Learning in Higher Education symposia: A new professional development model for university educators
This report presents the findings of a case study of a novel professional development practice model for academic university staff developed by the Learning in Higher Education (LiHE) association. It describes the implementation of a social constructivist approach to professional development, characterised by various, structured collaborative activities, and possible levels of participation. The findings expand current understandings of new professional development initiatives for university educators that aim to move beyond the classical conference model. Specifically, this study documents the expectations and experiences of participants of the first Australian LiHE symposium. It explores in detail participant awareness of and reactions to the constructivist nature of this new professional development model.
This report presents the findings of a case study of the sixth such event, the LiHE Australia symposium, which had as its main goal the joint production of a themed anthology. The symposium was held in Sydney, New South Wales from 27 November 2011 to 1 December 2011. The primary purpose of this study is to provide a snapshot of the cycle of design, enactment and reflection of the LiHE professional development model. It was triggered by a perceived need to understand how experienced university educators from various discipline backgrounds and nations describe their individual and collective experience and grapple with meaning making in novel and unfamiliar situations. The study utilises a grounded theory approach and is informed by sociocultural theory.
In the next section, the main features and aims of the LiHE symposium model are outlined, illustrating how the symposium design aligns with constructivist ideas of transformative learning. The second section presents a brief outline of the research aim, scope and design. The third and fourth sections present the results and discuss the findings. Finally, some conclusions are drawn and possible implications for the implementation of novel professional development models are outlined.
These ideas of collaborative knowledge creation are apparent in the symposium design (see Figure 1 below). The need to move away from traditional conference participation models is also supported by the documentation provided on the LiHE website. The founder of the association, Claus Nygaard, explains as follows.
Usually you'll spend 1-2 months preparing your conference paper. It's a lot of hard work. And you do that to get your 20 minutes of fame. When you get back from the conference, you have to consider publishing the paper, which may well mean 1-2 years of continuous work with editing, revising, submission etc. In the process you're more or less on your own and have only limited (if any) contact with the people you met at the conference (Learning in Higher Education, 2011, Philosophy webpage).The above statement makes explicit the value of professional networking. Classical conferences provide opportunities for university educators to present their research, form professional connections and advance academic work. However, the designers of the LiHE symposium model were of the view that opportunities needed to be created for university educators to engage in transdisciplinary collaborative exchanges for individual and collective advancement of a particular field and to publish their collective works in a timely fashion.
The LIHE symposium/anthology production model is a staged process that commences with tentative idea constructions and finishes with a manuscript in press shortly after the conclusion of the symposium (see Table 1):
|Stage No||Stage theme||Description|
|# 1||Anthology theme development||Anthology theme development through dialogic exchange and idea generation between facilitators and participants of an earlier LIHE symposium.|
|# 2||Symposium call||A call for chapter proposals by a certain due date for the next LIHE symposium is placed on the LIHE website and email alerts are sent to members and international university departments.|
|# 3||Chapter proposal reviews||Double blind reviews of chapter proposals are conducted by international reviewers drawn from the pool of previous LIHE participants.|
|# 4||Accepted chapter proposals||Authors of accepted chapter proposals are invited to submit a complete chapter by a certain due date.|
|# 5||Complete chapter reviews||A second round of double blind reviews are conducted of complete chapters.|
|# 6||Accepted chapters||All accepted chapter authors are required to engage in a peer review process of up to two chapters and provide constructive feedback in writing prior to the commencement of the symposium.|
|# 7||Symposium participation||Authors of accepted chapters partake in a four day symposium to move from individual chapter construction to a coherent anthology production.|
|# 8||Post-symposium reviews||Following the symposium all revised chapters are reviewed by the publishing company.|
|# 9||Final review||Pre-publication of the anthology, all revised chapters undergo a final check by the editors of the anthology.|
The case study reported here only documented and evaluated the LiHE Australia symposium process, which effectively represents stage 7 of the anthology production process. The above table and elaboration by the LiHE symposium designers make apparent the importance of the formal and rigorous review processes employed to arrive at a level of topical anthology chapters that withstand scrutiny. However, dissimilar to other edited academic book production processes, the LiHE symposium model intends to provide an avenue for deep collaboration and professional networking, similar to the purpose of conferences. Claus Nygaard explains.
