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The theme of the SEDA conference held at the end of last term, was the Digital University and much of the discussion focused on digital networks, such as the use of the Twitter in academic development (in Chris Rowell and Helen Webster’s excellent talk on the 10 Days of Twitter course). The significance of the digital in relation to identity construction, particularly amongst academic developers, was a prominent theme which was explored both theoretically and in practice in Helen Beetham’s flipped lecture ‘Becoming Postdigital: in the wake, in response, in recovery’ during which members of both virtual and actual audiences intersected and interacted. One of the issues that Helen explored was the porosity of our experience made possible by online networks and interactions.

The role of digital interaction made me think back to the findings from our study, in which we asked about the importance of different types of networks, including those online, in relation to identity construction.

In many ways, all of the questions analysed in our study contribute to identity construction. Of particular importance was professional organisations and networks, within digital networking and presence being deemed of significance to 40% of respondents.


Being involved with professional organisations was seen as significant to respondents with 78% answering ‘Yes’ or “yes, greatly’ to the statement ‘Being a member of a professional organization (e.g. SEDA, ALT, SRHE) is important to me’. A similar percentage of respondents (72%) indicated that being accredited by a professional organization was important to them.

Similarly, for interviewees, conferences and network events were considered to be ‘a big part of my learning’ (IM) and associations such as SEDA, HEDG and the SRHE were cited as particularly productive organisations to belong to in terms of making contacts, entering a community of practice and generally learning about the area. It was observed that SEDA, in particular, has supported those new to academic development:

‘I’ve only been in SEDA for the last little while… And what I found has been absolutely fantastic. I mean the emails are worth their weight in gold… I think it has made me a lot more hopeful about things’ (IL).

I found them [SEDA events] invaluable when I started and … I can’t believe why that wouldn’t be similarly true today. Anyone who’s making the transition into [academic development] … because there isn’t a route, people come from all sorts of different places. I think in order to get the identity … it’s the good old community of practice theory… I mean to get the jargon, the language, to know the territory, the literature… to try to do that on your own would be so difficult … compared with the opportunities that you get through going to a SEDA conference, getting the newsletter… I think that as you become senior, I guess, that SEDA maybe becomes less valuable and HEDG becomes more potentially important… I think there may be room for more coordinated CPD for senior people (IG).

… because I’m new here, you know I can’t draw upon personal networks … So membership in things like SEDA, SRHE and then in [this country] we have one called EDIN … [has] really been invaluable with connecting me with the literature, but also a way to make personal connections when I go to events with people to share. (IO).

By contrast, online social networks (such as Twitter or Facebook) were deemed to be important in contributing to professional identity by only 40% of respondents. Several interviewees suggested that Twitter was something they intend to engage with more actively in the future. The reading of relevant blogs was also mentioned as a potential source of information and to enable ‘conversations with people outside the institution’ (IJ).

The impact of the design and decor of buildings – and the signals that these send about the nature of the work that goes on within – was a theme that arose repeatedly.

Participants commented on colleagues’ access (or lack thereof) to their offices, and they mentioned architectural design and decoration of their workspace and the extent to which these physical attributes enabled or inhibited interaction, teaching and networking:

‘Physically – we are in a locked building, so drop-in is simply out of the question. Perception is an issue too – we are in an administrative building, which puts people off from the start and links us with the admin function, which sits uneasily with what we do.

Similarly we have no teaching space of our own and are only allowed to book space from the central teaching pool once our academic schools have had space allocated for teaching, hence we tend to get second-rate space that no one else wants – again leading to the perception by staff attending that this activity is somehow of lower priority to the University.’ (R 99)

In this instance, the lack of control over how space is used and how it is presented means that academic development can be spatially and visually codified in certain ways, and the physical location can dictate, to a degree, whether it has a corporate feel or an academic atmosphere. Additionally, one interviewee spoke of how a unit’s move into the institution’s main administrative centre and the changed access arrangements, open plan office and lack of an academic atmosphere (including, for example, the lack of bookshelves) altered the perception of her work: ‘for me the space is crucial and has affected things hugely.’ (IE)

Perhaps not surprisingly, location proved to be a powerful determinant for survey respondents, with 60%  (111)  indicating that it had an impact on their ability to do their job.

