Developing our teaching doesn’t normally generate the kind of rewards that developing our research brings forth; that can sometimes makes pedagogic inquiry a dissuasive experience. It needn’t be so, in this case. This blog is about getting something back from the time and effort we invest as a result of looking at Multimedia Learning (MML) methods as both means and end. The end is pedagogic, but that process can also become the means to developmental ends; I’m referring to the pedagogic research as a means to furthering our Continuing Professional Development (CPD). It can work for us, as much as we work for it. I see two levels at which our own engagement with pedagogic inquiry can help us, with some overlap between the two. The first concerns promotion within your institution. The second is external. This might include elevation to the various Fellowships of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) as was, or to the equivalent appointments in the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA), or whatever the equivalent is where you are.
Passing probation, surviving PDR and getting promotion – all elements of CPD - are increasingly dependent on evidence of good/ best/excellent practice in pedagogy, depending on institutional vernacular and emphasis. That’s no bad thing. Judging from the number of times I’ve seen university employees deliver the most dreadful learning and teaching experience, some kind of review process is a reasonable development, and many people benefit from career support at one point or another. But our professional development structure tends to emphasise disciplinary research and it is for this that we are mostly recognised, acknowledged and rewarded. This inevitably leaves us little time – and sometimes less motivation - to develop our teaching in line with how institutional CPD is evolving. This blog aims to help us make our interest in pedagogic inquiry work for our own ends, in addition to the ends of pedagogy for our students.
CPD for internal recognition almost always identifies such an emphasis as evidence of conformity with best practice. The act of trying something new out is a handy definition of innovation, and where you can place it in a wider assessment context, you have evidence of integrated, continuous, rigorous application of innovation. I’ll be looking at how we might make initial, sometimes quite informal and tentative investigations into sustained and substantial pedagogic development later in this blog, but for now it’s enough to think of it as quite a natural progression we are already both familiar and comfortable with if we are professional researchers. For those on teaching-only contracts, it is not a great leap of logic to establish a testing regime to determine utility and validity of a chosen pedagogic approach. Start small, and build up.
Approach and context
Another element of internal CPD is evidence of contextualization – of being aware of the relationship of what we are doing, to what has already been done and recorded in the peer-reviewed press. This sounds a lot like what we would do in our disciplinary research, but according to Cotton et al (2018), such inquiry into pedagogy will be treated less seriously even if we take rigorous measures. Pedagogic research will remain the ‘Cinderella’ of the academy until such endeavours are ‘viewed inherently as research… rather than as scholarship’ of teaching and learning. But we shouldn’t let such a view put us off. We may not be ready, or willing, to make the move from the seemingly less-valued idea of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) to full-on pedagogic research for REF submission, but we don’t have to - and we can choose to at any later point we might choose. SoTL is clearly outlined at the University of Edinburgh, where they usefully identified 3 elements:
It doesn’t have to be published in REF-able journals; there are many ways of sharing the outcome of your inquiry into innovative pedagogic practices. We might lead a ‘teach-in’ or add the method to the Learning and Teaching Committee’s deliberations. We might write a blog on our employer’s website. We might become a University Teaching Observer. And as we’ll see later, we might share it with an external review and development body like SEDA or the HEA/OneHE. Valued or not in conventional terms, SoTL can be part of the CPD journey because if we are considering our own pedagogy in the context of the work of others, we tick the box showing we are conscious of the work of others and assessing our own innovation in that light. It’s also the case that you may wind up developing a specific research approach that is acutely suited to testing your innovation: innovative practice can beget innovative research methods. I’ll talk about the method I developed at the end. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t expect results right away. You might get some in a teaching semester’s duration, but I found the length of time it took to move from that to recognition and external acknowledgement to be frustrating.
