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Challenging, developing and valuing general staff: The Action eXchange Learning Program

Claire Brown, Ann Backhaus and Cassandra Colvin
Edith Cowan University

Universities are complex if not at times contradictory organisations. On the one hand, they offer courses in a range of disciplines that provide cutting edge pedagogy in the theory and practice of various disciplines. On the other hand, when it comes to actually applying the same cutting edge theory to their own workplace professional development (PD) practices, there is sometimes a gap between the practice and the rhetoric. One example of this gap has been in the area of PD for general staff. Coaldrake and Stedman make the point that general staff "comprise nationally the majority of university employees". The paper describes an inevitable blurring of roles between academic and general staff as being a consequence of this change to the traditional roles that have previously delineated them. It makes sense then that investing in quality, better targeted PD for more than half of a university's staff is not only sensible, it is essential.

In this paper we introduce the Action eXchange Learning PD Program (AXL) - an interactive, collaborative PD program that is based on the concept of Practitioner Based Enquiry and uses an action learning model. We describe the development of the model and its action learning component. With the first implementation of the model currently underway, we describe the initial responses to the pilot study and explain how the model fits ECU's Quality Review cycle. We describe the evaluation model that will be used to further improve and refine the AXL program. Finally, we place the issue of PD of general staff in the context of universities as Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and how it is therefore incumbent upon universities to model best practice PD for its own staff.


Introduction: Valuing general staff in universities

Universities are complex if not at times contradictory organisations. On the one hand, they offer courses in a range of disciplines that provide cutting edge pedagogy in the theory and practice of various disciplines. On the other hand, when it comes to actually applying the same cutting edge theory to their own workplace professional development (PD) practices, there is sometimes a gap between the practice and the rhetoric. One example of this gap has been in the area of PD for general staff. Coaldrake and Stedman make the point that general staff "comprise nationally the majority of university employees" (Coaldrake & Stedman, 1999, p. 16). In their paper, Coaldrake and Stedman cite the 1997 Dearing Inquiry into Higher Education in the UK, which describes a "growing range of para-academic roles" that are developing in response to the changing requirements of the university workplace (Coaldrake & Stedman, 1999, p. 15). Coaldrake and Stedman take this point further and talk about the need for universities in the 21st Century to better develop the skills of all staff, but particularly those who are not full time academics. The paper describes an inevitable blurring of roles between academic and general staff as being a consequence of this change to the traditional roles that have previously delineated them.
Nevertheless, the actual and potential blurring of roles is important, and will continue to grow in significance as universities move into more flexible modes of delivery of teaching and learning and as they seek to support and reward staff for their skills, performance and potential rather than on the basis of job classifications. The latter is a significant point, because academic and non-academic employment and career development are quite different in nature. (Coaldrake & Stedman, 1999, p. 16)
The career development and employment conditions of academic and general staff are quite different, and so the PD needs are different, too. It makes sense then, that investing in quality, better targeted PD for more than half of a university's staff is not only sensible, it is essential.

Historically, most of the professional development offerings to general staff at ECU have, until recently, consisted of a fairly unimaginative, albeit practical recycling of short courses that have tended to focus on Information Technology and Communications (ICT) skills, or the repackaging of basic communications/customer relations type courses. For the most part these courses have employed a passive, single event model that requires minimal input from attendees. Faced with the task of developing the next year's PD program for general staff in one Faculty, it was agreed that some alternative models needed to be developed. In this paper we introduce the Action eXchange Learning PD Program (AXL) - an interactive, collaborative PD program that is based on the concept of Practitioner Based Enquiry and uses an action learning model. (The terms action learning and action research are used interchangeably in this paper.) We describe the development of the model and its action learning component. With the first implementation of the model currently underway, we describe the initial responses to the pilot study and explain how the model fits ECU's Quality Review cycle. We describe the evaluation model that will be used to further improve and refine the AXL program. Finally, we place the issue of PD of general staff in the context of universities being the epitome of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and how it is therefore incumbent upon universities to model best practice PD for its own staff.

Developing the AXL program

In ascertaining the needs of general staff in the Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences (CSESS), senior general staff conducted a focus group meeting with some of the HEW 5 general staff, and reviewed the feedback provided by general staff in the annual Management for Performance exercise. One of the emerging themes was a sense of frustration that Faculty staff were experiencing in dealing with staff from the service Centres in the University. Unrealistic demands caused by a lack of understanding of each area's core business seemed to be exacerbated by poor communication. Based on this feedback, we invited the Faculty's Staff Development Officer (SDO) from the University's Professional Development Centre (PDC) to collaborate on developing some alternative PD programs.

