow staff to access existing learning and teaching databases. It is also developing a register of expertise and it will be running national conferences as well as departmental workshops. And, like other centres, it plans a journal to cover material on teaching and learning developments across the three disciplines.

Professor Chalkley put the emphasis very much on good practice in learning and teaching. He also stresses that the centre is keen to build international links.

"This centre is unique," he said. "We want to encourage international visitors and share our resources."

Philosophy

The Philosophical and Religious Studies Centre is at the University of Leeds, with a satellite centre at the University of Wales. It is headed by George Macdonald Ross.

He said: "One of the features of this centre, distinct from the others, is that we are starting from scratch rather than building on an existing programme such as the Computers in Teaching Initiative."

The centre's remit covers philosophy, history of science, philosophy of science, theology and religious studies. Already, Dr Macdonald Ross has developed a database of more than 2,000 names - people working in the disciplines around the country -from which he hopes to create discussion groups. Invited papers on specific issues will appear on the centre's website, which should eventually, he hopes, form an encyclopedia of teaching in the five disciplines.

"Hitherto, staff development has not been related to the disciplines and there has been a reluctance to take part, as often the activities have appeared to be irrelevant," Dr Macdonald Ross said. "While some teaching issues - like giving effective presentations - are generic, many others are not."

He cited the problem of getting largely innumerate philosophy students to cope with logical symbols as a case in point. Another problem is how to help students read difficult texts independently.

"While students are often quite adept at skim-reading or relying on other people's potted versions of texts, they often have little experience of close analysis of difficult texts. I expect this to become a recurring theme," he said.

The overall aim is much broader, though. "What we are really expecting to do is to foster a change in the academic culture so that it becomes acceptable to confer and publish about teaching. We have no particular axe to grind and we shall not be prescriptive. Our emphasis will be on stimulating educational research by the subject communities."

A tall order. So how can it be done? In addition to the website, the centre will arrange national conferences and workshops, individual consultancies and newsletters and other publications according to demand.

Dr Macdonald Ross conceded that the allocation of disciplines and sub-disciplines to 24 centres was rather arbitrary, with some lecturers likely to feel they had more affinity with a different subject centre than with the majority of their colleagues in their department.

For example, he said a person who taught ancient philosophy in a philosophy department and a person who taught Greek in a theology department might both feel more at home with classicists. But that was not a problem, he said, since individuals were free to join whichever centre they chose - more than one if they wished.

He added:"Our motto is making excellence better, and we should bear in mind that on the QAA's own criteria, identifying problems and devising a strategy for solving them is an indicator of quality."

Medicine

The Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine is at Newcastle partly because, as with other centres, the university has done extremely well in teaching assessments in medicine and dentistry. Newcastle does not have a veterinary school, so it works in partnership with Edinburgh.

Newcastle was also one of the first medical schools to work towards an integrated medical programme, where students are taught about the cardiovascular system as a whole, for example, rather than about areas such as anatomy in isolation.

Reg Jordan, the director, said the common thread that tied the disciplines together was that they were dealing with health and were all responsible to statutory bodies. "We are currently establishing an advisory board and all three statutory bodies have agreed to be represented on that," he said. "The General Medical Council, for example, is the guardian of what a doctor does and how that doctor does it. We have to engage with them."

He pointed out that there were differences between the three disciplines.

"Medical education is very much part of lifelong learning, while dentists can go straight into practice after gaining their degree," he says. "The different disciplines can learn from each other."

The centre will work with the Royal College of Physicians on professional development.

Professor Jordan stressed that it was important that the subject centres were not seen as part of the ILT. "The network and the institute may both be in York, and certainly communication is a good thing, but it is important to remember that there may be times when the subject centres and the support network are in opposition to the ILT."

Newcastle has worked hard to exploit new technology. "We were forced to by our geography," said Professor Jordan.

"Our medical students are spread over 22 different hospitals and 200 general practices. We have developed study guides they can access on the web. We have to be careful what medical imagery is used. Obviously there are no case notes, but we have to ensure that upsetting pictures do not get into the public domain."

The centre also has strong links with those working in nursing, social work, the biosciences and law.

"The clinical governance agenda has brought us very close to law and our professional development agenda is similar," Professor Jordan said.

The centre has already circulated information to deans and heads of schools to ensure that they become involved in its work. "Many of the teaching initiatives come from younger lecturers who may not have much clout," said Professor Jordan. "We need to work with all levels of a department."

Professor Jordan pointed out that Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of Hefce, had already said one of the first questions he intended to ask staff in universities he visited was, "What is your subject centre doing for you?"

"Our funding is top-sliced from the Hefce grant and we have to justify it," Professor Jordan said.

Law

In common with most of the subject centres, the UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE) at Warwick University has a lot to build on. Director Roger Burridge said: "The centre replaces and amalgamates the National Centre for Legal Education and the Computers in Teaching Initiative Law Technology Centre, which were both at Warwick. It also builds on the British and Irish Legal Education Teaching Association and the Learning in Law Initiative."

The technology centre, under the direction of Abdul Paliwala, who is now director of communications and information technology at UKCLE, developed new technologies for teaching law. Bileta and Lili were networks, holding annual conferences to help disseminate good practice.

Unlike many other subject centres, however, the UKCLE also has to work closely with the professional bodies - the Law Society and the Bar in England, representatives of which sit on the centre's advisory body.

"Both bodies have a professional concern with the content of law courses," he said. "They have just made a joint statement of their latest requirements."

Again, distinguishing the UKCLE from many other centres, Mr Burridge argued that you cannot separate methodology from content. "Take human rights," he said, "it is impossible to teach that in a way that ignores equal opportunities in the teaching of law, for example, or the authoritative use of knowledge."

In line with thinking about content, the centre also wants to take an active part in the debate on what a law degree is for. "Many people who study law do not end up as city lawyers, but go on to a range of other jobs. This has an impact on what is taught and how."

The centre is also keen to reach out to those teaching law in further education. "It is myopic to concern ourselves only with those in higher education."

It has already produced a copy of Directions , a magazine designed to keep lecturers up to date with workshops, conferences and funding sources.

Law also has to contend with different legal systems in different parts of the UK. The principal difference is in Scotland, where the UKCLE has appointed a Scottish coordinator, Paul Maharg. Mr Maharg has already sent out a needs analysis questionnaire to all staff in Scottish higher education to determine how best to serve this separate community.

Mr Burridge stressed the centre's international role.

He added: "We also want to be active in the debate on copyright. It is our job to disseminate best practice and we need to do that in a way that does not infringe on copyright."

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