Developing and disseminating good educational practices: lessons from geography in higher education

Mick Healey

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

 

Abstract

Cross-institutional subject networks are a valuable and under-used model of educational development, which complement the institutional and departmental-based models. Subject networks have the potential to be a particularly effective model for educational development, because it is to disciplines that most academics profess their primary allegiance. This view appears to have been accepted in some of the more recent educational programmes funded by various government bodies in the UK. This paper reflects on a range of issues facing subject networks and illustrates them with examples from the development of four geography educational networks. Geography is one of the leading disciplines in the UK in the development and dissemination of good practice in learning and teaching. Some general points for others establishing and developing subject educational networks are drawn out of the analysis. The paper concludes by arguing that what is required now in the UK is to institute a long-term national programme of subject networks. As educational development moves into a new era, there are considerable opportunities for discipline specialists and educational developers, who are willing to change their way of operating, to work together to develop subject networks to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the disciplines.

The author

Mick Healey is Professor of Geography at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education (CGCHE). He has published many articles and books in the field of economic geography. He has also written widely on teaching and learning in geography in higher education. He is on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education and was previously its co-editor. He is a Committee member of the Higher Education Study Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers and was previously the Honorary Secretary. He was Co-Director of GeographyCal, a consortium of 72 geography departments funded by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), established by the UK's Higher Education Funding Councils, to produce introductory computer assisted learning packages for use in university geography departments. In 1996-97 he chaired a group organising an institution-wide debate about the development of teaching and learning in CGCHE. He is Director of the Geography Discipline Network, which is currently undertaking two major projects. One is supported by the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL), established by the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Northern Ireland, and is concerned with the 'Identification and dissemination of good teaching, learning and assessment practices in geography'. The other is funded by the Department for Education and Employment to examine 'Key skills in geography in higher education'.

Address: Department of Geography and Geology, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1242 543364/532971; Fax: +44 (0)1242 532959
E-mail: mhealey@chelt.ac.uk; URL: http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn

 

Changing environment for educational developers and discipline specialists

Educational developers and discipline specialists are under increasing pressure as their universities take on greater numbers of students from a wider range of backgrounds, introduce more flexible courses, and adjust to new regimes of quality assurance and assessment. Their institutions are being pushed to find an increasing share of their budgets and to consider themselves as service providers to their students. These pressures are creating dilemmas for both educational developers and discipline specialists as they seek to change the balance of their activities. Discipline specialists are faced with the need to teach more students, be active researchers, and generate income. Educational developers are being asked not only to support staff to help students to learn better, but also to assist their institutions teach more efficiently, which may mean teaching no less effectively, but with fewer staff (Isaacs, 1997).

An examination of some recent educational development literature suggests that discipline specialists are sometimes portrayed as thinking that the teaching process is unproblematic and not worthy of much attention; while educational developers are sometimes perceived as being discipline-blind and not recognising the value academics place on their subjects (Baume, 1996; Jenkins, 1996a; Schulman, 1993; Weimer, 1997). Neither caricature is necessarily true, and they are not helpful in encouraging fruitful co-operation between educational developers and academics working in departments.

Given this context of increasing pressures and stereotyped views, it is not surprising that, on the one hand, educational developers continue to face a challenge as to how best to engage discipline specialist teaching staff effectively in the development and dissemination of good educational practice; and, on the other hand, discipline specialists, who are interested in improving the quality of the learning experience of their students, are often unaware of the potentially valuable role which educational developers can play.

This paper starts by reviewing the changing models of educational development and examines the case for a subject network approach to educational development. It goes on to examine a case study of subject networks in one discipline, in which the author is involved, that of geography. The paper focuses on the development of a set of cross-institutional groups, initiatives and consortia in geography in higher education originating in the UK. After identifying the main features of a cross-section of four geography networks, a range of issues facing subject networks in general are discussed and illustrated with examples from the four geography networks. The paper concludes by arguing that subject networks need to play a greater role in educational development and that educational developers and discipline specialists need to find more effective ways of working together. In particular, the paper calls for cross-institutional, subject-specific programmes of educational development to complement the present predominantly institutional-based educational development model.