Our philosophy with the symposium series 'Learning in Higher Education' is to bring together a small group of researchers (maximum 25 people) to write an international anthology. The chapters written for the symposium/anthology will be circulated among the participants, and we will form focused discussion/ review groups that give constructive feedback to the authors during the symposium. We will address the questions [that are] on your mind, and focus our discussions around ways in which such questions can be answered. We will spend the days together at the symposium helping you to write the best possible chapter for our anthology (LIHE - Philosophy, 2011).Contrasting traditional conference experiences with those of the LiHE symposium design, it becomes apparent that the former generally invites passive individualist participation (listening to presentations) and the latter invites active participation and collaborative decision making. According to Wang & King (2006),
... the central focal point and power of transformative learning is fundamental change in perspective that transforms the way an adult understands and interacts with his or her world. Reflective thinking is the foundational activity that supports and cultivates such 'perspective transformation (p. 3).Designing for a transformational professional learning experience, the LiHE symposium delegate is expected to be an active participant, willing and able to partake in intense international and interdisciplinary collaboration through staged and sequenced symposium activities. Hence, a willingness to engage body and mind during the symposium event and be open minded and receptive to ideas and experiences that are novel is presupposed. Resistance to engage with planned transformative learning tasks is not expected from these committed educators, who have already made substantial investments in time and effort to participate in this international event (see Table 1). Therefore, their capability and willingness to find meaningful encounters with their fellow participants and their work is uniformly accepted by the designers of the LIHE symposium model. Nevertheless, Lantolf (2000) pointed out that "while task based instruction could yield positive learning outcomes, there can be no guarantees, because what ultimately matters is how individual learners decide to engage with the task" (p. 13).
The symposium experiences of delegates were collected through semi-structured interviews and field observations in combination with document analysis of the LiHE symposium design model. The aim was to gather data on the (mis)match between design intent and embodied experience of a new professional learning model. Epistemological alignment between symposium designers and delegates cannot be assumed. The specific research questions were:
In undertaking this investigation, the author also positioned herself as a participant researcher, simultaneously an outsider and an insider. As a researcher and non-chapter-producer, the author is clearly an outsider, not involved in the process of discussion and debate about the various possibilities of producing a suitable and coherent structure and format for the sixth anthology. As a past symposium participant and university educator, partaking in all the academic symposium events, the author clearly occupies an insider position. This close contact with the participants enabled the building of rapport with delegates and the gathering of much contextualised information and insider knowledge. As a result, much of the information conveyed during the interviews and chance conversations were accounts of deeply personal experiences. Not surprisingly, there were multiple requests to ensure that each informant's identity was protected. Therefore, the completed interview and observation data (field notes) were later de-identified.
Figure 1: Visual depiction of the integrated nature of the complete LIHE Australia symposium program
All formal symposium activities, which were designed to encourage individual chapter authors to collaborate and network with each, to enable familiarity with other people's work as a precondition for the provision of constructive support and the production of a coherent anthology, are marked in Figure 1 as rectangular shapes (e.g. 'world café activity'; 'double tweet activity', 'peer review session', 'networking activity'). The informal networking activities, consisting of social and cultural programs (i.e. 'walking & surfing' and 'temple visit'), are marked as elliptic shapes. The meal sessions are depicted in Figure 1, using rectangular shapes with round edges.
The following vignettes are a synthesis of multiple, but similar views expressed during the interview sessions by various participants. Throughout the reconstruction of views, actual verbatim accounts of experiences and perceptions were used to provide an authentic account. The interview and observation data are represented as themed vignettes, synthesising the information provided by different participants into a unique story or vignette. This narrative approach provides additional protection of participants' identities and makes possible the reproduction of verbatim comments of actions and emotions of participants. The names used in the paper are pseudonyms and care has been taken to make them non-descriptive. The results are presented as individual tables of sequenced formal symposium activity descriptions and participant perceptions as conveyed during the interview sessions. These are supplemented with elaborations and discussions based on observation notes taken during and/or after individual activities and symposium events.
|The Opera: Non-classical icebreaker||After a brief official welcome, it was revealed that everyone, including partners and children, would partake in an opera production, lasting approximately 30 minutes. This icebreaker or team building activity had a lasting effect on the minds of symposium delegates and provided a discussion point throughout the symposium and particularly during interview sessions.|
Icebreaker activities, such as the one described in Table 2, are fun social learning tasks designed to aid the community building process. Their function is to help diminish the perceived and/or real distance between symposium participants who are new to a setting and each other. Employing icebreakers is a common practice in many formal learning settings, but not at traditional conferences. In an environment that requires trusting relationships and active participation, icebreakers fulfil the task of developing a welcoming environment and lay the foundation for the establishment of a 'community' with a shared purpose, literally 'breaking the ice', meaning the idea of diminishing transactional distance (Moore, 1993).
