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Peeking under the covers: Understanding the foundations of online academic staff development

Peter Kandlbinder
Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Sydney
This paper reports on a study of how academic development units facilitate the online learning of their academic staff. Flexible learning opportunities for the professional development of academic staff have become possible because of changes in the workplace, higher education and technology. These online learning environments are designed to enable university teachers to reflect on their teaching practice. They aim to clarify academic staff's understanding of effective teaching and learning in their particular context and share these insights and experience with colleagues within and across disciplines.

As new technologies become more widely used in academic staff development there is a need to identify and explore ways in which the interaction by academic staff can be made more effective. This study reviews a number of online learning programs within Australia and in the UK to determine whether these practices meet the varied aims of academic staff development. The paper considers which contexts demonstrated the World Wide Web as a useful means of professional development and the quality of the participants' learning in those contexts.


Universities have been enthusiastic adopters of the Internet since its inception. Its early use was mainly by academics collaborating on academic research. The same practices have steadily migrated into university teaching to the point where computer and information technology is encroaching into almost every aspect of higher education. A recent survey of academic staff documents the major changes this has brought to teaching roles with two-thirds of respondents reporting that developing course materials for new technologies has had a major impact on their changing work hours (McInnis, 2000: 28). The report notes that academic staff are typically facing these changes in teaching with little or no formal training, suggesting that computer technologies have made this remarkable charge to centre stage without too much discussion about the alternatives. Given that technology has and will continue to have enormous impact on education it is important to examine its role in all fields affecting academic work, including academic staff development.

Online learning refers to teaching and learning mediated by a computer connected to a network as distinct to a personal computer. It typically involves the range of applications available on the Internet, which can be summarised as email, the World-Wide Web and computer file transfers. A typical learning environment would integrate these applications to provide email to participants, a discussion forum that stores threaded discussions, interactive time-tables, links to alternative web sites, content pages that can contain a variety of media including video and sound, and assessment through multiple-choice questionnaires.

The difficulty in judging the usefulness of these learning environments is that they are not a single entity and are therefore open to multiple interpretations. Educational technologists rightly demonstrate the exciting potential for these technologies and the range of possibilities they represent for teaching and learning. Academic staff developers are often more cautious given the collaborative focus of their practice. Meanwhile, university management appears seduced by the technology with its novelty occupying the foreground of their attention despite the lack of evidence that technology impacts on student learning in any significant way. How online learning manifests itself in academic staff development will depend on all these interactions and connections. While it would be impossible to get agreement between technologists, staff developers and managers on what this network of associations represents, it is possible to determine what practices are embodied in their designs for online staff development.


The following representation of online staff development is the result of on-site visits to 30 academic development units (ADUs) both in Australia and in the UK in the first half of 2000. During these visits academic developers discussed their approaches or intentions for online learning for academic staff. The aim of the investigation was to identify the trends, influences and events that were shaping their work. The two main sources of data were from open-ended interviews with developers, participants and managers working in academic staff development, and the web sites themselves.

Through this process the current pattern of use of online technology in academic staff development emerged and the interplay of three important factors identified. Firstly, each ADU operates within a specific institutional context that influences its orientation towards academic staff development. Secondly not all interactions are considered appropriate for online technology and finally, online materials development requires a commitment to collaborative work practices.

The first two factors are key to the construction of meaning embedded within online materials, while the third determines the limits of any online development project. By exploring the intersection between the orientation to academic development, technology and technology development, it was possible to develop a framework for looking at online technology in context and identify the characteristics that would support further developments within each context. Having created a series of possible alternatives for professional development with online technologies, it is possible to set future research agendas in the area of academic staff development.

Academic staff development context

ADUs are those university departments involved in the improvement of teaching and learning as outlined in university policy. Universities increasingly see effective teaching as a strategy to attract and retain students and thereby appreciate that academic staff development has strategic importance. As the nature of academic work and the environment in which universities operate evolves, university managers are questioning where to best locate the responsibility for developing academic staff. Nearly all the units responsible for supporting academic staff that were visited have been reviewed in recent years to determine whether there are synergies created in blending the kinds of tasks these units do. A typical example is the large workshop programs that were once the mainstay of ADUs in both Australia and the UK are now being replaced with more targeted staff development, often within a policy framework. While these workshops have had declining participation, computer courses, often through libraries or outside providers, are regularly over-subscribed.

Moses (1988) was among the a first to identify that academic staff development can be targeted at three levels of the university; individuals, curriculum development and institutional change. In some universities this results in three separate units while in others it is a single unit with accountability in three areas. Boud (1995) still saw curriculum development as the responsibility of individual academics when he suggested that there is pressure from university managers to take over staff development for their own goals, resulting in two competing conceptions of staff development in higher education. The first conception Boud considers to be a mirror of academic scholarly practice which views staff development as grounded in educational research. The emphasis on being " an academic" is stressed as a way of gaining credibility with academic peers across the university. The second conception stresses staff development as the focus of professional practice in its own right. The aim is to be credible to senior management who have influence on the strategic directions of the university.

