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they are always involved in a transmission modes of education; this is simply not my experience and the view relates to outdated assumptions.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:


Lecturers: Find your rockstar!

Much has been written about the value of lectures: It is not clear whether they will endure, or if instead they are dated and doomed. Either way though I don’t see them going away any time soon. While the lecture has remained core in many universities, we know that lecture content (i.e. higher level knowledge) has gone from being underpinned by privileged information locked down within the academic community, to in many cases nothing more than ‘stuff’ that might be gleaned in a decent web search. How many colleagues Google source at least some of their content (be honest now!)?

The nature of knowledge has changed rapidly, but still the main mode of operation for ‘oh so many’ courses is transmission. When I hear others say ‘why would students come to lectures if there is … no assessment incentive … when there is lecture capture …or, when there are full notes on the virtual learning environment’, I can’t help feeling it’s the wrong question. We don’t want to dupe students in to coming to lectures by denying these beneficial actions just to sustain the status quo; this is a defensive approach, which devalues the time of students and the professionalism of lecturers. Instead it is perhaps better to ask ‘why would students come to class at all?’ What are we offering that is good enough and useful enough for students to want come along and engage?

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There are clear synergies between higher education and contemporary trends in music. Commercial music, like knowledge, has gone from a prized product, to being cheap and accessible, and then to being free and abundant. Artists are succeeding by not holding on the old modes of distributing, but by making their product open and available, to whet the appetite of fans who will then travel, pay and commit time to go to the live event; to share an experience and share in something which cannot be consumed by other means. Often the benefits of live events lie in the way they make you feel rather than in a quantifiable outcome.

I am advising colleagues who are new to teaching to ‘find their rockstar’. This doesn’t mean becoming an edutainer; which I take issue with as it trivializes scholarship. It rather means locating the reasons that make the live coming together of people to learn, a valuable and meaningful experience. If the transmission mode is used, then what extra does the live performance add? When I watch a band the value for me is ‘feeling’ the bass, making memories, and being part of an audience. When I watch a speaker, I enjoy the focus, the interaction and the stories, which feel are told for the specific audience.

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When asked by a researcher, who is new to teaching, what is my ‘rockstar’ and how do I find it? My answer … you already have it …

‘your unpublished and ongoing research’

‘your empathy with the students you truly appreciate their angst because a similar experience is not so far in your own past’

‘your calm and considered outlook coupled with boundless enthusiasm that makes your content far richer than any download’ (your newness means your passion is undiminished). This can be felt by those around you; it can’t be measured’.

If I think about brilliant lecturers they all have their own attributes that make attendance worthwhile – these are always not displays of radical teaching or ‘fizz-bomb’ personalities; but there is always something more than transmission. Examples include anecdotes, stories, empathy, humour, and enthusiasm, and research. Rather than assume students are disengaged we should make sure when they come to class they have something more than a download… it’s potentially a useful, confidence generating staff development reflection to #FindYourRockstar.



Quiet PDP, meta-PDP.

A recent TED video (short) raised the idea to me that those who have a tendency to announce their goals to others may be more likely to be distracted from the achievement of them. The video flags research undertaken last year by Gollwitzer on external goals, summarised in Newsweek in brief also.

Whether this research  means that if anyone announces a goal they are less likely to achieve it, or whether it is more about personality types i.e. those who announce goals enjoy the premature response, and are therefore by the nature of their character less likely to  achieve, I am less clear. That aside, I thought there were implications from this, for formal PDP and particularly, goal setting.

If we set goals through the formal process of PDP and make them explicit, is there a point at which sharing becomes unproductive, even potentially damaging? Where would this point be? How does this sit with the shape of increasingly formalised PDP modules and programmes?

PDP is a process – it is very much more than the product of the ‘personal development plan’ which is so often deemed the end game of formal programmes. With an increased and increasing emphasis on PDP in HE, we need to be careful not to over-emphasise goal setting but rather facilitate learners, in whatever ways they wish, to make conscious, informed, empowered and inspiring choices for themselves. This may mean that we raise awareness of approaches and strategies to take control of one’s own development, and develop skills for professional engagement, but ultimately never set eyes on the plan itself.

Instead we might look at engaging with learners at a meta-level – especially for the purposes of assessment. Under a meta-PDP approach, engagement is around the value of learning, the implications of choices, the challenges of planning, learning about ourselves through reflections on development and developing an appreciation of personal development.  The ‘doing’ level still exists, but remains the domain of the learner. The object of learning in the public or group domain can, without imposition, be the meta-learning aspects.

I am reminded of the need for change amongst HE institutions and practitioners to support learners in highly personalised approaches to PDP, by a useful article from Peters & Tymms, who conclude PDP should ‘not be defined or controlled by the educational provider but remain free to be defined by the learner. To do this will inevitably demand change, not from the student, but from Higher Education providers and practitioners. Ultimately, the key for PDP’s success may yet lie in the term itself – it’s personal’.

