Highs and lows, ebbs and flows: buckle up for the educational development rollercoaster ride.

Multi-purpose vehicles

University centres for learning and teaching (CLTs) have multiple purposes and impacts. They can hold, curate and foster expertise in learning and teaching and offer opportunities for this to be recognised and rewarded. They can act as innovation hubs and ideas incubators, supporting practitioner and/or pedagogical research to provide an evidence base for teaching and learning enhancements. They can offer opportunities for those who teach and support learning to gain professional qualifications, and to join peer communities of practice. Through these communities and through other events, CLT also act as connectors – facilitating exchanges on common themes across institutional boundaries. They often also act as interpreters and filters for evidence that may not be universally accessible – supporting those who are not experts in educational research to understand the benefits, validity and reliability of different evidence types.

CLTs are often recognised as driving enhancement through individually targeted activities – ideas generation, personal recognition and reward, scholarship and continuous professional development. While these all remain important, they have arguably now been subsumed into wider buckets of activity directly aligned to institutional-level goals and priorities. In short, the sum of CLT’s work is now much greater than its parts – and its worth is often ‘measured’ by its direct contribution to institutional strategic objectives. To do this, CLT staff frequently adopt consultancy approaches, ensuring that projects are designed and managed in partnership (formally and informally) with other areas of the university. They are often also increasingly seen as the teams responsible for working with academic areas whose course metrics are impacting adversely on institutional level metrics.

Despite this adaptability, since we both became educational developers we have seen at first hand the precarious nature of CLTs. There are many explanations as to why this is the case, but the bottom line is that like HR professional development units, CLTs can often be whole or part-funded through internal rather than external revenue generation. While not a problem in its own right, this can require CLTs to demonstrate ‘value for money’ to the teams that generate their income. Yet much of a CLTs work can be intangible and difficult to quantify in simple ‘value for money’ terms. The sense of support and belonging that a CLT can offer colleagues can be enormous, and the benefits of a growing evidence-base from which enhancements in teaching can emanate cannot be underestimated. But without an immediate ‘basket of metrics’ at their disposal, CLTs can find their position precarious – particularly where their existence (or not) is seen to have no immediate or direct impact on the student experience.

One size certainly doesn’t fit all!

A recent call-out to sector networks (including the SEDA Jiscmail network) asked colleagues to identify their institutional CLT model, why this model was chosen, what was working well and where they might like to make changes. This has led to us identifying four general ‘types’ of CLT. However, as with any typology, the reality of each case assessed against it will necessarily be more complex than the description offered; any individual CLT can reflect a number of these models at any one time.

Central or centralised units. Reporting to a Deputy/Pro Vice-Chancellor (or Dean if faculty based) and with institution-wide reach, these CLTs can vary dramatically in size depending on constituent teams. Some larger units/universities report upwards of 50 staff. A key benefit is deemed to be the patronage of a member of the executive team and connection into the strategic change activities of the university. This also can be a disbenefit as such patronage may be contingent on a leader remaining in post; a change of leadership may change the CLT. 

Constellation units. A number of centrally managed and focused teams spread across different operating departments, working in partnership on projects and priority activities e.g. digital education in IT; academic staff development in a college/directorate of education or in human resources; curriculum development in the quality assurance and enhancement team; and scholarship of learning and teaching in an institutional research group. A key benefit is the ability to draw on the skills and insights of a wide team of individuals from across the university. Disbenefits can include a lack of clarity as to who to approach for support and dangers of duplication and/or contradictory messaging. 

Hub and spoke units. A central ‘hub’ team that oversees the general direction of learning and teaching enhancement and support, connected through ‘dotted lines’ to local operational teams that support the activities in local faculties or colleges. Local ‘spokes’ can include mini-CLTs or defined local roles with time allocations and dedicated portfolios (e.g. digital, equality and diversity). This was the most commonly described unit and, when working well, offers the benefit of both centralised direction and coordination married with local insight and skills. However, if buy in is limited multiple CLTs may duplicate and cannibalise each other’s work.

Networked and distributed units. No or very limited central team members with the majority of activity operationalised by project groups and local teams. Often incentivised by competitive funding and/or individual fellowships or time allocation – something that is seen as critical for this model to work.

Key benefits include a fully embedded and expertise-driven model – not separated out from front line teaching activities. However, it requires clear strategic authority, decision making and direction to keep each academic school on track to meet targets and goals.

Are we there yet?

It will certainly come as no surprise to SEDA colleagues that CLTs are varied, flexible and changeable and there is no ‘destination CLT’; each institution is unique and requires local solutions. That said, seven factors were identified by respondents as key to success. We hope you find these useful as you reflect on your own institutional model and priority activities:

  1. Consistency and focus – CLTs need to avoid being drawn into multiple initiatives (mission creep) and to identify a core offer. Where sectoral change is impacting on institutional direction and priorities, the ability to focus on ‘what matters’ is paramount to relevance and success.
  2. An academic endeavour – CLT staff need to be part of and resonate with the academic culture of the institution. This is key not only for recruiting and retaining good staff, but also for these staff to be seen as peers by the academic community.
  3. Strategic alignment – wherever possible CLT activities – from PGCerts, via digital learning support, to individual CPD support – need to support and fulfil aspects of institutional strategy.
  4. Relationships – educational enhancement (like strategy) cannot and should not ever be ‘done’ to people – it is a multi-player and multi-channel partnership activity built on peer relationships – back and forth and up and down the institution.
  5. Governance – CLT boards, comprising faculty learning and teaching and professional service leads, who steer CLT activities and priorities, can help with institutional engagement and reduce perceptions of autocracy.
  6. Student-facing activities/student partnerships – ensure that students are directly involved in CLT projects and activities, and that work directly aligns to a common strategic deliverable: enhancing the student learning experience and success.
  7. Process change – CLT activities need to be supported by and embedded in institutional culture and process, shifting their sphere of influence from the willing few to everyone. Without this integration, CLTs can be left to effect strategic change through relationships and persuasion. While these skills are clearly important, on their own they cannot lead to large scale whole institution impact and change.

Liz Cleaver
Lauren Cracknell

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