Impressions of ICED 2016 #ICEDconf16


In November I was very fortunate to participate in the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) conference in Cape Town (thanks boss!). I presented some of the thinking that Tai Peseta and I have been doing around students as partners. You can see our abstract here iced-2016-abstract, and we plan to publish a full paper at some stage. The session was well attended, which is a bit of a lottery at a big conference with lots of parallel sessions.

The conference’s keynote speakers were a highlight – particularly Joan Tronto, Achille Mbembe and Michalinyos Zembylas. I’ve linked to their conference think pieces, and have been inspired to read more of their work. I also particularly enjoyed the presentation by Vivienne Bozalek and colleagues on ‘diffractive’ methodology. The talk by Ellen Hurst on ‘translanguaging’ in the classroom and in assessment was eye opening . I really appreciated Vanessa-Jean Merckel’s honesty in discussing how she and her students learn about social justice. Roisin Kelly-Laubscher, Moragh Paxton, Samukele Mashele & Ziyanda Majombozi presented their findings about South African first generation students. They are contributing a chapter to a book I’m co-editing called Understanding Experiences of First Generation University Students, to be published by Bloomsbury in early 2018 – can’t wait!

The conference organisers did an amazing job during a very difficult time of the #feesmustfall and the #rhodesmustfall protests. The morning keynote sessions were at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Baxter Theatre (loved the architecture). The original plan was then to have the parallel sessions on the UCT campus, but due to the possibility of the campus being closed by protests, we instead hopped on buses to go the parallel sessions in two nearby hotels.


The conference dinner was at the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens. At the dinner ICED’s journal, the International Journal for Academic Development (IJAD), awarded its best paper for 2015. There’s free access to the paper here, as well as the runners up. I’m one of the new co-editors of the HERD journal, and wonder if an ‘article of the year’ might be of interest to the HERD readership…

It was just a short trip but I did a short ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus tour, and stayed in airbnb accommodation near UCT, which was a great way to get some insight into local life. The after-effects of apartheid, some 22 years on, are still apparent and confronting. After the trip I read Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime, which I highly recommend for its very personal and vivid insights into life under- and post-apartheid.



Corporate speak invading higher education


Language, by Thomas Hawk, flickr

I love the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, about a group of musicians and Shakespearean actors travelling round a post-apocalyptic USA. One of my favourite parts is where two former business men (who were trapped, and now live in, an airport) discuss the corporate speak in an old document one of them has preserved in the airport’s ‘Museum of Civilisation’:

“Okay, so under ‘Communication’ here’s the first comment. ‘He’s not good at cascading information down to staff.’ Was he a whitewater rafter, Clark? I’m just curious.”

“Yes,” Clark said, “I’m certain that’s what the interviewee was talking about. Actual literal cascades.”

“This one’s my other favourite. ‘He’s successful in interfacing with clients we already have, but as for new clients, it’s low-hanging fruit. He takes a high-altitude view, but he doesn’t drill down to that level of granularity where we might actionize new opportunities.'”

“There are high altitudes, apparently, also low-hanging fruit, also grains of something, also drilling.”

“Presumbaly he was a miner who climbed mountains and actionized an orchard in his off-hours.”

This type of corporate speak is invading higher education. I’ve been in a meeting where someone said ‘yes, we can onboard that resource’, which took me a while to realise meant ‘hire a new person’ (I think!).

There’s been a huge rise in the number of professional staff working in universities (see Hannah Forsyth’s excellent book for the Australian context), many of whom have come from the corporate world. I realise that universities are increasingly run as large corporations – with salaries to match for those at the top. But the corporate-speak feels jarring to me, at odds with the intellectual endeavours of higher education.

I found this example of a Professor who quit over this issue way back in 2000. In the article, Professor Sergio Perosa is quoted:

“The new language is the offspring of a hypertrophic bureaucracy,” he said. “We know that the old academic language was muddy, pompous and rhetorical. For decades we fought against it and looked with longing towards the clarity and conciseness of the English language. But this is worse, often I have no idea what they are talking about. It is both glacial and mystifying. 

“I believed our job was to form minds, awaken interests, stimulate intellectually and transmit knowledge. I now discover that I am providing a ‘service’, like gas, to ‘customers’ who, if all goes well, become ‘products’, like tinned food.” 

Keir Thorpe suggests that the rise of corporate speak might be the fault of academics, some of whom look down on administrators.

Whatever the reason for the invasion, the language we use is important. What are your thoughts on this topic? Should we resist corporate speak, or is it here to stay?

Students as partners – a way to re-shape higher education pedagogy or neoliberal seduction?

