What’s in a name?
John Hilsdon (2011) described Learning Development as a ‘complex set of multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary academic roles and functions’ encompassing a great range of educational activities. This complexity may explain why Learning Developers can face confusion from staff and students when they try to articulate what it is they do and what ‘Learning Development’ means. We often find ourselves described as ‘academic/study skills’ or ‘learning support’. These are seemingly concrete and tangible terms that, to many, may paint a clearer picture. Unfortunately, such terms are inadequate, being both reductive and somewhat patronising. This is due to the complexity of Learning Development, which seeks to empower and achieve authentic collaboration. Furthermore, when we purposefully strive to empower students to question, and to consider their role and purpose in learning, this can run counter to the expectations of those stakeholders (staff and students) who are looking for prescriptive tricks and top tips. When a student arrives for an appointment and expects to be told the right way to study, they can be sorely disappointed. We try to explain that our aim is to work alongside our students to facilitate genuine learning and that we grow with them through this challenge. But where does this ongoing misunderstanding leave Learning Development, and articulating our sense of self? As Ian Johnson (2018, p. 18) argued, the Learning Development community share a common ambition ‘to be visible and understood.’ How could we, as a team at Lancaster, continue to promote understanding of what Learning Development do, and who we are?
Existing between spaces
For many years prior to the CATE submission, the Learning Development team had worked hard to develop and articulate their ethos and identity at Lancaster University. Consequently, the roles had grown, taking on more responsibility and influence. As is often the case, Learning Developers exist and operate across different spaces and this can make the role seem multifarious. This, with the absence of a disciplinary home, can exacerbate ambiguity and lead to a perception of low status and value. However, through expert leadership, dedicated and deeply collaborative faculty-based work, as well as the creation of safe spaces for conversation, the team developed a language to articulate their expertise, value and professional identity. Some of these articulations prompted recognition. For example, the team were able to expand with specialised Maths and Stats provision, as well as centralised teaching of English for Academic Purposes. But still, the significant progression in understanding, which can happen between Learning Developer and student, or Learning Developer and academic staff member, remained a shadowy type of experience that was difficult to explain in precise terms. The team still sought recognition for the work in those in-between spaces and for the unified ethos that they were working to express across the University and further afield.
CATE as an exploration
We actively sought channels to help articulate and recognise impact, and CATE seemed a perfect opportunity. Advance HE advocated identifying the ‘gems’ in our work, with a tight focus on collaboration. This immediately refocused us not just to think about, for example, attendance numbers and quantifying our existence, but how collaboration was fundamental to our successes and our work. The collaboration, itself, was success. Who did we work with? How were students considered partners? What skills and experience did we draw upon to create a learning event? The bank of evidence began to grow. The process of writing the CATE submission suddenly felt like an opportunity to hold up a light and illuminate all those outstanding examples of collaboration. This light allowed us to see a deep value in them. Through our emerging articulation, ‘soft skills’ began to feel like expertise and not just a shadowy add-on that somehow made things work.
But what about those criteria in the CATE guidance that we felt less certain of? For example, our impact on academic colleagues, the extent to which our student mentors considered themselves active creators, or how far our influence extended beyond the Bailrigg campus? We nervously reached out to colleagues and students, both locally and in international partners, to ask if they could share any thoughts or reflections on our collaborations. The responses were truly affirming and made us aware, as we had not been before, of the influence of our expertise and the worth of our collaborations. It was clear that to our staff and student partners, our activities were not in the shadows. Selecting and editing our gems for the application, despite being a very challenging task, provided our team with an empowering awareness of precisely how we collaborate, and how much this collaboration is valued. It also left us with new future directions to pursue – including greater articulation of those gems, which had been brought into light, and an improved awareness of how we were working together to achieve the same goals.
CATE as representation
Winning a CATE represents a great deal for us. Learning Development are the first team at Lancaster University to receive this recognition. The application feedback commented on the clear evidence of authentic partnership and empowerment, leading to transformational change. Lancaster’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education (Professor Wendy Robinson) said, ‘to receive this accolade is evidence that the team are not only a hugely important source of support for our students at Lancaster, but demonstrate that their approach is sector-leading.’ This feels as if we have found a means and a language to articulate the work that goes on in those in-between spaces. Recognition that we empower others, has truly empowered us.
However, there remains work to be done. Learning Developers, and their counterparts across HE, continue to struggle for recognition and reward, notably in the form of designated time for scholarship and realistic progression opportunities. The value of our work should not just be made real in an award, it should also be better reflected in our job descriptions, considered in workloads and reflected in pay scales and promotion pathways. We hope CATE stands as an example of how Learning Development can be understood and valued, and that this helps pave the way for improved recognition for those of us who work in the in-between spaces in HE.
This blog was written by Dr Sarah Ann Robin with input from the Learning Development team at Lancaster.