Changing models of educational development

The traditional model of educational development is an institutional-based one. This approach has led to the establishment, particularly during the last few years, of educational development units in thousands of universities and colleges across the world, although some have since been closed in response to institutional budget cuts (Gosling, 1996; Knapper, 1997). For most discipline specialist teaching staff their predominant experience of the institutional model of educational development is the availability of short courses on topics such as 'improving lectures', and 'teaching and assessing large classes'. These courses are predominantly skill-based, provided as stand-alone units on a 'cafeteria' basis, and are open to academics from any discipline (Mascarenhas-Keyes, 1996). Such staff development is perceived by many senior managers '... as a service, not as a scholarly activity' (Brew, 1995, p.12).

A number of writers have recently argued that a more effective model of educational development would reflect the way in which institutions are organised, i.e. predominantly into subject-based departments (Gibbs, 1996; Jenkins, 1996a). This is because most academic staff derive their professional identity from their discipline or profession. If educational developers are going to persuade other academics in subject-based departments to take teaching and learning seriously, they should recognise, value and build upon staff's concerns for their subject (Jenkins, 1996a). As many institutions reduce their central services, convincing departments of the value of educational development has become a necessary survival strategy for many educational development units. The practicality of implementing a fully departmental-based model of educational development has, however, been questioned, principally because at present there are few incentives or resources for individual departments to become engaged in educational development (Knapper, 1997).

A variant on the department-based model is the subject network model. The difference is that whereas the department-based model is focused on subject areas within institutions, the subject network model involves cross-institutional educational development. The underlying case for both models has many features in common, although subjects and departments do not always neatly coincide. The key argument 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.

Apart from links to people working on similar issues in closely related subjects, most of the links that academics have outside their subject are with colleagues in the same university or college and are concerned with the day to day running of the institution. These intra-institutional links are largely job-specific, and most end if the academic staff member moves jobs to another university or college; whereas most of the subject network links are career-specific, and most are continued on moving to another academic job in the same discipline in another institution.

The idea of a subject 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, second, it is important not to separate pedagogic developments from the disciplinary contexts in which they are to be implemented. These arguments appear to have been accepted, in part, in some of the more recent programmes funded by various government bodies in the UK:

This discipline-based approach was supported by the Dearing Report into Higher Education in the UK "... as a good way of pooling expertise, achieving synergy and securing ownership of products" (NCIHE, 1997, para 8.32). It was this report which recommended the establishment of a professional Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE), with the functions of accrediting programmes of teacher training in higher education; commissioning research and development in learning and teaching practices; and stimulating innovation. Each of these functions could potentially have a discipline-based dimension.

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 UK spends on research in universities), the initiatives to date have been largely uncoordinated, short-term programmes (the CTI initiative is an exception), and relatively few of the networks supported have managed to obtain continuation funding. The option of a more strategic investment in subject networks, as an effective way of disseminating good practice, is being examined by HEFCE as part of the implementation of its Learning and Teaching Strategy (Bekhrandia, 1997).

Such national teaching and learning initiatives are relatively recent in British higher education and there remains a strong sense of individualism and institutional autonomy within British universities which tempers this trend. However, academics in the UK are quickly becoming used to national programmes based on subject areas. At the time of writing, they include research funding (Research Assessment Exercise - RAE) and teaching quality assessment (TQA). Proposals have just been published by the newly established Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education to establish threshold standards for all subjects and strengthen the external examiner system (Higher Quality 1 (3) March 1998). This suggests a continuing growth in the importance of national, discipline-based initiatives in the UK.

Although the importance of national and state/provincial, 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 (CUTSD) 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 (AAHE) 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, 1996a; Jenkins, 1996b). An example of their application is given in the recommendations developed by the Association of American Geographers (Abler et al., 1994). Even in the absence of national or state/provincial programmes, many disciplines have their own teaching and learning initiatives. For example, geographers in the United States have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a Virtual Geography Department, led by the University of Texas at Austin; while Clark University has led a team preparing ten active learning modules on The Human Dimensions of Global Change (Healey, 1998a).

