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Enabling education excellence through professional learning

24 May 2019 | Dr Sarah Floyd & Dr Roisín Curran As Ulster University launches its new Education Excellence Awards and Master’s in Higher Education Practice, Educational Developers and Lecturers in Higher Education, Sarah Floyd and Roisín Curran reflect on their strategies for enabling staff to develop and gain recognition for education excellence.

Getting my Senior Fellowship has enhanced my confidence in my own abilities and helped me realise the importance of my contribution to the educational experience in my institution, something I hadn't fully realised before I began this process.

Fellow - ENHANCE Professional Development Scheme

Planning for Education Excellence

Working in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice at Ulster University, we have a key role in enabling Ulster staff to develop and demonstrate teaching and learning excellence that impacts on our students. Similarly, to many universities this has involved a focus on initial professional development through an Advance HE accredited Post-graduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice, but since 2013 we have worked strategically to find opportunities for ongoing enhancement and engagement with professional learning. We understood the need to develop staff to be adaptable to a rapidly changing HE environment – locally, through changes to institutional strategy, and more widely through the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the growing professionalisation of the HE learning and teaching workforce. To achieve this we envisaged a model for professional development for education excellence that focussed on the following:

  • Individual excellence
  • Developing own excellence
  • Collaborative excellence
  • Profiling excellence

These have framed our decisions regarding the scope and nature of professional learning, development and recognition opportunities provided in support of Education Excellence. Critically important for our plans is the need to be inclusive for all staff involved in the student learning experience, and, to be accessible (a challenge for a geographically distributed institution). We saw the evolution of a joined-up strategy for professional learning as being a powerful and strategic vehicle for change.

Enabling Education Excellence through Dialogue

We made a conscious decision to maximise the use of dialogic opportunities as a trigger for ongoing engagement with learning and teaching and the development of meaningful communities of practice and professional relationships (Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009; Wenger, 2000). Through this we have seen greater engagement with SoTL; the surfacing and further development of more hidden academic leaders; knowledge and sharing of the range of effective, and at times, innovative practice going on around the university.

To motivate and engage staff with ongoing professional learning we needed to ensure that we offered a range of meaningful development and recognition opportunities. Some of these have included:

Recognition of Practice through HEA Fellowship

Our ENHANCE Professional Development and Recognition Scheme has been hugely successful. Since initial accreditation in 2012, it has recognised over 360 new fellows. This has led to internal targets for HEA fellowship being surpassed – by July 2018, 85% of relevant Ulster staff hold a category of HEA Fellowship. This includes diverse staff with, for example, all our hospitality technicians achieving AFHEA.  We are also delighted to have over 150 Senior Fellows across a broad range of disciplines. 

Fellows have commented on the experience:

“Engaging with colleagues on teaching practice is really rewarding as it makes you stop and consider the discussions that you might have 'in your head' as you are preparing teaching.” 

“Getting my Senior Fellowship has enhanced my confidence in my own abilities and helped me realise the importance of my contribution to the educational experience in my institution, something I hadn't fully realised before I began this process.” 

“Initially a reluctant participant, but by engaging in a transformational learning experience I am now one who fully appreciates the importance and significance of this recognition for leading, managing and teaching in a challenging and changing HE landscape” 

Recently awarded PFHEA, Dr Malachy O’Neill, Provost of our Magee Campus, reflected that “Teaching excellence requires constant nurturing of the partnership we’ve established with our student body, reflecting on needs and experiences and challenging each other to reach new levels of academic excellence.”

Using dialogue to assess our fellows, we have heard about the most amazing examples of education excellence and through achieving fellowship, staff have developed their self-confidence to share their approaches more widely and apply successfully for internal and external Excellence awards e.g. NTFS and CATE.

Rewarding Education Excellence

A key element of our strategy is to inspire and motivate staff to develop and showcase their teaching excellence, aligned to Ulster’s five & fifty Strategic Plan, ensuring that the value of teaching is explicit institutionally and that opportunities for reward are inclusive and equitable. A new suite of internal awards was launched recently with opportunities ranging from Excellence in Learner Support to Collaborative Excellence. The first recipients were awarded in June 2018 with several now being supported to consider external opportunities.

MEd (Higher Education Practice)

This Programme, which launched in early 2019, has been designed to provide opportunities to develop and recognise staff in pursuit of teaching and learning support excellence. It offers a certificated route for professional learning, in the form of a practice-based part-time master’s degree. The aims of the programme focus on building participant capability to:

  • navigate institutional policies, systems and practices and identify areas for enhancement;
  • further develop personal self-confidence to become active leaders within the University community;
  • proactively respond to sector factors, different positions and tensions in HE;
  • develop as solution-focused practitioners through the implementation of enhancement projects and initiatives.

One MEd module ‘Developing Excellence in Learning and Teaching’ has engaged a wide range of participants in reflecting on the concept of education excellence and how they can use this in developing self-agency in shaping their practice and career development as educators. Interesting debates have taken place exploring this through multiple lenses and viewpoints, including gathering data from students on their perspective.

Owen Barr, Professor of Nursing and a Principal Fellow says:

“For me teaching excellence is about enabling students to grow in their knowledge, skills and confidence, using all of this to make an impact in their area of practice”

“My students believe teaching excellence is about approachable educators who are accessible, knowledge and credible, and can provide clear examples of the application of theory to practical application”

Dr Shirley Barrett SFHEA, lecturer in International Business found that her students believe “teaching excellence is as much about the relational-supportive aspects of teaching as it is about subject expertise.”

Module participants have acknowledged the need to explore sector and discipline practice and to disseminate their own practice more widely. This is an ongoing challenge in increasingly busy lives where professional learning is often overlooked and undervalued. The new Advance HE Connect that will provide an accessible online community and networking platform for this.

Dr Sarah Floyd and Dr Roisín Curran are educational developers at Ulster University.

Sarah leads the institutional Advance HE accredited ENHANCE scheme. She has been an Advance HE accreditor and associate since 2012 providing support to many UK and international HEIs. Recent projects include exploring the use of dialogue in professional recognition and staff perceptions of engaging with fellowship.  

Roisín is Course Director for the MEd (Higher Education Practice) programme with a research interest in student engagement and has published papers on the impact of a ‘students as partners’ approach on staff student engagement.

Find out more about Advance HE Connect 

Advance HE Connect encompasses all aspects of HE, allowing instant communication with a worldwide network of HE peers.

Share. Connect. Collaborate.
  • Share your resources, ideas and research with dedicated groups and the wider community. Or start a group of your own!
  • Connect with other practitioners, communities and networks, both within the platform and when you are travelling.
  • Collaborate on projects, your areas of interest and on research, all from one central location.
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