Doing things together instead of alone: structures for Collective SoTL — a guest post by Kirsty Dunnett

Kirsty sent me this super interesting text with a vision of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) being a collective enterprise, rather than a mostly individual one. I love the vision and am excited to repost below!

One of the underlying ideas in which we frame our discussions of departmental teaching culture in iEarth is that of a Community of Practice (Wenger, 1998 – see also Mirjam’s earlier blog post). In terms of teaching practice that is perhaps, not too contentious, however far one may be from it in a given building. However, in a geosciences education section, one starts to ask about what one might achieve in relation to SoTL or education(al) research. The vast majority of SoTL reports I’ve seen involve at most a handful of individuals. Larger, quantitative studies are run by a research team, with cooperating faculty seeming to agents for data collection, nothing more. I have never seen anything where the initial research team deliberately invites all others involved to join in a (research) project to do with university teaching and learning – at least not in the literature I am familiar with. So I went looking for papers about `whole department SoTL’ — and essentially drew a blank.

The idea that spurred such an unprofitable thought came from a colleague who was thinking in Norwegian. Their starting question was rather different to mine: how might one translate ‘felles SoTL’? One possibility was ‘departmental SoTL’, but (and I quote with permission) “I tentatively decided that Collective was more fun.” A search for ‘collective SoTL’ did not find much, but did lead them to the book chapter [1] that I wasn’t finding them with my English-language thinking in which ‘whole departmental SoTL’ was the most accurate term.

Gale starts his chapter [1] by discussing how SoTL is individualised, undertaken and evaluated as an individual activity, even though one of the goals of SoTL is to combat isolation in relation to pedagogical work and development. In most SoTL, work is shared when it is made available to outsiders through dissemination or review; the investigation itself is a private, solitary endeavour. Which is rather in contrast to the way the sciences typically work: research is an ongoing discussion with close colleagues, with input from less close peers at various points, through, for example, critique, follow up or conflicting work; indeed, the very work itself is usually developed on the basis of closely related prior work.

SoTL as an individual endeavour is not just about the development of teaching, but about contributing to the knowledge base of the field. As such, one must not forget that SoTL aims to understand as well as improve student learning. It is an evidence-based endeavour that follows the same inquiry pattern as any research project: observation, investigation, examination (by others) and application (use by others).

But one can go beyond SoTL as an individual endeavour, and instead of focussing on a single course, perform a Collaborative Investigation. The potential of this does not come from a division of labour, but the extended range of ideas made available. The purpose and focus of a Collaborative Investigation will be determined by whether the settings and questions are the same, connected or comparable, aspects which will also determine how the evidence from the different individual contexts can be analysed and combined. As sketched in Table 1 (Table 3.1 of [1]), Collaborative Investigation is feasible – in that interesting discussions can occur – so long as the individual questions and contexts have some connection and insights in relation to one can contribute to thinking in relation to the other(s).

Coming from the teacher’s perspective, one might automatically think of Collaborative Investigation as being between staff, typically within a department, but possibly further afield, but students are another set of potential collaborators (calls for increased student involvement in SoTL have been made elsewhere [2]). The principal difference I see to individual SoTL is that projects will be co-developed, and influenced by other projects. The research aspect is also brought to the fore since questions of the compatibility of data from different individual projects is an important question. In some cases, the sub-projects may lead to self-triangulation of the main project.

Pushing this even further, one comes to the idea of Collective Scholarship, in which SoTL is shared among an entire department, college or university system. Gale asks: ‘What can we learn in concert that we cannot learn as well, or at all, in isolation?’ I immediately think of an orchestra. Performing SoTL individually is taking the perspective of a single player (most obviously the woodwind, brass and percussion who have individual, often largely independent parts, though as a string player, one is still making one’s own, individual contribution). Collaborative Inquiry is then a section – perhaps working with another section. Collective Scholarship involves considering the entire orchestra, with all members able to contribute.

Collective Scholarship, as Gale views it, still involves individual scholars conducting local investigations. However, these disparate inquiry projects are coordinated and share a common, overarching question that connects the different sub-projects. Such projects come with considerable coordination needs, requiring central agreement of goals, sub-projects, evidence and dissemination. However, they clearly have the potential to both recognise individual work and create a forum in which discussions can take place. When Gale was writing in 2007-08, there were few examples of such projects, and, given the large project management needs, it’s probably not surprising that this is still rare.

Gale identifies three types of inquiry as seeming particularly well-suited to Collective Scholarship. Mission-oriented scholarship is related to institutional identity and how this aligns with students’ identities. Then there are projects in which SoTL is used to provide a broad, structured reaction to policy (changes). Meta-cognitive inquiry looks at student learning (what, how, why). The level at which the project is conducted, and the type of project will inform the type, and particularly the source(s) from which the evidence is collected, as summarised in Table 2 (Table 3.3 of [1]). The table makes organisational demands of Collective Scholarship in SoTL very clear, more than that, the networking demands are extremely high.

Gale’s discussion, particularly in this last area, is largely speculative. The biggest practical barrier to Collective Scholarship is probably the one of support and scaffolding – one might point to a university’s central Teaching and Learning unit, but I see no reason why this couldn’t be within a department, or through a learned society or other national or international disciplinary network. However, since SoTL should be driven by the teachers, my sense is that support from these sources may be best in them acting as brokers – and perhaps, but arguably to a lesser extent, managers – of projects at that require institutional and trans-institutional evidence. However, beyond engaging many people in a discussion in which each can make an individual contribution (how important for progression), such a project, if carefully planned and implemented with attention to research quality, would be, to a large degree self-triangulated, much more than any individual (sub-)project. It is important to remember that students should not only benefit from, but also be actively involved in, such a broad-scale investigation.

There are two final points in the paper that I wish to highlight, the first is that a larger-scale approach to SoTL is also a longer term view: Collective SoTL addresses systematic, shared issues, not the localised concerns of an individual teacher (though it might also do that). The other is that, by nurturing communities of scholars at different scales, with a shared focus on teaching, Collective Scholarship is also a process for forging connections and building networks in the teaching commons (c.f. [3]).

While this blog is mostly about the idea of collective SoTL, of moving beyond an emphasis on individual actions in developing teaching. It also highlights another issue that is highly-relevant in today’s English language dominated academia: the limitations of monolingualism (which I’ve pointed to before). If my colleague hadn’t been thinking in Norwegian, it’s entirely possible we might have never found the book chapter.

[1] Gale, R.A. (2008), 3: Points Without Limits: Individual Inquiry, Collaborative Investigation, and Collective Scholarship. To Improve the Academy, 26: 39-52.

[2] Felten, P., Bagg, J., Bumbry, M., Hill, J., Hornsby, K., Pratt, M., & Weller, S. (2013). A Call for Expanding Inclusive Student Engagement in SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1(2), 63–74.

[3] Huber, M. T. & Hutchings, P. (2005) The advancement of learning: Building the teaching commons. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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