We are delighted and proud to be involved in the creation of ‘Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical Wisdom for Leaders, Educational Developers and Programme Leaders’ because it recognises the pivotal role of Programme Leaders (PLs) in higher education.
It has been noted for some time, and we certainly found in our work with programme leaders, that this group of staff, who work at the junction of pedagogy, academic leadership, and student experience, too often seem to get a raw deal. Given the sheer power of the market forces of student satisfaction and notions of ‘quality’ in the neoliberal academy, it can be hard to see why they are not better valued and celebrated for their incredible impact on the student learning journey.
When the call for chapters for Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical wisdom for leaders, educational developers and programme leaders. Routledge, UK was announced, it was just the right time for us. We have launched extensive programme leader (PL) development programme at UWE Bristol and I was keen to share our experiences. These showed that busy PLs will engage with institutional support, in great numbers, if it does justice to the complexity of their role. I was, and still am, adamant that we should not shy away from developing an extensive programme of support for PLs. After all, we expect a lot from them, so we should be willing and able to offer support that is commensurate with our expectations. The chapter captures the design principles of the programme, which I believe have ensured its success. Here is a short snippet of our story:
This is the first post in a Blog Series, edited by Sue Morón-García, focusing on programme leadership. Posts are written by contributors to ‘Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in Higher Education’ (Lawrence, Morón-García and Senior, Routledge, 2022) and will be of interest to anyone practising as or supporting the development of programme leaders and leadership in HE.
Programme leaders (PLs) are crucial to higher education success. They commonly have responsibility for the nexus of the student experience: a programme of study. They work in a highly contextualised environment subject to local cultures (institutional, departmental and disciplinary) and are subject to the strategy and management that shape the systems and processes they must navigate. Our early work with programme leaders and educational developers across the UK and discussions at international events indicated a need for evidence-based, practical wisdom and clarity on how to better develop and support the role.
As a positive psychologist, I have had a special interest with students’ experience of stress – both those external factors that are perceived as a challenge or a threat, such as assignment demands, deadlines, transitioning to university and building social and academic relationships; and those psychological factors, such as coping style and personality, drawn on to manage those demands and which ultimately impact on wellbeing. This, in turn, has been operationalized through a multiple of indices, from measures of mental health; to life and course satisfaction; anxiety and happiness.
Like many institutions, my university – knowing that the continued complications of the pandemic make remote access still useful – kitted out some classrooms to enable students to join on-campus teaching remotely through hybrid, or Hyflex (‘hybrid flexible’) learning. I, and a colleague, had the privilege of introducing our academic staff to these rooms and helping them think about how they might adapt their teaching to this new environment. There have been many pieces on how to teach successfully using Hyflex (such as this, from King’s College), but here are two key things I learned from my first term of training others in this mode.
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.
We are based in two different universities in the Midlands, each with its own distinct mission and history. Our roles are substantially different, as are our professional backgrounds and life experiences. Our paths might never have crossed had it not been for a spur of the moment blog (Sterling, 2022a). We quickly discovered a shared interest in the need to create, support and celebrate flexible academic pathways – quite an odd thing on the face of it!
HESA’s broad categorisation of academic employment into teaching only, teaching and research, research only, and neither teaching nor research helps aggregate and simplify an extremely complex dataset. While dealing with one challenge, however, it creates another. The teaching/research binary erases in one fell swoop the visibility of richly varied learning-focused roles in a university.
User experience (UX) is a broad field that focuses on how people use software, systems, and services. I practice an adjacent field, known as learning experience (LX) which has overlapping design and research methods. As a Learning Technologist I use my LX skills to investigate, understand, and solve a variety of learning-focused problems. This relies on a professional toolbox stocked full of methods for digging into problems and then designing better solutions.
Explore, know, and show
I am going to share design and research methods that I have used to solve problems and enhance student and staff experiences. In my domain, a ‘problem’ is the underlying reason for a change e.g., a software update, or the introduction of a new service. Design methods can provide strategies for thinking about a problem on your own, or with a group of people. Methods can also provide ways of gathering feedback and showing your thinking to stakeholders and senior managers. Some of the methods may feel familiar, as they derive from anthropology, psychology, and social sciences.
