Give staff voice to spread word on good practice

March 28, 2003

A proposed teaching academy can unite institutions and faculty to promote excellence, argues Cliff Allan

The higher education landscape is changing as a result of the recent white paper and policy developments in Scotland and Wales. Some changes will be good, some not so good. On the plus side is the emphasis on improving learning and teaching and the dissemination of good practice.

This is a welcome shift from the past focus on assuring teaching quality and standards.

The establishment of an Academy for the Advancement of Learning is under consultation. The academy aims to consolidate the work of the Learning and Teaching Support Network, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and the Higher Education Staff Development Agency in a unitary structure and build on their networking experience. The academy will also draw on the experience of various constituencies - academics, support staff, institutions and other interest groups - to develop teaching strategies.

But in coordinating such broad constituencies, the academy must give them a voice. There has been little input, hitherto, from academic staff, disciplines and support groups into policy developments, particularly in relation to student learning and quality of learning and teaching. How many of the objectives in the white paper were informed by the experience of those in the sector?

The academy offers a mechanism to overcome these issues. But only if it has the active support and participation of academics and support staff such as librarians, learning technologists and technicians. This involves a strong sense of ownership. The academy must be seen as a benefit. Its constitution and operational structure must foster participation. Funders will also have an interest in the academy, but that does not mean that they can compromise its independence. After all, what the academy does will be more important than the legal niceties of ownership.

The white paper proposes the creation of Centres of Teaching Excellence, from which curriculum developments in learning and teaching practice should emerge. The new academy will be able to foster collaborations between the centres to ensure the sharing of good practice. The academy can also help develop and expand the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, designed to reward teaching excellence.

Institutions are also expected to put in place schemes that reward staff for excellent teaching. But they cannot act in isolation. Institutions' conceptions of excellence need to be ones that those who study and work in colleges and universities understand, consider relevant and accept. The academy can play a significant role in shaping shared meanings. It can also support institutions in developing reward and recognition schemes.

The changing landscape for learning and teaching must be informed by evidence in academic study and by evaluation. One past paradox has been the importance placed on research and the use of evidence while not investing in and using research in academic policy-making and practice. The academy must help to change this and develop a research and evaluative capacity to inform the development, promotion and dissemination of effective practice.

The academy can be a catalyst for encouraging and synthesising evidence-based practice and pedagogic research. It should also monitor international developments.

The new academy can be built on strong foundations. These include the LTSN's subject centres' support, information, networking and brokerage service and the ILTHE, whose members will become the first important cohort of academic and academic-related staff.

ILTHE members have shown demonstrable commitment to professional practice and have proved a strong and active practitioner community. Building on the ILTHE's work, the academy can develop a professional accreditation and continuing professional development framework. The LTSN generic centre, the ILTHE and Hesda's guidance, advisory and support activities for institutions provide a sound basis for developing further a brokerage service for universities and colleges. The extensive information and resources they produce and disseminate can be combined to provide coherent and up-to-date information exchange.

The academy should not be an amalgamation of existing functions, but a repositioning of these. As the consultation process on the proposed academy draws to a close, we must take this opportunity to put in place a strong support and development structure for all those working in higher education. But it must be one that they feel they own.

Cliff Allan is director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Consultation details: learning/tqec/final.htp

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