I was discussing the benefits of study leave with a colleague who remarked, “one thing’s for sure, no one ever went on a sabbatical to catch up on their teaching!”.

We think that shouldn’t be the case. So, if you would like to take a short sabbatical and work with a UNSW academic on new approaches to teaching then get in touch with them to apply for support from our Visiting Teaching Fellowship Scheme, HERE   – closing date 9am 24 June). We’re starting by hosting one visitor in each faculty and UNSW Canberra each year.

We’re doing this because the world has changed. When I started my career, I did teaching and research. I used a piece of chalk and the blackboard to explain to small groups of students what I’d learnt in research, and where that fitted in the broader context of my discipline.

But now, rather than a piece of chalk there are myriad technological tools to support teaching – so many, it’s hard to keep up.

While technology has been driving change, so too has our student body.  There are more students than ever before, who vary considerably in their preparedness for university, and their capacity to engage in on-line environments. You have to be creative to devise the best ways of supporting every student to succeed.

Some academics dedicate themselves to exploring emerging approaches to teaching and are successfully finding the options that are most effective in conveying knowledge and fostering student communities. We have a cohort of more than 400 Education Focussed academics at UNSW who are moving into the new educational ecosystem and are sharing “best practice” with each other and with our teaching and research staff. We recognise the value this brings to our students and their academic colleagues and so are investing in this new academic community.

Building the Education Focussed community is vitally important. Research has always been supported by a strong community. The community recognises achievement and endows status and prestige. People feel respected and supported as they labour away on important research projects.

In teaching there has always been a community too – but often teaching has been hidden, consisting of academics who are admired by their students but are relatively unknown beyond the classroom. Such academics do not always feel appreciated by their institutional leaders because their work is unseen, and not always formally recognised by accolades and big prizes. By building an Education Focussed community we are making achievements in education more visible, and this provides recognition, status, security, and also spreads best practice across the university. It is often easier to collaborate across one university in teaching than it is in specialist research.

But there was one gap. Researchers have connections throughout the country and across the world. We often judge research by ‘international or national recognition’. In teaching I know people who are universally admired by their students and whose abilities I revere but who are almost unknown outside my university. Because they have been so dedicated to their students, rather than to their external profile. I’ve noticed that some of these ‘student-dedicated’ academics feel uncertain about their prospects for promotion, and even worry about their job security. Given the nature of teaching, it can be difficult to find referees who will attest to the scope and quality of their achievements in education. What’s more their strategies in teaching can remain secret if not shared more widely.

The Visiting Teaching Fellowships are an effort to connect our academics with people who share their passion for developing the most effective forms of education with others across the sector and the world. We will learn from visitors and we will experiment and spread the ideas that work. That’s how research progresses and now that we’ve moved past “chalk and talk” there is a whole new ecosystem in teaching that we’re ready to explore.

I think my colleague was right. When most academics had careers based squarely around teaching and research, sabbaticals and visits were mostly about stepping away from the pressures of teaching and catching up with the latest research that was happening across the world, and perhaps catching up on one’s own projects. But the world has changed. We need to make advances not just in conventional research, but also in new approaches to education at scale, supported by the latest technologies. We need to find the most intelligent ways to use technologies in a human way, rather than to just apply IT solutions out of the box.

It’s not realistic to expect every academic to dedicate themselves equally to the emerging challenges in both teaching and in research. We’ll have many all-rounders, but we also have people who have teaching in their DNA and others who prefer research. We have to support all three groups and introducing the Visiting Teaching Fellowship is a way to help level the playing field, to support our Education Focussed community, to explore new approaches, that will be good for academics, and most importantly will be good for our students and their learning.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life at UNSW Sydney


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