Example from practice: Individual reflective research for uncovering opportunities
I needed to introduce a new accessibility tool as part of the VLE. Early on, I drew the customer value chain map below (based on Kalbach, 2016). The map explores the value of the new accessibility tool for different user groups. I later showed a version to colleagues to ask for feedback on my reasoning. The final version of the value chain map helped explain the benefits to users and learners.
What is it you want to understand or know?
I needed to introduce a new version of an electronic marking tool. So, it was important to understand how the current version of the tool was being used. I do not mark student work, so I asked academic colleagues for help. I conducted video interviews including verbal walkthroughs. This allowed me to observe the marking process and helped me to better understand:
staff actions or jobs while marking
the types of issues identified in student work
This research activity was part of service evaluation and resulted in rich output. I analysed the interview recordings to understand interactions (click analysis) and produce transcripts. I used the transcripts to compile jobs-to-be-done statements, a user experience design method. These statements explained the actions, motivations, and the desired outcomes. This supported software testing and creation of improved tutorial materials for students.
Who are your audience?
Understand your audience when you explore a problem. Start with existing research to explore this area, e.g., institutional survey data, usage statistics. Then feed this data, alongside qualitative feedback from open text answers and interviews, into a user experience design method like empathy mapping. This works well as a group activity. I used an empathy map when I designed new workshops for staff during the height of the pandemic in 2020. I wanted my designs to consider the context of work and the pressure that staff were under at that time. As an added point, I tend to avoid the persona aspect of this method due to potential for stereotyping and bias. I prefer to use anonymised first-person testimonials based on feedback and interviews alongside the mapping.
If you need to show your thinking, who are you showing it to?
The answer to this question may well determine the technique you select. For instance, a user journey map is a way to visualise a service experience. Complete the map by involving a range of stakeholders and use it to find gaps, illustrating areas of need. This can then support your work with those who manage resources at your organisation.
Learning experience, and the user experience methods it draws upon, can be a force for good in higher education. If you decide to use these methods, you should also follow the results. This can mean disrupting accepted assumptions. Particularly in relation to accessibility, equality, equity, and bias. You also need to consider the methods you select and their origins (Seale, Hicks, and Nicholson, 2022). Ask yourself, does this method investigate a problem? Or might it perpetuate existing structural issues? Find opportunities to collaborate with academic and professional colleagues who want to solve problems too. Check out this list of methods (Teixeira, 2021) and start with small problems in your own area. UCISA’s UX Community of Practice is a great way to connect with other user experience practitioners in Higher Education. There are also local user experience meet-up groups across the UK.
Kalbach, J. (2016) Mapping experiences – a guide to creating value through journeys, blueprints, and diagrams. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.
Seale, M., Hicks, A., and Nicholson, K. (2022). Toward a critical turn in library UX. College & Research Libraries, 83(1), 6. doi:10.5860/crl.83.1.6 Teixeira, F. (2021). ‘A comprehensive list of UX design methods and deliverables’, UX Collective on Medium, 18 January
We, as institutions, are brilliant at listening to students and engaging them in conversations about their teaching, learning and general experience of university. However, when it comes to finding fresh and innovative ways to improve the student experience, it is often left to committees, boards and senior management.
Here at the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching we’ve decided to try a new, playful, student-centred approach, allowing us to get real, in-depth, authentic feedback from students.
“May you live in interesting times” is a commonly quoted curse, and HE has definitely been going through interesting times for far longer than we might like to admit. Most recently a few “interesting” aspects have been: Brexit; a pandemic; government consultations on funding and regulatory arrangements; and public and press rhetoric about university standards and politics on campus. As educational developers we occupy many spaces in universities, which are often the first to bear the brunt of interesting times. There has been a great deal of discussion on the SEDA Jisc list and in blog pieces here about strategies to adapt to these interesting times and we often support each other with solutions, or at least a listening ear.