By Brian Irwin
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.