Learning Development in Higher Education

Series Universities into the 21st Century
Editor(s) Peter Hartley, John Hilsdon, Sandra Sinfield, Christine Keenan and Michelle Verity
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Published 2010
Pages 288
Price £22.99
ISBN 9780230241480
Reviewed by Dr Lia Blaj-Ward
Nottingham Trent International College
Review published 17 March 2011

Hartley et al's edited collection brings together accounts of a number of learning development initiatives in UK higher education with strategy-focused chapters which propose new directions in supporting students to engage successfully in learning. The volume is one of the outcomes of LearnHigher, a cross-institutional government-funded Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (www.learnhigher.ac.uk). The chapters are grouped into five sections. The first section explores issues of history, status, developer roles, philosophical underpinnings and socio-political practice. The second section, 'Supporting students in transition', includes case studies of learners accessing guidance to “understand their relationship with their own learning” (p. 5) and succeed in an academic context. The chapters in the third section contextualise and evaluate a number of approaches to learning support. The fourth section discusses technology for learning, whereas the final section builds on existing experience to suggest ways of moving forward and developing learner development.

The collection speaks to a range of audiences in higher education: developers, academics and managers, both established and aspiring. For readers intending to engage with it linearly, the collection is a coherent and authoritative account of learning development in higher education. For readers who approach the volume with a specific issue in mind, each chapter works as a self-contained entity. To the second category of readers, however, I would recommend not limiting their reading to an individual chapter or section, but combining chapters across sections to access a rewarding, in-depth perspective on learning development.

My purpose in reading Hartley et al.'s volume was to explore issues surrounding one-to-one academic support for international students on a UK university foundation programme; support which goes beyond remedial language work and engages with the student learning experience without crossing into the more personal pastoral area. With this aim in mind, I mapped out my reading path through the volume as summarised below.

Chapter 2 (Murray and Glass) discusses the role of learning developer based on a survey carried out in 2009 and on a number of contributions to a JISC list (LDHEN, see www.aldinhe.ac.uk). A key part of the role appears to be delivering one-to-one tutorials, although, as Murray and Glass note, resource constraints in higher education may mean that this model will be less frequently followed in the future. The degree of interaction between learning developers and academic staff varies from institution to institution; however, it is common for learning developers to participate in decision-making processes about learning at the institutional level. Murray and Glass point to a tension between the “lack of nationally agreed models of good practice” (p. 37) in learning development work and the view that such a model may hinder rather than help valuable interaction between students and developers. Murray and Glass also note the lack of a formal professional qualification for learning developers. Their data leads them to raise the question of whether learning development can currently be viewed as a profession or, alternatively, as a role supported by a community of practice.

On p. 31, Murray and Glass quote Gibbs (2009) who argues that initiatives to embed learning development within institutions should be “backed up with convincing empirical evidence of impact”. In Chapter 7, Turner contributes such evidence through the form of vignettes. One example she gives focuses on an international student. The Study Adviser was able to explain to the student the key requirements for organising material in an academic piece of writing, as well as the various sources of information and support available. As a result, the student’s writing improved and she achieved a pass mark. Sedgley (Chapter 8) uses attendance data and student feedback as evidence of the positive impact of a discipline-embedded writing enhancement programme for international students.

Both Turner (Chapter 7) and Sedgley (Chapter 8) mention resources and logistics as key issues in debates on learning development. Bell (Chapter 11) highlights yet another relevant issue, challenging staff perspectives on learning about writing. Bell drew on the academic literacies framework to engage staff at Nottingham Trent University in developing students’ academic writing. The Academic Writers’ Reading Group she set up is a “social network in which staff discuss, explore and highlight current practice” (p. 148) in this area, whereas Writing Across the Curriculum is an action research project in the context of which academics address student writing within their disciplines and classrooms.

Currant et al. (Chapter 16) address learning development from the point of view of technology and critically engage with the concept of the digital native. They note that competent use of technology in the social context does not always transfer straightforwardly to an educational context and put forward a typology of digital learners (the “digitally reluctant”, the “digitally inexperienced”, the “digital socialites” and the “digitally experienced”). They also offer examples of learning development provision in relation to technology (a social network site for course-specific information or pre-induction activities; students helping students; embedding peer support within a course; embedding technology skills within curriculum content).

The key learning points I collected in my journey through the first four sections were as follows. It is important to: negotiate a model of good practice for one-to-one tutorials with enough flexibility to allow personalised learning to take place; gain a full understanding of the role of developer and of the sources available for continuing professional development; make informed decisions based on reliable evidence; enlist the support of all relevant stakeholders in the delivery of tutorials and engage these stakeholders in a reflection process; and not make false assumptions about the relationship between technical competence and learning value.

The final chapter in the book (Hilsdon et al.) reassuringly notes that learning development is work in progress, and, although government funding for LearnHigher has ceased, other sources of support have been mobilised. In their words, “the history of LearnHigher illustrates the strength of a committed practitioner network to effect real change” (p. 255). Beyond that network (www.aldinhe.ac.uk), Hartley’s et al.'s volume will hopefully add momentum to learning development by inspiring developers, academics and managers to continue to deliver high standard learning development opportunities.