GDN Logo Proceedings from the HEFCE/DENI FDTL Geography National Conference

Developing Higher Education Networks in Geography

Professor Mick Healey
Geography and Environmental Management Research Unit (GEMRU), Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education


"It is becoming increasingly clear that dissemination is best achieved through networks of subject peers - since it is to such colleagues that academics most naturally relate on academic questions"

(Bekhradnia, 1998)

1. Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen, it falls on me to provide a context for this FDTL Geography National Conference. During this conference there will be many opportunities for us to discuss ways in which teaching, learning and assessment in Geography may be improved. You will learn about many examples of good practice, particularly in the 21 workshops and the Resources Fair. I would like to start this conference by focusing, however, not on the good practices themselves, but rather on the means and structures we use for developing and disseminating good practice in learning and teaching. These have received relatively little attention in the literature, but are critical in influencing the success of our endeavours. In this talk, I wish to argue that developing subject or discipline-based networks is an effective way of improving teaching, learning and assessment.

This is, I think, an appropriate place and time to reflect on the role and function of subject networks, for two reasons:

Clearly subject networks are on the political agenda and this conference will illustrate some of the achievements of a range of existing subject networks. This conference will also provide an excellent opportunity for us to take stock of where we are as a discipline and how we want to move forward.

My talk falls into three parts:

I shall expand on each of these points in turn.

2. The Value of Subject-Based Higher Education Networks

The traditional model of educational development is an institutional-based one. For most teaching staff their predominant experience of this model is the availability of short courses on topics such as 'improving lectures' and 'teaching and assessing large classes', which are open to academics from any discipline. A number of writers have recently argued that a more effective model of educational development would reflect the way higher education functions predominantly around departments and subjects (Gibbs, 1996; Jenkins, 1996).

The key point is that for most academic staff their primary allegiance is to their discipline or profession, rather than to their institution. Becher (1994, p.157) regards disciplines "as academic tribes each with their own set of intellectual values and their own patch of cognitive territory". These tribes are organised social groupings characterised by a body of concepts, methods and fundamental aims. Hence it is not surprising that the most important networks for most academic staff are the ones with fellow academics and professionals in their own discipline or sub-discipline. These networks transcend institutional boundaries and in many instances they span national boundaries.

The idea of a subject-based network for educational development is to build on this propensity for staff to value their discipline contacts. The argument is based on two assertions: first, that staff are more likely to accept, say, a method of teaching or learning which is new to them, if it can be shown to work for a colleague teaching the same subject; and, secondly, it is important not to separate pedagogic developments from the disciplinary contexts in which they are to be implemented.

For the purposes of my talk I shall loosely define subject networks as: 'a group of people, usually from different institutions, who come together to develop, disseminate and/or promote good practice in the learning and teaching of a discipline or a closely related group of subjects'.

Subject networks take on many different forms. Some, such as the FDTL ones, are project-based and have precise aims about what they want to achieve by the end of their funding; others, such as the Higher Education Study Group (HESG) of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), operate on longer time frames and have broader aims related to those of the professional associations in which they are based.

Although the importance of national, subject-based higher education programmes varies between countries, many have initiatives which recognise the importance of disciplines. For example, in Australia, The Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development gives grants for discipline-based teaching initiatives and has established five discipline-based clearinghouses for the exchange of information about teaching and learning. In the United States, the American Association for Higher Education's project on 'Faculty Roles and Rewards' has sought to work with disciplinary organisations to identify reward systems, which give greater consideration to the scholarship of teaching and recognise the uniqueness of disciplines (Jenkins, 1996).

The value of disciplines also appears to have been accepted, at least in part, in some of the more recent programmes funded by various government bodies in the UK, including:

Although the UK government has invested relatively large sums of money in discipline-based programmes compared with many other countries (though not in comparison to the amount the it spends on research in universities), the initiatives to date have largely been uncoordinated, short-term programmes (the CTI initiative is an exception). Relatively few of the networks supported have managed to obtain continuation funding. What is exciting about the current HEFCE initiative is that it holds out the promise of instituting a long term national programme of subject networks. Such networks could form the bases for effective permanent teaching communities, owned by the disciplines, which could coordinate all aspects of learning and teaching the subject.

