A new, round-the-clock information network aims to get best teaching practice to all who need it, writes Cliff Allan
Too often, research is not disseminated and remains within the circle of enthusiasts instead of reaching the agnostics
Colleagues returning to teaching this academic year will find there is a new one-stop shop on the block. It is open 24 hours a day and serves information, resources and advice. It is the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), and it is free.
The network is the result of a national policy to improve teaching and learning. The aim is to make teaching more relevant to the many different types of student in higher education and to find ways in which the curriculum and student experience can produce graduates with the knowledge and skills employers need.
But it is one thing to make policy statements and exhort individuals, departments and institutions to focus more on learning and teaching, and another thing to deliver it.
The signs look favourable. First, universities and colleges have been developing and implementing strategies on learning and teaching with extra cash from the funding bodies. That very process has stimulated reflections on what students are taught and how they are assessed.
Second, the Institute for Learning and Teaching is working hard to demonstrate the professionalism of academics in higher education and to develop it further, thereby assuring students, the government and the public of the high standards that can now be expected.
Third, we have a rich experience in institutions of good practice and innovation in learning, teaching and assessment and through nationally supported initiatives, such as England's Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) and Scotland's Communications and Information Technology Programme (CITP). The extent to which these loosely connected developments will lead to sustained improvements will depend on two factors: coordination and sharing.
We are often bewildered by the alphabet soup of acronyms for disparately located, funded and disseminated projects and national initiatives on learning and teaching. It is a case of: "do you know your FDTL from your DNER or your TLTP from your JTAP?" A cottage industry has been created of enthusiasts, innovators, educational and staff developers, project teams and institutional consortia. All have developed, piloted, proven and implemented a fantastic array of practices in learning and teaching, often in isolation.
Consequently, we are constantly reinventing the wheel, with the duplication of projects in different national initiatives. Excellent practices are buried under layers of disconnected reports. Different groups - for example, learning technologists, education developers and library and information systems staff - have similar ideas, but they are not harnessed together. It is a waste of investment.
We need to weave these separate strands into a common thread. The "not invented here" syndrome has prevailed for too long, and we can no longer afford to continue to spurn practices and developments conceived in other institutions or subjects that are clearly transferable.
This obligation on institutions to disseminate separately has produced a bewildering mass of information. For example, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) required project teams to disseminate their outputs, but the project staff's expertise was in innovation and development, not in promotion or marketing, hence the limited awareness and take-up of practice.
Dissemination has become a byword for a website, newsletter, perhaps a conference, and at best a workshop, rather than ensuring that others understand the practice and then adapt it for use in their own institutions and departments.
Fortunately, help is at hand in the shape of that other acronym, LTSN. The LTSN is not another part of the alphabet soup but the soup bowl itself, delivering to individuals, departments and institutions the ingredients of good practice, experience and innovation in a coherent and accessible form.
The network will collate information on all aspects of learning, teaching and assessment. It will also distil the experience of the range of national initiatives and promote them.
Academic staff still tend to think in terms of their own discipline. For this reason, we have established 24 subject centres in 21 lead sites around the United Kingdom. Many have other partner sites providing regional coverage or disciplinary specialisms and expertise.
Each LTSN subject centre is developing its own approach to providing information and advisory services on learning and teaching for the academic community it serves. The centres are establishing key contacts in all discipline departments. Many are conducting surveys of discipline needs. All are collecting information on the range of teaching practices.
The services they provide will help departments and individuals respond to changes in learning and teaching, whether driven by quality assurance, student needs, stakeholder demands or technological developments.
The approaches include the production of briefing papers, practice guides, case-study material, web-based resources, resource packs, practitioner workshops, special interest groups, regional events, departmental visits, special grants to support development and research and journals.
The centres are setting up networksof practitioners to enable individuals to share and develop their practice. Some will organise demonstration events. The subject centres are brokers, not centres of excellence. They will provide a comprehensive and coordinated service to departments, course leaders and departmental learning and teaching committees rather than a piecemeal collection of information.
As many learning and teaching issues and practices are common to all subjects, an institution-wide approach is required. This is the remit of the LTSN generic centre, which opens this month.
This, the first of its kind, will offer a national support service. All disciplines will naturally assert that they are different and unique, but the generic centre will try to cross subject boundaries, for example, in approaches to assessment, key skills and problem-based learning. It offers a way to avoid reinventing the wheel.
The challenge will be to move beyond simply communicating with the enthusiasts - a trap into which many initiatives often fall - and ensure that we reach the agnostics.
Although the LTSN can provide information, resources and advice, it is up to institutions and departments to secure motivation and demand. Everyone must be willing to share their experience and expertise. The alternative is to continue in a disconnected, inefficient way. When the focus on learning and teaching is sharpening, stakeholders want to see results.
Cliff Allan is programme director of the Learning and Teaching Subject Network.
LTSN SUBJECT CENTRES
Information and computer sciences
University of Ulster
Performing arts (Palatine)