Subject networks clearly operate on a much larger scale than individual departments. They can therefore draw on a much wider range of skills and experiences and can potentially attract larger sources of funding and support from national bodies and professional associations than can department-based educational development. Subject networks, nevertheless, interact closely with departments. Most subject networks are based in lead departments and many organise department-based workshops and consultancies.

A key issue for educational developers and discipline specialists is how their respective expertise and skills can best be harnessed, and, where appropriate, integrated, to improve the quality of learning and teaching in subjects, departments and institutions (Jenkins, 1996b).

The development of subject networks in geography

Geography is one of the leading disciplines in the UK 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. Geography is one of the largest academic disciplines in the UK. In England, for example, there are 80 geography departments, with 1400 academic staff providing courses for over 20,000 students pa. Geography has a uniquely broad curriculum spanning the natural and social sciences, which means that geographers tend to be open to ideas from other disciplines and many of the teaching and learning practices developed in geography are potentially transferable to related disciplines. Arguably this willingness to accept ideas from outside the discipline makes geographers more open than many to ideas about educational development. Geographers are, nevertheless, as argued above, a tribe, and like members of other disciplines they have their own community, ways of looking at issues, and interests in defending their academic territory (Becher, 1989).

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 and although there is a substantial overlap in the membership and collaboration between several of the groups, the situation is, perhaps, best described as a federation of subject networks. The remainder of this paper focuses on four of these networks.1 They were chosen, in part, because of the personal involvement of the author with them, but also because they illustrate a cross-section of the different kinds of network in operation in the subject:

  1. The Journal of Geography in Higher Education (JGHE) is an internationally refereed journal, founded in 1977 by Alan Jenkins and David Pepper at what was then Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University). It is now published three times a year and provides a forum "to discuss common educational interests, to present the results of educational research, and to advocate new ideas" (inside cover of journal) (Jenkins, 1997; Pepper, 1997; Shepherd & Healey, 1994).
  2. The Higher Education Study Group (HESG) of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) was formally constituted in 1980 with the aim "to encourage concern for and research into teaching methods in geography" (Area, 13 (1) p. 38).
  3. GeographyCal® is a consortium of UK geography departments based at the CTI Centre for Geography, Geology and Meteorology (CTIGGM), University of Leicester. It was initially funded by the TLTP programme (1993-97) to develop CAL packages for undergraduate courses in geography (Healey et al., 1996; Healey et al., 1998). It is now funded largely by membership subscription and income from sales of CAL packages.
  4. The Geography Discipline Network (GDN) is a consortium concerned with the identification, development and dissemination of good practice in teaching, learning and assessment in geography in higher education; it originated as one of the DfEE Discipline Networks (1994-96) when it was based at Nene College Northampton; it moved to Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education when it obtained funding under the FDTL (1996-99) programme; more recently it has bid successfully under the DfEE Key Skills (1998-2000) programme (Gravestock & Healey, 1998; Healey & Gravestock, 1997; Healey & Gravestock, 1998; Matthews, 1996).

Issues facing subject networks

Many of the issues which affect subject networks also affect other forms of educational development. These arise from the political economy of higher education in a changing national and international context, and how policies are translated into practice within the different national and institutional contexts in which they are located. These include the relatively low status of teaching and learning in most universities and colleges; the relationship between teaching and research; and the quality assurance and assessment systems operating in the country (Healey, 1997; Healey, 1998b). Other issues are more specific to subject networks. Nine are illustrated below:

1) Establishing a subject network

This is largely dependent on the enthusiasm of a core group of individuals and their ability to inspire others, and persuade relevant authorities, usually the Head(s) of Department in which they are based, to give the necessary support. Minimal resources are required to organise workshops and conferences, unless these are to be large events, other than the willingness of one or two individuals to put in the time involved. The demand for a forum for discussion of higher education issues can quickly be ascertained in terms of the attendance at events. Greater resources may be required if the purpose of the group is to develop a 'product', such as a journal or a multi-media package, in which case it is important to establish the potential market. In the case of the geography networks identified above, both the HESG and JGHE developed from the interest of a group of individuals in the early 1970s in issues concerning geography in higher education. They established an ad hoc group entitled 'The National Council for Geography in Higher Education (NCGHE)'. The interest stimulated by this group was one factor leading to the establishment of the JGHE, as a "forum in print", "at which geography teachers can meet to discuss their common teaching interests" (Editorial Board, 1977, p.3). The success of the journal led to an agreement in 1980 for Carfax to publish it from the following year. 1980 was also the year in which the NCGHE was reconstituted into the HESG of the IBG, giving the group a formal structure within the learned society for geography in the UK. These events gave the JGHE and HESG networks both status and long-term support, enabling them to concentrate on developing and achieving their aims.