I use the term 'subject network' deliberately rather than 'subject centre', which is used in the HEFCE document, because 'network' emphasises an inter-connected group of people working together; while a 'centre' emphasises a place at which some activity is concentrated. Although a network may have a centre for organisational reasons, its main raison d'Ítre will be to network and to involve as many subject specialists in its activities as possible.

In the UK some subjects, such as geography, already have well developed networks which could be built on and integrated; other subjects would need to develop networks from scratch. The challenge for all subjects will be to develop structures and mechanisms whereby the networks can move from project funding to self-sustaining permanent networks. For this to happen the subject professional associations, such as the RGS-IBG and the Conference of Heads of Geography in Higher Education Institutions, will need to play a pivotal role.

This conference provides a timely opportunity for us to begin to discuss how the geography community can best organise itself to respond to this initiative. No doubt this will be a theme that Ron Cooke, as Chair of the HEFCE Learning and Teaching Committee, will address in his guest lecture tonight. In this context I am also very pleased that Gerry Taggart and Caroline Bardrick from HEFCE can be with us today.

It will also be important for the HE subject networks to be aware of what is happening in the school and college sector. So I am delighted that Peter Smith, from Her Majesty's Inspectorate, and Eleanor Rawling from COBRIG and the Qualifications and Curriculum and Authority (QCA) are also with us. Peter is giving the after dinner talk tonight.

At this point I would like to involve you in the HEFCE consultation exercise by asking you to complete, if you have not already done so, the sheet you found on your seat. This sheet indicates some possible roles for a national learning and teaching subject network. I would like you to indicate how you would rate each of the 20 possible roles shown which a national subject network might perform.

If you have already completed the sheet, please discuss your views with the person sitting next to you. I will collect the sheets in at the end of this morning's session and we will use them to inform the RGS-IBG response to the HEFCE consultation document.

You have five minutes to complete this exercise before I move on from examining subject networks in general to the development of higher education networks specifically in geography.

3. The Development of Higher Education Networks in Geography

National networks in geography in higher education are at various stages of development in different countries. In many countries dedicated higher education networks do not exist, although some of the functions are undertaken within national geography professional associations. In the United States there was a flurry of teaching and learning initiatives in the 1970s co-ordinated by the AAG (Monk, 1986). More recently the Commission on College Geography II prepared ten active learning modules on The Human Dimensions of Global Change; while The Geographer's Craft and The Virtual Geography Department were funded to develop geography materials to be distributed using information and communication technologies. Ken Foote will be talking about the Virtual Geography Department later this morning (Foote, 1998). In Australia an incipient Higher Education Group has recently been established within the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG). Iain Hay, who will be talking to us tomorrow, has been leading this initiative (Hay, 1998).

Subject networks in geography are, perhaps, most highly developed in the UK, where geography is one of the leading disciplines in the development and dissemination of good practice in learning and teaching. Only one other discipline in the UK, chemistry, has received funding under each of the CTI, TLTP, Discipline Networks in Higher Education, and FDTL national programmes; and geography is the only discipline network to win a contract under the DfEE Key Skills in Higher Education programme.

Geographers in the UK have been involved in a series of groups, initiatives and consortia concerned with teaching and learning in higher education over more than 25 years. The oldest ones in geography are the Higher Education Study Group (HESG) of the RGS-IBG which developed from the meetings of the National Council for Geography in Higher Education held in the early 1970s; and the Journal of Geography in Higher Education (JGHE), which began in 1977, under the joint editorship of Alan Jenkins and David Pepper, both of whom, I am delighted, are here today. Although the JGHE is an internationally refereed journal, it operates as a network with a pro-active Editorial Board, who encourage geographers to reflect and write about their teaching, something which does not come naturally to many people.