Assistance for writing employer engagement modules

As part of my work to support the REEDNet project I have been forming up some guidance on how we, in HE, can design modules to support employer engagement initiatives. What started as a quick guide has grown in to a 20 or so page booklet on how assessment, learning outcomes and teaching & learning strategies can be written with respect for the authenticity of learning in the workplace and for the real needs of employers. 

The guide is downloadable here:

Whilst the booklet is aimed specifically at supporting designers of employer engagement / work-based learning modules I suspect it may have relevance to module authors more widely.

(improved typeset version from the printers, hopefully to follow shortly on the same link), printed copies available by request.

Work-based learning Impact Study, summary notes.

Ahead of undertaking some sizable WBL evaluation I wanted to cross check my own evakuation design with the HEA Work-Based learning Impact study. In doing this I have jotted ouut the key elements of this report for future reference.  

Reasons to engage in WBL

Learners Employers
Validate and formalise experience Develop knowledge, skills ad expertise (job specific and generic)
Career progression Retention
Increased knowledge and understanding Supplement and extend existing provision
Develop practical skills to perform better in new or future role  

Reasons for programme choice

Learners Employers
Flexible delivery Fits in to work schedule
Pace Opportunity to influence change in the work-place
Convenience of delivery in the workplace Minimum time away from work
Relevance Addresses day to day issues


Learners Employers
Confidence at work Clearer organisational direction
Confidence outside of work Development of standards, policies and contracts
Higher aspirations and motivation Improvements in quality
Raised personal status Increased innovation
More self aware learning to think and challenge assumptions  Improved performance of employees who require less direct support
A greater awareness of particular issues Positive attitudinal and behavioural change in line with the values of the organisation (capability expanding)
Developed new and enhanced existing skills External recognition and prestige
More likely to take stock of performance  
Wider perspective of workplace issues  
Better understanding of the workplace organisation  


Key professional benefits of WBL

  • Better performance
  • Taking on responsibility
  • Changed jobs or secured promotion
  • Secured salary increase
  • Left able to see other points of view
  • Positive workplace thinking
  • Relieved stress and increased contentment
  • Able to coach others
  • Professional recognition or membership

NB: Reflective approaches were cited as critical for realising benefits at work.

Bite size acknowledged as a catalyst for further study.

Undergraduates have been redefined as “researchers” …

The Times Higher Education (10/1/08) – in its all new glossy splendor –  reports that staff at Gloucestershire will be encouraged to think of students as fellow researchers to erode the idea of passive learning. Huzzah! 

When the BA LTR launched in 2003 a decision was taken to call our students researchers. Internally we use this term and externally in most instances.There are though occassions when to use researcher not student causes confusion, when writing about the research in to the research of the researcher that was carried out by researchers it can get a little confusing! I jest but  to make research on teaching and learning accessible, familiar terms have been called for amongst some external audiences.     

Our degree is research led and in this way it was a simple choice of term. But the term researcher was used not just to reflect the way in which learners learnt but also to recognise the journey that we staff and ‘students’ are on together –  together, trying to better understand issues of teaching and learning in an online work-based inquiry led degree.

 A culture of co-research was absolutely essential in developing the course, establishing good practice, establishing change and improvement and in formalising tacit knowledge. Mutual respect is an essential ingredient in a culture of co-research, everyone needs to be heard and trust their ideas will be valued.  A threat to this model would be complacency – in a world of change I believe that learners being co-researchers in the teaching and learning process provides a safe-guard against stagnation. The culture offers a means through which higher education institutions can stay in touch with the changing needs of students and together use creativeness and innovation to develop, adapt, improve and thrive in learning. Using the term researcher is much more than a quirky name change.

Bob Fryer on the knowledge we need

Sometimes when we’re in the thick of facillitating learning often via community exchanges (which are draining and intense sometimes) it is so easy to forget why we really promote learning, we can get lost in a haze of day-to-dayness. Sometimes its good to pause and realign with what causes us to pursue such elements as personalisation, autonomy, elearning. In effect for me personally this realignment is a return from criticality which was specifically sought for a better understanding and a more honest personal acceptence of the values that are embedded in both my practice & research, a full circle return back to the values and the rationale with which I started, though with them more firmly routed within myself for having explored them more deeply. 

Listening to a presentation by Professor Bob Fryer I was fully reminded of the wider elements and forces that underpin the changes that I as a practitioner and researcher am involved with. Briefly and knowingly undersold here … Prof. Fryer showed the changes in society towards risk and complexity, disorder. He explained that knowledge was the currency for survival in ways which transcend the bounds of education; through life length, life style & well being. He explained how the complexity of the world around us and the changing nature of the world needs quite different forms of knowledge than in the past rationale world (Weber’s world). It needs knowledge which can handle change, handle swathes of knowledge and to keep a competitive edge can continue to learn. In effect learners must know how to learn (and re-learn), we must become competent knowledge handlers. The challenge for education is how to move from the rational order of provision of knowledge to empowering creative competent knowledge handlers for the new order*