Ode to the academic staff developer

I can’t imagine a more difficult job than being an academic staff developer. Lion tamers, steeplejacks and even, can you believe it, primary school teachers, must step back in awe of this profession. At academic developer (or academic development officer if you prefer) school, there must be psychological tests to weed out all but the most committed, the shrewdest and the most patient, so that those who graduate and go on to assist the likes of Prof Higginbotham* and his colleagues, including me, in the academy can learn to deal with the most powerful weapon in Higginbotham’s armoury: the three simple words “In my experience“.

But I’m going too fast. This is all brought about because I am attending the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA) E-learning summer school in DIT this week. It’s my first DIT summer school which is coincidentally the first DRHEA summer school, so forty staff from 8 of the insitutions in Dublin are attending. What’s more exciting for me is that development officers from these other institutions are also attending, so I can broaden the net of expertise that I can draw from. On the whole (2 days into 5), it’s fantastic, with lots of useful ideas and discussions, and seeds for further consideration. But it also raises a thorny issue, accentuated now because I have an extended pool of data to draw upon. And that is that the level of debate on teaching and learning by academics is really very poor.

The rate of change of innovation in teaching is glacially slow (image credit below)

I have been at five, count them, five seperate gatherings with different groups of academics in the past few weeks, and including different institutions, where there has been a lot of serious discussion about whether having Powerpoint notes on the VLE is a good idea or not. I accept that this is an important question, but it’s one that I remember being discussed six years ago, when I started teaching. I am sure it was discussed in a similar way twenty million years ago, or whenever the photocopier was invented. We need to move on. If a student can get from your notes what they need without attending the lecture – you deserve to have an empty classroom. It’s really as simple as that. Next topic for discussion…

Of course, academic developers are far too polite, and far too sensible to speak to Higginbotham in such a way as a young(ish) and obviously arrogant lecturer might. Instead, they deliver workshops on a variety of ideas and topics – how might you spruce up your lectures, how might you consider assessment, what role does online have? But wait! How dare they. The Prof is ready to retort:

In my experience, you couldn’t do that with (insert subject topic here). I have found that it’s better to bore the pants of them with the same old way that I’ve done for the last twenty years. That way when they do terribly in exams, I can rest assured that it’s not my way of teaching – students these days are just not the same as the old days, in my experience.

I shouldn’t be ageist, as very often it is newer academics who tend to be most zealous about the old ways. Now mere mortals might run screaming for the private sector at this point. How could they argue with that? After all, Higginbotham is actually in the classroom with his students. But these developers are the elite. The smile and don’t say well actually Prof Higginbotham, while your experience is important, let’s consider the overwhelming literature on the topic that supports this idea, and maybe you should, you know, give it a go? Instead, they repeat the message (they really are saints) in a different way – perhaps demonstrating by their own teaching methods how an idea might work in practice. Yes? No – the Higgs is not happy:

I came here to find out about what this new jargon was about, and all they can do is prance around and get us to write on flipcharts. I mean, why can’t they just give a presentation that covers all we need to know?

At this point, the very good developers, but not the excellent, depart for a lucrative career managing bankers in the City. But the most patient stay on, and don’t say well what we’re doing here, Professor, is giving you some seeds, some thoughts, and you know there is a literature and lots of books on the topic if you want to find out more. After all, it is your profession, you know – your job is to teach. But again, my arrogance is showing through.

Somewhere along the line though, we need to say stop – it’s time for a change. My own institution, DIT, in fairness, requires all new staff to undertake the excellent Postgrad Diploma in Learning and Teaching. But at the rate of new employment, this will take a generation to have an effect. I find that it is just incredible that people are hired to be a lecturer with absolutely no qualifications in the area of teaching. The result is that the level of debate is poor. It’s time for that to change, quickly. A grouping like the DRHEA, which ultimately represents 75,000 students and a helluva lot of Higginbothams has the power to start insisting on some change. Let’s hope it happens, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I am going to ponder about whether I will put my notes online…

*Prof Higginbotham, if you’re reading this, I am not really referring to you. But well done for having such a wonderful name.

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6 thoughts on “Ode to the academic staff developer

  1. A pleasure to have opened a contact here in this “COP” that is #elss10 🙂

  2. “If a student can get from your notes what they need without attending the lecture – you deserve to have an empty classroom .. ”
    Spot on Michael!

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thanks… it’s perhaps a bit provocative! Poor old Prof Higgenbotham might argue that he does try to make lectures interactive and engaging, and that a lot more than giving out notes go on in lectures – but some students don’t turn up anyway because they think it is all online… but I’m not so sure – I think some clear signals at the start would clear up any misconceptions about what to expect from lectures.


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