Most educational networks in geography in higher education do not yet match up to the kind of networks associated with research, which Graham Gibbs will be talking about next (Gibbs, 1998b). For example, peer review is at the heart of most research networks, but formal schemes for the peer review of teaching in geography are uncommon. An exception is the FDTL Sharing Excellence project at Nottingham Trent. They will be discussing their experience of peer review in a workshop tomorrow.

Similarly, relatively few geographers undertake research into their teaching and publish their findings. Developing the scholarship of teaching and learning is a key challenge for geography subject networks (Healey, 1999). This is unlikely to grow to the extent of the scholarship of research, as Alan Jenkins has argued, "until there are strong institutional and departmental policies and national requirements for rewarding and promoting excellent teaching and teachers" (Jenkins, 1997, p.13).

Obtaining recognition for undertaking pedagogic research in a discipline is a major issue for subject networks. It has led to calls in the UK for the establishment of a separate unit of assessment devoted to higher education in the HEFCs' research assessment exercise; and for discipline specialists being allowed to submit to both their discipline unit and a new pedagogic research in higher education unit (Healey, 1998b; Yorke, 1998).

4. Collaboration and Internationalisation

Whereas the strength of subject networks is that they build on the propensity for staff to value their discipline contacts, their main weakness is the tendency for insularity. Not only can insularity mean that the network does not benefit from exposure to new ideas, but it can also lead to the needless recreating of wheels. A major, though not exclusive, inward-looking focus is understandable in the early stages of development of a network. However, they need to avoid the danger of excessive concern with what is happening in their local patch. I shall comment on two forms of insularity which involve the reluctance to go beyond the boundaries of the discipline network into: a) other networks and b) other countries.

4.1 Collaborating with other networks

At one level we have here in this conference a good example of collaboration between 11 different FDTL networks, the CTIGGM, the HESG and the JGHE. One of the strengths of geographers is that we are good at collaborating. However, a significant problem for many discipline networks is that they do not see beyond their discipline. This came out in Weimer's (1993) review of discipline-based pedagogic journals. She found that most of the journals exist in a sort of splendid isolation with respect to any writing or research done outside the field.

Links to related subject networks are important, not only because many of the ideas discussed are transferable, but also because there is a need to address the issues faced by discipline specialists working in interdisciplinary centres. The maturity of the geography educational networks and the openness of geographers to use non-geography literature in their research makes this less of a problem than for some other disciplines. A small, but growing number of geographers are now regularly contributing to educational conferences concerned with student learning and teaching. It is, nevertheless, still fairly common for articles submitted to JGHE to show little awareness of the relevant pedagogic literature, despite the Editorial Guidelines published at the end of each issue of the journal, which state that "the educational literature should be consulted and referred to in the same way as for substantive research".

One way in which the isolation of subject networks can be reduced is to involve educational developers in their operation, although this is relatively rare (Healey, 1998c). An exception is the GDN FDTL project, in which nine educational developers, one in each of the nine institutions in the consortium, are members of the project team. Two of the four UK advisers are also educational developers. The project has gained from their insight, particularly in designing the style and preparing the content of the guides and workshops (Gravestock & Healey, 1998; Healey and Gravestock, 1997; 1998). Some of you will already have been given your department set of GDN Guides when you registered. The rest of you can examine them at the Resources Fair this afternoon. The official launch of the Guides will take place at the Carfax JGHE Sherry reception tonight.

4.2 Internationalising the network

Despite educational systems differing from one nation to another, much of the pedagogy suitable for a discipline in one country is transferable to teaching the same discipline in another country, and where the practices are not transferable it is illuminating to explore why this is the case. International networking is seen as an indicator of the health of research networks, but is less frequent among networks in higher education. This could be for a host of reasons, including the relative age of the networks, the greater difficulty raising financial support for international education visits, and the generally lower status of educational development within the academy.

