Academic development; ODL does it better

Last week I received hard copy of a report on academic staff development in Australia, Development of Academics and Higher Education Futures. Prepared by Peter Ling from Swinburne for the Council of Australian Directors of Academic Development (CADAD) and supported by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC), the report was the main output of a project which was designed to document current approaches, identify issues and provide recommendations to address such challenges.

Reading the report, especially its recommendations, and having been closely involved until a year ago, it occurred to me that it would not be unreasonable to conclude that academic development has a long way to go. And this is the conclusion for a country which has been at the forefront of such activity for decades. Few would argue that Australia and the UK have led the way in academic development, in terms of underlying theory, research and practice. Who are the ‘big names’? Biggs, Ramsden, WebbBoud, TrigwellProsser, … Need I go on!?

I make the somewhat bold claim that academic development is in a poor state by observing that what emerges from the report is that, for example, it is currently not clear what academic staff development should comprise (see Table 1 on p. 27 of Volume 1, showing ‘Five recent attempts to describe the work of academic development’), nor how it should be organised. Further, its effectiveness is seriously under-evaluated (p. 28), and its contribution to developing sessional (casual) staff is depressingly small.

I’ll leave it to you to follow up on the report and its background data and analysis (Volume 2) should you be so inclined. What I wanted to do is to make the claim that open and distance learning (ODL) has, over the past two or three decades, done a better job at academic development. That is, in general ODL institutions are better at preparing their staff for their roles in teaching at a distance, and are streets ahead in training, supporting and monitoring the work of sessional/casual staff (tutors).

In ODL institutions in which I’ve worked, considerable energy is expended in ensuring the quality of teaching and learning support. Staff handbooks are developed to explain all the details and nuances of the work, seminars and workshops are organised, and tutors are well-supported and closely supervised (e.g. monitoring of marking standards). Contrast this with the support typically offered to sessional staff in a traditional university. How often does an academic sit in on a teaching session offered by a part-time lecturer?

Why is this? I think the answer is simple. Distance educators recognise that they are creating teaching and learning environments that are different from traditional approaches, and thus anyone coming fresh to such an environment needs training and support. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with classroom teaching, so the necessity for development of lecturing skills is considered unproblematic.

There are of course a multitude of factors that also contribute in some way to the paucity of academic development (worldwide, not just in Australia), compounded in recent years by increasing academic workloads, scarcity of resources, larger classes, burgeoning bureaucracy and administrative loads, … 

So, IMHO, here’s another area (see also recent blog on principles of good teaching) in which ODL displays overall superiority. Agreed?!

One thought on “Academic development; ODL does it better

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