Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Teaching and Learning Week at Fort Hare and the Workgroup

The      The Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at Fort Hare celebrated ten years of existence this week. This was attended by TLC members, faculty, the VC, DVC and visitors from North West University and Walter Sisulu University. Invited presentations were from Diane Grayson (the CHE), Nan Yeld (DHET), Rubby Dhunpath (UKZN) and myself. There was a lot of festivity around the event. Particularly exciting were the presentations by students who had benefitted from Supplemental Instruction, and participants on the University's Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education. Vuyisile Nkonki (who along with Patricia Muhuro, is a member of our S, C and A project) pointed out how beneficial the Diploma is to people who come as a group. This was in response to the joint presentation from members of the Accounting Department, who came as a group to the Diploma, and who used their participation to initiate changes in their own programme. This is interesting in the light of the work by writers such as Peter Knight and Paul Trowler, about the significance of the workgroup for professional learning. In fact Trowler and Knight argued that interaction in the immediate work context is more significant for professional learning, than formal courses (Trowler, P. and Knight, P. 1999. Organizational socialization and induction in universities: Reconceptualizing theory and practice. Higher Education, 37: 159–177).  The two-way relationship between the 'workgroup' and participation in graduate courses is currently being investigated in an international research project led by Tai Peseta, called the GCert Workgroup Study. Congrats to the Fort Hare TLC!
Members of the Accounting Department

The TLC team and some visitors

Patricia and Vuyisile - S, C, A research team members

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

What does a 'depth ontology' imply for research on quality teaching and professional development in higher education?

By now several papers have emerged from the Structure, Culture and Agency project, including one which considers significant structural and cultural factors influencing teaching and learning and professional development across the eight higher education institutions in our paper in Higher Education (Leibowitz, Bozalek, van Schalkwyk and Winberg, DOI 10.1007/s10734-014-9777-2) and several others listed in the pages on this blog-site. But I would like to concentrate on the Leibowitz et al study referred to here, in order to tease out something that has been worrying me about our own research using as guiding concept, the interplay of structure, culture and agency. In this article, the focus is on enabling and constraining factors as perceived in particular by academic developers, and this is discussed as they appear to play themselves out across eight sites. The result, in my view, does not lead to 'depth', and makes me wonder how we have benefitted from basing our research on a 'depth ontology'. It feels, by contrast, rather 'flat', and could have been achieved without reference to the work of Margaret Archer at all. It points to a risk associated with multi-site studies, of not looking at the interplay between the dimensions. The way forwards for the analysis of data in studies using the interplay of structure, culture and agency, it seems to me, is provided by three questions which Margaret Archer poses in the article she wrote with Dave Elder-Vass, in 2011. The three questions she poses in the extract below, can be usefully adapted, and can form the base for analysis of data for our own project, and others considering the interplay, and how teaching and learning contexts can be enhanced. I am quoting from the rather enjoyable article to read, by Archer and Elder-Vass, in full:

(a) My own concern as a working sociologist is to develop and refine an analytical
framework that is useful for conducting substantive analyses of why the cultural order
– or part of it – is, in Max Weber’s words, ‘so rather than otherwise’. That is why I call
the Morphogenetic approach an ‘explanatory framework’, in other words, a practical
toolkit (Parker, 2000: 69–85). This means attempting to provide guidelines to produce
particular explanations of cultural phenomena in different times and places, the most
important being:
How the prior context in which cultural interaction develops influences the form it
Which relations between agents respond most closely to these influences and which
tend to cross-cut or nullify them.
Most generally, under what conditions cultural interaction results in morphostasis
rather than morphogenesis.

One can just as easily apply this to the structural order as well, or to both the cultural and structural, at the same time. In a future article, to come out shortly in Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning (CRISTAL), I pay more attention to the human and agentic element. I believe that if we do wish to understand how teaching and learning can be enhanced, it is precisely the interplay between structure, culture and human interaction, that needs to be investigated. What interests me personally in all of this, is the human or individual component, and the extent to which this is indeed reflexive, or more unconscious or habitual or conditioned, as critics of the work of Margaret Archer argue. 

Archer, M.S. & Elder-Vass, D., 2011. Cultural System or norm circles? An exchange. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(1), pp.93–115. Available at: [Accessed May 31, 2014].
Leibowitz, B., Bozalek, V., van Schalkwyk, S & Winberg, C. 2014. Institutional context matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African higher education. Higher Education. Available at: [Accessed July 2, 2014].

Friday, 4 July 2014

Conference presentations by Structure, Culture and Agency team

June has been a busy month for the Structure, Culture and Agency team. We made five presentations at the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) Conference in Stockholm and one poster presentation at the Propel Conference in Stirling. Most of these have been written up for publication or are being written up at our up and coming writing retreat at the end of July. They are mostly based on the idea of the interplay between structure, culture and agency, and are mostly based on the institutional case studies.

Jeff Jawitz also made a presentation on the UCT case study, which is available as part of the ICED proceedings. And finally, Wendy McMillan and Natalie Gordon made a poster presentation based on an interview with one lecturer, using complexity theory:

Here are some photos of some of the South African gang enjoying Stockholm:

Thursday, 3 July 2014

New article from project on the influence of institutional context on quality teaching

The latest article based on the Structure, Culture and Agency project is entitled Institutional Context Matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African Higher Education, by Brenda Leibowitz, Vivienne Bozalek, Susan van Schalkwyk and Chris Winberg (Higher Education, DOI 10.1007/s10734-014-9777-2).

Abstract: This study features the concept of ‘context’ and how various macro, meso and micro features of the social system play themselves out in any setting. Using South Africa as an example, it explores the features that may constrain or enable professional development, quality teaching and the work of teaching and learning centres at eight universities in varied socio-cultural settings. The article draws on the work of critical realists and their explication of the concepts of structure, culture and agency. The research design was participatory, where members of teaching and learning centres at the eight institutions defined the aims and key questions for the study. They collected the data on which this article is based, namely a series of descriptive and reflective reports. The findings clustered around six themes: history, geography and resources; leadership and administrative processes; beliefs about quality teaching and staff development; recognition and appraisal; and capacity, image and status of the TLC staff. These features play out in unique and unpredictable constellations in each different context, while at the same time, clusters of features adhere together. Whilst there is no one to one, predictive relationship between university type and outcome, there is a sense that socio-economic contextual features are salient and require greater attention than other features.