The many hats of a Learning Developer

Learning Development’s a varied job- we’re never bored! Every hour could bring a different student, studying a different discipline with a different need. And, I’d argue, we too are different each hour in response.  

I’ve addressed the question of what is a learning developer from various angles, but this time I’d like to look at how we’re more than just one thing. In our work, we play a number of roles, and wear a number of hats, depending on what suits the circumstances.  At the ALDinHE Regional Development day at Newcastle University back in January, and again at a meeting of National Teaching Fellows in LD hosted by Sally Brown and Giskin Day at Imperial College, I encouraged participants to explore this diversity with an activity which looked at their responses to a number of roles. I distributed a number of cards, each with a different hat on. Those hats each had a different label: Teacher. Trainer. Coach. Mentor. Critical Friend. Adviser. Tutor. And so on. There were about 15 hats in all- I’m sure there could be more. 

I asked the participants to discuss each of the roles- how they reacted to those terms, what the distinctions between the roles were, which they felt were a good fit for Learning Developers, which could be adapted to fit us, and which don’t really suit us so much. They were then arranged into a hierarchy. The diversity of the discussion in itself demonstrated that there’s no single core identity, and that we feel that a number of roles might apply to us. Some of us might feel more drawn to certain roles due to our previous professional backgrounds – some felt that ‘teacher’ suited them best, others that ‘guide’ or ‘critical friend’ was a better fit. But there was general agreement that no one of those roles encompassed all of LD work. 

I feel that a good learning developer consciously occupies different roles in their work according to the varying need. Sometimes we are teachers- we have knowledge that the students don’t, and our role is to impart it to them. Sometimes we are coaches – it’s the students themselves have the knowledge of their own subject and their own practice, and our role is to facilitate their reflection on that. Sometimes we’re guides, exploring new territory alongside the student. Sometimes we’re just sounding boards. Each role comes with a different set of strategies to help develop the student’s learning, and each might be appropriate or inappropriate in different circumstances. 

There is therefore not a heirarchy but a spectrum of roles which runs from something akin to a teacher at one end, to something which is more like a counsellor at the other, and at each end, it’s rooted in where knowledge lies – knowledge and the agency that goes with it.  

At one end of this spectrum, the knowledge lies with us. It might be knowledge of pedagogy – what marking criteria mean, how people learn, what plagiarism is, technical aspects of grammar – which the student does not possess. We determine and impart what the student needs to know. In these circumstances, we wear our Teacher hats, and use strategies appropriate to this role. On another occasion, a student might want our feedback on how a draft is reading, whether a dissertation proposal makes sense, or how well their presentation style comes across, in which case we don’t need to impart knowledge, we need to become mentors, modelling good practice, sharing our views and experience as senior peers. In other cases, a student might want advice on how to manage their time, or be confident which essay question to choose, which revision strategies might work best, or how to get better marks in their engineering report writing. In these cases, we don’t have the answers at all – and this is because this expertise actually resides with the student – they know themselves best, they’ve read more engineering reports than we have! We put our coaching hat on, asking questions to help them come to their own conclusions from their tacit knowledge. And sometimes – rarely, but just sometimes, we just listen. Like a counsellor, we use active listening, mirroring and silence as the student simply talks themselves into their own decisions or understanding, with the odd ‘uh huh’ or ‘right’ from us. 

Being a learning developer is having a range of hats to wear, and knowing the right occasion to bring them out.  

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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!

What is a Learning Developer?

‘I’m a Learning Developer’.

It’s not easy explaining what you do. Friends and acquaintances will gain only a hazy idea from this term, teachers and lecturers may feel that they, too, develop learning, don’t they? and colleagues in other student services such as English for Academic Purposes or Librarians may be on the defensive, as you describe in more detail what you offer: ‘but we teach that!’.

I’m fascinated by and enjoy interprofessional working – I love finding out how other colleagues work and how they conceptualise what they do – those glimpses into the arcane knowledge of another profession. Since Learning Development in large part arose from those professions – counselling, disability support, English for Academic Purposes, librarian information literacy teaching, subject teaching – it’s hard to situate what we do as distinct, which can muddy waters for staff and students, and lead to tensions in interprofessional working.

