Approaches to staff development

By Brian Irwin

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

Swansea HDR by matthewgriff (EmmGee) on Flickr

I recently attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference in Swansea. One thing that I paid special attention to at the conference was the approaches to staff development in e-learning used at other institutions.

The University of Twente was migrating from one virtual learning environment (VLE) to Blackboard, and they wanted a staff development programme which would give lots of personal attention for academics and help them master the necessary skills. The solution they had was to employ part-time a group of 20+ students to meet individually with academics. These students taught them how to use the new software and helped them migrate content from the old VLE to the new one. This proved an effective strategy for their migration, but they had only 400 staff members that needed this level of support. This suggests there might be problems with scaling this approach to a larger university such as Sheffield Hallam. In addition the professional development tended to focus on technical matters. While this is important as a first step, advice on using the technology for effective teaching is probably beyond the natural intuition of most student employees.

The University of Alberta faced the challenge of low attendance at staff development events around e-learning. They tried many approaches to making them more attractive and convenient such as making sessions shorter and providing online resources. However, they decided to experiment recently with the opposite approach – making it a bigger commitment. By running an ‘e-learning academy’ for a week in the summer, with a required commitment to participate all week, they were able to get. Activities in the academy allowed staff to apply conceptual frameworks for e-learning to their own practice, then experiment hands-on with the tools in a supported environment towards the end of the week. Having this larger commitment which you got more out of was appealing to many staff, and they filled up all the places they offered. This sounds an interesting prospect, but I wonder about how transferable it is away from North America. In North American universities lecturers finish teaching responsibilities much earlier and as a result have more free time in the summer. Many actually aren’t employed officially all summer. In the UK there is a smaller period where staff have few scheduled responsibilities, and many will take annual leave during that time. However, there is a possibility worth exploring around a part-online academy concept to offer flexibility for staff members if they cannot commit to a whole week worth of staff development.

Another approach was taken by the Southwest Wales Partnership, which included three institutions. Each institution has only one or two staff members supporting e-learning. So they have a partnership and share some of their staff development programmes across the staff at all three institutions. At Sheffield Hallam the faculties employ their own staff to support e-learning. If they work together it could extend the opportunities for our staff beyond the resources of each faculty, but there are issues around cost and equity which would need to be resolved.

In the Southwest Wales Partnership the e-learning staff joined-up activities were paid for from a central fund rather than by each institution. One final approach that was highlighted was at Aberystwyth University. They have been pulling together case studies of various uses of e-learning. They are available at The case studies they have are in different formats, but we have been working on creating case studies with a consistent level of information. I’m not sure which is best, as it is probably quicker to get inconsistent case studies, but there is a question of if they provide all the information needed when inconsistent.

So this raises the question of if we should try any of these approaches or other new ones inspired by these at Hallam.


2 responses to “Approaches to staff development

  1. My reaction to this is academics are all different and can’t be regarded as an homogenous mass. They need different things at different times, so a diverse approach, although obviously more costly, is the only way of ensuring useful engagement. Indeed, a more learner-centred approach is another way of describing this.
    I wonder whether some academics appear to resist, but in fact would rather only engage with this by allocating sufficient time. One or two of us have been thinking about devising a Think Tank approach in which we facilitate deep engagement in self-determined groups over concentrated periods of time.
    I do think the key to scalability and sustainability, however, is by making ‘it’ so interesting that academics start to talk about ‘it’ amongst themselves (whatever ‘it’ might be) and so begin their own conversations that lead to autonomous (and well-supported) consideration. How do you make things interesting though? Well, I think AI have been pretty good at that over the years, but I think we have to appeal more to people’s inate sense of curiosity. Of course, some staff will inevitably be put off by things which they regard as trivial.
    One approach which I would like to do more with is the use of video case studies: recognisable colleagues talking enthusiastically or critically about what they are doing, offering real tips and meaningful insight. At a recent Special Interest Group meeting of the Media-Enhanced Learning SIG one academic who has been doing excellent things with audio feedback at a UK university said (to paraphrase) “I love innovating in this way, but there are only so many times I can tell other people about all this.” With video or audio case studies we have a way of capturing the excitement and grittiness of the academic experience and making it available for colleagues whenever they need, or want, to know more.

  2. Good to hear that other universities also feel the need to experiment with different approaches to e-learning. I agree with Andrew in that a diversity of approaches is necessary in an instution of our size. I’m particularly mindful of the need for flexibility to accommodate staff who teach flat out all week, as well as associate lecturers who may struggle to find contacts and information as they get to grips with the institution.

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