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Reflecting on identities in educational development
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! In the past weeks I had the chance to reflect a lot on my identity as an educational developer, through inspiring conversations with colleagues and peers from my global personal learning network passionate about the topic. For me this is one of the professional identities, alongside being a scholar and an educator. Believe it or not, I think I found a way to combine them that works well and helps me stay enthusiastic about my work. In the past years I’ve been fortunate to hear so many interesting stories from faculty developers around the world, and I am always fascinated by them. It is a complex space, a diverse space and what I’m bringing to you this week are only some initial reflections, by no means a comprehensive account of what being an educational developer (or faculty developer, will use the terms interchangeably here) means. I hope that, even if this is more like an essay than a curated collection of practical tips and resources, it will still resonate with some of you, whether you are working as Faculty, educational developers, in university administration or leadership roles. I added some articles for those of you who would like to dive deeper into the topic, I can guarantee they make very thought-provoking reads. As usual, I welcome your ideas and comments. Have a nice week!
I stumbled into the educational development space about a decade ago, without really being conscious of its existence, or, indeed, my precise role. It definitely was not reflected in my title or my job description. I was supporting and encouraging faculty to use technology in their teaching, which, as we know, was quite a niche topic, often limited to some “pioneers” or early adopters before the Covid-19 pandemic. Later on, as I was building my educationalist profile, I extended my portfolio to various pedagogical aspects, and started designing and running several types of activities including consultations, workshops and class observations. In my case, the transition from my original discipline (political science) to my new home (educational science) and being an educational developer was rather smooth, seamless I would say. Nevertheless, until recently I never really took the time to reflect on my professional identity in this space. Ironically, while my Fulbright research project focuses on teaching support structures, the “red thread” in all the conversations I’m having are people. So here are some of my reflections on the identities (yes, plural), roles (plural again), position and career paths of educational developers.
A variety of backgrounds and career paths
I think one of the greatest strengths of this field comes from the variety of experiences we bring to it, with our different backgrounds, often unconsciously. So many winding journeys converging in one common point: dedication to learning and care for those guiding it.
When I think about people working in educational development, based on my own experience, I usually think: people passionate about teaching and learning coming from different disciplines. We can learn so much from each other, using the mental models we grew into and combining them, leveraging their complementarity, to support faculty across all disciplinary fields.
Here in the US I'm noticing what I would call a drive towards professionalisation in the field: more and more people are specifically trained (to graduate level) as "genuine educational developers", one may say. This makes me think of an aspect I haven't considered much before: what are the power dynamics between those people who have built careers in this "third space", often neglecting their discipline-specific tasks for their passion for teaching and learning, and those who actually study to become faculty developers? Especially since the former are likely to have faculty positions, thus still part of the “academic side”, while the latter are usually more on the service or support/ administration side- and this is what we know is very much a siloed Higher Education landscape, with a strong “us vs. them” rhetoric.
A consequence of this often rigid labelling process is that career paths and career advancement in educational development are often taboo topics, and nevertheless, the reason why institutions lose so many valuable people. In my experience, the best people in this field are very professional, service-oriented, kind. They are reflective practitioners that don't let their ego stand in the way of their work. And yet, regardless of the institution, country or continent, too many of us don't feel fully supported on our career path, often feel stuck, with few, if any, opportunities for internal career progression. What is even sadder- with few, if any, opportunities to reflect on and discuss one’s role and professional aspirations.
Things vary a lot depending on context, of course, some of us are luckier than others. So I only want to offer you a question to reflect on here: Is the educational development space as inclusive as we think it is?
What is our role?
Given the diversity of institutional settings, our roles as educational developers- and very often also our job titles and job descriptions may be very different. Generally speaking, the way I see it, we have many hats, and I think the most important ones (even if we don’t all play all these roles all the time) are to:
listen and be a thought partner: it all starts with active listening and being sensitive to faculty needs;
support & guide: accompanying faculty in their learning, with advice and (more or less hands on) support when and how they need it;
facilitate learning communities: enabling faculty to talk to each other and creating a safe space for it;
co-create: designing learning experiences in partnership with faculty;
curate & translate: translating educational research into practical guidance and putting together essential resources in a user-friendly format;
inspire: proactively going beyond the immediate needs of faculty and motivating them to enrich their teaching practice;
build bridges: reaching out to various actors within the institution, building connections to facilitate learning.
Beside all these roles, I think at a more meta level it’s important to think of ourselves as agents of organisational change. This may not be immediately visible, but through our interactions with individual faculty and with departments we plant the seeds of an organisational culture that values exchange, collaboration and respect for each other’s expertise.
To hear more voices, I kindly invite you to read a great Twitter thread on the various roles of educational developers here, as well as another very rich thread (and a visualisation) of our various approaches in educational development here. Thanks a lot to everyone who contributed!
The questions for reflection here is: What are we? What are we not?
How do we position ourselves?
Another important aspect of our identity is the way we are positioned and the way we position ourselves in our institutions. And here I mean both what unit/ department/ Centre/ faculty we belong to and our approach in doing our work.
As most of our work revolves around faculty, it’s important to look at what kind of relation we are building. Is it a partnership between peers or is it more a client- service provider relation? This also depends on the different types of positions I mentioned above (academic vs. support) and to a large extent is linked to the organisational culture and the specific context in which an institution operates. I don’t think there are silver bullets; if there are, I haven’t found them. I think that regardless of the type of relation, if it is built on trust and respect for each other’s values and expertise, it is a winning recipe.
Moreover, the way we interact with other actors in the university (students, librarians, people working in other academic services, university leadership, etc) and the way we are perceived (central or at the periphery?) is also very important. The pandemic might have increased the visibility of our work, but the next months and years will tell whether we have become an indispensable part of the Higher Education landscape.
You can read some of my thoughts from a year ago, including a piece I wrote on building partnerships between educational developers and faculty here.
Networks & peer learning
While the contexts in which we work might vary a lot, what I discovered in the past years is a great community open to learning and exchange. A real professional learning community, a Community of Practice, with people who are eager to build lasting relations and support each other in finding solutions to common problems.
We have to acknowledge that this is a treasure trove, and its existence, in various local and global iterations, is a testimony of a rich professional space, a kaleidoscope of experiences and cultures brought together by the love for learning and supporting it in any form and place.
If you are interested in learning about different faculty development approaches and initiatives, I kindly invite you to listen to and read the stories shared by colleagues from around the world on my blog.
A very important note, to end with: thanks a lot to Claire Gordon, Jenny Frederick, Julie McGurk, Mary Wright, Deborah Arnold, Nancy Gleason, Colin Simpson, Elizabeth Cleaver, Laura Czerniewicz, Paula Patch and many colleagues at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and the Learning Academy at the School of Business & Economics, Maastricht University for inspiring discussions that led to these reflections.
Katarina Mårtensson & Torgny Roxå (2021), “Academic developers developing: aspects of an expanding lifeworld”; this is part of an interesting International Journal for Academic Development Special issue on Strategic Academic Development in Asia that you can access here;
Shelda Debowski (2014), “From agents of change to partners in arms: the emerging academic developer role”:
Celia Whitchurch (2008), “Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education”.