Leading learning in Australian tertiary institutions: Narrative support for unit coordinators
Edith Cowan University
This research investigates the experience of unit coordinators across Australia. It builds on an earlier Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) project that examined and clarified the role of unit coordinators as leaders of learning in higher education (UCaLL). In this paper we focus on the first phase of the project that involved crafting narrative accounts from semi-structured interviews describing the lived experiences of participants. We wanted to know how unit coordinators perceive their role as leaders of learning in higher education and whether the support provided to them met their needs. Nine themes were identified among the narrative accounts and these include; teaching and assessment, starting out, managing workloads and complexity, leading learning and feeling isolated. We found that unit coordinators welcomed our interest in their work, although many did not view themselves as leaders of learning in their institutions. We also found that few unit coordinators described strong institutional support for their role, instead relying on building supportive relationships with colleagues and that the development of a 'just in time-just for me' website interested our participants.
The aims of this project are twofold. First, we are developing narratives from the lived experiences of unit coordinators to provide relevant 'just in time-just for me' support for their peers. Second, we are exploring the availability of training and useful resources relevant to university unit coordinators and, linking them to the narratives. Our narratives and training/research links will be available via a purpose developed website. This research is designed to reinvigorate and strengthen engagement among academics responsible for unit coordination. While much of the leadership development in higher education focuses on the more formal and traditional leader our research focuses on leading learning from the Unit Coordinator's perspective. Our research questions are:
How do unit coordinators perceive their role as leaders of learning in higher education?
How does the support provided to unit coordinators in this leadership role meet their needs?
Our semi-structured interviews were initiated to gather information about participants': job satisfaction; their opportunities and requirements for professional development and; their perceptions of leading learning. After agreeing to an interview participants were asked several introductory questions, and then invited to describe unit coordination as they experienced it. With each participant's permission interviews were taped for later transcription and the crafting of narratives. On completion, each narrative (or case study or vignette) was returned to the participant for permission to use on our website.
Narrative accounts, were selected as our qualitative research strategy because they permit life-like and powerful stories focused on 'the lived experience' (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Narratives also enable participants' stories and descriptions of experience to be honoured and given status (Conle, 2003; Pepper & Wildy, 2009). Such descriptions support the criteria for 'good educational research' as they contribute to peoples' well-being (Hostetler, 2005).
Through analysing our narratives, we answered our research questions. Initially, we searched through our narratives and identified phrases describing aspects of the unit coordinators work. For example, phrases such as "I had three weeks to sort out the curriculum, find tutors and text books for students"; "nothing was left behind; it was a case of sink or swim", and "I received little guidance so had to find out how to do things for myself" were categorised as Starting Out. Similarly, phrases such as "In the short term my research is on the back burner"; "see some tension between research and teaching expectations"; "I work to be strategic and marry my research and teaching agenda" and; " must choose between focusing on research into chemistry or education research or simply move away from both to teach" were categorised as Research/Teaching Dilemma.
After several iterations we categorised the phrases into a number of themes before reducing them to a manageable number. Our next step was to ascertain how unit coordinators coped with the challenges they met in their role. To do this we categorised the many challenges referred to within our narrative accounts and looked for patterns (Ryan & Bernard, 2003).
As our one page narratives become available on the purpose developed website, we are also uploading generic resources linked to the themes identified within them. Thus, we are building a resource for unit coordinators so that they may access information, just in time, to meet their need for information and support.
|Teaching and assessment||60|
|Managing workloads and complexity||41|
|Maintaining and improving unit quality||32|
|Administering, complying with policy||28|
|Working with sessional staff||15|
From Table 1 it is clear that comments on teaching and assessment, starting out, and managing workloads and complexity, appear most frequently among the narratives. The research/teaching dilemma appears, with feeling isolated, as the least frequent themes drawing comment from participants. Numerous specific challenges are identified within each theme with behaviours perceived to minimise the challenges of unit coordination also identified by participants. These behaviours are listed in Table 2.