However, the community building process had commenced long before symposium participants met face to face in Sydney. In fact they all had intimate knowledge of at least one other participant's contribution to the anthology under construction and many were keen to deepen their cognitive connection and find the author/s of the paper they were required to critique prior to arriving at the symposium (Field notes, 28.11.2011). Nevertheless, as the various accounts illustrate, the demands placed on symposium participants required a willingness and ability on their part to step out of their comfort zone and embrace the messiness of novel situations. These demands were particularly great for those delegates who had not fully embraced the deeply constructivist nature of the LiHE symposium format and were used to or comfortable with traditional conference (professional learning) structures, which are very different indeed. The messiness of deeply constructivist learning in part arises from the emotional reaction that unfamiliar situations and events invoke, demanding of participants (learners) to take risks, to cope with ambiguity and to engage in 'mess management' (Ackoff, 1974). An extract from the observation notes elaborates this issue.
I was reminded of student and tutor reactions to problem based learning (PBL) initiatives, which have been well documented. The importance of learner factors needs to be taken into consideration when exposing participants to new designs, making unfamiliar and often unwelcome demands. (Field notes 28.11.2011)The different experiences of the World Café activity are expressions of cultural patterns, which are enactments of deep seated epistemological beliefs about teaching and learning. The pre-specification for given reactions to learning and teaching experiences are brought into being by the dynamic nature of participant expectation and situated experience. It is understandable that some participants are less willing or able to embrace the deeply constructivist (and organic, non-directive) strategies employed during the symposium. Hence, the experience of 'being lost' and 'needing more guidance' may be simply a way of conveying some minor confusion, or, may indeed constitute a dissonance between epistemological positions and teaching and learning paradigms, conveying a role conflict. Employing a traditional, instructionist mindset, the learner expects an 'instructor' to 'instruct', to control the learning process through scaffolded sub-tasks, ensuring that learners cannot 'get lost', but instead are reaching the desired learning outcomes effectively and efficiently, with minimal engagement in 'unproductive' social talk. An extract from the observation notes concerning this event reads as follows:
It seems that the designers of the World Café activity intended participants to engage in various meaning making conversations, detours and social conversations about their role and purpose at their respective universities. Forming a community of practice, these detours seem to be seen as valuable and productive in the production of the anthology and participation in the symposium. Hence the designers wanted 'rich' and 'divergent' group conversations, which were a learning outcome in and of itself (Field notes, 28.11.2011).
|The World Café activity: What do you bring to the symposium/ anthology?||This first formal symposium activity was introduced by the facilitators as a multi-staged activity. During stage one, the delegates were asked to explain to each other (a) What they bring to the symposium and (b) What they bring to the anthology. The purpose was to find common ground and link to themes and ideas conveyed by other delegates. In a second stage, each of the delegates was asked to join another table and repeat the exercise, except for the 'table chairs', which stayed at their original table and facilitated the dialogue and network construction. This stage was repeated until all delegates visited the various tables and made their contributions to the individual key word networks. In general, this activity was not mentioned much by delegates during the interview sessions. It is possible that because it was the first formal activity, it may not have been fresh in the minds of delegates. However, enquiring specifically about delegates' experiences of the formal symposium activities generated some specific answers that conveyed either enjoyment, confusion or indifference.|
|Peer review feedback session: Providing critical but friendly feedback||The peer review procedure, prior to and also during the symposium event was regarded as highly valuable by delegates. This was one of the few process activities that attracted mainly positive remarks from participants.|
This activity provided an intimate space to give and receive personalised feedback and to practice cross cultural and transdisciplinary communication, extending both the reviewers' and the authors' awareness of their own epistemological positions, culturally and professionally influenced pedagogical and research practices and writing styles. Most academics agree that a rigorous peer review process improves the quality of their work, but also that it can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience for authors (Bedeian, 2004; Tight, 2003). Casadevall and Fang (2009) note that there is a fine line between reviewer comments aimed at improving a research report and those comments aimed at censorship.
The effort spent in linguistic negotiations raises the questions of whether such effort is necessary and might even represent a subtle form of censorship. Reviewers should not try to rewrite papers to fit their own biases, ... excessive influence by reviewers can stifle legitimate scientific debate and encourage conformity (Casadevall & Fang, 2009, p. 1274).The problems encountered by a few participants in this activity point out that personal sensitivities, such as the handicap felt by non-English speaking scholars (NESB) are at play. Besides the language barrier, complementary and divergent cultural and disciplinary discursive practices may add further complications to the peer reviewing activity. For example, expressing confusion, querying scholarly arguments or suggesting improvements are acceptable in Europe and Australia but can be perceived as problematic in other parts of the world, meaning that the act of peer criticism in this interdisciplinary, multicultural setting, may not have achieved the desired outcome. An extract from the observation notes taken during the event reads as follows.
