On the fourth anniversary of the LSE HE blog, co-founder Claire Gordon explains how a blog adds critical value to an academic development centre.
Settling on a topic for a blog to mark the fourth anniversary of the LSE Higher Education Blog was not straightforward. In the end I decided to interrogate a question that that I have been contemplating throughout this academic year – why do academic development centres and the work we do remain so undervalued, why are we are still working so hard to justify our existence and, in this context, what is the role of a blog in an academic development centre?
The seminal 1997 Dearing Report highlighted the importance of professionalising teaching in higher education, including the recommendation that all colleagues starting out as teachers in higher education should complete a form of education qualification. The expectation was that this would gradually create a climate in which academic practice development was the norm.
Significant changes in the professionalisation of teaching in higher education have taken place since Dearing, even if we are far from an embedded norm of professional development, particularly beyond early career academia. Most, if not all, universities in the UK have an academic development centre working collaboratively with academics to enable the development of their educational practice, and the design and delivery of high-quality inclusive curricula. Most UK universities offer a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (or equivalent) and/or opportunities to work towards Higher Education Academy/Advance HE Fellowships. For many academic career-track staff, achieving some form of teaching qualification is a probationary requirement. Beyond the UK, academic practice development is embedded to differing extents, but it is certainly on the rise, as shown in the growing number of Advance HE Fellowships awarded worldwide.
Over time, the remits of academic development centres have grown, with many contributing to or leading strategic change programmes in their universities. They also play crucial roles in supporting universities to enhance the educational experience of students as well as dancing to the tunes of the regulator, the Office for Students, such as through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Access and Participation Plans (APP).
Winds of change
In the years of the Covid-19 pandemic, academic development centres (along with digital education teams) worked round the clock to support and enable the design and delivery of mixed modes of teaching and learning. In so doing they enabled academic teachers to continue to educate and support their students and thus progress through their degree programmes. Academic development centres had never been so valued.
And yet, the winds of change can still blow through an institution, often coinciding with a change of senior leadership and, in particular, the pro vice-chancellor for education (or equivalent). Almost overnight an academic development centre can fall out of favour and find itself either dismantled or aspects of its work challenged. Many people working in this area have painful stories to tell and these experiences continue to mount up.
This cannot simply be put down to the need for budget cuts, with the axe more likely to fall on non-income generating parts of the institution. Nor is this reducible to the question of whether there may be shortcomings in particular centres or whether the quality of certain aspects of their work may be sub-par. These are valid questions but not directly relevant to this more existential discussion.
Despite the active corpus of academic literature on teaching, learning and assessment (as reflected in myriad books and journals, more or less theorised, more or less practice-based), the notion of teaching and learning in higher education and the wider endeavour of academic development as an academic specialism, a discipline in its own right, remains contested. This is compounded by the fact that the impact of academic development work may be indirect, hard to measure, and often invisible. Universities as places of scholarship, knowledge creation and learning are, nonetheless, permeated by perceived hierarchies of expertise and value. The applied scholarly expertise that characterises the work of academic developers is positioned towards the lower levels of the hierarchy. This, for me, forms part of the explanation of why engagement with the work of these centres varies hugely, why the place of scholarship in academic development can be seen as superfluous or second class, and why, at the sweep of a broom, a centre may be dismantled.
For many of us at the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, the LSE HE Blog plays a critical role underpinning our identity, validating our expertise as academic developers, communicating who we are as critical scholars and active practitioners in our partnership work with academic colleagues and students, even when that identity and expertise is regularly questioned. The very existence of the blog offers a foil to the work we do, which often ends up being reactive, framed as a service and offering quick fixes. It insists that we all – irrespective of our roles, contracts, and job titles – need to be able to step away from that reactive chalkface and have time to reflect, grow, learn, and be critical.
Moreover, in its very essence, the LSE HE Blog recognises that what happens in the classroom is not a neutral tabula rasa, an even playing field all students are equitably initiated into to become active learners and scholars in disciplinary and interdisciplinary spaces before going out into the world as ‘well-rounded’ citizens. The classroom space and the act of teaching itself is highly political, a place full of transformative possibility. It is one also shaped by the identities and positionalities of ourselves as teachers and our students, as well as by the socio-economic, political, and cultural landscapes around us.
To be effective educators we need to engage with these topics – whether it’s highlighting the implications of generative AI before it became the apparent harbinger of crisis in HE, teaching about conflict in the classroom, asserting our rights and identities as HE workers, providing a critical space for academics and students to reflect on their experiences in HE. We need to consider the implications of this for the design of our curricula, the pedagogies we espouse and the compassion we seek to bring into classroom spaces. The aspiration is that, through the LSE HE Blog, at least momentarily, we can raise our heads above the parapet and give ourselves and others time to reflect on these questions and our role as educators within these spaces.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.