2) Developing the network

The skills required to develop a subject network differ from those needed to set it up in the first place. The emphasis needs to be placed on organisation skills and working as a member of a team. Generating good ideas for developing the network and effective leadership in putting them into action are also essential. The importance of these skills may be illustrated by examining how the JGHE operates. It is unusual for an academic journal in that it is very proactive. There are two editors supported by an Editorial Board, currently with 15 members, as well as an international Editorial Advisory Panel. Before JGHE was founded, few geographers had any experience of writing about teaching, learning and curriculum issues. Hence the joint editors and the Editorial Board, a team originally of c10 people, had to be active in encouraging authors to write for the journal. All papers submitted, as well as being refereed anonymously by two academics, were read by both editors and all the Editorial Board members. Most decisions were discussed at the Editorial Board meetings, held every three to four months. This process continued on similar lines for the first 17 years; the gradual growth in interest in writing about geography in higher education then enabled the journal to expand from two to three issues per annum. The Editorial Board was expanded and papers were divided between two, and later three, sub-groups of the Board. Editorial Board meetings now focus primarily on discussion of editorial business and new initiatives, with most decisions on papers being reached outside the meetings. A consequence of this process is that few papers are accepted in their original form and a relatively high proportion of submissions are rejected. The author(s) of each submitted paper are allocated to a member of the Editorial Board, who takes responsibility for seeing the paper through the editorial process. Where alterations are required or a resubmission is encouraged then a significant amount of advice and support is provided to the author(s).

Developing a subject network entails bringing in new members to run the network. A measure of the success of the JGHE and the HESG is that over the years there has been a steady flow of 'new blood'. There has usually been a fairly extensive overlap in the active membership of the these two groups and several members are also members of various other subject networks in geography. The consequence has been that a core group of people has emerged, whose membership changes slowly over the years. They share values about the importance of learning and teaching, and are used to working together on a variety of related educational groups. It was people from this core group who established the GDN and were successful in obtaining funding for geography in a series of competitive national programmes in the mid to late 1990s.

Most of the geography subject networks developed with minimal resources for many years. However, more significant resources are required to support IT-based subject networks, because of the cost of the equipment required and the need to employ people with appropriate IT skills. The Dearing Committee has called for an extensive programme of IT-based resource-based learning packages, but has recognised that few departments can afford the development costs (NCIHE, 1997 Appendix 2). Consortia are potentially more cost effective and the majority of the TLTP programme funds were invested in this way (e.g. GeographyCal®). However, despite the hype, the market for most IT-based discipline specific packages is not yet large enough to attract many publishers or software houses, and only a few of the IT-based discipline consortia have obtained the funds necessary to keep operational from this source.

3) Integrating curriculum and pedagogic issues

A feature of subject networks is that they are as much concerned with curriculum issues as they are with pedagogic issues. Among the issues commonly discussed in subject networks are the teaching of particular topics or sub-disciplines, and careers and employment links. For example, in the last four years the JGHE has published symposia on teaching economic geography (Healey & Clark, 1994) and teaching the philosophy of geography (Phillips & Healey, 1996). There have also been two symposia on developing employer links (Jenkins & Healey, 1995; Gardiner, 1998).2

Internal debates within the discipline about the content of the curriculum and the impact of national policies for teaching and research on the discipline are important in involving a wider group of staff than normal. Such debates often inevitably include discussion of pedagogic issues. For example, the HESG ran two workshops in 1993/94 on preparing for the Teaching Quality Assessment exercise, which attracted many academics, including heads of department, who would not normally attend an educational development session. The workshops included discussion of what constituted a good student learning experience and how this could be identified (Healey, 1994). The JGHE has also run symposia on assessing research (Thorne, 1993); the training of postgraduate research students (Bradford, 1994); and Dearing and geography (Chalkley, 1998).