From the information tabled it is clear that participants rely heavily on their colleagues, building relationships and communicating with others to minimise the challenges they face as unit coordinators. Organising and accessing formal training are also considered helpful.
|Narrative theme||Behaviour to minimise challenges|
|Teaching and assessment||Build rapport with students|
Access formal training
|Starting out||Informal networks|
Access formal training
|Managing workloads/complexity||Communicate effectively and share responsibilities|
Plan and prioritise
|Maintaining/improving quality||Communicate, collaborate with colleagues|
Implement small changes initially
|Administration/complying with policy and technology||Create a checklist of key deadlines and policies|
|Leading learning||Act confidently|
Model professionalism and conscientiousness
|Working with sessional staff||Communicate clear expectations|
Access teaching and learning support centre
|Researching/teaching dilemma||Negotiate workload allocation with Head of School|
|Feeling isolated||Seek mentors|
Build relationships with colleagues
Three narratives are included to illustrate our data. All narratives have a title to distinguish them from other narratives. The first, Organised chaos, was written from an interview transcript gathered during the UCaLL project and describes the work of an experienced unit coordinator who has become familiar with her role.
I began coordinating units at this university three years ago after working as a unit coordinator for a few years previously at another university. My understanding of unit coordination began earlier while working as a sessional and asking what others probably saw as 'dumb questions'. At first I expected to receive some form of training and when I realised it wasn't going to happen I started asking questions of my line manager or people in adjoining offices. There were many times I received no pre-warning about timetable request deadlines or deadlines for ordering textbooks and library requests. For much of the first two years I was in reaction mode until the fog cleared and I realised there is an annual sequence and predictable deadlines keep recurring.
Now that I am more familiar with the system I know how to organise most things for myself. I coordinate about seven units each year; teaching in three and delivering lectures in the others. Because I remember the difficulties of sessional work I try to help our sessional staff concentrate on their area of expertise so I look after much of the administration involving their classes. For example, I ensure duplicate sessions are timetabled on the same day for them, do the photocopying, locate recent texts and articles for them and generally monitor their classes' progress. It is important that I know how students are progressing so I consolidate all marks and often attend the final performance sessions. Each semester I spend time with each sessional staff individually and during these informal, paid meetings I hear how the semester ran, listen to suggestions for improvement in content and delivery and show my support for their work.
I feel valued and supported by my line manager and my peers. Though, as the only full time performance studies lecturer, I sometimes wonder whether it is pedagogically sound that I select the unit content in isolation. On the one hand I can be creative and have fun deciding on material myself, but on the other hand I miss the collegial conversation and moderation possible with others. Where possible I collaborate with colleagues based in other state universities and attend drama conferences to keep my knowledge current.
When she reflects upon her role, this coordinator associates organised chaos, labour intensity, and the variety of skills she requires to perform all aspects of the role. She sees the time she spends with staff as important to develop and support them. As a specialist she feels professionally isolated and worries about the rigour of developing a unit on her own.
A baptism of fire, our second narrative describes the early experiences of a unit coordinator and her strategies to cope successfully in a new and unsupported role while dealing with large student numbers and sessional staff.
A baptism of fire
On my appointment as an academic in late February, my new boss said, 'We don't have a course coordinator for the first year business information systems unit, can you look after it?' I had three weeks to sort out the curriculum, find tutors and text books for 900 internal students and 350 external students. Because the previous coordinator left nothing behind, stepping into the role became a baptism of fire, a case of sink or swim, and felt scary. Fortunately, my previous experience as a general staff member ensured I was familiar with writing newspaper advertisements for tutoring staff, I understood how the School ran, while also retaining a strong rapport with staff, and I was familiar with the unit content.
Selecting tutors from among the 25 applications I received and my own contacts meant classes were quickly organised as I was happy to deliver the unit lectures. After choosing an appropriate text I scoured the internet for materials and relied on experienced colleagues to also contribute. My survival depended on accepting help from peers I respected, trusted, and who were willing to offer advice or correction as necessary. By working with others in a cohesive, supporting team I managed to coordinate the unit and survive.
The next year a similar situation arose when I coordinated our Masters course. I saw that the materials being used did not match the student syllabus and knew it required courage to tell others that the course needed redesigning or changes made to the course statements to align the documents. With support and assistance from my peers the changes were made for the benefit of our students. As a more experienced unit coordinator now, I still discuss ideas with colleagues regularly, especially around assessment issues. I encourage several valued external tutors to remain involved in our units for their own and the Schools' benefit.
I also enjoy keeping up with changes in technology by trialling new software and working at the cutting edge. In recent times I also trialled our Learning Management System, teaching summer school units and our new course outline testing panel. I still enjoy teaching and finding out what works best for each student. I remain passionate about new courses, liaising with industry representatives to develop joint projects and teaching off shore.
