What is Learning Development Scholarship?

This post forms a personal reflection of a session I attended at the Association of Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Conference 2019.

On day one of the ALDinHE Conference, I attended the Research Funding & Scholarship of Learning Development session led by Dr Maria Kukhareva & Dr Carina Buckley. This was a really interesting, interactive session, structured around the following question:

‘What is scholarship?’

This led to a rather expansive view of scholarship, not only accounting for peer-review publications, but also wider scholarly activity such as review, conference involvement and so on. However, this led to the eventual question of:

‘What is learning development scholarship?’

This question is not as easy as it seems. Scholarly activity can be pinned down and defined. Yes – there are different interpretations, but it is easy to find something that generally applies to most people. How learning development contributes to the wider scholarship of learning and teaching in higher education is however a bigger question. There must be something distinctive about it that makes it stand out against the scholarship of language learning, education and other fields.

What does learning development contribute? What is unique about learning development research?
Boyer’s model of scholarship (1990)

What makes learning development scholarship distinctive?

The real challenge of defining the distinctiveness of learning development scholarship perhaps lies with the difficulty of defining learning development. Our practices are incredibly diverse and sometimes disparate. If practice is so varied, can the scholarship be coherent enough to be classed as distinctive? While I struggle to answer this one, I ‘feel’ there is something distinctive about learning development. This is not so distinctive as to pry away from the disciplinary foundations of education as a discipline (psychology, history, sociology and philosophy), but I believe it is distinctive enough to carve out it’s own corner in the higher education literature.

This *feeling* I have regarding the distinctiveness of learning development has roots in my practice. This is because I *feel* my practice and approach is distinctive in comparison to traditional lectureship. This is because I am supporting the development of attributes, competencies, skills, approaches and so on – just not the development of disciplinary knowledge. This does not mean I have no knowledge base and convey no knowledge, just that such knowledge is of ‘being a student’, learning, writing and so on.

So – back to the question at hand. What does make learning development distinctive. We were encouraged to approach this question creatively, and this is the model the group I was part of ended up creating:

A conceptual model answering the question. The paragraphs below explain this in detail.

In the above photograph, you can see some of our core ideas. One of my primary contributions was the ‘lens’, as I feel learning development has a different view and approach to scholarship than other areas. In short, it is distinctive. There IS a learning development way of looking at things, even if we can’t exactly define it. I also built the pile of rubble and labelled it as ‘What is learning development?’. I promise you that the answer to that question is under those bricks. It just isn’t uncovered yet. Interestingly, I paired ‘lens’ with ‘reflection’. I think this was to highlight the reflective nature of our practice (or at least the development of it).

We also had knowledge, philosophy, inquiry, evidence and discipline(s) also on the table. These are all ideas long associated with scholarship. Once again, we had an interesting debate about what learning development brings to the table. The one we were really unsure about was ‘Mastery’. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, and this is the reason I picked it up. I think it is perhaps better related to scholarship with ‘status’ – a term another table has picked up.

I added the term ‘validity‘, because any research and scholarship must be ‘valid’ – but I think we can take this further as it links back to the question.

What makes learning development as a distinct approach a valid contribution to the wider higher education literature?

Reflection on what learning development is

This does not answer the big question. The closest thing we have to this are the ALDinHE values:

  1. Working alongside students to make sense of and get the most out of HE learning 
  2. Making HE inclusive through emancipatory practice, partnershipworking and collaboration
  3. Adopting and sharing effective LD practice with the HE community  
  4. Commitment to scholarly approach and research related to LD
  5. Critical self-reflection, on-going learning and a commitment to professional development 

Beyond these values, we did have a nod to practice on our model.

On the model, you can see a precarious bridge from one table to another. To fall of this bridge is to plummet between the tables. This kinda represented the journey students are on, with each step of this bridge further and further apart. While the definition of learning development is buried on our model, one thing is clear. We exist to fight anyone who would push a student off the bridge. We exist to help them over it – not to lead them, but to give them the abilities they need to take themselves over it.

You will see this bridge is hidden behind a wall. Sometimes the way ahead is unknown. It is difficult. It is hidden. We often tear that wall down to help students see where they need to go – and enable them to get there.

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990), Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. [PDF], Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching