Academic development as horizontal learning

There are different ways to approach academic development: courses are very common with different lengths and amounts of collaboration built in, as loose collection of seminars or with progression over several courses, as are inspirational presentations, or individual seeking of informations in podcasts or blogs. Those approaches depend both on what individuals seek out, and what institutions offer. Here, I briefly summarize what academic development as horizontal learning means.

Poell et al. (2000) describe horizontal learning as one of the four different types of work-related learning in their “learning-network theory” (the other three being liberal: individual self-directed and unstructured collection of single activities; vertical: where learning is centrally and linearly planned and structured; and external: methodical, profession-oriented and externally-coordinated learning from advisors). In horizontal learning, collegial learning develops organically over time and is supported by (peer) counselling, and is open or thematically organized. This is the type of collegial learning that academic development seems to move towards, but what does that mean?

Ling et al. (2004) find in an Australian context that a lot of professional development for academics happens in informal groupings without pre-designed learning programs and in experiential settings that have the shared goal to work towards solving specific issues (but they also make use of vertical learning opportunities to acquire specific skills, or external learning networks where appropriate). They state that, seeing that likely all types of learning networks are at play at the same time for different purposes, academic development needs to be sensitive to what is appropriate and desired in the specific contexts and for specific purposes (which obviously makes sense).

Knight et al. (2006) stress the importance of non-formal (and sometimes non-intentional) learning for teachers in higher education. However, they warn against the assumption that it will always automatically happen and stress that it needs spaces for creation of shared meaning, power relationships that encourage participation and collegiality, and that procedures and practices (“reflection”) are in place.

Examples of horizontal learning in academic development that still happens by design and within a structure are mentioned in Högfeldt et al. (2023) that I wrote about recently, for example their “big meetup” with all relevant stakeholders every semester, or continuously meeting “prioritized topic groups”.

Even though we don’t explicitly call it that, our work at CEE, building on Roxå & Mårtensson‘s work, also uses a lot of horizontal learning, in a nutshell: “More and better conversations!”, where we do provide meeting spaces and impulses for discussions, but largely rely on teachers building on those and talk about what is relevant to them in conversations that we are not part of. We do nudge teachers towards continuing those conversations beyond our courses by subtle tricks like grouping participants with peers that they are likely to encounter over and over again at their work place, making it more likely that conversations continue. Or by requiring input from “critical friends” on written work, where the critical friends are from the participants’ network and again, once a conversation is started, it might continue organically next time they meet at the coffee machine.

Learning from Roxå and Mårtensson and the experiences at CEE, in iEarth and #CoCreatingGFI we have also implemented several horizontal learning opportunities: Teacher breakfasts on relevant topics “on demand” where there is some input, but a lot of time for conversations and also breakfast, the GeoLearning Forum with lots of opportunities to participate, discuss, network …, a monthly Journal Club where articles are suggested by participants (rather than participants being given a pre-determined reading list).

All these efforts, both at CEE and in my Norwegian projects, build on the theory of Communities of Practice (CoP; Wenger 1998). Teachers (and in Norway also students and other staff) come together in a community with a shared domain of interest (e.g. improving geoscience education) and the shared practice they are engaged in (learning and/or teaching at GFI). There are many success factors in fostering a CoP, for example that people meet regularly, that the boundaries are open in the sense that it is ok for people to dip in for a bit and then either move in closer to the center and get more engaged, or leave again, and that there are some type of artifacts that document the shared learning so that people can gradually build on it and also share it with others outside of the CoP, or members that might have missed a meeting.

When we think about academic development in that way, our job becomes being a “systems convenor in complex landscapes of practice” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2014), coaching the growth and striving of CoPs.

There are many arguments for using a horizontal learning approach for academic development, for example

  • in academia, nobody likes to be told what to learn, so discussing about personally meaningful questions with peers is a lot better received than top-down “instruction”
  • also locally co-created meaning is more meaningful, and useful, and likely to actually be used, than expert knowledge that might not fit the exact context
  • if colleagues create meaning together and their teaching influences each other, that makes for much better teaching overall, and also for a more cohesive experience for students
  • having support networks is so important, and they form more easily when there are organic conversations rather than just sitting in the same room with other people, listening to an external expert
  • if people are used to sharing, knowledge stays in the organization and doesn’t leave with the one expert who knew
  • there is thus a real development of an organization, not just of individuals

This is not to say that for example an expert presentation should never be used — of course in the right context, there are a lot of benefits from them as well! And of course it is helpful if there is some idea in the organization of how to develop teaching over time, and what overarching goals are, etc.. And of course it is great if individuals scout for inspiration and ideas widely. But it works best if all of those activities then flow back into the community, and often times this needs to be facilitated in some way, if only through calling the meetings and providing the coffee. And that’s part of the academic developer’s job then :-)

Högfeldt, A. K., Gumaelius, L., Berglund, P., Kari, L., Pears, A., & Kann, V. (2023). Leadership, support and organisation for academics’ participation in engineering education change for sustainable development. European Journal of Engineering Education48(2), 240-266.

Knight, P., Tait, J., & Yorke, M. (2006). The professional learning of teachers in higher education. Studies in higher education, 31(03), 319-339.

Ling, L., Burman, E., Cooper, M., & Ling, P. (2004). Universities as learning networks. Critical Studies in Education, 45(1), 23-40.

Poell, R. F., Chivers, G. E., Van der Krogt, F. J., & Wildemeersch, D. A. (2000). Learning-network theory: Organizing the dynamic relationships between learning and work. Management learning, 31(1), 25-49.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

Wenger-Trayner, B., & Wenger-Trayner, E. (2014). Systems conveners in complex landscapes. In Learning in landscapes of practice (pp. 99-118). Routledge.

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