Tag Archives: professional development

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 http://nexus.aber.ac.uk/xwiki/bin/view/Main/casestudies. 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.


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..

flu•ent for a dig’i•tal age?


capable of flowing  : capable of moving with ease and grace : capable of using a language easily and accurately : effortlessly smooth and flowing : having or showing mastery of a subject or skill

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dig’i·tal age

a cultural period marked by the prominence of a particular item : characterized by widespread use of computers

What does it mean for us?

It can be tempting to focus on the separate elements of digital fluency that are important to live, learn and work in the digital age. These do need careful consideration and are needed to form the structure of support offered to students and staff alike. These elements are

  • IT capabilities – being able to choose and use the technologies and tools available that best fit the task 
  • Information literacy“knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner” (CILIP)
  • Critical thinking – reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do
  • Online presence – selecting and using appropriate communication techniques relevant to different situations; creating and presenting an online identity that reflects who you want to be

But digital fluency is more than simply the sum of these individual parts. It recognises the inter-linked nature of the elements. They are woven together, with growth of each depending on the others and building into a fabric of digital competency and confidence within the individual.

Flowing effortless with ease and grace through technologies, resources and interactions is the aspiration of digital fluency.

This suggests that in addition to the four elements, digital fluency requires an acknowledgement that change is constant and skills need continuous development, that it isn’t solely about knowing how to do something but knowing how to learn to do something new. It’s all in the blend of capabilities and the confidence that can be drawn from it to approach future learning activities.

How does digital fluency support students to learn, progress and succeed?


By developing the capabilities and confidence inherent within digital fluency, students are equipped to take control of their learning, to become independent learners and to get the most out of the broad range of vibrant and challenging learning opportunities available.

The Horizon Report 2009  identifies the top challenge for higher education as “a growing need for formal instruction in the key new skills, including information literacy, visual literacy and technological literacy”

Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World  May 2009 (also know as Melville Report) suggests “the processes of engaging with Web 2.0 technologies develop a skill set that matches both to views on 21st-century learning skills and to those on 21st-century employability skills – communication, collaboration, creativity, leadership and technology proficiency”

Identifying, supporting and developing the digital fluency of our students is a complex issue. It is not appropriate to draw conclusions about capability based upon discipline, gender or age. In every cohort there will be a percentage of students who, by virtue of experience, background or ability will be coming to digital technologies will a lower level of confidence. Even for those students ‘born digital’ there is often a gulf between their apparent confidence and their actual use of digital tools and resources to support their learning. Future support needs to be sufficiently flexible, easy to access and personalisable to individual needs.

Reframing the notion of ‘graduateness’ for the 21st Century.

There is a growing consensus that the desired set of graduate skills and competencies should include higher order skills, such as intellectual flexibility, adaptability and critical awareness, coupled with the ability to deal with large amounts of information, to handle team and project work and to be an effective communicator…this range of skills are now frequently facilitated through digital technologies. During these challenging times, ensuring that our graduates have the best possible advantages in entering an increasingly shrinking and competitive job market is critical.

Digital Britain Final Report (June 2009)

digital britainThe skills needed for Digital Britain are not just another ‘vertical’ subject area. They underpin everything we do in the 21st Century. 22 million employees use technology daily in the workforce. Successful emerging economies have already embraced this message. So we need a step change in approach at all levels – in schools, vocational training, higher education and in the current workforce. pg171

It is more important than ever that HE should offer the education that will equip students for the current and future lives, to be able to respond rapidly to the changing needs in the digital sector and the wider economy.  pg 177

Universities UK/CBI Report – Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work (March 2009) identifies a core element of employability as ‘the ability to continually adapt to a changing world’ and to enable this will require universities to support their graduates to develop information and communication literacy, creative thinking and problem solving abilities. Business are changing the way they present themselves and this will change the characteristics they seek in graduate recruits. This agency’s description indicates the sort of shifts in approach that we anticipate to become increasingly widespread.

we are a digital agency

The articulation of Sheffield Hallam graduate attributes, including those that reflect the digital fluencies we discuss here, would provide a useful focus, clarifying our ‘offer’ to prospective students and future employers and inform the learning opportunities and support activities that we can offer to help students develop those attributes.

Realising potential through professional development

The digital technologies now pervasive across academia have changed the nature of academic practice.  Technologies impact on how students learn or engage with resources,  how people communicate and socialise, and how businesses operate. They are also changing the way we collaborate with fellow researchers, engage in scholarship to keep up to date with developments in our disciplines, and design and deliver learning opportunities for students. The need to continuously update skills and competencies to make best use of digital tools and resources is an essential component of professional development for staff.


Recommendations from Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World (May 2009) suggest that institutions should

  • support staff to continue to reflect on research into learning so that they are able to make fully informed choices about their teaching and assessment methods
  • support staff to become proficient users of an appropriate range of technologies and skilled practitioners of e-pedagogy, incorporating both into initial staff training and CPD programmes
  • explore ways in which the tutor/student relationship might be developed based on the Web 2.0 skills and attitudes of students
  • provide ongoing support for staff to maintain the currency of their information literacies

What are your thoughts on digital fluency?

What is needed for students and staff to flow effortlessly with ease and grace? What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? Where do you think we should focus our efforts in 09/10? How shall we measure impact?