This unit coordinator describes a challenging situation on assuming her new academic role. She also describes her previous experience in the tertiary sector as assisting to prepare her for the responsibilities of unit coordination and her pleasure in facing new challenges.
The third narrative, Leading not managing, describes the practice of another experienced unit coordinator who articulates her feelings of being undervalued in the tertiary setting. She manages to merge her teaching and research interests.
Leading not managing
As unit coordinator I constantly change my teaching program to make my classes relevant to my students, interesting for me, and to lead the learning. With responsibility for the largest class in the school I deal with huge diversity, provide pastoral care and provide on line assistance to students. In my tutorials I encourage one team of students to present to the others so there is an element of game playing, and then I help them apply the learning feedback from their peers. In another unit I bring in an industry speaker weekly. Industry experts and graduates are excellent exemplars for students to see how the business world operates and the potential careers open to them. Students tell me that my lessons are great. I regularly collect and publish data on my teaching and learning and I am preparing to publish longitudinal data collected from my third year students.
I now see my role as leader in my discipline rather than manager. It has been in my own interests to develop supportive networks external to my discipline and my school so I participate in teaching and learning communities as much as possible. These communities permit inter disciplinary conversations appropriate for design thinking, recognise good teaching practice, encourage self determination and provide emotionally intelligent support. I value diversity and self reflection so enjoy meeting new people from different backgrounds. I already use on-line tools for collaboration and discussion with my students and my local and overseas colleagues both within and outside my own discipline. Membership of one teaching and learning community currently enables me to participate in an on-line pilot study learning to develop an evaluation tool, peer review and build problem resources around technology.
While it took some time for this coordinator to settle into her role she now sees herself as a leader in her discipline. She values her membership within supportive teaching and learning communities.
As leaders of learning, proactive unit coordinators who model scholarly teaching approaches to students and staff are also successful in inspiring them (Roberts et. al., 2011). Across the narratives participants describe a range of responsibilities shaping their role. For example, their responsibilities generally include leading a unit of study, liaising, collaborating and networking with stakeholders and maintaining unit resources that reflect a command of the field. Others specifically describe their responsibilities to: motivate and inspire their students to learn; locate, manage and supervise sessional staff; and to manage large numbers of students much as described by Roberts et al., (2011). Sometimes these responsibilities are assumed by coordinators as they grow into the role because they are infrequently stated explicitly. According to Southwell et. al., (2008) most curriculum leaders, including unit coordinators, learn through trial and error in their leadership experiences.
The challenges mentioned most frequently among the narratives fall within the theme, Teaching and assessment, inferring that unit coordinators place much emphasis on this part of their role. Teaching and assessment was also acknowledged as an issue in two of the three narratives appearing in this paper. Unit coordinators represented in the narratives indicate that the challenges: creating a robust curriculum; locating and choosing appropriate texts and materials; ensuring content relevance and interest; and maintaining good teaching practice may be alleviated by: building rapport with their students; seeking mentors to encourage and nurture them, and by accessing formal training offered by the university.
The theme, Starting out emerged as the second most frequent in Table 1 and is evident in the three narratives. Challenges linked to Starting out include: asking 'dumb questions' of the line manager and people in nearby offices; operating in reaction mode; receiving no pre-warnings about important deadlines; being left no materials from a the previous Unit Coordinator; sorting out curriculum; finding tutors and text books for large classes of students; isolation and having no knowledge of university operations and processes. The impacts of these challenges typically associated with starting out in the role may be minimised through accessing informal collegial networks, seeking mentors and accessing formal training.
The third most frequent theme, Managing workloads and complexity, is also evident in the three narratives, and challenges may be alleviated by communicating effectively with colleagues, sharing responsibilities and planning and prioritising. Challenges outlined in the narratives from which this theme derives include: rushing to meet curriculum and reporting deadlines; receiving little guidance or information, and inadequate explanation about the expectations of the role. Emotional outcomes arising from these challenges include feelings of isolation, of fear and fogginess leading participants to believe that that they were being placed in a position of 'sink or swim' or they experienced 'a baptism of fire', and that they were not highly valued as unit coordinators.
Surprisingly, while isolation is mentioned in the narrative 'Organised chaos' it does not feature highly across the study, perhaps because many unit coordinators learn quickly, that survival in this demanding role requires them to be proactive in building networks of support. A further surprise is the relatively low frequency of the research-teaching dilemma and working with sessional staff themes, although this may alter as further analysis is completed.