Johnston (1997) likewise describes the contemporary ADU as attempting to balance these two orientations. She summarises their influence as a seesawing of strategies that focus either on grassroots, bottom-up or institutional and top-down. The shift Johnston identifies is away from working primarily with individuals to addressing issues at the policy or institutional level. While these tensions are still there to be observed, curriculum development has returned as an important third element in the development of academic staff.

Curriculum development constitutes a focus on courses and the development of learning materials and other curriculum projects. Where curriculum development may not have featured prominently in traditional lecture-based courses, the growing importance of information and communication technology in traditional classrooms has created a contested space around who supports the development and design of the curriculum. The relationship between media development units and teaching or staff development is still in a state of reorganisation, with the trend towards greatest investment in supporting technology-mediated teaching.

Media development brings with it a third orientation to working with academic staff. Developers of online learning environments interviewed described their work as a form of staff development. It can be argued that their practice straddles the two orientations observed by Boud and Johnston. Decisions of pedagogy remain the responsibility of the academic while the university provides the policy framework within which they operate. This frees online developers from making educational decisions so they can focus on producing technically robust, widely applicable learning materials that will be judged by their peers on their "look and feel" rather than their ability to promote student learning.

While this product orientation appears well suited to the current climate of outcomes planning, few universities actually budget for the full cost of educational innovation. This has placed staff development at the centre of a three-way struggle for resources that many ADUs appear to be losing. Encouraging staff to participate in demonstrating good teaching is increasingly recognised as not simply something that takes place in workshops and seminars. It requires the daily attention to a shared responsibility to learn and improve. It is in providing opportunities to learn and improve beyond the boundaries of traditional staff development that flexible learning strategies offer the greatest promise (Kandlbinder & Peseta, 2000).

How might the Internet change academic staff development

Just as there would be few examples of a university course that does not at least supplement their teaching with online technologies, it appears unthinkable for an academic staff development unit not to have a presence on the web. Since all ADUs make use of web-based technologies it is worth asking, what are they being used for? To maintain a focus on teaching and learning rather than technology I will enlist Ramsden's (1992, 111-116) three theories of teaching to help describe the potential orientations to online teaching environments.

In the same way university teachers have three orientations to their teaching, there are three options for an ADU to adopt when implementing online teaching and learning. It is most common for ADU's to describe online learning approaches as supplemental to their mainstream activities. The majority plainly view the Internet as unproblematic, that is, it will only have limited application to how they go about developing academic staff. Examples of supplementing staff development with online technology are email contact with presenters, providing workshop handouts online and notices of up-coming events. It can be seen that the development of academic staff would continue if for some reason access to any of these technologies were unavailable. Ramsden found this orientation in university teaching resulted in the presentation of authoritative content or the demonstration of procedures (Ramsden, 1992: 111). This describes an information-centred approach to online learning where staff development is considered to take place as long as quality information is available to academic staff. Success is assumed unless there has been a technical impediment to the delivery of this information.

The motivation to use online technologies from an information-centred perspective is to save costs. Efficiencies are brought about by decreasing repetitive and routine tasks through some degree of automation of administration, such as general inquiries. Answers to frequently asked questions about what the ADU does, its mission and who to contact with specific enquires can be transferred to online technologies freeing staff developers to focus on development activities. Further economies can be made in distributing written material online and thereby shifting the cost of printing to the reader. By automatically registering participants into large workshop programs, or distributed course questionnaires online, networked technology can minimise the cost of producing, distributing and analysing routine administration.

ADUs that see the Internet as extending their repertoire of tools and techniques for working with academic staff could be described as operating in a mixed mode, partially providing traditional staff development and partially online learning environments. This corresponds with Ramsden's second theory that conceives of teaching as organising activities (Ramsden, 1992: 113). This activity-centred approach aims at improving teaching through a process of extending the repertoire of techniques rather than about changing his or her understanding of effective teaching and learning. In the online context these activities form a range of learning objects such as discussion forums, tutorials and guided simulations, writing aims and objectives that provide examples of new approaches to teaching for academic staff.

Those who use the potential of online technologies to create a learning environment for staff development recognise that online learning requires staff developers to work in quite different ways. They adopt neither the academic information-centre nor professional activity-centred position but accept that all educational technology requires an intensive process of curriculum design. High quality online teaching is both time and labour intensive. Toohey (1999) argues that course design in higher education involves a two-stage process, the first involving the course design team building a shared understanding of the beliefs, values and ideologies that inform the course design. Toohey cautions that this requires highly developed facilitation skills but once completed the second stage of developing the materials is relatively straightforward by comparison.

