Thursday, 17 April 2008

Can Learning and Development Contribute to Academia?

Rewritten 18th April for greater clarity

I have been exchanging comments with a number of academic lecturers, particularly Philip Moriarty, about the possibility of Learning and Development professionals contributing to the effectiveness of higher education, especially scientific higher education. I seem to have totally failed to explain my position and also offended Philip . This is a real shame and a testament as to how e-mail and blogging can mislead. I hope to correct this below.

The gist of the comments from Philip (and others) is that only specialists in their area can contribute to their skill as educators e.g. “L & D do not have the subject-specific knowledge required to contribute effectively to the teaching of physics.” If true, this is remarkable. All other sectors - government, finance, manufacturing, military etc - get value from cross-fertilisation of ideas about learning, training and teaching. This includes intense technical subjects such such as specialist IT skills.

I suspect that there is an underlying misunderstanding and the reason for the confusion is that Philip thinks that an L&D specialist is going to tell him how to do his job. This is also the implication of some of the other comments. Dr J for example appears to have strong ideas about what kind of lecture I am recommending – even though I have no idea! Nothing could be further from the case. I hope I can illustrate this by giving a fleshed out example. L&D assistance can vary from the very broad (what is your corporate learning strategy?) to the very specific (what is your question protocol when you teach?). I will take an example from the latter end.

From time to time I run a workshop/course for instructors from a number of different areas, although the majority are IT related. Most attendees say this workshop has been productive and worthwhile although I frequently know little about their subject matter expertise (which can be extremely technical). I could imagine a similar workshop might have value for an academic department (I emphasise “might” – I don’t know nearly enough about the situation). The format is for each member to give a mini-teach session based on their own teaching experience and then for all workshop attendees (including the one who has just done the session) to make suggestions as to how that session might be even better. The attendees then have opportunities to develop and repeat their session throughout the workshop (it is usually 3 days). There are also short sessions dealing with certain points about the theory of learning and teaching, and discussion as to how these points might apply to the attendee’s own situation. Finally attendees are asked to write down what they have gained that is useful and make a plan for implementing what they have learned. With luck, the atmosphere is one of mutual respect and learning from each other. I would be surprised if I can’t add something having spent 30 years in learning and development across a wide variety of subject matters and industries, but there is no way in which I would be telling the attendees how to do their job. They learn. I don’t teach. Incidentally it is also generally good fun. It is of course vital that the attendees come with the right attitude!

What kind of things might lecturers learn on a workshop such as this? It is very, very variable. It depends what is useful for them. Some things are fundamental truths of the psychology of learning (the longer you can leave it before recall, provided the recall is successful, then the longer the item will remain in memory afterwards). Other things are as trivial as tricks of the trade – putting post-its on flip charts you want to refer to frequently. Examples include questioning protocols (how to ask questions that sustain interaction and concentration without being discouraging or banal), handling tricky students, helping students with disabilities, when to use different types of visual aid, using different types of classroom technology, activities you can ask students to do, and so it goes on. However, none of these things are specific to the subject matter. The attendee will need to work out for themselves if/when to use them. But most do.

This sounds a bit passive and innocuous. So I should make it clear that I ask instructors to try things they have not tried before and encourage them to think differently about the task of getting students to learn. One common trend is that attendees arrive with a view of education that is based round presentation and questions. The criterion for success is what the students think of the instructor. By the end of the workshop they are thinking in terms of what the students are doing and the criterion for success is what the students have learned and how their attitudes to the subject matter have developed. Anyone who is been in learning and development for a while will find nothing exceptional about this - but it is frequently a significant change for a professional who happens to be an instructor. But I must stress again that this is not prescribed as the "right way to teach". It is something that attendees come to adopt themselves (or not).

It is clear from the comments that many academics have had unfortunate experiences with L&D sessions. And I have learned that FE takes education much more seriously than it did when I was an undergraduate. But there does seem to be an attitude of "no one can tell us anything to help us do our jobs". It is sad if this causes academics to ignore all the experience of learning that has been accumulated over the decades in industry and elsewhere.

7 comments:

Philip Moriarty said...

Mark,

I'll try to keep this brief largely because I don't think we're getting anywhere. We seem to continually "talk past" each other. This is most likely because we have fundamentally different approaches to education which cannot be reconciled.

(Please note that you didn't offend me in any way and I apologise that my responses over at David's blog made you think this.)

