Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Teaching, academic staff development, mastery and separation

In a recent post reflecting on a presentation I referenced a TED talk by Dan Pink in which he proposed a new operating system for companies based on staff having:

  1. Autonomy;
  2. Mastery; and
  3. Purpose.

My focus is within the area of improving learning and teaching within a university. I want to pick up on the question of mastery.

A good teacher is going to feel a level of mastery over the tools and techniques they are using in their teaching. They are going to have to get this mastery from somewhere, which brings me to staff development. Most institutions aim to provide the knowledge/information to help academics develop their mastery through academic staff development.

I want to suggest that one of the biggest barriers to effectiveness of such staff development is a number of different separations. In the following I look at the ones I think exist.

Separation within academic staff development

The separation within academic staff development is talked about in a recent post by Steve Erhmann. In that post he identifies the separation between the IT and non-IT staff development. The IT development is performed by the IT department and the non-IT development is done by some other area. At my institution it’s the HR department.

It’s even worse at my institution since the folk with curriculum design knowledge and responsibility are in another unit all together and report to a different senior manager.

There are problems with this separation in terms of duplication or holes, since these separate departments rarely effectively collaborate. More problems arise because increasingly you can’t separate out the IT and non-IT knowledge. In our context, most collaborative learning is going to be implemented through some specific IT, you need to know both the technology and the principles of collaborative learning to do it well.

Separation of knowledge

Another separation I see in academic staff development is a separation between the knowledge an academic wants and the knowledge being provided by the staff developers.

In his post Erhmann uses the example of “Using collaborative learning in the classroom”. I’m yet to come across a “standard” academic (my belief is that most standard academics are not intrinsically interested in learning and teaching) that is asking for knowledge about how to use collaborative learning. The type of knowledge a “standard” academic wants is much more pragmatic and might include

  • How can I minimise my workload?
  • How do I reduce marking time?
  • How do I reduce the failure rate?

I agree that “using collaborative learning” (or some other learning theory or technique) may be, at least part of, the answer to these questions, but there is a separation in the level of abstraction.

While the trainer (IT, learning or otherwise) might be comfortable with the learning theory of technique, it generally won’t make sense to the standard academic. At best it will pull in the intrinsically motiviated teaching academics. A partial reason I suggest why Erhman makes this observation

I did notice that at most institutions the attendance was low at the workshops. Nor was there much sign that average faculty members used other forms of service (e.g., web sites, phone-in for help) unless they had to (for example, when using the course management system was required).

My suggestion is that because the people designing the training are separated from the people who need to develop the mastery. Consequently, what the two parties think is needed is different, is separated. The trainers are separated from the knowledge of the local context and of what is missing.

The educational literature tells use that staff development that is separated from or clashes with the conceptions of academics will only generate questions about validity, defense of the status quo or compliance and task corruption (Ho et al, 2001).

Then there is also the differing ideas about knowledge arising out of work around TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) that suggests that the knowledge required by a teacher to have mastery of technology integration is “complex, multifaceted and situated”. It’s discipline specific.

This suggests that the idea of a universal approach to the application of technology or pedagogy while arguably possible, will not provide an effective or the most effective outcome.

Separation of process

Part of the separation of knowledge comes from the separation of process. Staff development generally occurs outside of the normal process of teaching. It often occurs at the start of the end. Curriculum design tends to focus on re-design for the next offering of the course. It assumes that mastery can be effectively developed outside of teaching time. There are argument to the contrary.

Local context is important because memory is contextual. How we know and recollect stuff depends on the context. Take a look at #2 of Snowden’s 7 principles of knowledge management. People only really know/recall the complete detail of something within a realistic context.

Another perspective

Here’s what Bransford et al (2000, p27) had to say about staff development

Professional development programs for teachers, for example, frequently

  • Are not learner centered.
    Rather than ask teachers where they need help, they are simply expected to attend prearranged workshops.
  • Are not knowledge centered.
    Teachers are introduced to a new technique without an opportunity to understand why, when, where and how it might be valuable.
  • Are not assessment centered.
    They need to try things out in their classrooms and receive feedback. Focus on change in teaching practice as the goal but neglect to develop in teachers the capacity to judge successful transfer.
  • Are not community centered.
    Conducted in isolation. Limited opportunities for continued conteact and support as teachers incoroporate new ideas.


Tony Bates offers the following suggestion in the comments of Erhman’s post

This is a relatively easy thing to fix too – form an integrated Office of Teaching and Learning with secondments/guests from IT services and the faculties working with professional instructional designers.

For me, this is a much better solution than the separation of responsibility for helping academics develop the necessary mastery into separate organisational units. At my institution, we’re currently up to at least 4 separate units, and arguably that number is at least 6. With those separate units reporting to at least 5 or 6 different senior managers.

However, simply creating this integrated structure doesn’t necessarily solve the separation of knowledge and separation of process.

In terms of knowledge, too often integrated units, especially if they are large, can start to focus on the objective value of the knowledge (i.e. my theory/technology is good) rather than the value it can provide to a standard academic. Too often these units become the home for the technologists alliance.

In terms of process, integrated/centralised organisational units can have their involvement in the teaching process limited to at the beginning and the end. They often don’t actively work with and help academics during the teaching process. The idea of secondments for academic staff into these units is an example of this. The unit works with these staff in a setting divorced from their actual teaching.

My suggested solution is that such a unit needs to be embedded into the act of teaching and learning. It needs to be providing support, observing what is working and what is not and identifying/developing opportunities for increasing academic staff mastery via small changes that are contextually based.

Importantly, increasing academic staff mastery doesn’t necessarily mean improving the knowledge or capabilities within the head of the academic staff member. It can reside in the tools and systems that support the staff member in their teaching. This is a view based on the idea of connectivism and associated thoughts.

I need to think more about that last point.


Bransford, J., A. Brown, et al. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Ho, A., D. Watkins, et al. (2001). “The conceptual change approach to improving teaching and learning: An evaluation of a Hong Kong staff development programme.” Higher Education 42(2): 143-169.


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  1. kwilco

    From above: My suggested solution is that such a unit needs to be embedded into the act of teaching and learning. It needs to be providing support, observing what is working and what is not and identifying/developing opportunities for increasing academic staff mastery . . .

    So far I’m with you!

    . . . via small changes that are contextually based.

    You lost me there. In my experience, especially at a large institution, taking the “small changes” route is the road to perdition. For me, this means I have to engage in a million little negotiations to get the small to accumulate to something significant. At the rate I’m going it will take me two lifetimes to bring about real change in the English Department.

    My approach, that I’m trying to sell around here, is to create and then present a sales pitch of the big picture to anyone who will listen. From there, we will see takers and not. I want to put my effort with a department willing to work as a team to make the improvements. The rest get minimal support until they are ready to work.

    I’d love to hear (a) David’s and anyone else’s take on this.

    • G’day Kevin,

      Thanks for the comments. You’re encouraging me to think through and explain my ideas a bit more. Much appreciate.

      I’ve just added a post in response to your first comment. Will probably blog another based on your question here.

      I think that response will be along the lines of “size is in the eye of the beholder”. I think the change has to appear to be small to the academic, but probably should be somewhat large for the organisation.

      The reason change has to be small for the academic is based on how we learn. But also the reason why I believe small changes can work is that I believe that the teaching and learning environment in a university is a complex system. In such a system, the right small changes can have very large outcomes.

      Need to explain that better.


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