However, it was a chance conversation with the Coordinator of International Student Services from ECU International that saw the AXL program really begin to develop. Having worked in both a Faculty and a service Centre, she identified similar concerns and talked about the tendency for staff in some areas to develop a "silo" mentality to their work context. That is, staff in either a Faculty or Centre seem to view their work as essentially operations that are discrete from other areas of the University, and thus, operational decisions in that area are made without respect to the consequences they may have for other areas. This is not a problem unique to ECU, but it was something we decided to tackle through the AXL PD program.

Essentially the managers involved were keen to engage their staff in meaningful and productive intra-university workplace exchange opportunities that would enable these staff to gain an enhanced knowledge and understanding of work practices in each other's area. The program offers participants a cross-sectional look at the University by engaging in process improvement and benchmarking activities. Participants are supported in transferring their newly gained knowledge and experience into the larger workplace context. It is believed that such collaboration between different sections of the university will ultimately lead to enhanced communication between the departments and improved work practices overall. In an effort to make the PD experience more meaningful, sustainable and responsive to the needs of general staff in developing broader workplace skills, we have based the AXL program on an action learning model.

Practitioner Based Enquiry (PBE) and the action learning model

In an action learning model, attendees are participants, that is, they participate actively in their learning.
Action research does not send people off to engage in solitary action and reflection. It incorporates a commitment to collaborative inquiry, which means that not only is the work of individuals encouraged and supported, but the possibility for real change is allowed, as alternative interpretations of evidence are considered (Grundy, 1995, p. 5).
Stephen Kemmis and Shirley Grundy describe two principal aims of action research as being improvement and involvement (Grundy, 1995).

The aim of improvement targets three areas:

By incorporating an action learning model in a PD program, meaningful, relevant and immediately applicable learning opportunities are directed towards generating improvements in workplace practices.

In the UK, such small scale, applied educational research activity has come to be known as Practitioner Based Enquiry (PBE) and has become a favoured PD model for postgraduate research and PD in education, nursing and health studies and other areas (Murray & Lawrence, 2000, p. 5). We felt that in order for the proposed PD experience to provide a significant, long term learning opportunity, it needed to be more substantial in both content and structure than typical general staff PD offerings had been. Using an action research or PBE approach served two purposes. First, it provided a convenient and effective research model suited to implementation in workplace settings, and second, it would allow general staff to actually participate in the very kind of authentic learning experience that they administered for other staff and students. We also felt (rather altruistically!) that general staff who undertook a more substantial PD program that clearly documented the development of their initiative and problem solving skills might also gain them some credibility if not status in their own eyes and perhaps elsewhere. Murray and Lawrence describe the philosophy behind PBE as being to establish

the professional concerns of practitioners as the raw material to be reconstituted in a teaching-learning process that contrasts markedly with content oriented and direct instruction based models that characterise much of the conventional higher education environment (Murray & Lawrence, 2000, p.4).
Adapting this philosophy to our context and bearing in mind Coaldrake and Stedman's observation that traditional staffing roles are blurring, we believe that general staff should be seen as professional practitioners. In so doing, we wanted to provide a more substantial PD model that focused on the teaching-learning process rather than regurgitating some prescribed, pre-packaged content.
It is postulated that by engaging in systematic enquiries into one's own practices the possibilities for improvements in practice are made real (Murray & Lawrence, 2000, p.6).
The introduction of PBE as a method of enquiry for improving an individual's own workplace is challenging, but should ultimately lead to better long term, continuous PD. Murray and Lawrence say that "researching into one's own practices is democratising and empowering" (Murray & Lawrence, 2000, p.7). Once the PBE process has been learned, it can be applied to different workplace contexts as required, and so the staff member is able to extrapolate from this experience to apply a problem solving approach to other workplace situations. It was the process, and in particular, the systematic process of reflecting on one's own practice that we felt was the most powerful aspect to be incorporated into the AXL program.