Effectively integrating the curriculum and the pedagogy was a key issue facing the GeographyCal® project. The academic content of the CAL modules was authored by geographers across the consortium, while the programmers based at the University of Leicester were responsible for designing the screens. Many academics found it challenging to prepare effective CAL materials and each module panel was advised by someone, usually another geographer, experienced in writing for this medium. Particular attention was placed on developing active learning experiences and formative assessment exercises within the modules (Healey et al., 1996; Healey et al., 1998).

A number of educational developers have recognised the need to become involved with curriculum issues, though usually at the level of the department rather than the subject network. For example, Partington (1996, p.85) has argued that "Staff and educational developers need to consider carefully, (a) their roles in respect of support for curriculum development, and (b) their relationships with departments and schools and their possible 'consultancy' role."

4) Involving the discipline

Involving as many different discipline specialists as possible in events and activities is a major issue for subject networks, as it is for institutional-based educational development. One strategy to encourage wider ownership is to involve a large number of people and departments in the network. This was the approach adopted by the GeographyCal® consortium, comprising 72 institutions, covering approximately three-quarters of the geography departments in the UK. The widespread involvement of the discipline in the selection, development and testing of the products has helped to reduce the 'not-invented here syndrome', which has restricted the take-up of previous CAL products developed by one or two departments in isolation. Over the life of the TLTP project 130 individuals from 100 different institutions were involved in some form or other with GeographyCal®. There has been a high take-up of the products. At the time of writing 89 departments/institutions in the UK had obtained the GeographyCal® package, while another 14 departments outside the UK had purchased licences to use the materials.

Involving a cross-section of different types of institution is important to show them the relevance of the ideas to their situation. In the GDN FDTL project a cross-section of institutions was deliberately chosen to form a consortium of three old universities, three new universities and three colleges of higher education. Effective dissemination means using multiple channels of communication (Gravestock & Healey, 1998; Healey & Gravestock, 1997; Healey & Gravestock, 1998). For example, this has involved the GDN FDTL project in:

5) Avoiding insularity

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 is 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 of the roles of the Editorial Board is, where necessary, to make authors aware of key educational references. The involvement of educational developers as members of the GDN FDTL team has helped ensure that each of the guides the team is producing is put soundly in the context of the relevant educational research literature.

6) Internationalising the network

Another form of insularity which subject networks need to avoid is excessive concern with what is happening in their local patch. 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. The issue of internationalising the network has been tackled in different ways by the different subject networks under examination. As an international journal, writing for an international audience is a key issue for JGHE, particularly as two-thirds of its sales are outside the UK (Garcia-Ramon & Monk, 1997). The Editorial Guidelines ask authors "to generalise course- and institution-specific experience wherever possible; keep local terms and details to a minimum; and define or explain essential 'local' jargon and acronyms". With two-thirds of the authors coming from the UK, trying to encourage more papers from outside the UK is another important issue (Shepherd & Healey, 1994). This led in the mid-1990s to the appointment of Commissioning Editors for North America and for Australasia and for JGHE promotions to take place at the Annual Conferences of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG), and the New Zealand Geographical Society (NZGS). GeographyCal® and GDN have also promoted their wares at the AAG, and IAG/NZGS conferences (Gravestock & Healey, 1998; Healey et al., 1998). The selection of the GDN Resource Database by The Scout Report for Social Sciences in the USA, which aims to identify only the best Internet resources in the world, and the subsequent mailings on various international email discussion lists, led to the number of 'hits' on the GDN Web pages rising from an average of about 500 per week in January 1998 to over 1200 per week in March. The HESG has had occasional overseas speaker at its conferences, but has been the least proactive of the four networks in internationalising its activities.