There were divided and strongly held views about where those working in academic development should sit structurally within an institution, and  the majority of participants expressed a preference for being centrally located rather being situated in a department or faculty. A significant minority, however, felt that being in academic departments offered better support for research and scholarship and helped sustain a connection to academic practice, particularly teaching, that could otherwise be lost:

‘organisational silos can present barriers to effective support and development’ (R 3)

‘[academic development] works best centrally but needs strength in subject discipline for credibility with colleagues’ (R 85)

‘we transferred from an interfaculty institute to a unit within a Faculty. We are careful that people in other faculties see us as independent consultants… As far as I can see, it works. And on the other hand, being part of a Faculty means closer cooperation with the Department of Education which is a positive influence’. (R 118)

‘marginality can be interesting and stimulating, but it’s a hard place to be powerful from. For real change it helps to have a centrally understood role’ (R 115)

The affordances and disadvantages of a more marginal location expressed in this final comment were addressed several times in open responses and interviews. There was a sense that being on the structural periphery can enable a certain freedom in terms of the way that the job is undertaken, but that it often lacks the mandate that a centrally located placement, particularly in terms of institutional organizational structure, can confer.

However, even among those who signaled a preference for a central location, there was a strong expression that those working in academic development should be ‘independent of management and bureaucracy’ (I 17).

Respondents expressed divided views about whether or not academic development should be aligned with a department of Education within an institution. A group of respondents felt that academic development should be linked to an Education department where possible. However, a small minority of participants indicated strongly that education was ‘the one place you should not be’ (IG). The ambivalence around location within an Education department was articulated by one respondent:

‘In a School of Education, most people are concerned with T & L so it is nice to be surrounded by like-minded people, but it limits interactions across the university.’ (R 111)

A particular focus of this work has been to understand where those working in academic development are located – geographically, architecturally and structurally – and where their work takes place. In this post, we report on these locations and in the next post we’ll explore further some of the implications of location.

Structural locations

The majority of respondents who were employed by institutions (as opposed to those who were working outside of HEIs) were situated in an academic development unit (62 %) with others in education departments (13%), subject departments – other than education (12 %), learning technology unit (12 %) and human resources unit (7 %) . 5 % of respondents were located in the senior management team and other areas indicated were the library (3%), Language Centre (3%) and quality assurance office (3 %). Chart_Q8_140608

Sites of practice

Study participants reported working in a wide range of places both across and beyond university campuses. Core sites of practice were offices, central institutional spaces, department teaching/meeting rooms, home and online environments – all of which were identified by around 70 % of respondents.

Around half of respondents worked in other departments and in classrooms with subject teaching in session. Approximately   40 % used spaces external to the institution (such as coffee bars) to conduct their work and an equal number indicated boardrooms were a site of practice. Around a quarter indicated computer labs and library. Science laboratories were used by only 8 % and other sites mentioned included hospitals, campus coffee bars, hotel seminar rooms and mobile working. (Figures add up to more than 100 because respondents were asked to select all that applied).

Next: what is the impact of these locations?

Drawing on our literature review, one of the areas we were keen to explore was the use of metaphor to characterise work in academic development.

Academic developer ‘identity’ has been described and conceptualised in a range of ways, often expressed metaphorically. For example, Handal (2008) speaks of the educational developer as ‘critical friend’; Ashford et al. (2004) have drawn metaphorical comparisons such as ‘midwife’ and ‘jester’; and Land (2001, 2004, 2008) has set out a widely cited and adapted framework of orientations for academic development, using metaphor to give shape to the categories. Kinash and Wood (2011) explore metaphor (bridges, swimming) to describe their role and suggest that academic developers’ sense of who they are is often bound up with others’ identities (for example, subject-based colleagues.)

Building on this research, we asked interviewees about metaphors they would use to describe their work. Some of those who offered metaphors appeared to be describing their experience of working in their role. It is like,

  • ‘pushing jelly uphill’,
  • ‘walking through fog’,
  • ‘turning the juggernaut’ or
  • ‘a balancing act’.

These all involve an element of engaging with or overcoming a challenging task.

Geographic metaphors were also invoked. One interviewee characterized her/himself as a ‘A nomad that visits other people’s territories’. Yet, another is ‘an experienced map reader’, who ‘knows the territory’. The academic as traveller is compelling and aligns with many of the more literal discussions of place explored within this study.

More broadly and with a nod towards a creative angle was the interviewee who considered her/himself to be “a designer, a designer of learning environments”.

Other metaphors described relationships with others in the institution, with the academic developer being a “translator”, or “the heart” in the circulation system, “pushing blood to the brain” – senior management – and to “the extremities” – staff with teaching responsibilities.

Others presented a vision of their role or mission: “freeing people from shackles”, or nurturing “a fire”.

An awareness of audience and expectations was evident in these responses, too, with two interviewees distinguishing between metaphors (above) that described their actual situation and those that described what was expected of them: to be “a bridge”, “links in a chain” or “spokes in a wheel”, connecting the centre with the outer edges.

Finally, there were references to organic, insect metaphors: ‘beehive’ and ‘spider’s web’.

