The Core of Learning Development

The Community Keynote at ALDinHE this year looked at gathering views on the professionalization and accreditation of Learning Development work. I found it a very stimulating debate, and one that needs to happen, even if it brings to light some uncomfortable tensions. There was quite a diversity of opinion and some strong feelings, which is inevitable when you consider that one of Learning Development’s strengths is the sheer range of different backgrounds and skillsets we come from and the contexts we practice in. The Professional Development Working Group’s plans aim to foster and celebrate that diversity – we each bring parts of the jigsaw to our work, and the PDWG’s aim is to celebrate that, accredit what we each bring and help us collect the other jigsaw pieces to complete the picture.

However, with this diversity raises the question yet again of what is a learning developer? I was recently asked to come up with a definition, and it’s a real challenge. If you understand the term in its broadest and most inclusive sense, you end up with ‘Learning Development’ as a fancy synonym for teaching; after all, isn’t anyone who works in education “developing learning”? But that would leave us with a professional body and conference whose remit is so watered down that it serves no useful purpose. Learning Development is a specific role and deserves to be recognised and supported.

So what’s at the core of learning development? We work in such varied contexts that any attempt to pin down what a learning developer is, is going to run into trouble. Perhaps we can then establish a core meaning which is meaningful enough to mark out our role distinctly from anyone who generally ‘develops learning’, but also has a number of variables which doesn’t exclude those of us who work in varied, occasionally diametrically opposed, contexts.

So: if I might propose a core definition of Learning Development, as inclusive yet as distinctive as I can make it:

  • We are student-facing. We are the flipside of educational development (a profession which seems to have got past this phase of self-determination), who are staff-facing. We may take on some educational development function in the course of our work as LDers, and this makes perfect sense as it is the flipside of the coin, but staff-facing work does not define Learning Development as it does Educational Development (as represented by SEDA).
  • We are outside the subject curriculum – it is not our curriculum. We do not impart and assess a body of subject knowledge;  we help students to develop their own skills and understanding of learning in a way that works for the individual student in the context of their studies. We may work within the curriculum in embedding what we do in the disciplines, but they aren’t our discipline (even if we do happen to have a degree in that subject, that isn’t the capacity in which we’re acting on this occasion).
  • Our remit is study skills (we hate that term, but it’s hard to find an alternative which has any common currency!). In some cases these may be defined slightly more narrowly as those study skills associated directly with writing, largely as this is the medium in which learning manifests and is assessed, or more broadly as those which encompass the other parts of the process which may result in or impact on study such as reading or time management. Largely this can be summed up as academic literacies and assessment literacies, with some ‘soft skills’. There may be some crossover into information literacies or digital literacies.
  • The activities we engage in are one to one work, workshops and creating resources. Each practitioner may have a different balance depending on their career stage, institutional context, and the make up of the rest of their team. Some more senior LDers may be taking on a heavier workshop load and may be doing little to no one to one work – or a learning development team may allocate these activities to different team members. Others may be working on projects and mostly or exclusively doing online resource development. For some, one-to-one work may be disseminated through Student Mentors (Peer Assisted Learning) rather than directly delivered. But all of these activities are core to LD.
  • Our professional body is ALDinHE. We are members individually or institutionally, and/or are part of the community on the LDHEN list. If we have specialisms, we may also be affliliated to other professional bodies such as BALEAP, CILIP, SEDA, VITAE, SIGMA, ALT, BDA, ETAW etc.

Other roles, such as subject lecturers, educational developers or learning technologists, may incorporate some of these elements into their jobs, but this IS our job.

The variables:

  • Our job titles. As the profession hasn’t yet coalesced and the term we favour, Learning Development, hasn’t attained currency beyond our profession, we’re called whatever our employing university sees fit to call us, and we may not like our job titles much!
  • Our context: we are generally, but not always, located in a central service. This might be student services, alongside counselling, disability support and international student advice, or it may be in an academic division such as the library or learning and teaching, alongside librarians, educational developers or learning technologists. Sometimes, though, we are located in a faculty, like a liaison librarian might be, or within a specific school, though this starts to cross the boundary into subject lecturing and these practitioners may not identify as LDers but as academics.
  • Our status: Generally we are not on academic contracts, but professional support or academic related. Some of us are on academic contracts, with a research remit, however.
  • Our specialisms: Some of us work with all students: in all subjects, at all levels, and from all cohorts – others work with a particular part of the cohort (for example international students, Widening Participation, PhD students or 1st year undergraduates in transition to HE. Some of us may work with all study skills, others may focus on an area such as writing or maths and stats.
  • Our remit beyond the core activities: May include marking work, setting assignments, research, management, staff development, curriculum design, training student PAL leaders, mentors and reps, and many other activities!
  • Our perception of what we do: Learning Developers come from a diverse range of professional backgrounds, qualifications and experiences, and quite naturally have different perspectives on how to conceptualise the nature of the role we play and the expertise required to fulfil it.

This is a working definition – its aim is not to exclude anyone who identifies as a learning developer and I am sure there are aspects I have overlooked! My aim is to start to develop a meaningful way to identify a discrete role, ‘Learning Development’, within Higher Education and I would very much welcome feedback and challenges to help me refine this definition further. My fear is that unless we do so, unless we clearly carve out the particular niche we occupy, then the distinct, highly skilled and valuable contribution we make becomes invisible and we become very vulnerable to losing status, losing the rationale for our work, and even losing our jobs!

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2 Comments

Filed under Learning Development, Professionalism

2 responses to “The Core of Learning Development

  1. What I also believe is that LDers should lobby to put their practice at the heart of what good HE practice ‘is’ – I think that we need to be a dsicipline – and one that it is essential for all HE lecturers to have cognisance of.

    When I studied the philosophy of education, I read Paul Hirst on the Forms of Knowledge – that each discipline had their own forms, modes, shapes – what we might call epistemological practices. I had to write an essay on that – and I remember thinking even then that it was okay – if a bit rigid (ah – was I a proto-Foucauldian even then?).

    So – I’ve just checked with wikipedia – the all knowing and they say:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discipline_(academia)

    I suppose what I like about the notion of discipline is that it has an academic base – even if I think that that base should be permeable, even multi- and inter-disciplinary – rather than an us/them professional/laity split.

    What I really want is an HE system completely shaped and informed by learning development disciplinary knowledge.

    Just as we can have the Sociology of Education, the Philosophy of Education and the Psychology of Education – so I want a field or discipline that is the Learning Development of Education – though, admittedly, that title does not work so well!

    That is my hope, that, yes, all discipline staff could also be learning developers – in that they should all be informed by Learning Development theory and practice – just as they should ideally all be informed by the sociology, philosophy and psychology of education.

  2. … and just in case someone says – well – isn’t that what Education Development (in HE) is? I say no! ED is the generalist theory and practice of teaching and learning in HE – ours is much more specific than that… the difference between Gove’s theory on Education and Freire’s.

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