But I think it is distinct. My gut reaction is that what I do as a Learning Developer is different to what I did when I was a subject lecturer who took an interest in developing my students’ study skills alongside their discipline knowledge. It’s different from the approach I observe in other professions even when they’re teaching topics which ostensibly also fall on ‘our patch’, such as writing or referencing. My view is that these approaches and the different professional perspectives that they emerge from are valuable, complementary and holistic, and the more we work together and understand what we can each bring, the better. However, to really make the best use of this collaboration, we need to have a clearer articulation of what each role brings. If we reduce it, discipline-style, to study skills topics, and carve it up between us as a curriculum, we’re going to lose so much. Better, I think, to try to capture what it is about the approach characteristic of a Learning Developer, alongside those of other professions, so we can see what lens each brings to bear on our shared central goal of helping our students learn effectively.

For me, Learning Development is what can occur in the space which opens up when we step away from formal assessment. I’ve been a subject teacher- albeit one very interested in developing her students’ study skills, but when I took on a learning development role outside subject teaching, even when discussing the same study skills, often with students from the same discipline as my former one, I realised that students were interacting with me differently, we were able to achieve something a little bit different that I couldn’t have done in my former role.

For me, the key difference was this: students knew I wasn’t formally assessing them. I wasn’t giving them grades or marks, passes or fails; telling them what was correct and what was incorrect. I was simply working with them to explore their learning, not my subject discipline. I was encouraging them to explore their own goals and standards, not meet mine. I didn’t hold the curriculum; the students held the agenda. Learning development is intrinsically non-judgemental. As a subject lecturer, my teaching was by definition judgemental (in the most supportive and well-intentioned way!). We do assess as Learning Developers, of course, all the time – it’s one of our tools to see if students’ learning is developing, to gauge their progress and the effectiveness of the strategies they’re using, but this is formative, informal and ungraded. We’re also an outsider to the discipline. We don’t prescribe, we help students describe what they see in their discipline’s study conventions, and make their own decisions based on those observations. We can of course suggest what may be more or less effective, but we’re then acting as mentors, not teachers. It’s not our role to hold the answers, and that can liberate both us and the students.

One to one work with students is, as Murray and Glass (2011) note, central to learning development work. However, I don’t think that this is because one to one tutorials are the definitive format for that work; Learning development isn’t one to one work. Lecturers, pastoral tutors, counsellors, librarians, all see students one to one in some developmental capacity, and we also offer group sessions, online learning, any format that helps us achieve the purpose. Instead, I think one to one work is at the core of Learning Development work as that is the space where we can most clearly step away from formal assessment, outside the long-established norms of the lecture hall, or seminar room, the academic’s office surrounded by their books. Embedded learning development is effective and important, but I think even there, we bring a little of that outside, non-judgemental space with us into that context, and that’s what makes it learning development even when we teach as part of a subject module. That’s what we bring that the subject lecturer can’t.

To me, then, a defining characteristic of the learning developer is that we do not formally mark student work. Learning development is a very loosely defined and diverse role, and many of us are based in faculties, closely involved in subject teaching, indeed may have dual roles as lecturers and learning developers. Many of us who identify as learning developers may then find themselves disagreeing with this definition. I would absolutely not want my understanding of the role to be exclusive or divisive however – that would be completely counterproductive.  I think the resolution of this tension lies in a return to the question, posed by Murray and Glass (2011) of whether we are a community of practice or a profession.

My response is that we are primarily a profession, for reasons I’ll explore in another blog post. A Learning Developer in this sense would be the one I outline above. However, I think learning development can at the same time be a community of practice – the distinct perspective, expertise and skills of the learning developer can of course be adopted and brought to bear by those in other roles to a greater or lesser extent by carefully managing that switching between assessing and non-assessing roles. But when you formally assess, that learning development space is closed off, and it can be tricky to open up again when needed, as you’re changing the relationship you have with the students, from learning developer to lecturer and back. Fully embodying that characteristic non-judgemental value is hard in this circumstance.