Visits by geographers active in national educational networks to other countries to give conference papers, run workshops and participate in the activities of other national networks is an important way of sharing experiences (e.g. Foote, 1998; Healey, 1998c; Healey et al., 1998). More direct international co-operation has been achieved by the Erasmus Intensive Course, which provides courses in gender and geography for advanced and graduate students working in a number of European institutions (Garcia-Ramon & Monk, 1997).

Perhaps the best example to date of international cooperation in the development of the geography curriculum is the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis Core Curriculum project in which 35 GIS educators in the US, Canada and the UK developed a comprehensive set of lecture notes for teaching beginning GIS professionals (Kemp & Goodchild, 1991). An updated web-based version of this course is currently in preparation, which includes 76 lecture topics and 19 section editors from five different countries ( Some of the contributors to this course are here today.

Such attempts at internationalisation, although significant and growing in importance, are still the exception. Most geography higher education networks continue to be concerned primarily, and in some cases almost exclusively, with what is going on within their own countries. There is a need for more determined efforts by all those involved with the various networks to expand the dialogue between the various national networks.

In an attempt to kick start this process an international symposium on 'Learning and Teaching Geography in Higher Education' is being held at the start of the AAG Annual Conference in March 1999 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the main theme will be: 'how do we make our activities more effectively international?'. The symposium is being sponsored by various professional bodies including the AAG, IAG, RGS-IBG and JGHE. Ken Foote, Iain Hay and myself are the organisers.

The availability of the Internet means that it is possible to start the discussion of this theme before the meeting takes place. We would be pleased to learn from anyone wishing to participate in these discussions.

5. Conclusion

This conference is a testimony to the fact that geographers have a good record for developing effective new ideas in teaching and learning in higher education. To expand these developments and, perhaps even more importantly, to continue to disseminate them to the rest of the geographic community, we need to establish and develop a permanent educational network, which draws on the success of the existing networks. The HEFCE initiative is most welcome in this context. Such a subject network should, I have argued, not only facilitate the improving of teaching, learning and assessment within geography in the UK, but should also encourage the sharing of good practices and cooperation on joint projects internationally.

Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the conference organisers, the Geography Discipline Network, I hope you will find the rest of this conference both stimulating and enjoyable.


Becher, T. (1994). The significance of disciplinary differences. Studies in Higher Education, 19 (2), 151-161.

Bekhradnia, B. (1998). Excellence in teaching must have prizes, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 26 June.

Foote, K.E. (1998). Establishing a Virtual Geography Department, paper presented at the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning National Conference 'Improving teaching, learning and assessment of geography in higher education', Coventry, University of Warwick, 17-18 September.

Garcia-Ramon, M. D., & Monk, J. (1997). Editorial. Infrequent flying: international dialogue in geography in higher education, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21 (2), 141-145.

Gibbs, G. (1996). Supporting educational development within departments, The International Journal for Academic Development, 1 (1), 27-37.

Gibbs, G. (1998a). Improving teaching, learning and assessment, paper presented at the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning National Conference 'Improving teaching, learning and assessment of geography in higher education', Coventry, University of Warwick, 17-18 September.

Gibbs, G. (1998b). Paper presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference, Exeter, University of Exeter, 5-8 January.

Gravestock, P., & Healey, M. (Eds.). (1998). Guides to good teaching, learning and assessment practices in geography. Cheltenham: Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Geography Discipline Network. Ten guides produced under the HEFCE FDTL Programme.

Hay, I. (1998). Ethical dilemmas in teaching, learning and assessment, paper presented at the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning National Conference 'Improving teaching, learning and assessment of geography in higher education', Coventry, University of Warwick, 17-18 September.

Healey, M. (1998a). Developing and internationalising higher education networks in geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 22 (3), forthcoming

Healey, M. (1998b). Letter, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 January.

Healey, M. (1998c). Developing and disseminating good educational practices: Lessons from geography in higher education, paper presented to The International Consortium for Educational Development in Higher Education's Second International Conference on 'Supporting Educational, Faculty & TA Development within Departments and Disciplines', Austin, Texas, 19-22 April 1998. Forthcoming in LEWIS, K (Ed.) Conference Proceedings (Austin, University of Texas at Austin).