7) Developing the scholarship of teaching and learning

Despite many calls for valuing and rewarding the scholarship of teaching (e.g. Abler et al., 1994; Boyer, 1990), "the very concept of a scholarship of pedagogy is still very unfamiliar to many university teachers" (Baume, 1996, p.4). What is needed is for "teachers in higher education to bring to their teaching activities the same critical, doubting and creative attitude which they bring habitually to their research activities" (Elton, 1987, p.50). Schulman (1993) argues that for teaching to be valued by discipline specialists it should be treated like research and be documented and open to peer review. It follows, according to Weimer (1997), that the same standards need to be developed for pedagogic journals as for other discipline journals, although different formats may be more suitable for reporting educational developments than are used for reporting findings in the 'mainstream' discipline journals. She goes on to argue that "pedagogical knowledge moves forward little when it is limited by the inappropriate research paradigms of a particular discipline" and that "high quality pedagogical scholarship should rest and build on a common knowledge foundation and should respect the need to learn from and with others" (Weimer, 1997, p.56). 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).

The discipline networks in geography have made some progress in developing the scholarship of teaching and learning and raising the standard of debate, but they still have some way to go. Twenty-two years of JGHE has ensured that it is acceptable to write about teaching of the discipline. The fact that some other 'mainstream' journals are beginning to accept papers on the pedagogy of geography in higher education is a tribute to the journal's impact. Encouragingly, many of the publications being produced by geographers are using frameworks derived from the educational literature on how students learn and what constitutes good practice (e.g. Gamson & Chickering, 1991; Kolb, 1984; Ramsden, 1992).

Jenkins (1997 p.13) points out that there are, however, "still lower standards of evidence and scholarship demonstrated in discussions about the teaching of geography than those of the discipline per se". This lack of professionalism, he argues, "reflects the lower status teaching and research on discipline-based pedagogy occupies vis--vis research on the discipline per se", and he does not feel that this will be resolved "until there are strong institutional and departmental policies and national requirements for rewarding and promoting excellent teaching and teachers". Jenkins provides a clear direction in which JGHE should strive to move, but there is a tension between trying to raise standards too quickly and, in the process, discouraging many discipline-specialists from writing (and reading) about teaching and learning. In the future, should the status of teaching and pedagogic research rise, there may be room for a specialised journal(s) for pedagogic researchers in geography to report their findings and another more 'popular' journal(s), which is used to evaluate teaching and learning experiences, report on educational resources, discuss topical issues and disseminate good practice to discipline specialists. Until then, JGHE is rightly attempting, to a large extent, to meet both functions.

8) Involving educational developers

Most subject networks are run by discipline specialists who are committed to developing and disseminating good educational practices in their discipline, and educational developers play little of no part. There are many reasons why this is the case, but two probably predominate: first, there is a lack of awareness by most discipline specialists of the potential contribution of educational developers; and, secondly, most educational developers do not prioritise involvement with subject networks. There are many benefits which educational developers can bring by being involved with subject networks including: The geography subject networks under examination have as yet only partly benefited from the contributions of educational developers. The principal educational developer involved with JGHE and other geography education networks has a background in geography (Alan Jenkins). It is exceptional to find research articles published jointly by geographers and educational developers (Charman & Fullerton, 1995; Gibbs et al., 1996). There are currently no educational developers on the JGHE Editorial Board (though there were one or two up until five years ago) or the elected committee of the HESG (though one educational developer, also with a geography background, has been co-opted this year); nor were there any on the GeographyCal® Management Committee. The 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. Although not all the educational developers have been able to make a full contribution, because of other commitments, 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; Healey and Gravestock, 1998).

9) Supporting the network

The final issue facing subject networks to be discussed here involves obtaining support to enable the network to operate effectively and to keep it functioning. This support can come both from within the discipline and outside and includes acquiring status and legitimacy, procuring advice and information, and securing resources. Obtaining many of these is dependent on establishing the right contacts. Networking the networks is an important skill in establishing and developing a subject network. This is particularly true for the networks set up under a limited life programme, because the project infrastructure often has to be established from scratch and much effort can be expended in searching for continuation funding.

Both the GeographyCal® and the GDN projects entail trying to involve as many geography departments as possible. The strategy both projects used was to write initially to the head of each geography department to obtain a contact person in each department. The experience of both projects has been that working through key individuals in departments has been the most effective way of engaging with departments. Legitimisation and status for both projects was achieved by procuring the support of the RGS-IBG and the Conference of Heads of Geography in Higher Education Institutions. Both projects are part of large funded programmes and a significant amount of central support was provided giving advice, workshops, conferences and networking opportunities with other funded projects. Other sources of advice and information have come from Steering Committees, colleagues in university geography departments, educational development units, learning centres and computer services; and colleagues working in the discipline in the secondary schools.

