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Raising the profile of Learning Development

16 Aug 2019 | Dr Helen Webster Dr Helen Webster is Head of Newcastle University’s Writing Development Centre and a National Teaching Fellow 2019. In this blog she discusses her Learning Development practice and how institutions can best support this emerging profession.

I’m more thrilled than I can say about this news – I got a National Teaching Fellowship! The claim I made was built around values-driven, ethical, theorised and expert Learning Development practice. I’m aware that in an age of decreasing budgets and increasing student numbers, it can look like an expendable luxury, so to have this approach validated as best practice by a National Teaching Fellowship is incredibly affirming.

Learning Development is a relatively new profession, and it is also relatively poorly understood. Learning development services are often set up with a remedial remit of fixing surface issues and so-called ‘transferable skills’ with those students deemed to be ‘weaker’. This target group is often framed in socio-cultural ways: widening participation, BAME, international, etc, and the service set up to support them is often naively framed in terms of ‘study skills’ rather than academic literacies (see Lea and Street, 1998), as delivering advice and guidance on technical matters rather than facilitative teaching and empowering learning. This is where it’s vital that the learning development service, by accident if not design, should recruit a professional Learning Developer who is steeped in the relevant pedagogy and scholarship and brings expert knowledge in how learners learn.

Not only can a professional learning development service support retention and progression and enhance the student experience, but we can also add value to the teaching and learning culture of an institution. A service which is embedded in academic literacies and emancipatory approaches can offer one of the few spaces in which students can really speak freely and without judgement of their experience of teaching and learning. Not only do students value this, but it positions Learning Developers as the canary in the coalmine – we can give a front-line heads up of the issues arising, help to interpret why they are happening and suggest what to do about it. We can build this insight into our own teaching practice, but also feed it back on a number of levels to colleagues, whether that is advising a personal tutor on how to support a student, a module leader on why a number of students on their course have been found to have plagiarised or even just got lower marks on an assignment than expected, or helping with scaffolding academic literacies into study skills modules through co-designing them with colleagues.

We can support the work of our educational development colleagues, who work with teaching as it could or should be; our remit is teaching and learning as it currently is and we can feed our experience of the students’ eye view into helping them design CPD for academic colleagues. We can lead or collaborate on major university teaching and learning projects, infusing them with our particular perspective as intermediaries between staff and students. We can advise on university policy on teaching and learning issues and support institutional strategies on feedback, retention and progression, mental health, inclusive practice and a whole host of issues, pushing for student-centred and empowering approaches. All of this went into my claim for a National Teaching Fellowship, and it was great to see it recognised.

Professional learning development is a huge asset to a university and we need support to fulfil our work. Firstly, a more coordinated, informed approach to recruiting us is needed. Unlike more established professions, especially those whose practitioners are accredited by a professional body, our job descriptions are written in a very ad hoc, local way, with each institution reinventing the wheel as they see it, with enormous variation not just in our job titles and institutional location, but in the way the role is conceived. If institutions create our job descriptions with full awareness of all that we could contribute to an institution, it would be an enormous help.

Secondly, we need a commitment to supporting our development, individually and as a service. The lack of a bespoke qualified route into the profession means it is inevitable that we will come from different backgrounds. This is no hindrance to us if we are supported in enhancing our profile with other qualifications and training that would round us out into Learning Developers. I’ve put a lot of effort into this myself, sometimes being resourced for training, but very often self-taught where such resourcing was not forthcoming. The contributions I’ve made to the scholarship of Learning Development have also been under my own steam, as research isn’t part of my contract. This is great, but it’s largely done on our own time and is all but invisible on the CV and in practical terms really limits what we can achieve. Turning this into training for new LDers for ALDinHE was a huge part of the case I made for the NTF, as was the fact that I was one of the first ALDinHE Certified Leading Practitioners of Learning Development. Let us also innovate and develop our services in line with our expertise, listen to how we want to shape our provision and why – we know what we’re talking about!

Thirdly, there should be a determination to include our voices in discussions at every level. Like many professional support services, those of us who are not on academic contracts are often perceived as lesser than our academic colleagues, and the huge amount we have to contribute can be overlooked. If we’re just seen as nice ladies (and there is a gender imbalance in the profession, with all the issues of low status that feminisation of a profession brings with it) who are nice to the poor students, the vast expertise we can offer is not going to be picked up on. We teach, many of us engage in scholarship, and we are as involved in admin as many of our academic colleagues. The more freedom we have to engage in those activities, the more we can contribute, whether that’s helping review modules or programmes, contributing to the professional development of colleagues across the institution, demonstrating impact and enhancing the student experience on a wider scale or influencing university policy or strategy at the highest level. So invite us in, listen to what we have to contribute, make the most of us! The NTF is already giving me that platform within my own institution, but an institutional teaching award will also help raise our profiles and help us contribute our voices.

And that’s my final point – recognise us! Even if we are on professional services contracts, we are expert teachers, so make sure that institutional teaching awards include our eligibility, nominate us for them and show us off! We’ve got so much to contribute, and recognition like an institutional or national teaching award is a validation that our universities really understand and value what we do. There are already a few Learning Developers who are recognised at this level – here’s to many, many more!

The National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) Scheme celebrates and recognises individuals who have made an outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession in higher education.

Find out more about Dr Webster’s award on the National Teaching Fellow Listing Page.

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