Healey, M. (1999). Geography and higher education: The development of scholarship in teaching and learning, Progress in Human Geography, 23 (forthcoming).

Healey, M., & Gravestock, P. (1997). Managing a national discipline-based project: The Geography Discipline Network. Paper presented to the HEFCE Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning Inaugural Conference, Nottingham, 28 February.

Healey, M., & Gravestock, P. (1998). Identifying and disseminating good practice in the teaching and learning of geography in higher education. In: Bliss, E. (Ed.) Islands: economy, society and environment: proceedings of the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society second joint conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart 1997, New Zealand Geographical Society Conference Series No. 19, pp. 363-367, Hamilton, New Zealand Geographical Society, University of Waikato.

Healey, M., Robinson, G., & Castleford, J. (1998). Developing good educational practice: integrating GeographyCal into university courses. In: Bliss, E. (Ed.) Islands: economy, society and environment: proceedings of the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society second joint conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart 1997, New Zealand Geographical Society Conference Series No. 19, pp. 367-370, Hamilton, New Zealand Geographical Society, University of Waikato.

HEFCE (1998). Learning and teaching: Strategy and funding proposals. Consultation Paper 98/40. HEFCE: Bristol.

Jenkins, A. (1996). Discipline-based educational development, The International Journal for Academic Development, 1 (1), 50-62.

Kemp, K.A. & Goodchild, M.F. (1991). Developing a curriculum in Geographic Information Systems: the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis Core Curriculum project, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 15 (2), 123-134.

Monk, J. (1986). The Association of American Geographers' role in educational leadership: an interview with Sam Natoli, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 10 (2), 113-132.

Weimer, M. (1993). The disciplinary journals of pedagogy, Change, November/December, 44-51.

Yorke, M. (1998). Opinion, Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 January.


Possible roles for a national learning and teaching subject network1

While you are waiting for the conference to begin please indicate how you would rate each of the possible functions listed below on a four-point scale from 0 (unimportant) to 3 (essential). Once you have done this please discuss your views with the person sitting next to you. There is space at the end for you to add comments. Please hand this in as you leave the lecture theatre to go for lunch.

Many thanks
Mick Healey

Possible roles Unimportant Essential
0 1 2 3
1. Organising the network and promoting its the goals as widely as possible among subject specialists in HEIs across the UK
2. Collating and disseminating examples of good learning and teaching practice
3. Reviewing and promoting new learning resources, including those using new technologies, in the subject context
4. Identifying the need for, and co-ordinating the development of, new learning resources
5. Providing advice and consultancy on learning and teaching practices and resources and facilitating educational change in subject departments
6. Organising conferences and workshops on curriculum and pedagogic issues relevant to the discipline
7. Collating and disseminating research evidence about learning and teaching in the discipline
8. Identifying the need for and co-ordinating research into learning and teaching in the discipline
9. Promoting high standards of scholarship in the way subject specialists write and communicate about learning and teaching of the discipline
10. Identifying quality issues which would benefit from co-ordination and action at a national level
11. Facilitating the development of a shared definition of standards for undergraduate and postgraduate standards within the discipline
12. Contributing to the briefing and training of external examiners within the subject
13. Making subject-specific contributions to the accreditation of new lecturers in higher education
14. Providing an umbrella organisation for linking other groups and projects concerned with learning and teaching issues in the discipline
15. Liaising with the relevant professional associations and learned societies
16. Liasing with learning and teaching networks in the subject overseas and co-ordinating joint meetings and projects
17. Liasing with other subject networks and relevant educational development initiatives
18. Liasing with career advisers and employers about career destinations and key skills of subject graduates and postgraduates
19. Contributing to the development and dissemination of learning and teaching methods in general
20. Others, please specify






Name (optional):


Position (please tick which of the following three sets of categories best describes you):

Geographer Old university Member of a FDTL team
Educational developer New university/college Other presenter
Other Conference delegate


1 This list is based in part on:

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