Amani Bell & Tai Peseta

This is our abstract from the HERDSA 2016 conference, which for some reason wasn’t made available online, so I’m popping it up here:

There is growing interest in Australia and worldwide in working with students as partners (SAP). Based on our own experiences of working with SAP (Peseta et al. 2016) and our reading of the literature, we offer a set of provocations designed to tease out some of the theoretical and methodological tensions involved in SAP initiatives. Working with SAP is seen by many as a way to reshape higher education, because such initiatives can be transformative for students, academics and universities. Examples of such transformations include changes to policy and practice, curriculum renewal, students gaining graduate attributes, and academics changing their views about teaching.

Some SAP researchers draw on threshold concepts theory to inform their work, arguing that academics and students partnering to explore pedagogical practice is a threshold concept. Once academics cross the threshold of working with SAP, they are ‘much more likely to think about their work with students less as “transmission” and as “more of a transaction”’ (Cook-Sather & Luz 2015, 1099). Linking students as co-inquirers with threshold concepts theory might help us better understand some of the difficulties that academics and students encounter in the ambiguous space of partnership. Other bodies of theoretical work may also usefully inform SAP work, including student approaches to learning and teachers approaches to teaching (Prosser & Trigwell, 1999), and Indigenous ways of research and knowing (Chilisa, 2012; Martin, 2008).

Yet claims that the field of SAP is under theorised persist. As Taylor and Robinson contend, ‘the student voice has been seen principally as a mode of practical intervention … allied to agendas around…improvement’ (2009, 161, 163). Peseta (2013) notes that the student voice can also be seen as an effect of the political desire that seeks it, suggesting that an innocent view of SAP intentions takes too little account of the diversity of methodological traditions informing its research agenda. Because SAP is inspired by everything from liberalism, critical theory, post-colonialism and post-structuralism, different views of the ‘self’, ‘experience’ and ‘voice’ circulate within its literature. Perhaps surprisingly, the effect of these differences is rarely remarked upon. This inattention is what makes the SAP agenda especially appealing to those in universities focused on the liberating tendencies of partnership as democracy and those who see neoliberal markets as key to higher education futures.

In this session, our ambition is to think with others to draw out the implications for the practice of SAP agenda.

Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. Los Angeles: Sage.
Cook-Sather, A., & Luz, A. (2015). Greater engagement in and responsibility for learning: what happens when students cross the threshold of student–faculty partnership. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), 1097-1109.
Martin, K. L. (2008). Please knock before you enter: Aboriginal regulation of outsiders and the implications for researchers. Brisbane: Post Pressed.
Peseta, T. (2013). The inevitable contradictions of student learning [Invited Essay]. The International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(2).
Peseta, T., Bell, A., Clifford, A., English, A., Janarthana, J., Jones, C., Teal, M. & Zhang, J. (2016): Students as ambassadors and researchers of assessment renewal: puzzling over the practices of university and academic life, International Journal for Academic Development, 21 (1), 54-66.
Prosser, M. & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching. UK: Open University Press
Taylor, C. & Robinson, C. (2009). Student voice: theorising power and participation. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 17(2), 167-175

Working with theory – go hard or go home

everyday-im-husserlnThis moment has been coming for a while. My background is in science, and I’m now working in academic development. So in the past when people have talked about theorists such as Bourdieu, Foucault, Derrida and the gang, I’ve struggled to understand. When I saw that Dr Remy Low was giving a talk called ‘How to do things with theory’ , I was so there!

Remy took us on an exciting romp through phenomenology, critical theory and post-structuralism, enlivened by poetry, memes (including the one above) and music videos. Obviously there was only so much he could cover in two hours, but it was a great introduction. His talk has made me more aware of the theory-lite nature of my own research to date. And I’m not the only one. The lack of theory in higher education research has been pointed out several times e.g. Ashwin (2012), Hutchings (2007). A whole issue of HERD was devoted to the topic ‘Questioning theory-method relations in higher education research’.

My research is crying out for it. I’m interested in many different topics in higher education, and making better use of theory will help me tie those interests together and see them in new and exciting ways.

So I now need to leap in and start reading.  My plan is start with theorists who write about education or higher education. My ideas so far include Raewyn Connell, Sue Clegg & Catherine Manathunga. Other suggestions for reading are very welcome.

I know that some of the writing might be difficult to understand. But as a colleague pointed out, statistics is difficult and off-putting for those who don’t have a statistics background.

So here goes. See you on the other side!


Learning design in higher education

roseville bridge

Photo by James Norton

In the courses I teach for academics at Sydney Uni, we approach learning design using constructive alignment, developed by John Biggs in 1996, and explained by him here.

We provide some resources and suggestions on how to develop learning outcomes, we point to Bloom’s taxonomy (which I know some people really dislike!), and also the SOLO taxonomy, which was developed by Biggs and Collis, and seems a more natural fit with constructive alignment than Bloom’s.

One of the good things about constructive alignment is that it’s been around long enough for people to have done some research on it. Wang and colleagues in 2013 found that ‘students in more constructively aligned courses were more likely to adopt deep learning approaches and less likely to use surface learning approaches in their study of a particular course.’ Larkin and Richardson found ‘evidence of improvement in student satisfaction and academic grades as a result of implementing constructive alignment.’

