Unbundling Higher Education: An Academic Staff Development View

I write this blog in my dual capacity as both co-investigator on the Unbundling Higher Education research project and as departmental co-ordinator of academic staff development work in my local university. As such, my particular interest in this post is on pedagogy; in this instance on the inter-relationship between the process called unbundling and the pedagogical dynamic between academic staff and the students whom they teach. Our academic staff development project work and research at my university has consistently sought to understand the ways that lecturers and students engage pedagogically with each other; with disciplinary contexts; and with the wider tacit and explicit socio-cultural contexts called higher education. In so doing, we have located our focus in the micro, meso and macro educational and other systems that surround teaching and learning and the ways in which the players act in, on and with these systems. Unbundling is one such ‘system’ and it is crucial for an understanding of how teaching and learning works (and changes) that we see this system as both shaping and being shaped by the pedagogical system in this university. The systems and the players are making each other; they are co-constructed and have different and dynamic agency.

Academic staff development work as creating enabling conditions

Currently, we are interested in the enabling conditions that make it possible for academics and students to teach and learn, and the constraining conditions that make it difficult or sub-optimal. Unbundling and the associated, inter-connected processes we are seeking to map and understand in this project, viz. educational technology and marketization, are not per se either enabling or constraining teaching and learning. They just are – although this does not mean that they are socio-culturally neutral. Both academics and students are at minimum aware of these phenomena and – pedagogically-speaking – interact with them on what I argue is a continuum: from functional utilisation and skill-building through deepening reflective pedagogical practice to critical engagement with these phenomena as politically, economically and socially ‘active’.

A local example

Let me give an example: the academics with whom we work and engage in deepening the practices of teaching and learning are – at minimum – aware of the intersecting ways in which unbundling, technology and marketization play out in the higher education space. They ‘use’ technology for teaching and learning; deliberate about whether or how to offer teaching and learning support that is sometimes available (free or at a cost) through providers other than themselves; consider the possibilities presented by curriculum modularisation and whether ‘bits’ of these curricula can be offered elsewhere or by alternative providers; wonder about or act on the possibilities presented by ‘buying and selling’ education and educational processes, sometimes as commodities. Where we believe we have work to do – including seeing ourselves as academic staff development actors in the unbundling space – is in enabling academics to locate themselves, their work and their students in this unbundling space and in understanding their teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment work as being co-constructed by – and co-constructing – this space. So, for example, teaching and learning processes do not ‘just’ incorporate or utilise technology; and neither do academics ‘just’ choose technology or disaggregation or commodification. At least part of the focus of this research project lies in critically engaging with academics in how and why unbundling and pedagogy intersect; where agency (or agencies) are located; what particular pedagogical ‘moments’ arise out of unbundling processes and products; and so on.

Literacies work

Theoretically, I am interested in the potential of Academic Literacies Theory for engaging academics (and students) in ‘reading’ pedagogy in an unbundling higher education space. Historically, literacies theory has been applied to how students engage with various forms of ‘text’ (including literal and metaphorical forms), but it has more recently been thought of and applied to the socio-cultural contexts – the Discourses (James Gee and others) and discourses within which text is embedded. The challenge in our academic staff development work with teaching and learning lies in creating the enabling conditions for staff to ‘read’ unbundling historically, politically, pedagogically, economically and so on. I am especially personally interested in ways in which staff act pedagogically as acquirers of technological skills; or as agents of curriculum disaggregation and reaggregation; or as creators of pedagogical ‘events’ in conjunction with other animate and sometimes inanimate actors; or as critical players in a set of emerging teaching and learning processes. Again, this is literacies work.

In our staff development work, we strive to bring a critical social gaze to the context and content of teaching and learning – including the emerging unbundling landscape. Pedagogy can be ‘read’ as presenting or creating possibilities or as presenting or creating threats (or somewhere in between) in this landscape. The literacies work lies in enabling academic staff to notice, engage critically with and seek to produce the landscape.