Wimp finally flexes muscle for innovation

January 25, 2002

There has been an explosion of interest in education development as pressure on staff has grown to cope with innovation and technology and to improve teaching quality, according to David Gosling, who convenes the Heads of Educational Development Group.

A report published last year by Professor Gosling, head of the University of East London's educational development unit, shows the group's membership had risen from 15 higher education institutions in 1995 to more than 84 in late 2000. It now stands at 100.

The research drew comparisons with his 1995 survey, What Do Educational Development Units Do? It asks: "What are they doing five years on?" It is considered the most comprehensive overview to date.

Professor Gosling found that, although the units went under many names, they shared features. He identified six main remits:

  • To act as a support service to improve teaching and learning methods
  • To provide staff development relating to teaching and learning
  • To encourage innovation in teaching and learning
  • To promote the use of education technologies
  • To perform or encourage research into teaching and learning
  • Curriculum design and development.

About 70 per cent ran a certificate course for new teaching staff. About half also ran an MA or MSc; 60 per cent organised short "survival" courses for general teaching assistants and almost half provided IT training for students or staff.

Only about a third combined student support with staff support. These activities included helping students with study skills, language development, dyslexia support, work-based learning or accreditation of prior learning. Other functions included credit accumulation and transfer, Socrates programmes, community links and collaborative teaching with partner institutions.

Centres typically worked closely with learning and teaching committees and staff in departments and faculties. The most successful centres had a direct communication line to the pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching.

Most of the 23 education development units in Professor Gosling's 1995 study were new. Only three existed in the 1970s and eight in the 1980s. Of his 53 respondents in 2000, some 21 units were less than five years old. Many were built on existing units but with a redefined purpose.

Education developers saw themselves in different ways, said Professor Gosling. Some viewed their role as supporting institutional objectives, others as helping staff to cope with, or even subvert, changes that senior management demands.

One respondent said: "Educational development was seen as a 'wimp' activity by much of the university until we were able to become involved in mainstream procedures - QA, subject review, etc."

There were variations between pre-1992 and post-1992 universities. Professor Gosling found that 90 per cent of centres in new universities were directly involved in developing or helping to draft their institution's learning and teaching strategy compared with 57 per cent in old universities.

But some respondents still felt isolated: "Seems to me that staff development/education can be quite isolated, is often pushing 'change' agendas that are not always welcome and grappling with issues that no one else in the institution has expertise in. We need to build up our own network of supporters."

Obstacles to innovation included institutional culture. One respondent cited "417 years of tradition, a conservative culture, strong RAE [research assessment exercise] pressure, a large and devolved organisational structure that makes cross-institutional communication difficult [and] strong positional power of heads of departments".

Sixty-six per cent of respondents had undertaken research in learning and teaching and were entered in the 2001 RAE as research active. Much of the research was IT-related. There was a definite consciousness of the dangers of separating research and teaching.

One respondent said: "I have strong reservations about staff development for learning and teaching being separated from the research and development activities that inform academic practice."

Professor Gosling said that the "fledgling tribe of education developers in higher education communities has come of age. When the HEDG was formed we felt more vulnerable. We were an emerging group of people who needed to meet to provide mutual support in a hostile world and plan our survival. Now our discussion is much more confident."

Educational Development units in the UK - What Are They Doing Five Years On was published in the May 2001 issue of the International Journal for Academic Development .

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