I’m currently doing the SEDA course Online Introduction to Educational Change, and one of the objectives is to gain a ‘sense of learning design from our own perspective and from the perspective of your fellow learners’. To prompt our thinking, we watched a video on the 7Cs of Learning Design, presented by Professor Gráinne Conole. Conole’s 2013 book, Designing for Learning in an Open World, looks interesting – I’ll have to add it to my reading list! I can see from the chapter titles that Conole has considered learning design from the viewpoints of different disciplines – and naturally learning design will mean different things for different disciplines – e.g. architects vs engineers vs  mathematicians.

One of things I like about the 7Cs model is the emphasis on getting feedback from your peers, and on reflection. These aspects aren’t obvious within the constructive alignment model.

I’m curious to hear from others about what models you use for learning design. Are there any fans of constructive alignment out there? Is there something about ‘blended learning’ that requires a different approach to learning design?

You have the right to remain silent

ceramic artwork by Vanessa Long

ceramic artwork by Vanessa Long

Have teachers taken the rhetoric of participation too far? Susan Cain in her book ‘Quiet’ (also see her TED talk) makes some great points about how teaching in higher education privileges extroverts, and expects students to ‘engage’ and ‘participate’ by talking, answering and asking questions, giving presentations and by doing lots of group work (and see Chapter 3 for her critique of group work ‘When collaboration kills creativity’). Quiet students are seen as too passive and not suited to doing well in the workplace. For example, at Harvard Business School

The school tries hard to turn quiet students into talkers. The professors have their own “Learning Teams” in which they egg each other on with techniques to draw out reticent students. When students fail to speak up in class, it’s seen not only as their deficit but also their professor’s. “If someone doesn’t speak by the end of the semester, it’s problematic,” Professor Michel Anteby told me. “It means I didn’t do a good job.”

This extreme privileging of spoken communication disadvantages students who, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable speaking up generally, or just at that moment. A recent paper by Phan Le Ha and Bingui Li studies the reasons why Chinese university students in China and Australia are silent in class. Their paper challenges lecturers’ assumptions that such students are passive due to the language barrier, as students in the study gave varied reasons as to why they remained silent in class. The participants in the study did not see

in-class silence as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘corrected’ or ‘remedied’…[they] do not endorse that talking is a necessary element of students’ thinking; rather these two processes are different.

So what can we do as teachers?

  • Think about the purpose of class discussion
  • If class participation is assessed, think carefully about how this is done
  • Pay attention to what Ha and Li call the ‘multilayered meanings and values’ of silences
  • Keep silence as an important choice available to students
  • Be aware that some students might need support to speak in class
  • Consider other ways of enabling participation e.g. ‘think, pair, share’
  • Consider ways of enabling anonymity e.g. polling systems


Let me entertain you

How important is it to be an entertaining teacher? Kane Sandretto and Heath’s study of 17 excellent university teachers noted the importance of ‘personality’, especially enthusiasm, humour and passion.

This got me thinking about teaching as entertainment. There are plenty of examples of entertaining teachers, such as  But how much do students learn if the focus is solely on being entertaining?

In 2013 there was an interesting blog post by James Rovira, who argues that being entertained implies passivity, and so it’s better to focus on the pleasure of learning.

Do you think this video is a good example of an entertaining teacher who has student learning firmly in mind?

For some teachers, this kind of style of teaching can look too over the top and energetic – people think it’s not their style and find it off putting. (I’ve heard it described as ‘too masculine’!) Being enthusiastic, passionate and humorous is all well and good, but what if you’re not naturally outgoing? Can you ‘fake it til you make it’?

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet (also see her TED talk), reports her discussions with Professor Brian Little (see his TED talk here). Little, an avowed introvert, is nonetheless an entertaining lecturer and award winning teacher. He says he’s able to do this because he cares deeply about his students. So it’s not a false persona – he’s skilled at self-monitoring (i.e. able to modify his behaviour to meet the ‘social demands of a situation’). Cain calls such people ‘pseudo-extroverts’, and advises that they’ll need ‘restorative niches’ to avoid burnout.

Award winning university teacher, John Croucher, found in a five year study that

there was one [student survey] question that was consistently most highly associated [with good teaching] across all subject areas over all the years. This was the one that asked whether the teacher was able to explain the course material clearly. There were a number of instances where a teacher was rated as enthusiastic, knowledgeable and well-prepared, but was still considered a poor teacher overall.

Similarly, a large longitudinal study recently reported in Studies in Higher Education found that students’ exposure to clear and organised classroom instruction was significantly and positively linked to increased deep approaches to learning and critical thinking.

So what do you reckon? Should new teachers start off by focusing on giving clear explanations and being well-organised? Will the enthusiasm and passion be easier to convey with more experience, as confidence builds?