A year later...

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. It’s now one year since the pandemic has changed (more like turned upside-down, actually) the way we live, teach, learn and work. For me this year, difficult as it was, brought about so many new opportunities that have had a big impact on my career overall. That prompts me to reflect on where I stand now and how I plan to use the lessons I’ve learned. I’m also increasingly interested in seeing the medium and long-term response of universities in terms of strategically embedding the new reality in their mode of operation. So I’ve written down some of my thoughts that I want to share with you. I am also adding some resources I would like to invite you to check- for some variety today I include video and audio resources that capture some very interesting conversations I’ve had lately. Hope you enjoy the reading/ listening/ watching and, as always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts. Have a nice rest of the week!

Here are my thoughts…

…on my role as an educational developer

My purpose when working with faculty is not to teach them pedagogical methods or have them specialise in using technology. My aim is to help them make intentional and meaningful choices about how they teach and encourage them to be open-minded, flexible and ready to adapt. Every meeting with faculty is like solving a puzzle. I’m not going in there with a “manual on puzzle solving”. I let them take out the pieces, run me through them. I watch and listen as they put them together. If they are stuck I offer ideas or point to links they may have missed. In the end, my biggest satisfaction is when they solve the puzzle themselves. And this is what almost always happens. This way I also discover new ways to solve a puzzle that I can then use to inspire others.

…on learning design and working across disciplines

Working with faculty from various disciplines, my approach to learning design has become more flexible and nuanced. It’s more like a dialogue in which we merge tools and concepts and create each time something new. It’s not less rigorous, it’s just more context-sensitive and realistic. While there are definitely similarities in terms of learning design, I’m learning to be much more aware of the small discipline-specific nuances in terms of knowledge building and sharing. Active listening is so important in my work. First listen. Then try your best to help.

…on the way ahead for universities

Keeping things afloat is important. But right now it’s crucial for universities to think ahead at a strategic level. Quality assurance and accreditation, among other internal policies, need to change to organically embed a diversity of delivery modes. Before the pandemic, online and blended learning programmes, where they existed, were not fully institutionalised. They were a special niche, often associated with executive education, sometimes more expensive and often disconnected from the mainstream educational offer and university structures. To ensure that the various online and bleded modes are seamlessly integrated in the future educational offer, Higher Education institutions need to address uncomfortable questions and review their modes of operation. You can read more in my latest journal article, “The institutionalisation of online and blended learning initiatives in Politics and International Relations at European universities”.

How to foster collaboration between faculty and educational development teams

Teaching is often seen as an individual endeavour. While academia actively encourages collaboration and peer review where research is concerned, teaching is perceived as a solo activity.

One year into the pandemic, we see changes to this dynamic: the forced move to remote teaching has prompted faculty to work with learning technologists and instructional designers to adapt their course design to the online environment.

Now is a good time to evaluate this collaboration and build a sustainable relationship between faculty and educational developers, moving beyond the traditional academic and non-academic staff divide.

Educational development teams sit within a variety of institutional set-ups: while in some universities they are based in central departments, sometimes linked to IT units, elsewhere there are decentralised support structures at faculty level. In some cases — at UCL, for instance — a combination of both has proven effective in providing a two-tier support system.

Their position within the university ecosystem plays an important role in the relationship that educational development teams forge with faculty. Another important factor that influences this is how much resource is allocated to faculty development, which determines the level of support, and the perception of the role within university structures, translating into job stability and career progression opportunities.

To make the most of the experience gained during the pandemic, we need to build a durable bond between faculty and educational developers that translates into high-quality learning experiences for students. Here are five ideas for developing effective collaboration habits:

  1. Active listening. It’s important to acknowledge that each of us comes to this process with different experiences and often very different backgrounds. Far from being an obstacle, this is a healthy premise for cooperation. Listening to each other thoroughly needs to be the very first step in the process; it’s all about training our empathy, learning about each other before we start learning from each other.

  2. Partnership. To be effective, this process should be about partnership, and not about one party teaching the other. Building trust is an essential part of the process, and this takes time and patience on both sides; it’s like a dance where partners become fully synchronised only through a lot of practice. In my view, the role of educational developers is to work together with faculty and equip them with the necessary tools and concepts to be able to tell their story and build their course narrative.

  3. Building on individual teaching visions and styles. Every educator has their unique teaching philosophy, partly underpinned by their disciplinary background and partly linked to their own personality. There are no “one-size-fits-all” strategies that faculty developers can or should prescribe; it is all about fine-tuning different approaches to fit each context and support faculty in turning their own vision into reality. Individual teaching narratives are the most valuable starting point we have for this conversation.

  4. New teamwork habits. Even though it can be a really enriching process for both parties, this cooperation doesn’t always come naturally. Cultivating these new habits does take some work. It also requires a change of mindset, moving from teaching as a lonely activity to team-based course design, whereby people with different backgrounds pool their skills to design learning experiences. Communication is the key to this process. Explicitly discussing expectations and jointly deciding on workflows can really help to create effective new routines.

  5. Working towards an evidence-based approach. One way to consolidate this partnership is to extend it from day-to-day course design tasks to conducting research together. A research team comprising both faculty and education specialists has the great advantage of bringing together a relevant mix of expertise to provide substantial insights into the teaching and learning process that can be used to inform and improve future practice.

The pandemic has shown that sometimes reaching out beyond our comfort zone, working with people of different backgrounds and expertise can be an unexpectedly inspiring experience. Developing these cooperation habits takes time and effort, but once in place they greatly benefit everyone involved, especially the students. Universities should strive to support newly formed bonds between faculty and educational development teams by providing flexible spaces and structures where creative teamwork can continue to take place and innovative teaching practices are brought to life.

This article was published in THE Campus, a hub for advice and resources for online teaching.

Further resources

  • If you want to hear more about my approach to faculty development and the skills we need to cultivate for effective teaching- online and offline- you can listen to this THE podcast;

  • If you are designing collaborative learning activities and need some inspiration, listen to my conversation with BarbiHoneycutt (30 min. podcast). We talked about how to help students value group work and take ownership of the process, not just the product. Read more tips on designing effective collaborative learning activities- online and face-to-face, including useful resources here. If you need inspiration for making your teaching more engaging, listen to the "Lecture Breakers" podcasts;

  • Curious to learn more about how you can transform Twitter and blogs into effective learning platforms and how to use social media to train students' online media literacy? Watch my conversation with Jennifer van Alstyne (45 min. video). Find more resources on using social media for teaching and learning here.