The AXL PD model

A flow chart has been provided in Appendix 1 that summarises the AXL PD model. Staff in CSESS and ECU International were invited to nominate for the pilot study. The line managers from each area prepared a comprehensive "orientation" pack for the participants. The Faculty's SDO conducted the introductory session, which was a substantial in service for the participants. The two line managers of the respective areas also participated. During this two hour session, the objectives and schedule for the program were explained. The participants' roles and expectations were discussed and information was provided on content that might be required in order to complete the task. This included in servicing on benchmarking, process and flow charting, developing workplace portfolios and an introduction to the process of action research itself. The staff members from each area then negotiated a timeline with the line managers to spend up to one week working in the other area. Flexibility in structuring this work placement is important and part of the skill set includes developing negotiation strategies to determine a work placement that suits both areas. Other staff in the area agree to cover urgent calls and inquiries during the work placement, but the participant is still expected to oversee ongoing tasks that they have.

During the work placement the participant learns how the other work area operates on a daily basis, identifies its role within the university, and how its work relates directly to the participant's own workplace practices. Participants focus particularly on identifying mutual work flow processes and begin to identify an area where they could add value to existing processes. The participant is invited to make a recommendation as to how they might improve at least one process, policy or procedure that they have observed. The line manager meets with the participant each day and debriefs on the participant's observations, and questions or assists in identifying further learning opportunities for the work placement week.

Having agreed on the process, policy or procedure to be revised, the participant returns to his/her own workplace and develops it further. The participant is encouraged to collaborate with either line manager or colleagues from either area during the development phase, which is expected to take about two weeks. When the draft is ready for trialing, the participant returns to the work placement area for a day or so to implement it in collaboration with staff in the other area. There is a further option to return at a later stage to review the new policy, process or procedure after it has been operating for a longer period of time.

Various templates have been developed to scaffold the learning experience for participants and assist them in maintaining a professional learning journal of the PD. The templates support staff unfamiliar with research practice and help them to organise their data so that it can be utilised as the new process, policy or procedure is developed.

The flow chart also demonstrates how the Quality @ ECU process has been embedded in the AXL program. Quality @ ECU identifies a set of seven principles that underpin ECU's mission statement and guide the work of staff at the University to continuously improve outcomes for our students, customers, markets and stakeholders (Quality @ ECU: What it Means for All of Us, 2003). In addition, the AXL document explains how the AXL program aligns with ECU's strategic priorities and specific priorities within each work area. Familiarity with ECU's Strategic Plan through a collaborative PD program will increase general staff's awareness, and hopefully, ownership of key University processes.

Preliminary results

Even in the earliest stages of this pilot study, we have identified some unanticipated benefits of the program, which has been very encouraging. When the CSESS participant attended the first preparatory meeting, she mentioned that she'd been at a meeting of Student Support Officers earlier in the week. She had told the meeting that she was participating in the AXL program and the staff were very interested by the concept. Moreover, upon hearing that she would be working at ECU International, they asked her to find out some specific information for them, which would improve a particular process between the two areas that they had encountered. She was to report back to this meeting after her work placement.

Simply having the movement of staff between areas seems to be alerting people to reflect on the intra-University contact they have and think about how particular issues might be resolved by improving this contact. Bringing someone in from another area seems to offer some similar benefits to staff in that area, and it has served as a catalyst for people to start thinking about their work beyond the walls of their own office.

The CSESS participant observed how interesting it was to see processes from "the other side" and how this afforded a different perspective. Interestingly, she found that the reforms she was thinking about were based on improving the processes or procedures at the Faculty end rather than coming in and trying to change the way things were being done at ECU International. The line manager observed that the more she talked to the CSESS participant, the more she became aware of improvements for ECU International to undertake.

At the end of her placement in the ISC, the CSESS participant was keen to come back and make some minor, but important amendments to processes and procedures in the Faculty, which will immediately improve the work flow between the two areas. As for the process, policy or procedure where she will add value to ECU International practices, she and the line manager are discussing various options. They are exploring the possibility of working together on designing a greatly improved orientation for CSESS postgraduate international students. Another option is to work together on an informal student complaints resolution procedure for ECU International based on the existing CSESS model.

The CSESS participant made other interesting observations. Even though she has previously been a Student Support Officer, she had been unaware of the serious implications that "exclusion" status held for international students. Australian students are able to re-enter the University six or twelve months after being excluded, but for international students an exclusion results in a three year visa ban. Staff at ECU International thought that this was common knowledge in the Faculties and now realise that they need to make such information more explicit to Faculties.

