I haven't really blogged about 'internal events' before. I think this is my first one. Although I've written this post mainly for an internal audience, it might be useful for a wider audience too, although I'm not yet sure whether I'll click on the 'make available to the world' box in our VLE blogging tool.
About a week or so ago I was lucky enough to attend what is called a Staff Tutor Staff Development event that was all about scholarship. It was all about how we (as staff tutors) might fit scholarship into our day job.
The SD4ST scholarship event was hosted by the Open University office in Gateshead, a part of the country I had never explicitly visited before (other than passing through either in the car or on the train). The Gateshead office is fabulous (as is the architecture in Newcastle). The office presented us with a glorious view of the millennium bridge and the imposing Baltic contemporary art gallery. I'm digressing before I've even begun, so, without further ado, on to describing the event.
The first day kicked off (in the early afternoon) by asking the question of, 'what exactly counts as scholarship?' An underlying theme was how to contribute to research that might be used as a part of the university REF submission (which is, of course, used to assess how well universities compare to each other in terms of their research output).
A number of different types of scholarship were defined, drawing on a paper that had recently been circulated (or published) through senate. The paper also included explicit examples, but I won't go through them here. Here's my attempt at summarising the different types:
- Institutional scholarship (about and for the institution)
- Scholarship of teaching (the investigation of one's own, or teaching by others)
- Scholarship for teaching, or outputs that contribute to teaching materials in its different forms
- Research that relates to and can inform professional practice (in whatever form this might take)
- Discipline based scholarship, investigative research which can be understood in terms of adding to the knowledge of a particular subject or area.
The output of scholarship may be presented within journal or conference papers, chapters in books or be in reports. Blogs can also be considered as scholarship too, but this is a rather difficult category, since it has to be a 'rated blog'. In essence, an output should be something that can be judged as excellent by a peer, capable of use by others and have impact.
I thought about which of these categories I could most readily contribute to. I came up with a couple of answers. The first was that I might be able to carry out some discipline based scholarship, perhaps building on some of the accessibility or computing research I have been previously involved with. Another idea might be to do some research that might inform the different course teams I'm involved on. An example of this might have been an earlier blog post on mobile technologies that fed into course team discussions. Also, given my current duties of supporting course presentations I could also see how I might be able to (potentially) contribute to the scholarship of teaching in a number of different ways.
How to find the time
Although I'm relatively new to the role of a staff tutor (or regional academic), I am beginning to feel that we have to be not only good at juggling different things, but also be able to put on a good balancing act too!
The reason for this is that our time is split down the middle. On one hand we have regional responsibilities (helping our tutors to do their job as effectively and as efficiently as possible, and doing a lot of other mysterious stuff, like marketing) which accounts for fifty percent of our time. The other fifty percent of our time is spent on 'faculty' work. This means that we are able to contribute to course teams, offering useful academic input and ensuring that our associate lecturers are fully taken into consideration during the course design phases. We can also use this fifty percent slice to carry out scholarship in its different forms.
Given the different pulls from course teams and regional responsibility there is a significant question which needs to be asked, namely: 'how is it possible to do scholarship when we've got all this other stuff to do?' The second section in the day aimed to answer this exact question through presentations by two staff tutors who seem to be successfully balancing all their different responsibilities.
The first presentation was by Dave McGarvie, Science Staff Tutor in Scotland. Dave gave a cracking presentation about his research, which was all about volcanoes (I'm sure he will be able to provide you with a better description!) What struck me about Dave's presentation was that he was also came across as being a bit of a 'dab hand' at media stuff too, being called upon as an 'expert' to talk about Icelandic volcano eruptions. Dave talked about how he used his study leave (he uses all of it), and said that it is possible to ask for research leave too (which was something that I hadn't heard about).
The second presentation was by Gareth Williams, Maths and Stats Staff Tutor (or MCT), in Manchester. Gareth told us about how he managed to carve out (and protect) a 'research day' which he used to speak (and work with) with other academics in his subject area.
I noted down a really important part of Gareth's presentation which summarised the reasons for doing research: that it is something that we're passionate about, that it's fun, it can help us to maintain knowledge, it can be exciting, it can help with networking (and recruitment of good ALs), and help to introduce and advertise the work of the university to a wider audience.
One fundamental point was echoed by both presenters, namely, that research can take a lot of time, can (and probably will) eat into our personal time. Gareth offers some practical advice, urging us to be realistic, develop multiple strategies (or routes to publication), prioritise workload carefully and, importantly, to have fun.
The final talk of the day was by Ian Cook, who spoke about the universities eSTeEM initiative which replaces earlier funding mechanisms. eSTeEM lets individuals or group of researchers to bid for funding for projects that may able to benefit the university or help to further understand and promote teaching and learning.