This peer review process strategy, which is a commonly applied constructivist teaching and learning method, seems to be a source of positive emotion as participants exchange ideas, smile and laugh, focusing attentively on each other. However, some of the body language in certain groups conveys resistance, stress and/or annoyance. Viewing from afar, focusing on body language and expression, it seems that not each group is able to benefit equally from the cooperative peer review sessions. Do the designers need to invest more time in the protocol construction so that cultural sensitivities are accounted for and future participants are equipped with cultural and communication skills that would enable all feedback recipients to work in synchrony with their review partners? (Field notes, 29.11.2011).
|Double tweeting activity: Gaining clarity of own ideas||This third activity seemed to be the most memorable for many participants. It commenced with a request to synthesise the chapter so that it fits into a template with 280 characters. This was then followed by a face to face presentation of the 'tweet' to a partner in a line up. Presenters on one side of the line were directed to present their 'tweet' numerous times to a different audience as they progressed down the line. This activity, which was designed to help delegates distil their message and assist in the construction of an introduction chapter to the anthology, generated many positive and also some critical comments from participants.|
The activity described in Table 5 was designed to challenge chapter authors to become more thoughtful about their key message. The strategy used to arrive at this goal was to create a new writing situation that borrowed from the conventions of a Web 2.0 discourse (Dobozy, 2010). In the activity, participants were required to engage in the relationship of writing, presenting, receiving and responding to distilled key messages about the author's chapter. Authors needed to be able to view this pedagogical activity as a carefully constructed recursive process in refined thinking. As will be discussed below, this pedagogical activity is illustrative of the need to make the professional learning outcomes and processes of the double tweeting activity more overt to participants, so that chapter authors are able to engage more deeply with the carefully crafted design. An extract from the observation notes pertaining to this activity read as follows.
It is not obvious to everyone that the repetitiveness of the activity was a deliberate design element. Filtering out and refining a key message takes time and many unsuccessful attempts. Being able to present a 'short and sharp' message in a rapid succession is an interesting pedagogical strategy that has potentially many applications. To gauge a variety of reactions allowed authors to challenge one another in the quest to enhance the quality of the anthology (Field notes, 29.11.2011).
|Networking activities: How does my chapter connect to your chapter?||The networking activities are a central feature of the LiHE symposium model and are designed to provide a space for delegates to collaborate with each other to arrive at a commonly agreed form to represent the interconnectedness of the chapters and to agree on a particular structure and chapter order. As in earlier accounts of this process by Nygaard and Holtham (2008, p. 332), it appeared that this formal activity constituted 'the most heated of all the discussions', which was perceived by some as creative and enjoyable but stressful and frustrating by others.|
The connection between cognition, emotion and action is well established (Izard, 2010). The role of emotion in communication between members of a community of practice has been found to be one of the most important characteristics of productive collaborative action (Evers, Fischer, Rodriguez Mosquera, et al, 2005). As participants delved into the creative process of finding a suitable structure in which to order the chapters of the anthology, there was much deliberation and negotiation. As the activity progressed, some participants got more passionate whereas others seemed to withdraw from the creative collaborative process. The above vignettes (V 9-12) illustrate the emotionally charged atmosphere during this activity. Moreover, they portray the emotionally driven motivation of participants to stay cognitively and socially connected to the activity and each other or withdraw from the process. Hence, emotion is integrally linked to decision making processes and resulting action. The importance of emotion regulation in learning situations that demand cooperation and collaborative problem solving has long been recognised in the education literature (Schutz & Pekrun, 2007). The perception of 'messiness' discussed above may be the source of participants' emotional and cognitive responses and resulting resistance and/or withdrawal from the process. Furthermore, it seems to also be linked to the professional identity of academics and the traditional role conceptions of chapter authors and editors of edited academic texts. An extract of observation notes pertaining to this activity highlights a possible design flaw of this activity:
The facilitators clearly aimed to be non-directive and employed a laissez faire approach during this activity. Intensely observing participants' behaviour (action, body language and facial expression) during this activity, it seems that the displayed ignorance of some participants regarding the content of other chapters is a great source of disappointment and annoyance for others. There are a number of delegates who seem confident and greatly knowledgeable about much of the work of others. Based on the emotion displayed, the delegates can easily be placed into two groups: participants displaying approach emotions (signalling passionate engagement) and participants displaying withdrawal emotions (signalling disinterest, disengagement). Letting the authors experience collaborative decision making and take ownership of the anthology structure production may work when everyone is equally engaged and knowledgeable. What is apparent here is too much uninformed decision making. Too many delegates seem uncomfortable, minimally engaged or not knowledgeable enough to make a meaningful contribution, leaving a few to take the leadership and make decision. Will this harm the quality of the anthology? (Field notes, 30.11.2011).
