SEDA Research Grant Project 2018-2019
The SHED inter-institutional peer observation of teaching (POT) scheme was introduced in September 2017 to encourage sharing of teaching practice and discussion of educational development practice between individuals across the 19 higher education institutions in Scotland. We used the term peer observation of teaching, but we interpreted ‘teaching’ broadly to encourage colleagues to offer feedback and mentorship to colleagues on a whole range of online and face to face teaching, explore educational development resources, plans and workshops and to have discussions about challenges in practice.
Creative Commons Image: Flikr, Jured D. Seeing, 2016
To our knowledge this POT scheme is unique in its focus on educational development and its inter-institutional emphasis. Academic developers often work in isolation in their own institutions and it is therefore difficult to find the space and time to reflect on their own practice. By participating in the SHED PoT scheme, both ‘observers’ and ‘observees’ would have the opportunity to observe and discuss others’ educational development practice and explore their own practice from a different perspective, enabling them to examine their own identity and roles within their institutions. This scheme was informed by educational development research that recognizes that enhancing the informal networks where staff can discuss teaching has great benefits for learning and for successful academic departments (Roxå & Mårtensson 2009). The project also hoped to further develop the rich discussions about the complex roles and identities of the educational developer (Baume & Popovic, 2016).
When we first proposed the POT scheme, we were met with overwhelming support and enthusiasm for this initiative, however, in practice, the number of people participating in the scheme was disappointing. Because we set this up as an optional activity for colleagues, with no onus to inform us of when and where people were meeting, we will never know for sure how many colleagues have participated in the two years we have been running the scheme. However, when we received a SEDA small research grant, we evaluated the first and second year of the scheme, and in the first year we received only two responses. We then asked colleagues to complete a short questionnaire when we were face-to-face at a SHED meeting, to ask why they thought the uptake/response rate was low. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, time constraints was one of the most cited reasons why colleagues had not completed an observation…several colleagues mentioned ‘changing jobs’, ‘work-related stress, my job was made redundant’ and ‘disruption in team’ as reasons why they didn’t complete an observation. Another set of responses focused on lack of confidence or opportunity in particular roles to undertake an observation… ‘unsure how to do it’ and ‘anxious about people coming and not finding it valuable’.”(Bovill & Cunningham, 2019).
We implemented a range of initiatives to try to overcome these challenges in the second year, including: improved information about the wide range of practices that could be considered as peer observation of teaching; offers to pair up those newer in the field who might not know anyone; and a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) workshop supporting exploration of educational developers’ own CPD. There was still a low uptake in the second year as far as we know and in our second round of evaluation we received only three responses. A number of challenges remained ranging from the practical, “Travelling far between institutions was not an option, so limits the pool significantly” as well as “I also don’t have many contacts in the sector as of yet, so was hard to find alternatives.” There is also a fascinating thread that emerges around how people perceive themselves and the danger of exposing oneself professionally through peer observation, “it is scary to be ‘observed’ especially in a small Scottish sector”.
Creative Commons Image: Flikr, Boundary Crossing, Liz Randall 2015
Despite all these challenges, those who participated reported positive benefits including “how helpful it can be to share a work challenge with another academic developer who has the fresh perspective of a different institution” and the joy of another worldview, “different institutions often do things really differently and I find it good to get out of my normal setting and be challenged to see things differently.” Our work has demonstrated that establishing an inter-institutional peer observation of teaching scheme is far from straightforward even where there appears to be both evidence of benefits and support for such a scheme. Indeed, it has made us consider carefully the importance of explicitly acknowledging the need for educational developers to make time for their own development, and how important it is we support colleagues at the different stages of their career, whether new to educational development or going through unsettling changes and uncertainty in their positions.
We would welcome hearing about your own experiences of a peer observation in your role as an academic developer. If you would like to share your story, please contact either of us at the email addresses given below, or tweet using #SHED.
Baume, D. & Popovic, C. (2016) Advancing practice in academic development. (SEDA Series) Abingdon: Routledge.
Bovill, C. & Cunningham, C. (2019) Challenges of introducing a new inter-institutional peer observation of teaching scheme. Educational Developments, 20 (2) 18-19.
Roxå, T. and Mårtensson, K. (2009) Significant Conversations and Significant Networks: Exploring the Backstage of the Teaching Arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (5) 547–559.
Dr Catherine Bovill, University of Edinburgh Catherine.Bovill@ed.ac.uk
Dr Catriona Cunningham, University of Stirling firstname.lastname@example.org