Designing a scholarship project
The next part of the day (and a part of the following day) was spent 'in the deep end'. We were put into groups and asked to work towards creating cross faculty scholarship project which could help us to collectively understand our knowledge of Open University teaching and learning (perhaps through the use of technology). Following the group discussions, we then had to devise an eight minute presentation to everyone in the room to try to 'win' a pot of imaginary funding. Here's a rough list of the titles of the various projects that were proposed:
- Group 1: Can on-line forums enhance students learning?
- Group 2: What constitutes useful monitoring for associate lecturers?
- Group 3: Investigate if text messaging can improve TMA (assignment) submission and retention
- Group 4: Why do students attend (or not attend) synchronous on-line tuition?
- Group 5: A system for the sharing of media resources between tutors
I have to confess I was involved in group five.
This activity reminded me that different people can understand research (and, subsequently, scholarship) in different ways. In my 'home discipline' of computer science, research can be considered in terms of 'building stuff'. This 'stuff' might be a new software system, tool or environment. The 'stuff' might even be a demonstration of how different technologies may be connected together in a new or novel ways. I also must confess that my discipline background emerged through our brainstorming activities.
In the end, there were two winners, and it interesting to learn that one of the winning project ideas (the use of text messaging) was the subject of an existing project. It just goes to show that old adage that good ideas can emerge independently from different (independent) sources!
I enjoyed this activity. I remember a lot of discussion about dissemination and how to evaluate whether a project had succeeded. Referring back to the earlier notions of scholarship and Gareth's multiple routes to publication, dissemination can, of course, have a range of different forms, from internal presentations, workshops, focus groups, through to formal internal reports and REFable publications, such as conference and journal papers.
The event was rounded off by two presentations. Celia Popovic gave a presentation about SEDA, which is an abbreviation for the 'Staff and Educational Development Association', which is a non-profit organisation which aims to facilitate networking and sharing of resources. Celia begins by asking the question, 'what do you need [to enable you do to your scholarship and research stuff]?' and talked us through a set of different resources and the benefits of being a SEDA fellow. The resources included books, a magazine, and a number of scholarly journals.
The final presentation, entitled 'Getting Started, Overcoming Obstacles' was by Karen Littleton. Karen is currently the director of CREET which is a cross-faculty research grouping which comprises of Education and the Institute of Educational Technology (and some others too, I am sure!)
A couple of things jumped out at me, namely, her advice to 'be pragmatic'. I am personally guilty of 'thinking big' in terms of research ideas. I once had this idea to perform some kind of comparison of different virtual learning environments, but it was something that I have never managed to get around to doing, perhaps because my heart sinks when I see all the obstacles that lay ahead of me.
Karen advises us to consider working on a series of smaller projects which have the potential to contribute towards a main goal. She also mentions the important issue of time and the need to ring fence and guard it carefully, a point that was echoed throughout the two days of the event.
I'm only just starting to appreciate the different demands on my work time. I have been wondering, for quite a while now, how to do 'research' within my role as a staff tutor. What this event told me was that it is possible, but you need to do it with a high level of determination to succeed.
It strikes me that the best way to do research is to make sure that your research activities are aligned, as closely as possible, to some of the other duties of the role. Of course, it might be possible to do other research, but if your 'job role dots' are not connected together, seeking permission and making cases to go ahead and do your own scholarship is likely to be so much harder.
A feeling that I have always had is that through research there are likely to be opportunities. An example of this can be finding stuff out that can inform course production, or, connecting to Gareth's example, making contacts may help with recruitment of associate lecturers. I've also come to the conclusion that network is important too. Networking might be in the form of internal contacts within the university, or external contacts within either other higher education institutions or in industry.
A really important point that jumped out at me is that you really do need to be passionate about the stuff that you're finding out about. The word 'fun' was mentioned a number of times too.
As a result of the event I've been thinking about my own scholarly aspirations. Before changing roles I had some quite firm ideas about what I wanted to do, but this has changed. As mentioned before, I think it's a good idea to try to align different pieces of my role together (to align the fifty percent of regional work with the fifty percent of 'other stuff'). I hope I'm making some progress in figuring out how to make the best contribution to both courses and research. I hope to continue to blog about some of the stuff that I'm getting up to whilst on this journey.
I'm also hoping there is a follow up session next year which might ask the question of, 'how is your scholarship coming along, and what practical things could be done to help you do more of it?'
All in all, a really enjoyable event. Many thanks to the organisers! For those who can access internal OU sites (and might be staff tutors), some of the presentations have been uploaded to the VLE STLG workspace.