The optimist of Innovation Way

November 24, 2000

Pat Leon talks to Brenda Smith, the woman at the hub of the Learning and Teaching Support Network.

Genesis 3, Innovation Way, is an apt location for the first stirrings of national pride in teaching. For Brenda Smith, it is the hub of the 24 subject-centre spokes that form the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN).

Smith is the newly appointed director of the generic centre. Ten weeks into her job, she is bubbling with enthusiasm. "We are the first country in the world to professionalise university teaching," she says.

Her optimism is shared by other tenants of the 1990s office block, set amid the building works that scar York's Science Park. The office is home to the LTSN executive, the technologies subject centre and the Institute for Learning and Teaching, all run on a skeleton staff, who enjoy a cosy relationship built on a common purpose.

"Funding council policy on learning and teaching is at three levels: the individual, the subject and the institution," Smith says. "The 20 teaching fellowships awarded (by the ILT) last summer were the first level. The second is the subject centres. The third is institutions."

From last January, higher education institutions have had to put in place a learning and teaching strategy. "Now all three have come together," Smith says. "We are seeing a sea change. Most academics come to teach. It is good for staff to have time to talk about teaching practice. Their main allegiance is to their subject." The generic centre is nurturing this - collating information and developing collaborative projects.

After training as a home economics teacher in Manchester in the late 1960s, Smith's first job was at a large Nottingham comprehensive. She became a house mistress but decided not to climb the school management ladder and follow her specialism. Her science background led to a job teaching nutrition and food science at a local teacher training college before moving to Nottingham Polytechnic.

After studying for a masters at London University, she became involved with political lobbying with the National Association of Home Economics and Technology, of which she became president in 1988. By the following year she was coordinating enterprise initiatives and staff development at Nottingham Polytechnic. A year after it crystallised into Nottingham Trent University in 1992, Smith was appointed teaching and learning quality manager and became director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching in 1997.

Under her leadership, Nottingham Trent received a number of government grants for teaching research projects, in particular from the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning for collaborative work with other universities on peer observation, key skills for textiles, fashion, printing and electrical engineering students.

"Our Sharing Excellence project on peer observation of teaching was hugely successful. For the first time, we were opening doors and observing. Our feedback was really welcomed," she recalls. "The spin-off was twofold. First, indirectly we were changing the culture in universities. Second, there was evidence that the person observing was benefiting more than the observed."

Now that peer observation is more widespread, particularly as part of staff induction, the question is whether the more experienced members are being left out in the cold, she says.

"We were the first university to put in a whole bid. Once we managed our own project, we worked with other universities to put in other successful bids. Sharing Excellence applied the 60:40 principle - if you put the time and energy into the plan, you are ready to go and well ahead of the game when funding comes in," she says.

Smith plans to use the same sort of model for the generic centre. The idea is that it will concentrate on one big project, probably on assessment, with other smaller themes such as peer observation, virtual-learning environments and progress files running alongside. A website will provide information and discussion forums. Conferences, development projects and networking clubs are planned.

Besides directing the centre, Smith is also an accreditor for the ILT and is involved in editing two books to add to an extensive collection of publications. Smith epitomises that modern phenomenon: the roving academic. At Nottingham, her overview of university teaching led to travelling abroad with British Council exhibitions. The list of countries she has visited as a consultant or speaker spans many continents.

"Lots of the invites that academics receive are from personal contacts when people see you doing something. One of my most memorable experiences is when I was asked to South Africa to speak on assessment at three universities. I got to Wi****ersrand expecting an audience of 30 and there were more than 100. It was an interactive seminar, but it worked against all the odds. I didn't know them, they were sitting in tiers, they had no materials and the noise was amazing. These are the best sessions: no rules, slipping into context, thinking on your feet."

She scoffs at the idea of being a figurehead. "You have to believe in what you are doing for the public relations to work. I want to keep up my external examining because it is grassroots contact. I also want to carry on my writing because it influences people."

Smith lives in a flat in York during the week and returns at weekends to her farm cottage. "My garden is one of my survival strategies. Eleven acres in Nottinghamshire."

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