In the last two weeks I have attended two teaching related conferences. This is quite rare for me, partly because I am often too busy teaching to attend, but also because these events are rarer that the ubiquitous research conference. During this period I have also been working on a collaborative project as part of my MA in Online and Distance Education with the Open University and drafting some module materials for the OU. These events have consolidated for me the belief that the best educational experiences arises from team work and that this team must include an effective manager and I wanted to use this space to explain why:
Why teams create the best educational experience?
I remember my first experience on module production at the Open University, the module SDK228 - it was a baptism of fire. I drafted my chapters and sat in a meeting while they were systematically torn apart by my colleagues - and then I re-drafted them, and braced for some more tearing apart, which came in a slightly smaller dose...and so on until the final product emerged. It was far better than my first efforts. With every production that followed over the next six years, I grew in ability and confidence as I learnt the OU craft for top quality teaching materials. That is not to say I mastered it, but just that the critique was less savage as time went on and I began to appreciate it for what it was - the route to developing resources that supported students in learning to the highest possible degree.
Fast forward a few more years and the need for team teaching has again emerged from the MA project where six of us have had six weeks to create a teaching resource for reflective learning in postgraduate medical fellowships. The best ideas appear to have emerged from the team rather than any one individual.
In my day job, I am now based at a conventional university where formal team teaching does not exist (at least in my programme). I draft my resources and finalise them alone - no one checks my learning outcomes and my assessment tally up and no one checks my resources are inclusive or appropriate for the level and context. This gives me an immense amount of freedom and, of course, I do talk to colleagues, informally bat ideas around and pick up interesting ideas at conferences that sometimes these cause me to change a plan or tweak things here and there but the level of team work is less and, I suspect, the quality of teaching is less. I think there are several reasons for this.
The role of programme/course managers?
In my recent MA project, I took on the role of Project Manager. I did this partly because I have never experienced useful project managers (they just tick boxes, right?) and I wanted to prove to myself it was possible - that said, I think it should be up to the rest of my team to decide! Nonetheless, I think I made two useful contributions to the process. The first was purely organisational with appropriate chasing when deadlines approached and the second was ensuring consistency of learning resources and checking for accessibility, language use and standardisation of the VLE etc. At the Open University, these functions can come under the remit of the curriculum manager (CM) rather than a project manager. When I went left the OU to join King's, no such role existed. We did have some administrative support but this was not combined with expertise in the discipline and the in depth knowledge of the curriculum, assessment and university processes that curriculum managers have. I tried to explain the role to a colleague at King's only for them to refer to the CM role as an academic's minion - I politely pointed out that the reverse would probably be more appropriate but actually nobody is the minion here - this is a very much about two roles of equal importance. A module cannot run without academic input - we have the expert knowledge of the discipline and the pedagogy to know what and how to teach but, without contextualising this in our institutional policies, programmes, systems and style, the module will fail. So what does this all have to do with herding cats? Well I sometimes think being a CM requires you to herd cats both in the sense of gathering together disparate information to create a whole but also because you have to manage a team of academics that come with the curriculum and I suspect that can be quite a challenge a times.
So going forward, when I think about effective teaching, I know I am going to thinking about how I can work more in a team to produce quality teaching and learning experiences. I am also going to remember, and keep reminding others, that there are crucial roles beyond that of the academic, that make effective teaching work and that as a sector, we should be investing more in those roles and recognising the value they bring.