“… The metaphor that I like for myself is this whole notion of like a fire, the whole notion that people want to develop learning and teaching on the whole, and you just need to be able to place some ideas very lightly, and nurture the fire. The thing is you have [to] sort of hold the space I think, because you can’t … if you put loads of your own logs on it then it just squashes everything and people then think they can’t develop it themselves. But if you don’t do anything then the whole thing dies [… ] cos it takes an awful lot to keep going in this day and age when learning and teaching isn’t valued so much […] I like to try and create the energy in the situation so that they can develop their ideas. (IL)

” […] For me – some of the key things are being able to think outside the box and allow yourself and allow others to be creative in thinking. It’s freeing themselves from the shackles … it’s … ‘cause educational development now is more about efficiency and effectiveness. There’s this huge layer of accountability over everything. And sometimes you have to free yourself from stuff to be able to think about different ways of doing it. […]it’s about freeing yourself from the way you’re doing things and what you’re trying to do to get that clarity and think well are there different ways you can do this. (IB)

‘I think that if I have a metaphor about what I feel that I do, and what skills I have to offer when I’m working with an outside group, I design learning environments. You can think of what a designer does in the world of art and architecture and so on. And you can make parallels because there’s, there’s a creative, almost an aesthetic element about it. But also it’s a craft. You have to know the tools you can use. And you have to know the limitations of the environment that you’re designing. It kind of fits, because you design for a particular environment.’ (IA)

‘There is no bridge, if you know what I mean, like I can’t be the bridge. I’m just the person on the other side of the bridge. They need to build that bridge (IO)

This description offers a flavor of the way in which metaphor was invoked and a fuller discussion of the use of metaphor in this study is included in the e-book, another output from the project.

  • Ashford, R., Handal, G., Hole, C., Land, R. Orr, M. and Phipps, A. (2004) Who are ‘we’? Who are ‘you’?, Who are ‘they’? Issues of role and identity in academic development.’ in Elvidge, L. (ed.) Exploring academic Development in Higher Education. Cambridge. Jill Rogers Associates.
  • Handal, G. (2008) Identities of academic developers: Critical friends in the academy? In R. Barnett and R Napoli, eds. Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives. London: Routledge
  • Land, R. (2008). Academic Development: Identity and Paradox. In Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives. Eds. Barnett, R. & DiNapoli, R. Routledge. London: Routledge.
  • Land, R. (2004). Educational Development: Discourse, Identity and Practice. Maidenhead, Open University Press, McGraw-Hill.
  • Land (2001) ‘Agency, context and change in academic development’ IJAD 6;1 4-20.
  • Kinash, S. and Wood, K. ‘Academic developer identity: how we know who we are’. (2011) IJAD 18:2 , 178- 189

In November 2013, we ran an online survey to which 214 people responded. Following an initial analysis of the data we identified potential interviewees, and in December – January 2014 we conducted 14 interviews. The following posts explore themes that have emerged from analysis of the data.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in our survey. We’ve had over 200 responses and we’re grateful to participants for taking the time to share their thoughts about their experiences of working in academic practice. We’ll post an overview of the survey findings soon. In the meantime, the survey is remaining open for another few weeks:

We  have recently launched our project survey about the roles and locations of academic developers.

For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are interpreting ‘academic development’ broadly and we intend it to include educational research, e-learning, academic practice, educational development, and all activities that support teaching and learning in higher education.

The research has received ethics approval from the Institute of Education and you may withdraw at any time.

The survey is here

Thanks for your participation.

We’ve recently been reading this paper by David Boud and Angela Brew, in which the authors argue for a reconceptualising of academic development:

Boud, D. and Brew, A. (2013) Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: implications for academic development. IJAD 18:3. 208-221.


Boud and Brew consider academic development work in a broad sense and argue for a movement  away from the ‘development’ of individuals and the isolation of teachers  into PGCert courses and workshops. Instead, drawing on ‘practice theory’, they suggest that we view academic development as more of a ‘practice’ of the whole university. The  thrust of the piece is to refocus the discussion about academic development to be one about cultures and practices rather than about individuals gaining skills or techniques outside the context of their own sites of practice.

The text also raises questions about what is meant by ‘location’ and it describes a number of possibilities: spatial, temporal, personal, social and professional location. We are drawing on these ideas of location in our interviews and survey.

This work also prompts me to think that  that we mustn’t lose sight of what we imagine  ‘academic development’ to be and how it is conceptualised by practitioners and the wider academic community.

We’ve had a busy summer and the literature review is continuing apace. We’ve found the International Journal of Academic Development a particularly rich source a relevant research. We’re also preparing the online survey which will be released early in October.