Leadership in Learning Development

By Carina Buckley and Kate Coulson, ALDinHE 

Sound and vision: introducing leadership

As a Learning Developer, how do you influence University policy and practice? 

“Influencing”, “Visions” and “Strategy” – all seemingly ethereal concepts when you are fresh out of school or university. We wish we had been offered a module as undergraduates which had equipped us with at least a basic understanding of these concepts and how to be good at them! Nowadays the module would be called “Employability Skills” or something similar but we weren’t taught these concepts or how to go about “doing” them. Instead throughout our careers we have been trying to influence by stealth, without even realising what we were doing. Here we talk about our current roles and how we try to influence strategy.  

The power of connections at Solent University: Carina Buckley

When I began working as a learning developer at Solent in 2010, it was in a team of one. After a while I gained a part-time colleague but remained isolated, physically located in the library but far removed from the work of the librarians and struggling to make friends.  

That all changed when I was invited to join the librarians on their daily tea break. We went to the staff room and chatted, sometimes about work, most often not, and gradually got to know each other and what we did. This prompted them to recommend me to the lecturers they knew, who first sent me their students and then worked with me on embedding learning development into their curricula. A living, functioning community is a web of relationships, built on tea and conversation. It’s not about being strategic; it’s about being integrated, curious and welcoming to those around you.  

Finding space for influence

In March 2020, Solent’s relatively new Head of Learning and Teaching was tasked with leading a monumental change to online delivery but, having been on campus for only five months, hadn’t the chance to get to know many people and was finding it hard to gain traction.  

She knew me, though, having supported me through my Principal Fellow application, which also meant she knew my work and my experience. She recognised me as someone who was both student-centred and familiar with the institutional culture, and we worked closely together over six months to transform the teaching and learning practices at Solent. I found I could use my connections, some dating back to those early days in the library, for the benefit of this change project.  

By making time for conversation, relationship-building and knowledge-sharing, I’ve found myself in a leadership role almost by accident. However, I’ve since been able to cultivate it deliberately for the benefit of my team, ensuring they too can build connections and share their expertise.  

Leadership involves taking people with you in pursuit of a goal, and as such is open to anyone! 

Modelling excellence at the University of Northampton: Kate Coulson

If someone had told me when I graduated that most of my working life would focus on “influencing others” I would never have believed them! Obviously, I do lots of other things but in the last few years, and particularly since early 2020, I have spent a lot of time and energy modelling an excellent student experience and encouraging others to take on board what the Learning Development team (LDT) at the University of Northampton (UON) are doing and where possible, incorporating it into their approaches too.  

This approach has been strengthened particularly since UON was awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2017 and the LDT were referred to on five separate occasions within the submission about LD initiatives: 

  1. The expansion of the Learning Development provision (increasing “visits” from 3,000 to 12,000+ within 3 years) 
  1. The LDT’s work with BAME students (projects to increase engagement) 
  1. The impact of an LDT-designed and -led study skills MOOC (2,000 participants and a 34% completion rate compared to an average of 12.6%) on self-reported confidence of students 
  1. The impact of LDT work upon attainment rates (students can improve their grade by 2 to 4 sub-grades by working with the LDT) 
  1. Interaction with Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and the impact upon the award gap. 

The TEF Gold award was a platform for our voice to be heard at UON; we had proved that we could deliver excellent initiatives. Since then, I have been involved with how the learning and teaching approach at UON was changed during the pandemic. Being included in consultation processes, asked to lead some of those processes and being a member of the “Student Support Forum” (a new University-wide group that has met every fortnight since March 2020) sends a strong signal that the LD experts at UON are considered important in decision making.  

At the start of May 2021, I also changed jobs: I moved from being Head of Learning Development to the Head of Learning and Teaching Enhancement – a multi-disciplinary team incorporating LD, Learning Designers, Educational Linguistics, Academic Integrity and Academic Development. I see this as a win for Learning Development as a community; a learning developer directly leading and influencing the learning and teaching strategy of an institution. And I plan to do this in the same way as my work as an LDer – collegially, in partnership and utilising the skills available across the institution to inform action and practice. For me, this is the opportunity to not only influence strategy and vision but a chance to initiate, drive and shape it.  

Takeaways

What are the potential “takeaways” from this post? We know that all LDers are probably influencing others in their day-to-day work a lot of the time. It might be something seemingly straightforward such as modelling exemplary practice: colleagues then observe this approach and take something away to include in their practice or reflect upon. At the other end of the “influencing” spectrum you might be directly involved in shaping and creating new institutional approaches, policies or strategies – and then there is everything in-between.  

To that end we invite you to do some “homework” after reading this post. We encourage you to reflect on how you are influencing others in your work. What are you already doing? What are you good at? Who knows you, and what you know and do? Where could you improve this ‘knowing’ and finally, what could you share with others? If you feel brave enough, please leave us a comment below. 

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