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What does teaching enhancement have to do with reputation management?

Ant Bagshaw looks at the rise of data and technology driven tools to enhance teaching practice.
This article is more than 6 years old

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

Recently on Wonkhe, we learned about half a century of teaching enhancement initiatives, how they’ve been funded and the state we find ourselves in. My colleague David Kernohan made an impassioned argument for the reinstatement of grant schemes to stimulate innovative practice as both incentive and reward for enhancement. But we should also ask ourselves whether the methods of the past – stimulating enhancement through supporting individuals or small groups piecemeal – is the best way to proceed in the future. The past is a different country, after all.

The pressures on universities are huge: there’s consumer pressure from students, and anyone else funding students such as parents, carers or employers. Then there’s pressure from government in the form of metrics, assessments and frameworks. On the one hand, the rhetoric of “the market will decide”, and on the other an increasingly controlling state expecting institutions to jump through some very specific hoops. And not all of those hoops are logically consistent: is that too much to ask?

In this context, how can an individual, group or institutions manage their reputation? How is is that they tell their story about practice and do so in a way which responds to both consumer wants and the regulatory environment?

Data for good

There’s a serious risk that measurement of teaching become a race to the bottom where a “rate my professor” third-party could be the dominant source of information about teaching. Non-verified, non-trusted sources of information can get traction with applicants, students and colleagues in the absence of better quality information and a stronger narrative about what teaching quality is.

At the centre of the data collection world is Achievability, which runs module evaluations for dozens of universities under its EvaSys banner. Eric Bohms, UK managing director has an interesting take on the sector’s approach to data and enhancement as he sees a wide variety of practice on his travels across the country. While his systems are supplying the data, what universities choose to do with it is up to them, whether that’s for more rigid metrics-based management or in pursuit of enhancement through identifying and sharing good practice.

Looking ahead, Bohms sees opportunity in the aggregation of data sources, qualitative and qualitative, to present a rich picture of students’ experiences. “Ultimately, the pressure from students and exercises like TEF isn’t going away,” Bohms says “the challenge is about getting the right combination and quality of data, and then the most appropriate management responses.” Bohms already works with Advance HE (and its predecessor HEA) and sees further opportunities there to combine diagnostic information with support and encouragement, moving away from conceptions of “remedial” interventions. Bohms has a vision for Achievability that it can become a kay part of managing “academic reputations” at individual, programme and institutional levels: “in order to be on the front foot in telling your narrative about teaching excellence, you need to know your data and have confidence that you can target improvements where necessary.”

Seeds of change

One European start-up is threatening to challenge the existing norms in academic development. Faculty Fruit, brainchild of Mariska Knol, will be both a repository of online tools to support teaching and a source of feedback for personal development. The ideas came out of Knol’s master’s thesis, then developed in her doctorate and further into a coaching practice. She’s planning to use the skills she’s honed in face-to-face development to build the online platform which could make waves across higher education globally. Unlocking behaviour change isn’t easy, but it is achievable says Knol: “it requires a level of vulnerability on the part of the individual to be able to access and learn new ways of activating learning in their students.”

If you were to conceive of teaching enhancement as both the improvement on the ground – in the classroom, lab or lecture theatre – and in the celebration of excellence, then there needs to be serious work on the communication of it. Managing an institution’s reputation for teaching can’t be passive. To use one example, if you were to design career pathways with a view that progression – recognition of excellence – could be deemed equivalent across teaching, research and combined roles, then it’s probably better not to use a hierarchical naming system. The projection made by a name like “pathway 3” for teaching and scholarship roles is one which immediately devalues staff in an easily avoidable way.

What’s next?

Enhancement might be about pots of money for individuals, but equally useful in the discussion is the use the can be made of new – and increasingly sophisticated – data sources. Then there’s the prospect for online collaborative tools to spread the best practice from around the world; there’s no reason for enhancement to have hard borders. And it’s also about the comms. For the individual academic, in their programmes, groups or departments – and at institutional level – there should be a serious look at how teaching quality is explained, measured and celebrated. Teaching enhancement shouldn’t be marginal – or a special, “other” activity – but embedded across practice and in organisational culture.

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