Academic developers in the open: Renewing the care for our work…by Claire McAvinia


Claire McAvinia

Learning Teaching and Technology Centre, TU Dublin

The theme of care has been explored eloquently and in a range of contexts through recent OER20 guest posts.

In this post, I am interpreting the idea of care from the perspective of an academic developer. I’ve reflected on the purpose of our work to enhance learning and teaching in higher education and how care is at the heart of that work but often challenged or eroded by the pressures we might face. Academic or faculty developers seek to improve the educational experiences of all students, predominantly through working with those involved in teaching them. We support our institutions to achieve their educational missions. We engage with the evolving higher education landscape and research to develop practice locally. Framing this role in relation to openness and care challenges the academic developer to re-commit to her work. In this post, I share some thinking about this challenge by reflecting on OER19 and how OER20 offers the opportunity for all of us to renew our care for what we do in collaboration and conversation with colleagues.

OER19 in Galway was my first experience of the OER conference. Afterwards I reflected that the conference had gone far beyond my initial assumptions that it would focus on open educational resources (OERs). Instead, it had moved towards asking us to think critically about open practices and open education, and whose interests are served. Social justice and sustainability were explored, particularly in the inspiring keynotes, and we were challenged to rethink the future of higher education in a climate of global political uncertainty and relentless marketisation. My experience at OER19 was as a novice or apprentice, particularly seeing so many peers present whose work I had admired for years. It was exciting but disruptive to my thinking and my practice, something I welcomed despite the initial discomfort. I blogged later about the nervousness I felt speaking, which is something I have been lucky not to experience before. These nerves, I realised, were down to finding a new community – a vibrant and exciting group whose work energised and challenged me, and wanting to join in with their activities. A case of being the peripheral participant in the community of practice (as Lave and Wenger put it in 1993) and wanting that participation to be legitimate.

Some months on, how do these thoughts connect with our discussions of care, and the theme of OER20? For me, it has been through reconsideration of my values as an academic developer, and rewriting my teaching philosophy statement during this year. The valuable OER19 session by Lillian Hogendoorn and Ali Versluis about creating a values statement for open practitioners began this process. I have to thank my colleague Angelica Risquez of UL for suggesting this one as she had planned to go along. It turned out to be a great opportunity to reflect on openness and on the conference. We had to draft writing about our responses to a series of prompts. Why, how and for whom did we support Open Education? How would this influence our practice? I wrote that open education should be part of the mission of academic developers, which was not something I had considered previously. My previous role was as a Learning Technologist, and I associated open with digital rather than with teaching development. But aligning open only with technologies or distance learning programmes does a disservice to all of us and neglects our responsibilities as academic developers. It turns out that we share values with open educators too (Donnelly, 2015). Clegg (2009) has discussed the role of academic development as a site of change in influencing discourse and practice in higher education institutions. At OER19, Sheila McNeill, Keith Smyth and Bill Johnston echoed this work, stating that academic development and open education were at the heart of the development of the organisation. Academic developers need to engage with open education and bring it to the mainstream of our work.

Open education has the potential to renew and re-energise the care for our work as academic developers. Engaging with open practitioners, including at events like OER20, allows us to cross boundaries and work directly with librarians, learning technologists, assistive technology experts, and numerous others developing teaching and learning. There is the potential for all of us to increase the impact of our work – a complex challenge for academic developers alone – through collaboration in the open. Academic developers are busy people juggling many commitments. With urgent obligations to support staff, implement policies, or engage with quality processes in programme design and development, it can be easy to become immersed in the local picture and potentially to feel a degree of cynicism with the rates of progress and types of change we see. But it is critically important for us to keep sight of the bigger picture: the need to address equality, sustainability and social justice in our roles. It is important for us to remember to care about our privileged positions, and our responsibilities to community and society. Technology enables us to open up our practices, our scholarship and our resources. We can and should be creating opportunities for those who come to campus (or attend virtually) to explore and achieve their own potential on their terms, not ours.

It is difficult to venture into the open, and work openly in digital spaces. Recommitting to care for our academic development work in the context of open practice (Cronin & MacLaren, 2018) can help us to overcome our hesitations and uncertainties – this has been my experience following OER19. I hope all those of you planning to be at OER20 will have a similarly transformational experience.