Once there are localized findings (they don’t have to be peer-review-published, just sufficiently rigorous to be recognized and acknowledged by your more immediate professional community as an initial inquiry), adopting a pedagogic innovation sustains another key aspect of internal CPD, that of method and data dissemination, which can also count for evidence of leadership and collegiality. Volunteering your hard-earned data and techniques as part of the School/Department/Faculty’s stated commitment to excellence in teaching is a way of fulfilling such CPD criteria, and the wider you spread your wisdom, the better. There are often numerous localized communities looking for volunteers to present initial findings of interesting innovative L&T research, and you may find such exposure opens opportunities for limited internal funding initiatives and teaching innovation awards. In doing so, we also demonstrate evidence of leadership: speaking in a forum, advancing your method, showing initiative, starting a new community all show you are the first and you’re inciting others to follow. And in making your data accessible to others, you show commitment, transparency and conviction, key elements of leadership and collegiality.
Cumulative impact on CPD
There is fortunately quite a snowball effect in this process that works in our favor. The more data we develop and the more set it in context and take critical local review, the more intellectual direction and structure we develop that supports non-REF, internal publication. You may have your own website you can add a blog to, tracking the progress and outcome of your experiments. You may publish your findings on a School of University page. You may publish in or contribute to a bigger and related project run by your Centre for Academic Practice or equivalent.
You can tune your research to reflect wider agendas, which may have the effect of making what you do of more interest to more people, and possibly making a bigger splash, as it were. I was lucky with my own (MML); the existing theoretical and practical research was claiming to increase audience engagement, and engagement is already a big deal in most Liberal Higher Education systems. But I also began to connect my work to another well-known agenda by my own choosing. Generating Active Learning organically in large group lectures (as opposed to achieving it by disrupting passive practices and interjecting periodic changes in L&T method, for example) is a bit like the search for the Holy Grail. Given that MML was proven to increase engagement, I decided to extend testing to look for effect on Active Learning precursors, finding more data with which to start more blogs and lead more community development and contribute to new L&T Committee agendas. I later extended my research to test for inclusivity with dyslexic students, and their engagement inspired and helped develop an online research method that increased student participation by 300%.
This is where crossover between internal and external recognition and elevation happens. If we have accomplished key aspects outlined above, we have potentially reached a critical mass and acquired sufficient momentum to make the leap from Internal recognition to External validation - and this in turn enhances our credibility for internal promotion. But that’s getting slightly ahead of ourselves. The next section looks at how we can use our own smaller-scale pedagogic innovation to seek validation by external institutions. In my case it was a Senior Fellowship with the HEA (UK), aided and abetted by Nick Allsopp, without whose support I would probably have surrendered to the bureaucracy and technocracy of the process.
Most professional bodies like the HEA have Professional Standards Frameworks. These set the benchmarks that must be met and exceeded for membership. Without going into the detail – there’s a lot of it – the work done for internal recognition can be exported into the external framework, and then built upon substantially. I think this is a lucky break in many ways, the more so since in the UK, many universities are using the lower levels of the HEA to guide development of probationary staff. Having such structure can take the ambiguity out of internal processes with more vague criteria and greater subjectivity in assessment. Whether we like the change or not, the key message I want to share here is that our pedagogic inquiry inside our institution can be carried over for external validation, a process that encourages yet further externalization of our research, which in turn feeds back into internal promotion.
