Stop, look and listen

November 26, 1999

University chiefs are busy devising strategies on teaching and learning, but are they talking enough to ordinary academics, asks Liz Allen.

By the end of January the Higher Education Funding Council for England wants to hear from every university and institution in the country about its strategy for teaching and learning.

To help those who are just beginning to grapple with what this might be, the council has published The Good Practice Guide. Produced by the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Practice, the guide is readable and informative. But just how many people engaged in teaching and learning support will ever see it?

There is a plethora of activity and ideas in relation to learning, teaching, the use of technology, accreditation, personal portfolios for lecturers and so on.

Yet what is striking in talking to non-managerial academics is how little sense of ownership there is of these "policies of innovation" by the very same people who may choose to incorporate innovation in their work on a daily basis.

The Good Practice Guide states in its executive summary: "Developing a strategy that staff understand and believe in can take a considerable amount of time and effort, but without this investment it may not be possible to implement a strategy effectively."

However, later the guide says: "The survey of current practice found that very few of the learning and teaching strategies ... were the product of extensive or open consultation in contrast some institutions have spent well over a year on the process and consulted literally hundreds of staff."

This lack of engagement with the massed hordes who do the teaching is not new. In the past year, the planning group for the new Institute for Learning and Teaching has embarked on crucial consultations and found it dishearteningly difficult to make contact with "ordinary" academics who are neither academic managers nor staff developers.

Although some institutions have really reached out to their staff - as the CHEP survey found - all too many seem reluctant to disseminate below the level of dean. Why is this?

Part of the answer must be that it is slow and cumbersome. There may also be a reluctance to chase the views of mainstream academics, who could be expected to be resistant, cynical, absorbed in their research or just not interested in the corporate approach to what they, as individuals, are doing.

This can be compounded in some of the new universities by a legacy of the confrontational relations between management and academic staff that developed post-incorporation in the early 1990s.

In some cases, consulting staff and creating institutional strategies that people can work with wholeheartedly means accepting resistance and lack of interest as a starting point for some while others display more enthusiasm.

It is tempting to concentrate on the converted. The trouble is that the unconverted are out there teaching day in, day out. I think it is for this reason that some have hoped that the ILT would descend from the sky, like an avenging angel, and sort out recalcitrant lecturers.

A more positive spin on the "corporately disengaged" can be found in a HEFCE report on the use of teaching and learning technology materials. Right there on page one under key findings we hear that: "More teaching and learning technology programme materials are in use in the HE sector than may be generally recognised, especially allowing for the failure of some staff to recognise the materials they were using as being from the programme.

"They are embedded in conventional courses, alongside a very substantial use of other types of communications and information technology. Reasons for adopting these are mostly pedagogical rather than operational or tactical."

This chimes with my experience of talking to lecturers about the kinds of teaching and learning issues with which the HEFCE strategy approach is concerned, such as the use of information technology, resource-based and distance learning, and individually paced learning.

When the debate is seen as driven by a cost-saving agenda or by attempts to homogenise and mass produce education, resistance and insecurity come to the fore.

In practice, people use information technology and respond creatively to the changing needs of their students without describing these responses as part of a broader, institutional strategy. You are more likely to get creative involvement from a broader range of staff when they have a measure of control over the ways in which institutional strategies are formed - let alone integrated into individuals' work with students.

When the discussion with staff starts from where they are and the changes and adaptations emerging from existing courses and students, the picture may be messier but there may also be more chance of its looking like something the practitioners recognise.

It is worth repeating the message in the CHEP Good Practice Guide: take longer, talk to hundreds of staff and end up with a strategy that everyone believes in.

Liz Allen is national officer for higher education at lecturers' union, Natfhe.

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