Operating outside formal assessment, and as an outsider to the curriculum has opened that space up for me and my students, and the really interesting thing is – I’d say that’s where a great deal of my expertise as a Learning Developer has come from. Students have shared their insights and concerns with me in that space in a way they never felt able to when I was a subject lecturer, and I’ve learned an awful lot from them that my teacher training never gave me access to. That’s a distinct and valuable expertise I can bring to interprofessional work with colleagues in other roles, and enables me to work in a different and characteristically learning development way.

 

Murray, Linda and Glass, Bob, 2011. ‘Learning Development in Higher Education: Community of Practice or Profession?’ in Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Christine Keenan, Sandra Sinfield and Michelle Verity, eds. Learning Development in Higher Education Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. 28-39.

Being a proper professional

EDIT: this post was written while I was working on short term contracts at Cambridge University.

I’m not a librarian, I’m… I’m a learning developer, a teacher, an academic, I’m lots of things. I’m a member of a profession so new that I’m still not sure how to handle that awkward silence at parties when people ask me what I do. I’m also in some ways a rather peripheral member of that profession, as I work at a very old institution, Cambridge University, which does not as yet have any formal learning development provision, so I am piecing together bits of things that together, I hope, allow me to continue developing as a professional in a coherent way, rather than just someone who hoovers up any work going, although with the short-term contracts I’ve been working on, eating and paying the rent is also a concern.

It’s not been all that long either since there has been a professional body for learning developers. It grew organically out of a JISCmail list, LDHEN, and very quickly became ALDinHE, the membership association for anyone who works in learning development in Higher Education. We have an annual conference, regional events, a journal, and of course there is still the very active mailing list at the heart of it. Although a very young body supporting a very young profession, ALDinHE has been an invaluable support in my work as a very young learning developer. It’s one of the friendliest, most active and inclusive groups I’ve been involved with- and I have this on good authority from two librarian colleagues with whom I presented at the ALDinHE conference this year, who both decided that if this was LD, they wanted in!

But it’s still early days for ALDinHE. I recently joined their steering group for professional development, having initially been reluctant as I didn’t feel that my rather precarious and tenuous job situation made me a ‘proper’ Learning Developer. Having rethought this though, I decided that it was people in my position who might really benefit from coherent and formally recognised professional development, as well as those lucky ones who have that title on their permanent job contract… Joining the steering group has been a chance for me to think about what I need from a professional development body, and play a small role in making that happen.
So, what would I like from my professional association? Now’s a good time to get involved and make things happen! ALDinHE’s origins in a JISCmail list and naturally friendly and lovely members means that networking has been a major feature from the start. If I need ideas for a workshop, thoughts about good practice or advice on how to handle a situation, there is no lack of generous colleagues to help out. The conference and journal also help me showcase my work and give me a forum for credible publication.

One thing which would be useful,especially given the often temporary and part-time nature of many of our jobs, is some kind of professional acknowledgement or recognition of my particular expertise, which I can take to universities as part of a job application or appraisal. Its as if without a piece of paper saying “Learning Developer”, then my entitlement to call myself such depends on my job title. I have a PGCE, so I feel I can say I am a teacher; I have a PhD, so I can say I’m an academic or researcher, but my own professional definition at the moment rests with my employer, and whether they recognise my expertise, which at the moment, they don’t. Learning Developers at the moment come from all backgrounds- teaching, EFL, disability support, librarianship, counselling etc etc, and something to tie this together into a coherent profile would be great. It would also allow me to make the case for my employer to pay for further professional development to complete my profile- I’ve always felt that a basic qualification in counselling would be invaluable. I’m not sure what form this accreditation or qualification or whatever would take- perhaps something along the lines of the HEA. Speaking of which *cough* the HEA is another professional body I’ve been meaning to get around to joining. I had a summer job once, phoning round universities to ‘sell’ the ILT (now the HEA), and believe me, I know the advantages- I had to reel them off down the phone to sceptical university administrators! I will get around to it, I will. Soon. When I have time….

Joining the ALDinHE steering group for professional development has been a great experience. So now I get the chance to work towards some of the things I’ve been talking about! I’m going to run a version of the 23things programme for them, and have been making extensive notes of my experiences here!