Validation bodies may ask us to aim at publication of our work as evidence of the fruition of inquiry and innovation. That may seem to some like a burden, and it will certainly demand extra work. But it’s also an opportunity. I’ve never been one for ‘mindless optimism’ (thanks to Blackadder for that wonderful term), but taking what we are already doing, and then framing it in wider terms, is what we do as a matter of course in our regular research. We have reason for optimism because we’re already ahead of the game. We just need to add another ‘track’ to that passage, and we have the architecture of elevation and promotion at our fingertips. Our research path to date has normally been discipline-driven, rather than shaped by pedagogy, so we will be unlikely to have taken aim at pedagogic and related journals as publishing outlets. But Fellowships and the like give us additional reason to drive at this objective. It isn’t only for peer-reviewed acceptance and REF ratings: it’s for institutional compliance (an ugly term but it should be seen for what it is) at the probation stage; it gets national recognition at external level; and it boomerangs back to support our drive for promotion and a better income – and by extension, pension. It’s really impactful potentially, and I think this helps us to better value a foray into pedagogic innovation and inquiry. It isn’t innovation for innovation’s sake; we can pursue our own bigger agendas this way too
As momentum builds up, it becomes more enabling. The data initially discovered and internally circulated may undergo internal per review, increasing the viability of a bid to present at a conference. That counts as further dissemination, another criteria for both internal and external CPD, and conference attendance often stimulates further peer review, strengthening (or ultimately weakening, but nonetheless substantiating) the scientific process and your professional standing. Sometimes we forget that we don’t have to be right: just adhering to the scientific process is as much evidence of scholastic repute as is affirming a hypothesis. There’s a lovely moment in the movie about Stephen Hawking’s life in which he giggles to himself as he realises that his latest experiment has failed and proved his earlier hypothesis wrong; his joy is in the process, not the outcome, and we can enjoy that too. It doesn’t all have to pan out into some amazing new pedagogic practice. Not all the time.
So, just when you think it can’t get any better, you become aware that in elevating yourself successfully into Fellowships; in developing new teaching and learning research and methods; in being recognised and valued by high-ranking members of your employing institution as a skilled pedagogue, innovator, disseminator and leader; in working with the wider national community at conferences; in publishing and blogging and reflecting and reviewing, you become eligible to apply for the highest pedagogic award in the land (in the UK): a National Teaching Fellowship. And this in turn is the kind of leadership and level that can underpin a professorial bid on the Teaching and Research path. The ends of pedagogy have become the means to lifelong CPD and another means to boost our careers.
Innovation in pedagogic research methods
I’m going to talk a bit about another unexpected benefit of becoming engaged in pedagogic inquiry, and the role that this had in my own CPD, as an example of unimagined and unintended positive consequences. My initial approach to evidence was subject-orientated. That is, I believed that student reactions to my MML innovation were essential. I also knew that leading scholars like Vicki Trowler were bemoaning the absence of student voices in academic research being conducted on student engagement. It gave me an intellectual, literature-based rationale for what I already knew I wanted to do: find out what MML did for students.
In consultation with peers at my own institution and elsewhere, it was decided to determine how MML methods compared with text-dominant teaching approaches using a Randomized Control Trial (RCT). The objective was to create two presentations with the same academic content discussing the causes and effects of global warming. This subject was chosen because of the likelihood of familiarity to students across the broad range of disciplines taught in HE. One presentation would consist of slides with text and bullet-points, the other with one line of text and an apposite full-slide image. Students would be appointed to each group randomly and at the end of the presentation, would complete an online survey.
The experiment failed due to non-attendance of participants, who had been invited through a range of module email lists. The few that came told us that the time taken to come onto campus to participate was a major deterrent and suggested making the experiment remotely accessible. This led to the creation of a basic WordPress website that houses both presentations, with links at the end to the survey, with a URL that randomized participation. This led to acceptable statistical significance for the experiment and provided the first data sets on engagement and Active Learning. The website design allows new experiments and surveys to be embedded at will, allowing us to refocus the experiment to any area of study. It has led to half-a-dozen peer reviewed publications and others in institutional outlets. This approach concords with the UK Professional Standards Framework’s categories A5, K5 and V4, supporting bids for Fellowships which in turn sustain applications for institutional promotion. If you’d like to discuss how the website was made, you can reach out to me through this site.
CPD is increasingly structured in HE acknowledgement and promotion cultures in mature democracies. Small-scale pedagogic inquiry can be developed and enhanced to serve not just best professional practices in pedagogy and our students Learning and Teaching needs, but also our own professional development needs. There is no reason why our commitment to better L&T methods should not also yield benefits to our own career progress.
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