The point reiterated throughout your post is that, as you put it, there does seem to be an attitude of "no one can tell us anything to help us do our jobs". This is not the case at all. I will listen to and respect the advice and opinions of a qualified science educator who has experience of teaching difficult scientific/mathematical concepts. This is simply not in the remit of a "general" L&D person. I asked the following question back on David's blog which you have yet to address:

Let me choose a specific example. I teach a 1st year course in introductory thermodynamics. As part of this course, I need to explain the second law of thermodynamics - a challenging concept - in as clear and as entertaining a fashion as possible. How, precisely, can L&D help me to do this?

The example you give of a workshop/course for instructors is interesting but, ermmm, why do we need L & D to do this? Bring a bunch of academic scientists who are involved in teaching together in a room for an hour, give them some food and copious amounts of caffeine, leave them alone, and I guarantee that they will exchange ideas. L & D is entirely superfluous.

I fully agree with you that there is a value in cross-fertilisation of ideas from discipline to discipline. Where we disagree is that I don't see how L & D can contribute anything useful to this cross-fertilisation.

I apologise for being so provocatively anti-L & D but valuable staff time is being wasted in universities across the country on training courses which provide no benefit to either new or seasoned lecturers. Spending money on L & D is a waste of students' fees. The money could be much better invested in, for example, enhancing teaching laboratory resources, employing more laboratory technicians, in-house development of interactive resources (e.g. computer simulations of key physics concepts), and/or lecture demonstrations/quizzes/interactivity.

Philip

Mark Frank said...

Philip

Thanks for responding so quickly. I will try to avoid writing an essay in response.

Let’s be clear. There may well be better things for universities to spend their money on than L&D.
It is certainly true if the staff start off believing that L&D have nothing to offer (perhaps because of bad past experiences). All I want to do is demonstrate that there is a more to this L&D business than perhaps you realised and it is not bullshit.

You asked me to respond to this.

“Let me choose a specific example. I teach a 1st year course in introductory thermodynamics. As part of this course, I need to explain the second law of thermodynamics - a challenging concept - in as clear and as entertaining a fashion as possible. How, precisely, can L&D help me to do this? “

It is almost impossible because I know so little about your current practices. It is like asking you to explain how you could help me with the undergraduate Geology module I am doing. I have no doubt that your knowledge of physics and science generally could add significantly – but we would need to talk to find out how (a better explanation of birefringence possibly?). If in addition, I didn’t want help because of bad experiences of physicists offering useless advice before, then I would have no problem finding reasons to reject any suggestions you might offer.

However, I am a sucker for punishment, and you have given me a few hints about your practice. So I will mention a few items that might be interesting.

(1) I asked “Are you sure lectures are the best approach? “ I am sorry you found it arrogant but it is a reasonable question. Almost every university seems to have a distance learning programme and the Open University provides a vast range of entire degrees, including physics, without a single lecture. I am sure someone must have at least broached the idea with you already. Think of the savings in your time if you could greatly reduce the amount of lecturing and achieve the same or better results. On the other hand it is full of traps. With a few colleagues, I was briefly involved with reviewing the disastrous UKeU initiative which wasted £60 million of taxpayer’s money. With no subject matter expertise, we were quickly able to tell it wasn’t going to work based on our own experience of e-learning. Developing alternatives to instructor led training is a major concern of the L&D community with lots of experience and thought having gone into it.

(2) You appear to measure success in terms of student satisfaction. You may be aware of that old warhorse – the Fitzpatrick model for evaluating learning. It is usually applied to training in industry and is frequently criticised, but I find it useful and I see no reason why it should not apply to HE. Student satisfaction is Fitzpatrick level 1. You get evaluation at Fitzpatick level 3 easily compared to industry because that’s the students’ exam grades. But what are you doing at Fitzpatrick level 2 – measuring the contribution of the lecture to student’s learning?

(3) You say you use some kind of “ask the audience” technology in the classroom. Good. I am sure you find it very useful. I do. I remember using it in the early 70s and have always found it useful provided you have time to plan carefully. It slightly fell into disuse but it has come back strongly with the growth of virtual classrooms etc. Are you using it to identify weaknesses in the course and correct them? This requires even more careful planning, some way of systematically recording questions and answers, and a process for acting on the results?

“The example you give of a workshop/course for instructors is interesting but, ermmm, why do we need L & D to do this? Bring a bunch of academic scientists who are involved in teaching together in a room for an hour, give them some food and copious amounts of caffeine, leave them alone, and I guarantee that they will exchange ideas. L & D is entirely superfluous. “

This is an interesting comment because I think it reflects an assumption that if you are not “teaching” you are not contributing to learning. A workshop like this is more than getting a bunch of people together to exchange ideas. There is planned timetable of events with increasing challenges. There are new ideas to be added at appropriate points. Some people’s contributions have to be moderated. Other contributions have to be encouraged. The workshop has to be focussed, efficient and brought to a conclusion that is helpful to the attendees. If you have ever tried doing this I am sure you will know that is difficult but hugely enjoyable.