Initially, we had thought that the AXL program would be of particular interest to staff who were very enthusiastic and showed potential for advancement in the University. However, the self nomination process has inspired a staff member who has previously lacked confidence, and whose approach to work was previously lacking in initiative or the desire to do anything more than what was required. Her line manager has recently observed a change in attitude and feels that the AXL program will be an excellent opportunity to encourage this improved attitude and provide important continuous improvement skills to equip her to develop better work practices.

Evaluation process

Part of the AXL program that we considered carefully was the evaluation process. Too often organisations use a "one size fits all" assessment tool, which makes it easier to compare "numbers" across courses, but more difficult to gain input tailored to the uniqueness of each training offering. We wanted an extensive evaluation model - a 360 degree feedback system - that would allow us to gather data on the program from several perspectives. Donald Kirkpatrick's 1959 model of evaluation is widely used and accepted today as a training evaluation tool. This model has four levels with a fifth level (Return on Investment) incorporated to meet today's needs for cost efficient training models.

Briefly, Kirkpatrick's original four levels are:

Level I Evaluation  Reactions: The effectiveness of the PD as perceived by the trainee
Level II Evaluation  Learning: Measured evaluation of learning from the PD
Level III Evaluation  Transfer: Observed performance; observing the transference of the PD skills to the work environment
Level IV Evaluation  Results/Business impact: Did the PD prove useful to the organisation?

According to this model, evaluation should always begin with level one, and then, as time and budget allows, should move sequentially through levels two, three, and four. Information from each prior level serves as a base for the next level's evaluation. Thus, each successive level represents a more precise measure of the effectiveness of the training program, but at the same time requires a more rigorous and time consuming analysis (Winfrey, 2003, p.1).
Participants, line managers, the Faculty's SDO and staff in each area will be asked to provide feedback on the AXL program and the results will be analysed so that the program itself becomes a model of continuous improvement. Templates have been developed to collect these data.

Conclusion: Professional learning communities in our own backyard

Since the 1980s, the concept of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in education contexts particularly, has been steadily gathering momentum. PLC means a number of things in different contexts, but at its heart is the idea that all members of a workplace share a collegial and collective responsibility for improving the climate, culture and quality of the work practices and outcomes. Power is shared and the views and contributions of all PLC members are respected. PLCs work on the premise that by empowering and supporting community members to develop their professional roles through research and collaborative inquiry, the quality of the work and workplace improves.
As an organisational arrangement, the professional learning community is seen as a powerful staff development approach and a potent strategy for ... change and improvement (Hord, 1997, p. 1).
Early results indicate that the AXL program has the potential to provide meaningful and substantial PD for general staff in a systematic way that has not been undertaken at ECU previously. Retaining the flexibility within the program to meet participants' needs is important and the significant allocation of time to undertake the work placements appears to be critical. Taking on research of any kind can be daunting for staff not used to engaging in the academic process, so the scaffolded learning provided by the templates and the guidance provided by the line managers is also important. We also plan to explore the possibility of having work undertaken in the AXL program accredited to tertiary studies that a participant may undertake.

Universities should by rights be leading examples of PLCs as they are institutions that value the dissemination of knowledge and exist to promote learning. By supporting our general staff to undertake a more dynamic form of PD that has the potential to lead to continuous improvement and reflective practices, the potential of general staff to contribute to improved quality outcomes can be enhanced.

References

Coaldrake, P. & Stedman, L. (1999). Academic work in the twenty-first century: Changing roles and policies. Canberra: DETYA.

Grundy, S. (1995). Action research as professional development (Occasional Paper no. 1). Perth: Commonwealth of Australia.

Hord, S. M. (1997). Professional learning communities: What are they and why are they important? Issues ...about Change, 6(1).

Murray, L. & Lawrence, B. (Eds) (2000). Practioner-based enquiry: Principles for postgraduate research. London: Falmer Press.

Quality @ ECU: What it Means for All of Us (2003). Edith Cowan University. Available: http://www.ecu.edu.au/Quality@ECU/

Winfrey, E. C. (2003). Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of Evaluation. The Encyclopedia of Educational Technology. http://coe.sdsu.edu/eet/Articles/k4levels/index.htm

Appendix 1: Action eXchange Learning Program: diagram

Authors: Claire Brown, Community Services, Education and Social Sciences
Ann Backhaus, Professional Development, Learning & Development Services
Cassandra Colvin, ECU International
Edith Cowan University

Please cite as: Brown, C., Backhaus, A. and Colvin, C. (2004). Challenging, developing and valuing general staff: The Action eXchange Learning Program. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/brown.html


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