International staff development in teaching and learning: Lessons learnt

cstaAt the end of another period of working with lecturers from overseas I thought it would be useful to pause for thought and identify lessons from working in the area of transnational staff development. I have just completed my third international staff development summer school, and here is what I found. These points come with the caveat that they are only my learning, and others may, of course, have different views of what works.

Be conscious of your assumptions.

Before meeting academics from other continents it’s easy to let assumptions about what they may or may not be doing in practice, or what they may or may not believe, creep in to your thinking and planning. By example with tutors from China a common belief is that they are always involved in a transmission modes of education; this is simply not my experience and the view relates to outdated assumptions. While some Anglicized techniques may be new to colleagues from other locations my experience tells me we have a shared passion for making learning better, and some overlap already in our methods such as employing a flipped classroom.

Explore biography.

It’s always useful to start any transnational academic staff development by exploring the experiences and biography of the individuals involved. Those involved in supporting transnational staff development can then be agile and responsive to the specific needs of the group. Things that I have tried are very simple: Starting the development programme with a list of questions and concerns that the group would like to address, shared via a post-it-note board, hosting a session with no plan and offering the hot seat format where we simply respond to the questions of the group in an effort to take stock and allow international colleagues to add context to their growing understanding, and walking together to listen more informally to the needs of the group.

Ensure that learning is always two way.

One directional international staff development appears like neo-colonial self-righteousness. We need to employ empathetic methods wherein we offer our own practices, identify some of the limitations of these approaches, and also invite teachers from other locations and nations to do the same. It feels disrespectful to do anything else.

Get the basic accessibility matters right

Take care of the basics to ensure provision is accessible. Particularly it’s important to make sure that delivery is slow enough to allow the digestion of material; if you’re not sure, keep checking with the group. Also, ensure that resources (slides, papers, etc.) are available before the class so that translation apps can be used to familiarise with any tricky words.

Team teach, always.

Team teaching allows a richness which is not possiblealone; I tend to work with people who can offer a very practical take on the theoretical ideas and research that I am exploring. As well as simply providing more experience in the room, teaching in pairs provides an opportunity to model professional differences, which are inevitable in teaching. So by example when working with a colleague in a session about teaching evaluation, my view was that it is okay to identify some of the areas upon which you specifically want feedback from teaching observation, but my colleague’s view was that this might limit the range of feedback and prevent previously unnoticed habits or issues from surfacing. Our nuanced differences were explored publicly as a model of divergent views; this raises the exposure of the group to detailed discussion. Team teaching also provided in the moment opportunities for peer observation and debrief; this should be routinely incorporated through the provision of collegial feedback on what worked well, and what less so.

Use staff development as a vehicle for the host organisation’s staff development.

By keeping international staff development locked within one or two people, there is limited benefit. Encouraging colleagues who may be outside of the usual staff development circuit to come and join in, can, I think, have a considerable impact, in growing capacity and confidence for this type of work. It can also provide experience for aspiring Senior Fellows within the UK Professional Standards Framework. It can also provide challenge and a refreshing set of ideas, for staff who often manage staff development.


Be confident about lessons on technology transferability

Within international staff development programmes we may wish to explore tools for learning and teaching. Things like Twitter, Padlett, Nearpod, Facebook and Kahoot. A first thought may be, well what’s the point as we have access to different apps, and some of our apps may not be appropriate in a different cultural context. However, our experiences are that sharing is still good, even when the tools are not immediately transferable, as we can learn by return about alternative apps. Most importantly, since technology and the way we use it reflects much about the underpinning power, beliefs and values in learning, then exploring technology is a much more valuable experience than just swapping ideas on apps we like.

Hold discussion using first language

Group work with international, especially Chinese staff, is always very productive, but it is incredible demanding and limiting to make that group work happen in a second language (e.g. English). Permitting sense-making in the first language allows rich debate and discussion to evolve, rather than slowing down the pace and adding another cognitive load. This approach loses the opportunity for input to the discussion from the session host, but in my experience this is a process worth paying to enable lively group discussion, and in any case group précis in English can give the headlines.

Lead by self-exposure on the difficult discussions.

Asking questions, or discussing topics, which require some exposure of personal fragilities, can be tricky to get started. Working with my colleague, Jane Headley, we found that by sharing something of ourselves before we ask others to do the same was helpful in creating an open forum. So for example, when discussing technology, I shared some adverse feedback that I had received on my own approach; I then told the story of what happened next, and I identified the decisions I made that lead to a less than perfect learner experience. This lighthearted ‘fessing up’ made others comfortable to share their own critical incidents and learning from it. As well as showing openness, this deconstruction of practice also models reflection in action.

Use many examples and stories

Using real examples of situations, challenges and successes can really aid understanding, though remembering that some political context may be important to explain why one or another decision was taken at the time, e.g. we had funding for this type of work, or we are preparing for TEF.

Encourage journal writing

Finally, by encouraging some reflective writing after each topic or session, international staff can form their own ‘take away’ record of i) what were the key learning points and ii) what next to research, extent or apply aspects of learning? A simplified, structured formal of learning journals can promote consolidation and impact from learning.

This list is no doubt incomplete, so please do add any other points that you might have.