Both projects have sought further funding to keep the networks functioning. GeographyCal® obtained a year's extension to its funding from the TLTP, which enabled it to develop a business plan, seek a business partner, and keep at least part of the team together. After much searching, a set of agents (eg SciTech) and software publishers (Springer-Verlag and Research Machines) have been commissioned to help market the Phase I CAL modules outside UK higher education,3 although most of the marketing and distribution is still based at Leicester. Work has now begun on the development of the Phase II modules. A GeographyCal® Club has been established. The 21 departments, which have so far joined, pay an annual membership fee, for which they obtain various services and discounts on workshops and new products. There is a significant synergy in the project being located in a CTI Centre and the University of Leicester has been generous with the provision of facilities. The GDN does not have as marketable a product as GeographyCal®, although it will offer full-cost workshops and will seek to sell the GDN Guides, once the free copies have been distributed to geography departments in England and Northern Ireland. A more important strategy for seeking financial sustainability will be to bid for any further contracts which become available for which GDN is eligible. Its recent success in obtaining funding from the DfEE to investigate 'Key skills in geography in higher education' has given it continuation funding for a further 18 months.

Lessons for establishing and developing subject networks

Table 1 lists some general points, which arise from the above analysis, to consider in establishing and developing a subject education network, though not all of them are relevant to all networks. Clearly it is difficult to generalise the lessons to be learnt from a range of networks in one discipline in one country, because of the different disciplinary and national contexts facing other networks, which are at various stages of development, and have different functions and opportunities for funding.

Conclusion

The main argument of this paper is that cross-institutional subject networks are a valuable and under-used model of educational development, which complement the institutional and departmental-based models. Subject networks have the potential to be a particularly effective model for educational development, because it is to disciplines that most academics profess their primary allegiance. However, many subject educational networks in existence, suffer from several limitations. A lot are ad hoc bodies organised by a few enthusiasts. Many are insular, and have few contacts with other pedagogic subject networks, show relatively little awareness of the relevant educational literature, and even within their own discipline, rarely look beyond the state/province or nation in which they operate. Many are dependent on short-run programme funding or only have the resources to arrange occasional workshops and conferences. Nevertheless, the success of recent subject-based pedagogic programmes in the UK, including the CTI, TLTP, Discipline Networks and FDTL, has shown that, where some at least of these weaknesses begin to be addressed, subject networks can be effective for developing, disseminating and embedding innovation and good practice.

What is required now in the UK is to build on the experience of running this set of largely uncoordinated and mostly short-term teaching and learning development programmes and to institute a long term national programme of subject networks supported and funded through the HEFCs and/or ILTHE. The subject networks could form effective permanent teaching communities, which could coordinate all aspects of teaching the subject, including quality assessment and standards, the collation and dissemination of good practice, the use of technology, the development of key skills, and involvement in pedagogic research within the discipline. 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 theme of this Second International Conference of ICED, 'Supporting Educational, Faculty and TA Development within Departments and Disciplines', indicates a growing interest in subject networks as a model for educational development in several countries. As yet relatively few educational developers are currently actively involved with cross-institutional subject networks; but where the links do operate there are benefits for both parties. Educational developers can play various roles in subject networks including facilitating their development, working as members of the subject teams, and acting as consultants. Mechanisms need to be found, however, to make subject networks aware of the benefits of involving educational developers and to raise the priority that educational developers give to assisting subject networks. Bringing leaders of subject networks and educational developers together in workshops and planning joint projects would be a start. The joint meeting in Birmingham, UK in December 1997 of the FDTL and the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA), and the plans of the Open University to involve discipline-specialist tutors in their course for new university lecturers, indicates that this is already beginning to happen. In the long run, as more discipline-specialists become trained in educational development within their discipline, educational developers could return to emphasising their primary generic role. However, for the moment most subject networks would benefit from a more hands-on approach by educational developers. One model would be to match particular educational developers, based, where appropriately, on their previous disciplinary training, with particular subject networks. Educational development is moving into a new era in which there are considerable opportunities for discipline specialists and educational developers, who are willing to change their way of operating, to work together to develop cross-institutional subject networks to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the disciplines.