For most of the other themes, the behaviours suggested to minimise the impact of challenges encountered by unit coordinators relate to good communication and relationship building with either a mentor or Head of school and being organised. Demonstrating confidence, professionalism and enthusiasm towards both students and colleagues are strategies described to reduce the challenges of learning leadership. Our research questions are discussed below.
Sixty percent of our narratives include comments relating to university 'teaching and assessment', forty four percent relate to 'starting out' in the university sector and forty one percent refer to 'managing workloads and the complexity' of the unit coordinators' work. Surprisingly, just twenty five percent of our narratives developed from participant interviews refer to 'leading learning'. Apart from the occasional exception few unit coordinators perceive themselves as leaders of learning though appreciate there is scope for such leadership in the role. Disappointingly, few unit coordinators describe strong institutional support for their role in their universities. Frequent comments describing strategies to compensate for inadequate orientation and the provision of adequate professional development time occur.
Unit coordinators describe coping strategies to compensate for the above shortcomings throughout the narrative accounts. Such strategies include building relationships with colleagues, both individually and in supportive networks, and with mentors. On completion of our project all narratives crafted from our interviews will be placed on our purpose built website where the themes described in them will be linked to a number of resources located from across Australia and internationally. Among unit coordinators across Australia, strong interest was expressed in the 'just in time-just for me' website under construction. Unit coordinators also appreciated our time listening to and valuing their stories.
Cohen, L., Bunker, A. & Ellis, R. (2007). Exploring the role of unit coordinators within universities. In Enhancing Higher Education, Theory and Scholarship, Proceedings of the 30th HERDSA Annual Conference, Adelaide, 8-11 July 2007: pp. 111-120. http://www.herdsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/conference/2007/papers/p204.pdf
Conle, C. (2003). An anatomy of narrative curricula. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 3-15. http://edr.sagepub.com/content/32/3/3.abstract
Debowski, S. & Blake, V. (2004). The developmental needs of higher education academic leaders in encouraging effective teaching and learning. In Seeking educational excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/debowski.html
Hostetler, K. (2005). What is 'Good' education research? Educational Researcher, 34(6), 16-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.3102/0013189X034006016
Lefoe, G. Parrish, D., Hart, G., Smigiel, H. & Pannan, L. (2008). Distributive leadership for learning and teaching: Developing the faculty scholars' model. NSW, Australia: CEDIR, University of Wollongong. http://www.uow.edu.au/cedir/DistributiveLeadership/docs/GREEN_Report.pdf
Pepper, C. & Wildy, H. (2009). Using narratives as a research strategy. Qualitative Research Journal, 9(2), 18-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3316/QRJ0902018
Roberts, S., Brooker, M. & Butcher, L. (2011). Clarifying, developing and valuing the role of unit coordinators as informal leaders of learning in higher education. Strawberry Hill, NSW: Report for Australian Learning and Teaching Council. http://www.tlc.murdoch.edu.au/project/ucall/docs/FinalReport_UCaLL_Nov10.pdf
Ryan, G. W. & Bernard, H. R. (2003). Techniques to identify themes. Field Methods, 15(1), 85-109. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1525822X02239569
Southwell, D., West, D. & Scoufis, M. (2008). Caught between a rock and several hard places: Cultivating the roles of the Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) and the Course Coordinator. The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Ltd: Sydney, Australia. http://www.olt.gov.au/project-caught-between-rock-several-hard-places-qut-2005
Scott, G., Coates, H. & Anderson, M. (2008). Learning leaders in times of change: Academic leadership capabilities for Australian higher education. Sydney, NSW: Australian Learning and Teaching Council and Australian College of Educational Research. http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/UWSACER_CarrickLeadershipReport.pdf
|Authors: Dr Coral Pepper is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Regional Futures in the Faculty of Regional Professional Studies, Edith Cowan University, Bunbury, WA and also lectures in Science Education. Her current research interests are in educational leadership, science education and Problem Based Learning.|
Dr Susan Roberts was funded by the ALTC to clarify the role of the Unit Coordinator before exploring the challenges they face and shaping support and professional development programs specific to their needs. She is an experienced HR Manager and Consultant, Unit Coordinator, Tutor and Academic Developer.
Please cite as: Pepper, C. & Roberts, S. (2012). Leading learning in Australian tertiary institutions: Narrative support for unit coordinators. Issues In Educational Research, 22(2), 169-179. http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/pepper.html