Ramsden outlines a similar orientation in his third theory that describes teaching as making learning possible. Ramsden describes this as teaching, students and the subject content are all linked together in an overarching framework or system (Ramsden, 1992: 114). An inquiry-focused approach to online academic staff development likewise combines information and activities through collaborative course design that involves finding out the students' (academic staffs') misunderstandings and creating a context of learning that encourages students actively to engage in the subject matter (Kandlbinder, 1999). This suggests that online staff development evolves into entirely new practices, in forms conducive to critical inquiry. The limited examples of inquiry-centred approaches to online staff development are the result of the requirement to work more like a course team than an academic development unit.

Online academic staff development

These orientations to online learning and how they relate to the different levels of staff development create a arrangement of associations within which we can view the application of online technologies to academic staff development. Table 1 summarises the range of activities currently used by ADUs in their online environments, starting with an individualised, information-centred approach through to an institution-wide inquiry-centred approach. Within this table it can be generalised that few ADUs use their web sites for more than dissemination of information to individual academic staff. This is not to say that there are not quite sophisticated uses of online technologies focused at the individual level (for one example see Rather, that inquiry-centred online staff developments are unlikely to flourish at this level given the lack of cost-effectiveness that results from the small number of participants involved.

Table 1: Categories of online academic staff development

IndividualEmail contacts
Registration for workshops
Student Feedback Questionnaires
Guided simulations
Discussion forums
Award courses in Higher Education
Discussion Groups
CurriculumDissemination of research
Guidelines for the use of IT
Providing hardware or expertise
Evaluation of software
Flexible learning
InstitutionNew staff induction
Advice to senior managers
Meetings via video conference
Policy and report development
Quality in teaching and learning

At the curriculum level the focus on new technologies gravitates the use of online environments towards a focus on the flexible delivery technologies. Programs aimed at understanding flexible learning environments, for example, are among the few that make extensive use of online environments. The self-reflexivity of these programs makes them fundamentally inquiry focused. Participants are typically asked to notice their own interactions while using a technology and to comment on the suitability of these techniques for their own practices. (for example,

This table also shows that some areas are considered unsuitable for online technologies. Outside the special case of using flexible learning to teach about flexible learning, high quality staff development will only occur when the technology isn't allowed to get in the way of inquiry. Take as an example student feedback questionnaires. Simply publishing the instruments online reduces them to a information-centred procedure. Reducing staff development to the level of information encourages a non-reflective use of student feedback, which has been shown not to result in a lasting change in teaching (as it is neither reflexive nor speculative, as suggested by Ramsden, 1992: 115). On the other hand an inquiry orientation to student feedback could be supported online by undertaking an institutional inquiry into good feedback practice similar to surveys of quality teaching conducted at many universities (for example,


It can be argued that it is impossible to accurately describe the nature of online learning for academic staff development given the rapid rate of change in both technology and higher education. With such a complex series of interactions it is difficult to subsume current practice into a simple unified concept. By focussing on the interactions of those involved rather than on technological innovations, this survey provides some indication of future directions in online staff development. Firstly, while some industries have indeed made the transition to more team-based approaches to work, the individualistic culture of academia suggests it will be some time before we see wide-spread collaborative modes of working required for successful technological innovations. It is therefore more likely that online technologies will continue to be implemented as a supplement to mainstream staff development.

Secondly experimentation in the area of the flexible delivery of learning will continue as long as higher education management remains committed to distributed teaching and learning. This is in part responsible for the trend in ADUs to work with departments and groups and the move away from individual orientations to institutional orientations. The real opportunities for online technologies are in creating collaborative work environments with an institutional focus. This offers tangible benefits in academic staff development without major reorganisation by providing access to academic staff in remote locations. Finally whatever technology ADUs adopt will create a different relationship with their clients. The challenge is to determine the appropriate use of these technologies.


Boud, D. (1995). Meeting the challenges. In A. Brew (Ed), Directions in Staff Development. Buckingham, UK: SRHE & Open University Press.

Johnston, S. (1997). Educational development units: Aiming for a balanced approach to supporting teaching. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(3), 331-342.

Kandlbinder, P. and Peseta, T. (2000). Online professional development for postgraduate supervisors. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Kandlbinder, P. (1999). Valuing collaboration in design for the World Wide Web: A creative team approach. A paper presented at the HERDSA Annual Conference. Melbourne 12-15 July.

McInnis, C. (2000). The Work Roles of Academics in Australian Universities. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.

Moses, I. (1988). Academic staff evaluation and development: A university case study. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London, UK: Routledge.

Toohey, S. (1999). Designing courses in higher education. Buckingham, UK: SRHE & Open University Press.

Author: Peter Kandbinder, Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Sydney
Phone (02) 9351 4872 Fax (02) 9351 4331 Email

Please cite as: Kandlbinder. P. (2001). Peeking under the covers: Understanding the foundations of online academic staff development. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 372-378. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 10 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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