Creating opportunities for professional development – a collaborative act [Part 1]

By Helen Rodger, Academic Innovation

Putting together tailored professional development opportunities for groups of staff is something I’ve been doing a fair bit of recently, and I’m expecting to be doing a lot more of in the future. Of late, they’ve fallen into two categories – the one that we’re looking at here involves a course pre-constructed around a particular theme, and modified to suit the needs of participants, it is then delivered collaboratively with faculty staff. The second involves working closely with a team (for example a subject group) to establish requirements and then collaborative construction of a bespoke course with the team and other appropriate specialists – I’ll cover that one in Part 2..

So back to the first: Over the last year I’ve run three instances of a four week course on Facilitating Online Learning – or in other words, using discussion boards effectively in learning & teaching.  The course is run completely online and is designed to model recommended practice, so that participants experience practice that may not be covered explicitly in the course, and hopefully will reflect this when running their own courses or modules. Participants are asked to engage with the course content – reading, discussion, activities – for three to four hours per week. The course ran once before this year and has evolved from an eight week course to one that feels more manageable for participants to engage with over time. Other smaller modifications occur as a result of feedback that we gather from participants – from the ways in which we communicate, materials covered, or the addition of a face to face session. While have always asked for participants to reflect on what they’ve gained from the course and how it has helped develop their practice, we’ve only recently offered a certificate of completion, and linked it to the Academic Standards Framework. Participants currently only need to make a considered reflection in order to pass and to have actively participated, there is no benchmarking of practice although this may be addressed in the future.

 In the last year, over 60 staff have registered for the three courses, with around 70% engaging to the level where we can say they have completed

That level of success on its own is pretty special and you could speculate that we just got lucky, or tapped into a real need – however when you add to the picture that all the staff are from one faculty; that attendance is for the most part voluntary, and there is a constant stream of interest, it starts to feel even more special. I think that this is largely down to the way we manage and deliver the course – and this is where the collaboration comes in:

 I work with David Eddy from Health and Wellbeing who has dual roles around LTA and Distance Learning. He advertises the course, partly through word of mouth and targeted emails, and gathers names; I set the course up, finalise content based on surveys of what the participants need and want to cover, and I handle the day to day running of the course. We both facilitate the discussion, while he keeps participants moving  with direct emails along the lines of “you’ve not been engaging, is everything ok?”. We jointly review the course and modify it for the next cohort. 

I’m not necessarily suggesting it’s the division of labour that makes it a success – however, it would probably have a very different dynamic if we didn’t work in together in this way, i.e. with the two different perspectives of faculty and central department. If I were to take on the role of advertising the opportunity may be seen as something different: unfamiliar, owned externally, centrally managed. Similarly, if I were to handle the pastoral side, the same things come into play- particularly in a voluntary course taking place over time. In short, I need David’s faculty position, experience and role, and he needs my neutrality, access to LTA specialists and practical input.

With current the absence of thorough evaluation I can’t say much more without it looking like conclusion jumping – but I do think this model is something we should be trying to replicate in other faculties and for other professional development courses. If you are interested in participating or helping to facilitate this course, or something similar in another faculty do let me know. The faculty link is crucial, the opportunity feels more viral than organised and seems to reach places that traditional models of delivery don’t.

 A final note – we’re hoping to get funding to thoroughly evaluate the impact of the course at faculty level later this year, so it would be good to squeeze in some analysis of the collaborative approach too.. perhaps there will be a Part 1 revisited in the not too distant future..

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