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Context and design - Developing learnng literacies in Professional Services staff

Exploration and representation of context with regard to developing learning literacies in Professional Services staff.

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Joe Nicholls
18 January 2013

The aim is to identify and tease apart elements of context(s) relevant to the continuing progressional development of professional services staff in educational institutions. I thought I'd start of with a high level view to sketch out the landscape a little.

Professional services staff collectively provide a considerable range of different services in support of the work and learning of…

- undergraduate students
- postgraduate students
- researchers
- teachers
- other professional services staff

Some of the main areas of service provision are (these may very well be called something different in other organisations):

- IT Services
- Library Services
- Media Services
- Registry
- Communications
- Careers and Employability
- Counselling Services
- Disability and Dyslexia Service
- Graduate Centre
- Student Support Services

It possible to discern four main categories of service (would be interest to know if it's possible to specify others?):

- content related services - providing data/information resources - analogue/digital media artefacts
- tool related services - providing physical and virtual technologies, equipment, infrastructure, etc.
- people related services - providing data/information, knowledge, expertise, skills
- business process related services - providing systems (people and/or tools) that undertake work tasks

Of course, in practice, the services aren't always distinguishable. For example, interaction with content is usually mediated via some form of technology, a business process imay be initiated through interaction with a technology and/or a person, our interaction with people commonly takes place through technology, etc.

By the very nature of these services, the people who provide them have widely differing knowledge, skills, roles and responsibilities. The rationale, purpose and motivation for what they do differs widely - and is very likely distinct for every individual.

From an organisational point-of-view, the drive is to develop the learning literacies of all staff and students - regardless of role. With this aim, it make sense to focus on the development of professional services staff because they will become better placed to promote the development of learning literacies in academic staff and students across the whole institution - adopting a kind of cascade approach.

The problem some educational institutions have (I think HEIs more so than FE/Colleges) is the lack of a structured programme of staff development linked to appraisals. This presents a problem in how to best go about training and educating staff in a manner that is scalable and sustainable and which can be shaped to address business change directives. Hence my interest in curriculum and learning activity design for progressional services staff. Ideally, this is something that would be driven from central staff development in Human Resources, and not from someone in IT services! But it's the same challenge for us all regardless.

An aside, but related matter. What academic staff and students want is coordinate service provision. Where coherence between disparate services is engineered to meet the specific context and challenges people are facing. All too often academic staff and students have the overhead of finding out the who?, what? and where? of services. This is important because people are developing their learning literacies all the time as they work and learn. Achieving a join between different kinds of service so that they are appropriate for a given problem/task should enable the development of literacies in a more consolidated and effective way.

The development of different kinds of literacy result from interacting with different kinds of service, e.g., interaction with forms of content (media) is essential for developing information literacies, digital literacies through interaction with digital technologies, social literacies through interactions with people, and academic literacies through engagement with challenges, problems and tasks. But such a deconstruction is an over simplification. What we're really striving for is the development of learning literacies (the whole spectrum of literacies) and this necessitates a holistic approach. One that recognises the complex mix and interrelated knowledge and skills needed for, and resulting from, working to solve a problem or perform a task.

The challenge is how to go about developing learning literacies in professional services staff who have widely varying roles and responsibilities, and whose interests and motivations are diverse and unrelated?

Students who come to college or university don't do so to study learning literacies. Learning to learn is something they rightly expect to happen whilst studying their chosen subject/discipline. It is this that provides the essential context needed for learning - a knowledge and practice domain that is of interest, that serves to stimulate curiosity, fuel motivation and create a sense of purpose and focus that drives their learning. When a student's attitude and mindset is positive the door is wide open for engaging them in the development of learning literacies. They will possess the necessary energy and enthusiasm to tackle challenges and problems that may not on the face of it be judged as having relevance to their discipline/subject. Meaningful subject matter and desirable practices are key component to shaping context. And clearly, a key responsibility of a subject specialist come educator's role to is to do all they can to nurture a learner's interest and curiosity in their subject.

So, what if there isn't shared interest in a discipline/subject amongst a group of learners?

I believe this to be the most critical distinguishing factor when comparing the education of professional services staff to what undergraduates and taught postgraduates experience.

What many professional services staff do have in common are forms of practice and the tasks that give rise to them. For example, many have meetings, give presentations, write reports, manage and manipulate data, publish and disseminate forms of media, communicate and collaborate in teams, etc. [of course students do all of these things too]. But, across the various service areas in the institution, the tasks and practices result for widely differing reasons and purposes. And this, I think, is a key issue when it comes to creating learning opportunities that will be effective for the majority of professional services staff, as opposed to having to create and run learning activities that aim to address every minority interest area - it's just not scalable or sustainable. There are too few educators for the number of people who stand to benefit from developing their learning literacies.

I believe the curriculum and learning design challenge is to find out how to best go about creating learning opportunities that work to promote the development of learning literacies in a manner that accommodates the challenges and constraints people experience in their work situation and circumstance and which effectively stimulates and motivates them to put them into practice.

However, I make the above point because I struggle to recognise where and how to tap into this in the contexts professional service staff find themselves working.

Now, a few of the more obvious aspects of context that shape professional services staff engagement with learning opportunities.

- degree of empowerment and support from line management and colleagues
- ability to manage work tasks and time, i.e. planning, prioritising, scheduling, decision making
- physical work environment - may share an open office with others, or spend a lot of time travelling - not have access to a quiet study space
- individual attributes and qualities - factors that influence cognitive capabilities and emotions - confidence, attitude, attention
- prior knowledge, skills and experience
- a person's overarching and longer term goals, aims and aspirations
- economic factors - having the financial means to purchase books, devices, software apps
- physical and/or cognitive disabilities
- other life issues and interests - commitments to friends, family - other demanding roles and responsibilities outside of the immediate context
- pervading culture

So, how to go about it?

So, say for example, the aim is to develop the learning literacies of IT Services staff, Library Services staff and Media Services staff. We might concentrate on one area of practice and its associated tasks, e.g., meetings [everyone complains about ineffective meetings]
The rationale for providing education and training would be to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings.
The aim is to enable all staff in these different services areas to improve how they participate, make use of and run meetings.
However, staff in each service area are dealing topics and issues, and may run their meetings in different ways.

How do we design a single learning activity that will enable everyone to get benefit and value from participating to develop their learning literacies and through this be able to put into practice better meetings?

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