In April, I had the lucky opportunity to attend the Association of Learning Development in Higher Education’s (ALDinHE) annual conference, where themes such as ownership and identity of learning development departments were discussed and explored through a series of lectures and workshops.
The keynote speaker was Etienne Wenger-Treyner (EWT), a social learning theorist whose work on communities of practice is highly relevant to anyone considering how students and staff identify with their own learning development within higher education. EWT sees learning not as the transmission of a body of knowledge nor even a set of processes to engage with but rather the way in which we negotiate the value of what we do as individuals within ever complex communities of practice. For EWT, learning is about becoming, which suggests that how we identify with what we do is critical to how we develop experience and competence in our particular subject/interest.
The question of identity is also relevant to the role and location of learning development teams/departments. The debate on whether learning development should be external or internal to a student’s degree programme was frequently raised throughout workshops and presentations while it was clear there was no definitive answer: some highlighted the sense of marginalisation felt by the location of their department while others saw this as a necessary alternative space where issues/ideas/values could be challenged from within. Yet, the most successful projects appeared to be those with more collaboration between academics, students and learning development teams.
By the end, I began to question whether the debate on where learning development should be located was the most important issue as this will always be dependent upon resources, academic interest and institutional support. Instead, what seemed more critical was to look at how an institution approaches teaching and learning and then work backwards from there. In other words, the most effective support seems to emerge from environments where collaborative discussion about how we teach and learn is encouraged, questioned and negotiated across all interested parties.
For further information about the conference presentations and workshops, have a look here.