 

Notes

1 Among the other geography educational networks in the UK are the CTIGGM (Robinson & Castleford, 1996); education committees of the RGS-IBG and the Geographical Association; the Council of British Geography; and several other FDTL projects involving geography, such as the Geography for the New Undergraduate (Maguire & Bradley, 1998). There are, of course, many other networks, mostly concerned with research, which bring geographers together as well. Return to text

2 The first two symposia originated as HESG sessions at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference; the third one arose from a DfEE sponsored workshop; and the last one emanated from a GDN workshop. The initial idea of bidding for a disciplinary network in geography was first discussed at the DfEE workshop. The success of the subsequent bid led to the establishment of the GDN. These examples give another illustration of the importance of a core group working together on various initiatives associated with different networks. Return to text

3 As one of the conditions of funding, Higher Education Institutions in the UK can obtain all TLTP products at the cost of distribution. Return to text

 

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Table 1 Some points to consider in establishing and developing a subject educational network

1. Make as many contacts as possible with like-minded enthusiasts in the discipline in your state/province/ nation; build a core group as soon as possible and involve them in the establishment and organisation of the network's activities
2. Agree the main objectives for your network, develop an action plan with timescales and a clear division of responsibilities for their achievement; review and, where appropriate, revise your objectives and plans regularly
3. Start small, but think big; organising workshops and small conferences need not involve many resources
4. Seek wide support for your network by 'networking the networks'; obtain legitimacy and status by working with your subject's learned society or professional association and other key groups; make your network invaluable by, for example, organising workshops and conferences to discuss the subjects' response to government higher education initiatives
5. Integrate in the programmes of activities curriculum and pedagogic issues with topical issues of concern to the future of the subject
6. Take every opportunity to involve academics in the discipline in the network; identify and work through key individuals in university and college departments
7. Ensure that events and activities receive wide publicity and reports are written up and distributed widely; produce a newsletter; establish a subject network WWW site; and consider establishing a mailbase discussion list
8. Prepare guides to good practices in learning, teaching and assessment, written in an accessible and practical style, and containing plenty of case studies illustrating their implementation in your subject
9. Produce learning and teaching materials which can be adapted and used flexibly by lecturers and tutors in your subject
10. Publish subject based pedagogic research, conference proceedings, and bibliographies of discipline-specific educational literature; consider establishing a discipline educational journal, if one does not already exist
11. Ensure a high standard of scholarship in the way you write about and discuss the teaching of your subject; strive to raise the standard of other contributors
12. Seek funding to develop, identify and disseminate good practice in the learning and teaching of your subject
13. Establish links with other educational networks in closely related subjects and with networks in your subject in other countries; involve key people from related subjects and other countries in your activities
14. Contribute to generic educational conferences and workshops
15. Involve educational developers, particularly those with a background in your discipline, in the planning and implementation of your activities, including bringing them in to participate in events, work on projects, facilitate workshops, and to advise on and evaluate the development of the network
16. Encourage and prepare new members to take over the running of the network

 

List of Acronyms

AAG Association of American Geographers
AAHE American Association for Higher Education
CAL Computer Assisted Learning
CAUT Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching
CGCHE Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education
CTI Computers in Teaching Initiative
CTIGGM CTI Centre for Geography, Geology and Meteorology
DENI Department for Education Northern Ireland
DfEE Department for Education and Employment
FDTL Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning
GDN Geography Discipline Network
HEFCE Higher Education Funding Council for England
HEFCs Higher Education Funding Councils
HESG Higher Education Study Group
IAG Institute of Australian Geographers
IBG Institute of British Geographers
ICED International Consortium for Educational Development
ILTHE Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
JGHE Journal of Geography in Higher Education
NCGHE National Council for Geography in Higher Education
NCIHE National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education
NZGS New Zealand Geographical Society
RAE Research Assessment Exercise
RGS-IBG Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers
SEDA Staff and Educational Development Association
TLTP Teaching and Learning Technology Programme
TQA Teaching Quality Assessment


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