I hope this is of some interest.

Mark

The Happy Employee said...

Mark, I wanted to thank you for "defending" HR in the comments to David Colquhoun's article. I only managed to read the 40 comments today and the discussion seems to be over now.

Coming from a corporate environment, I really admire how you tried to understand as best as possible how HR and L&D works in the academic world while I don't think that the scientists involved in the discussion showed much interest for HR except for talking about their bad experiences.

I learned a lot from your comments and hope that you will add more articles to your blog.

Mark Frank said...

Happy Employee

Gosh thanks! I am glad to have discovered Flip Chart Fairy Tales.

A certain amount of acrimony in a blog is an effective way of learning - the important thing is knowing when and how to stop.

Philip Moriarty said...

I don't think that the scientists involved in the discussion showed much interest for HR except for talking about their bad experiences.

As noted above, and frequently in the comments on David Colquhoun's blog, the reason scientists don't "engage" with HR-led L&D is that it is of absolutely no value to us. I'm afraid that none of the arguments Mark and others have put forward have led me to reconsider this viewpoint. This may come across as arrogant but my colleagues and I have previously considered at length - without any help from L & D - each and every point Mark puts forward above. It is remarkable that the prevailing view from HR/ L & D seems to be that academics somehow stumble through their lectures, entirely unaware of new approaches and technology that could help them.

We know that the traditional lecture format is not an ideal way of teaching and needs to be carefully planned and "delivered" to ensure that it's as useful as possible for students. In additioning to making lectures as interactive as possible, we run problems classes, mini-projects, and small tutorial groups to counter the difficulties with the traditional lecture format. The entire 4th year of the MSci Physics course in Nottingham (and the associated Physics with...courses) does not involve any formal examinations and the majority of the lectures are given by the students.

Mark asks "Are you using ["ask the audience"-type technology], to identify weaknesses in the course and correct them?" Of course I am - it'd be a waste of time otherwise, wouldn't it? I use the real-time collation of the student responses to gauge the level of understanding of the topic and, if necessary, go over the material again until the majority of the students "get it". I don't need L & D to help me see that revising the module in light of student responses is a good idea - it's self-evident that this is the case.

All I want to do is demonstrate that there is a more to this L&D business than perhaps you realised and it is not bullshit.

Sorry Mark (and "The Happy Employee"), but from my perspective "this L & D business" is certainly bullshit. As I mentioned back on David's blog, L & D has done nothing to help my teaching, it's only ever impeded it. What has helped my teaching? Well, in no particular order:

(1) Discussions with colleagues in Nottingham (at lunch/at tea break/in the corridor/ during committee meetings) and elsewhere;

(2) Reading papers by other physicists/scientists in journals such as the American Journal of Physics on different approaches to teaching undergrads/postgrads. I am particularly impressed by the work of Lillian McDermott at the University of Washington;

(3) In-house peer review of lectures by colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy;

(4) Formal and informal feedback from students.

As you state, A certain amount of acrimony in a blog is an effective way of learning - the important thing is knowing when and how to stop . We clearly are diametrically opposed with reagrd to our views on the efficacy of HR-driven L & D. Time to call it a day, I guess.

It's been an interesting discussion and thank you for engaging with me on this.

Best wishes,

Philip

The Happy Employee said...

Philip, I'm saddened to see that you and so many of your colleagues were disappointed by HR. I'm convinced and have experienced that HR can play an important role in organizations, but it must be adapted to the specific needs of this organization.

In your case it seems that support from L&D is neither possible nor necessary, so, based on the information you gave us, I would say that your HR department should stick to areas where they can make a real difference.

Although I joined very late, I appreciated the open and interesting discussion.

Mark Frank said...

Philip thanks.

You are right that this is pointless and there is a danger it will turn into a childish game of trying to prove who knows more about learning. Clearly your department is way ahead of my graduate experience of HE and you take it very seriously.

I also agree that you are badly served by having classes inflicted on you that you neither need nor want.

I would like to learn from you, if you have time. I am particularly interested to know how you get Fitzpatrick level 2 evaluation and how you capture the results of your discussions with your colleagues so that the conclusions are used by others.

Mark