For the majority of LiHE Australia symposium participants this was a new conference experience. Although all of participants identified themselves as being constructivist educators 'at least in principle', the explicit demand to be an active and engaged participant was not an easy requirement to fulfil. For many, this experience, as illustrated through the vignettes, opened up new ways of thinking and doing (Brew, 2006), requiring mental agility, tenacity and open mindedness, not usually demanded during classical conference participation. However, as some of the more critical vignettes (V 1, 4, 11 and 12) illustrate, this concept can be difficult to grasp and even more difficult to enact, even by university educators who identify themselves as being 'moderately or deeply constructivist'.
Engagement with fellow LiHE symposium participants and their work opened up the possibility for younger university educators (V6) to develop an identity as an academic, whose work is valued and embedded in a larger, significant project. The vignettes and observation notes illustrate how this non-traditional conference design was experienced quite differently by delegates. It seems that the experience is highly depended on educators' pedagogical epistemology. In other words, the academic and social context of the LiHE symposium model, as exemplified by LiHE Australia, the sixth such symposium, may differ too much from the classical conference model for some participants. It may, in fact, demand too much of an 'out of comfort zone' behaviour for participants who declared themselves to be 'moderately constructivist'. This may be caused in part by the unfamiliarity with aspects of the design of the professional development experience, but also by the dissimilarity of epistemological viewpoints and educational paradigms. In either case, it is important to recognise that the creation of transformative learning opportunities for university educators during the LiHE symposium, which fosters new dynamics and is intended to be empowering, may well have been felt to be disempowering by some participants (V 1, 11,12).
Approach emotions provide intrinsic motivation to stay connected to an event and peers in a problem solving process, whereas withdrawal emotions are a coping strategy evoking a desire to withdraw from the event and disconnect socially and cognitively from peers (Linnenbrink-Garcia, Rogat & Koskey, 2011). The emotional engagement of participants during the course of a novel professional development event, such as future LiHE symposia needs to be monitored. Equally, organisers' expectations during the symposium need to be communicated more clearly to participants. It may be valuable to explore the idea of a social contract for participants, requesting future delegates to sign a 'participation pledge'. Another alternative could be an explicit negotiation dialogue at the start of the symposium when organisers explain what they intend and the processes they plan to use and have participants offer their own facilitation strategies or even have the opportunity to facilitate some sessions. Discussions with delegates revealed that some LiHE Australia participants were motivated by utilitarian goals (getting a quick and easy publication) and were therefore only marginally prepared for and interested in engaging with the transformative professional learning opportunities described in this study (Field notes, 30.11.2011).
The LiHE symposium model exemplifies the shift away from traditional transmission education to a transformative learning centred approach to professional development, characterised by different information sharing activities and types of participant engagement within the LiHE symposium program. The study was able to draw out emerging points of intersection between the general symposium design intent and the reported lived experiences of participants. Some divergence of views of the symposium experience was to be expected. However, the wide variety of views expressed may be less a judgement on the actual design of the professional learning experience and just as much a reflection of the epistemological misalignment between designers and participants. This is a rather unexpected finding. It implies an unmet demand for further formalised evaluations of various professional development models for university educators. More importantly, new professional learning models, such as the LiHE symposia, provide university educators with choice and a variety of ways to engage in professional learning. As these alternative models mature and become more widely known, they may be specifically targeted by university educators seeking deeply constructivist professional development experiences to complement their traditional conference participation.
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|Author: Dr Eva Dobozy is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University. She is a senior member of the teacher education team with a special interest in the intersection between learning theory, learning design, technology enhanced learning and teacher professional development. She is the recipient of the 2006 early career researcher award from the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research for her work on human rights in education. She has a substantial publishing record.|
Please cite as: Dobozy, E. (2012). Learning in Higher Education symposia: A new professional development model for university educators. Issues In Educational Research, 22(3), 228-245. http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/dobozy.html