Time to Listen: A Case of Leading a Shift to Blending Teaching and Learning in an Australian University
by Kim Keamy - April 24, 2017
Making time to listen is fundamental to the work of an academic leader when colleagues are being required to make significant changes to the way they teach.
Time, a rare commodity in the era of the modern university, is the element needed for shifting paradigms, developing trust, and achieving strategic changes in direction.
For me, time is about listening. Listening more than talking frequently involves sitting in silence as colleagues attempt to convey their emotional responses to losses that they have experienced or anticipate might occur during periods of change. These silences offer me an opportunity to listen between the lines, to know what is said and what is not said (Brown, 2006; Zetlin, 2016). They also allow me to check via questioning whether I have grasped intended meanings.
A major challenge for academic leaders in our universities is ensuring that institutions survive and thrive in environments experiencing changes in information technology-led advancements and accompanying changes in student expectations, competition in the higher education sector, managerialism, and an escalation in regulatory requirements from external agencies (Hemer, 2014; Scott, Coates, & Anderson, 2008; Yielder & Codling, 2004). There is an expectation that academic leaders also nurture a collegial working environment (Scott et al., 2008) with academic teacher researchers who have experienced burgeoning levels of academic administration that threaten the quality of their teaching and research (Tight, 2010).
This was the backdrop to my own experience as a Director of Learning and Teaching (equivalent to the role of Associate Dean in some universities) in a College of Education in an Australian university for the past four years. This role meant I was responsible for providing a strategic and operational focus on all matters relating to the promotion, development, and management of teaching and learning. Alas, the luxury of having time to enact these responsibilities was never listed in the position description.
Without wanting to oversimplify the complexities of academic leadership, the processes of educational change, or the communication skills necessary in both, an essential tool in a directors toolkit is the ability to lead through influence as a means of leveraging collegiality in the process of finding a way to knit together top-down requirements and bottom-up approaches (Scott, et al., 2008). The conversations that must occur need to be purposeful and collegial in nature, rather than the surface-level, congenial conversations that usually take place. They also require honesty, risk taking, and trust (Selkrig & Keamy, 2015). The need to build relational trust is vital (Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Smyth, 2006) and requires time in a time-poor environment.
The introduction of a blended learning initiative in my university (albeit belated compared to some other universities) proved to be a case in point. The Blended Learning Strategy of the university was comprised of underlying assumptions and principles aimed at enhancing students access, experience, engagement, and outcomes through a blend of face-to-face and digitally-enabled learning opportunities. This strategy emphasized the potential that a blended approach would provide for students control over the time, place, and space of their learning, but remained silent as to the time impacts on staff. The initiative quickly became an imperative. Doing nothing was clearly not an alternative, so what to do? This is where the combination of expertise and leadership of the process became important to make progress (Timperley, 2015).
A move to blended approaches represents a considered melding of face-to-face and online learning experiences that fuse together the need for interactive and engaging learning experiences while capitalizing on the technological possibilities. However, it also has the capacity to upset the teachers traditional hierarchical control in the classroom (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). This change of the locus of control is not without its problems and challenges. Among them is the challenge to the assumptions about the role and control of teachers and of knowledge itself (Benson & Brack, 2009). Unfortunately, in our case, there was minimal time for colleagues to critically reflect on their own approaches to, and the assumptions that underlie, quality blended approaches to teaching, learning, and assessment (Hemer, 2014). The lack of time along with concerns about workloads revealed themselves as major factors inhibiting efforts for academics to make such a significant change to their approaches to teaching and learning (Devlin, Smeal, Cummings, & Mazzolini, 2012).
I convinced myself that I needed to find a common currency that would engage fellow working party members. Along with me, we considered innovations in teaching and learning. I also helped them realize that they were not alone in this move to blended delivery. I talked with them about the modernization of learning and teaching methods sweeping through higher education contexts (McAleese et al., 2014). Additionally, I shared insights into innovations in higher education occurring in the European Union (Brennan et al., 2014). I further urged my colleagues to consider the personalizing affordances of technology-enabled approaches that I had explored with fellow researchers (Keamy, Nicholas, Mahar, & Herrick, 2007) I even appealed to their known commitment to social justice by providing a synthesis of research into inclusive learning and teaching in higher education in the United Kingdom (Hockings, 2010). This literature raised questions and vigorous debate, but collegial conversations had begun and so I listened some more.
Despite efforts to assuage colleagues about the positive outcomes for all involved, some people smelled a rat! Was the claim that reductions in the amount of repetitive teaching really a coded message meaning staff redundancies? Why would people switch to using blended approaches and leave themselves vulnerable when it is likely that there would be a dip in student satisfaction evaluations? What about the levels of resourcing to support the daunting task? Finally, would there be an appropriate recognition of the time required to process the thinking involved in moving to a blended approach and the time required to develop capacity and expertise?
Importantly, I was not alone in listening to these concerns or trying to support colleagues as we grappled with responses to these questions. A few colleagues had been early adopters, many of whom had come to the university from other institutions. They brought with them expertise and insights that they had previously gained. They were keen to assist their colleagues to make the shift because they could recall their own initial reactions to being required to introduce blended approaches to their teaching. They also knew that the kind of shift that was required would take some time to implement.
It is a moot point as to whether or not the university had provided a sufficiently convincing argument that there was a problem that needed to be solved or even whether it was done in a way that resonated with academics (Smith, 2006). The university had provided a central body to offer professional development activities to groups of staff members. It also published a set of minimum standards for academics to follow when teaching their online components. However, these standards were notably limited to entry-level technological know how and the very minimum that academics would need to demonstrate. This included providing timely responses to students emails, ensuring currency of readings or other resources, and complying with the university's assessment policy.
To ensure that colleagues had pedagogical considerations uppermost in their minds and because of my own prior experiences in moving from a novice to being a more experienced user of online pedagogies, I shared my own journey with colleagues. In some instances, this was as simple as listening to colleagues' queries and helping them reflect on their past experiences or beliefs about learning and teaching to help them transform their perspectives (Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2013). For others, it involved inviting them to sit alongside me as I showed them how I had solved a problem we had in common. Some colleagues asked to see how I had developed the content of a unit I was teaching so I was able to arrange for a mirror version of the unit with only the teaching narratives and learning activities (and not students details or discussion sites) available for viewing. Throughout these processes, I sat and I listened.
I cannot claim that the approaches I have outlined in this commentary led to total or even widespread acceptance about the requirement to blend units of study. I know that the important work of persuading and supporting academics to adopt new ways of teaching continues. But what I hope I have been able to do is to provide an example of the complexities of bringing together top-down and bottom-up approaches. In doing so, I have also attempted to demonstrate how complex the business of leading through influence can be and that it is far from a seemingly simple act of leveraging collegiality (Scott et al., 2008). The relational trust that underpins being an academic leader does not automatically come with the title. It needs to be earned in the professional interactions we have with our colleagues. In turn, professional interactions help nurture and strengthen the relational trust that exists between academic leaders and colleagues. These things take time, a rare commodity in the era of the modern university.
Baran, E., Correia, A.-P., & Thompson, A. (2013). Tracing successful online teaching in higher education: Voices of exemplary online teachers. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 141.
Benson, R., & Brack, C. (2009). Developing the scholarship of teaching: what is the role of e-teaching and learning? Teaching in Higher Education, 14(1), 7180.