Creative commons image sources:


Employer engagement in HE: Building for the Future

Today I was at the HEFCE Employer Engagement Conference at The Studio in Manchester. This event brought together very many practitioners involved in working with employers to support leaning through, at and for work.

Across a wide range of sessions the messages I picked up were resoundingly as follows:

  • Working well with employers requires a long-term strategic approach that has buy-in and support at all levels of the organization. Without this efforts are futile.
  • Working with employers is about forming business-to-business relationships; it is about using a language that is unassuming and taking an attitude that is responsive and respectful. This doesn’t mean ditching the values that are traditionally held in HE – it s rather about a new kind of openness.
  • Dedicated units or teams to support employer engagement can be very effective at promoting confidence and competence of other staff. The link between such units and academic departments is critical since this is usually the expertise that companies want to access! Such a model was called hub and spoke when modeled by KSA. As an expansion of this I envisage a truly functional arrangement as more like a community of practice.
  • Working with employers requires a ‘can do’ approach. It’s OK not to have the answers, but a willingness to find solutions to meet a business need is critical. A provider centric approach will not be satisfactory to employers.
  • The resource put in to this area of work by HEFCE and institutions themselves has yielded some incredibly innovative, creative and diverse developments relating to curriculum, pedagogy, technology, infrastructure, data management and fostering different forms of collaboration.
  • Despite market analysis, in all its sophisticated forms, an academic’s personal networks can be a significant force in forming productive business facing partnerships. Building confidence such that academics feel trusting enough, of perhaps lesser known colleagues, to let them near their contacts is needed.
  • Costing workforce development arrangements remains highly problematic across the sector. Unanimously, it seemed, full economic costing approaches were seen as totally inappropriate. The emerging favoured model is an approach with understands the cost of this work and thereafter prices consistently and sensitively.
  • The benefits of this type of work need to be shown in a way that replies to a business need. How much is saved through staff retention? How much does the more effective practice bring to the business? We need to stop being wooly in this area.
  • Caution is needed  to avoid inter-organizational competitiveness to the detriment of all; examples of collaboration show that this can be a highly productive and mutually beneficial way of working with employers.
  • More is needed to professionalise this form of activity – to ensure that staff working at the interface of business and HEI’s are recognized and rewarded in a way, which is proportionate to their roles.

Today it was simply very rewarding to be able to see the collective impact of work undertaken in this activity stream. This included stories of learner transformation through students being given new opportunities, insight in to the volume of people that this work has touched (over 30,000 individuals) and a sense of the power of persistence amongst the people driving this work who press on even when they feel as welcome as a door to door salesman amongst some they seek to engage! It was also good to be able to share some of our own insights from the work undertaken around different approaches to collaborating with partners and particularly in relation to managing a diverse portfolio of work.

Making employer and university partnerships work – accredited employer-led learning

Tonight, at the University of Derby Work-based Futures V conference, we saw the launch of a new book titled “Making employer and university partnerships work – accredited employer-led learning” (published with Libri). Exemplifying excellent and innovative practice from across a range of HE-employer partnerships, this book is a portrait of higher education institutions who have opted to engage with industry and by reply it captures how industry has joined and led the party. It show what can be done and what has been done. It outlines how partnerships can be built and how HEIs can develop in to agile and listening partners for industry.

(Special recommendation for chapter 17 🙂 )



UVAC 2010

Liz Warr and I hosted a workshop session on frameworks, wrapper modules and inquiry based learning design at UVAC 2010. The workshop was informed by work undertaken in the last 12-18 months at Harper Adams through the REEDNet project and formally the Aspire CETL.

I think it was fair to say that the most interest in the session was on wrappers and re-scalable modules. To read more about the wrapper idea you can click here or go straight to the paper.

Thanks to those who joined us today, it has certainly helped us move on our thinking and to consolidate some thoughts. Here is the session presentation for reference:

5 Thoughts from the Jisc event – Employer Responsive Provision: Designing, delivering and supporting flexible learning opportunities

A productive day at Aston University spent with colleagues sharing thoughts and practices around employer engagement design, technology, assessment and policy. The main emerging points for me from today….

  1. The HE sector is rising to the challenge of working with business in many ways, whilst there may be very many unanswered questions, we are increasingly aware of the issues facing us, which is surely the first step to solving them!We are beginning to get to know the unknowns.
  2. The pump-prime funding of employer engagement has been a useful, perhaps essential stimulus, it would be helpful to know if the end-game is sustainability and within what time frame we are working to achieve self-sustaining engagement.
  3. The place of interoperability and sensible systems architecture has emerged as key to unlock a smooth online learner experience. To avoid bitty, disjointed experiences systems must talk. Today I realised that this was a very real issue if HEI’s are to face outwards, however pursuit of perfect interoperability must not distract from the job of getting on with engagement.
  4. Patchwork text has never been so relevant. Artefacts make learning authentic, a wrap around commentary adds value.  The artefacts and commentary can be a way of separating (for expertise alignment purposes) the competence, work based and technical aspects from the reflective, extended and meta- learning aspects.
  5. A running theme in discussions was around the language of employer engagement – is HE talking in the same language as business? How much of a problem is this?  …  My own view is that the challenges of language are far from insurmountable and can mainly be solved through mutual understanding and engagement.