Professional development for educators in higher education: A new organisational initiative

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Abstract

In 2022 the implementation of a new educational academy started at a large University College. The aim from the directive level is that this organizational unit shall lead and host professional development activities for all educators at the college covering campuses in seven cities offering professional bachelor programs for example in the fields of nursing, teacher education, business administration, engineering and computer graphics, and with around 2000 employees and 40.000 students. Hence, the strategic aim is to strengthen and systematize professional development by tightening together the until now decentral activities for associate professors and to innovate an existing mandatory program about teaching skills for assistant professors.
Professional development for educators in higher education is a field with a growing awareness internationally (Irby & O´Sullivan 2017; Swennen & White, 2021; Vanderlinde et al., 2021). A great deal is known about general criteria for teacher professional development including the importance of content focus, active learning, coherence, duration, and collective participation (Desimone, 2009). Furthermore, there is research addressing professional development for specific groups like teacher educators (MacPhail et al., 2018; Vanderlinde et al., 2021). MacPhail et al. (2018) emphasize the complex role as teacher educator compared with the typical minimal preparation and possibility for professional development pointing to the importance of the educators experiencing professional development through peer collaboration and to the inextricable link between teaching and research and, consequently, the need for educators to upskill in research skills. The issue about research skills is also highlighted referring to educators in medical education (Irby & O´Sullivan, 2017). Furthermore, some studies discuss the extended need for flexibility for the educators in higher education (Wynants & Dennis, 2018).
Starting from this research-based knowledge about professional development for educators could be one approach to analyze the implementation of the educational academy. Another approach would be to analyze the initiative as an organizational innovation with a range of stakeholders. The argument here is that a combined approach with both perspectives can help understand the possibilities, challenges, and tensions in such a complex large-scale initiative, contributing also with generic knowledge about how to organize professional development for educators at a higher education institution. Theoretically we refer to social learning theory and practice theory emphasizing the dialectic and dynamic relationship between social structure and human agency and focusing on the complex system of communities of practices and boundaries between them (Schatzki, 2006; Wenger-Trayner et al., 2015; Wilkinson & Kemmis, 2015). McGrath (2020) concludes based on research looking into academic development that structures and strategies at the organizational level are determent for the educators professional development highlighting potential challenges related to the culture of change within an organization, for example: structural challenges, perceived lack of opportunities to implement ideas, inability to mobilize theory into practice, lack of mandate, and different understanding of key concepts (McGrath, 2020, p. 102). Summing up, the research aim is to examine opportunities and challenges concerning the new educational academy as an organizational frame for professional development for the educators at the University College, both novice assistant professors and more experienced associate professors. The first phase of the research addresses the implementation starting before educational activities. The research question in this phase is: Which interests do various stakeholders express concerning the educational academy and what possibilities, challenges and tensions are identified by the stakeholders? The findings from this first phase are shortly presented below. In the next phase starting spring 2023 multiple cases of educational activities are examined with the following research question: How do the educators involved experience to be supported professionally? Finding from these case-studies will be included in the presentation at the conference.

Methods:
The research is designed as a sequential mixed method exploratory study (Cresswell & Clark, 2017) following two main phases. The data collection in first phase includes multiple qualitative data, e.g. documents formulated at the directive level, notes and presentations made by a the leader of the academy and focus group interviews exploring the various stakeholder interests and patterns of decision making during the initiation of the educational academy. In the subsequent phase of research the analyses of these first qualitative data inform the design of an online questionnaire for educators participating in various educational activities organized in the educational academy. The questionnaire includes both closed items and open-ended questions following the methodology of qualitative surveys (Braun et.al., 2021). Data collection in phase 2 will furthermore include concurrent qualitative data from the context of multiple case-studies (Yin, 2018). Cases are sampled with both bright new types of educational activities, for example related to learning communities and the SoTL approach as described in the steering documents, and educational activities in the redesigned and innovated program for assistant professors.
The qualitative data-generation in phase 1 started with a semi-structured interview performed September 2022 with the leader of the educational academy and analysis of the various steering documents and the process of developing these across autumn 2022. Subsequently various groups of stakeholders in the initiative were identified (Mitchell, Agle & Wood, 1997), and three semi-structured focus group interviews were performed December 2022 with leaders and educators sampled to represent variation across fields of responsibility in the organisation, attachment to the various professional bachelor programs mentioned in the introduction and geographic variation across campuses. The three focus groups included respectively leaders at lower levels in the organisation, educators without leading responsibilities and other stakeholders. The same interview guide was used in the three online focus group interviews addressing: 1) Their knowledge about and anticipations for the educational academy, 2) How their present work assignments might be affected, and 3) Their perspectives on the theme of professional development for educators in higher education in general and at the university college in particular.
The data was analysed by reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Braun et al., 2018), with two researchers analysing first each interview and them formulating themes covering possibilities, challenges and tensions across interviews.

Conclusions (300 ord):
The initiative of the educational academy came as a surprise for stakeholders beyond the top direction. It wasn’t discussed with neither leaders at lower levels nor educators before the advertisement for a leader primo 2022. The new leader initiated a range of stakeholder meetings until autumn 2022 where the steering documents were presented to and subsequently adopted by the direction. In the interview during these processes the leader in the rationale for the approach to the upcoming activities refers to both international research and own initial inquiries. A design thinking approach is applied, and an overall organization of the educational activities with learning communities and scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is described in the steering documents. Furthermore, the strategic aim of micro-credentials for educators is highlighted. Both leaders and educators in the focus groups welcome the educational academy pointing to the need for professional development in particular for associate professors where the possibilities like emphasized by MacPhail et al. (2018) until now have been scarce. There are however some tensions concerning the existing program for assistant professors being phased out, and boundaries between the academy and previous responsibilities for educational development. Furthermore, concerns in relation to description of structures (like e.g. SoTL) coming before discussion of content are raised, and tensions due to the large variation across educations are foreseen highlighting a subtle balance between generic themes and approaches in educational activities targeting all educators and specific support due to needs in the very different educational cultures. The analyses point to the central issue of the mandate (McGrath, 2020) and legitimacy for the new leader in this complex initiative with many different stakeholder interests and anticipations. Analyses of the first educational activities are addressing the meaning-making and possibilities for professional learning for different types of educators and educational cultures.

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Original languageEnglish
Publication date2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023
EventECER 2023 - Glasgow University
Duration: 22 Aug 202325 Aug 2023

Conference

ConferenceECER 2023
LocationGlasgow University
Period22/08/2325/08/23

Keywords

  • management, organizational development and innovation

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