Sunday, May 29, 2011

Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning

The first exercise for the introduction to university teaching course I am starting next week, is to comment on the university's "Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning", the "Commentary on the Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning" and the "Code of Practice - Supervision in Higher Degrees by Research".

Previously, inspired by a talk by Professor Ian Young, I looked at what policy and plans there were for "flexible modes of learning" and what might be needed in a "Flexible Learning Policy".

Dissemination and Formatting of the Documents

What I noticed first was that the learning code and guide documents are publicly available in the university's Policies Website, not hidden away, which makes them far more useful and like to be read. Also these are relatively brief documents, the teaching practice code is only four A4 pages long. These are official documents of the university, two being "Policy" and the other a "Guideline".

The documents are provided in the form of simply laid out and readable text, in efficiently encoded web pages. One problem is that the headers of the documents are too large, resulting in the body being pushed "below the fold" (that is not visible) on screen. This will become more of a problem as students and staff increasingly adopt smart phones and tablet computers for reading such documents. The reader has to scroll down a long way before they get to the actual useful content of the document. A simple solution would be to move the "Authorisation & Contact Information" and "Related Documents" sections from the top to the bottom of the document, as these will be of little interest to most readers.

Content of the Documents

The document "Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning" is somewhat confusingly prefixed "policy". It would be more usual to have a short policy document and then a longer separate code of practice. An example of this is the ACS Code of Ethics, which is less than a page long and the ACS Code of Professional Conduct and Professional Practice, which expands on this.

One serious flaw in the code, the other two documents and many other university polices, is the lack of references to provide context and authority. It seems unlikely that these policies sprang fully formed into existence. Their origins, what work they draw on and how they have been validated would add to their authority. This is particularly relevant for academic policies, where the students are told to cite sources and properly reference work, to make it scholarly and avoid the appearance of plagiarism.

Twelve Principle of teaching and learning

The code sets down a set of twelve principles. These are listed unnumbered, which makes them difficult to refer to so, here they are numbered:

All those involved in teaching and learning are expected to:

  1. Adhere to the ... Code of Conduct as it pertains to teaching and learning practice
  2. Value and respect diversity (including, for example, diversity of culture, religious belief, age, race, gender and other personal and group-based attributes)
  3. Contribute to an academic environment free from harassment, discrimination and bullying, with access to complaint procedures which will facilitate speedy and just resolutions
  4. Adhere to the rules and principles governing academic integrity
  5. Contribute to the academic distinctiveness of the University which is characterised by
  6. Teaching based in research and scholarship
  7. National and international orientation of courses and course content
  8. A climate of intellectual rigour
  9. A program which blends fundamental, professional and contextual learning
  10. High levels of communication between the University, its staff and students
  11. Continuous improvement of the University's teaching quality.
  12. Recognise the importance of flexible access to lecture content for the purposes of the University's equity targets and teaching objectives.
The first principle refers to the "Code of Conduct". Unfortunately there is no hypertext link to take the reader to this document, nor is there any formal reference to the document. There is a link to "Code of Conduct", in the related documents section and presumably this is the document intended. If so, the correct name of the document should be used.

The university needs to check that its current practices actually conform to the codes set out. As an example, the "Code of Conduct" states:
  1. The University will indemnify its staff against liabilities incurred by them while carrying out their duties in good faith for the University.
  2. It will stand behind its staff and meet the costs of actions that might be taken against them personally as though the action had been taken against the University, provided that the staff member concerned was acting in good faith.
As an Adjunct Lecturer I am categorised as a member of the staff, however the university requires me to take out and pay for my own indemnity insurance in order to teach. So clearly the university does not indemnify all its staff, presumably only the full time staff. This exception needs to be included in the code.

Principle 4 refers to "rules and principles governing academic integrity". It would be useful if this cited explicitly the "Code of Practice for Student Academic Integrity", referenced at the top of the document.

Principle 12 is overly prescriptive in referring to "lecture content". As an example, while I am terms a "lecturer" I ceased using lectures as my primary mode of teaching last year. This semester I gave only one lecture and do not expect to use lectures for courses in the future. A more general term such as "course content" might therefore be better than "lecture content".

Best Practice Framework for teaching

The term "Best Practice" is nonsense marketing jargon, best avoided is a serious policy document. The term "semester" could also be omitted, as courses can be run over any period.

The framework shows a somewhat dated view of teaching by referring to students being able to "attend ... class times". This will be meaningless to online students and should be replaced with more inclusive language.

The requirement that students should "Select courses for which they have the pre-requisites", is either a tautology or an oxymoron. If students are required to have the "pre-requisites", as is implied by the word, then be definition students will have those pre-requisites. If students are not required to have the "pre-requisites", these are not really pre-requisites. In either case this sentence should be deleted.

The requirement for students to "Accept that the University may be required to limit choices because of available resources" is so general as to be meaningless and should be deleted. The university obviously does not have infinite resources and so must limit choices for students.

The requirement for students to "Attend orientation and induction activities ..." conflicts with principles two and three, as some students will be unable to attend such activities for cultural, religious reasons, or due to family commitments or disability. A requirement to attend may therefore constitute unlawful discrimination. In particular if the student can't attend due to a disability, such a requirement may be unlawful, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, listed in the document. This particularly applies where the course itself does not require attendance.

Placing a requirement on the student to be in "possession of the required information before the course begins" is misdirected, as it should be for the university to make that information available. Also the concept of "possession" of information is not one likely to be one which will make sense to a student in the 21st century, a term such as "access" might be better.

The activities for the students "during the semester" appear to be based on an outmoded view of education, where students are passive absorbers of information and need to be force fed knowledge. I suggest these obligations be rewritten on the assumption the students are self motivated and the teachers will provide them with assistance to learn.

The obligations for teachers, the University and its Colleges, have fewer problems than those for the students, being essentially a statement of some of the practices in modern educational thinking. However, there are unnecessarily prescriptive and outdated assumptions made as to teaching techniques. As an example, the obligation to "hold lectures in environments where recordings can be made", assumes that lectures are the primary teaching technique.

The Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning should be rewritten to be a much shorter document, on the assumption that ANU follows good teaching practices. The detail on how and what those practices are should be in the guide. References to particular techniques which were used at the university in the past, but may not be in the future, such as "lecture", "attendance" and "examination" should be removed from the code, bur retained in the guide.

Guideline: Commentary on the Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning

The "Guideline: Commentary on the Code of Practice for Teaching and Learning ...", at about 14 pages long is three times as large as the code and less coherently written. It contains a number of problems with the formatting, indicating it may have been prepared in some haste. The document lacks a clear structure.

Unlike the code, the guideline contains numerous references to other documents, with hypertext links. Unfortunately the references do not appear to have been done in accordance with any accepted referencing style, such as Havard. URI (web addresses) are including in the body of the document. In most chases the URIs are hypertext links to the documents, but not all. In most cases the URI follows the name of document, but not all, with some URIs on their own and no explanation as to what they are for.

While the document outlines what students should do, it does not detail what assistance is provided to help them with this. As an example, the University's policies about plagiarism are stated, little guidance is provided to students in order to achieve this. The assumption seems to be that plagiarism is a rare occurrence of something which the student will naturally know how to avoid. However, the reality is this is a topic which many students have difficulty with. About one third of my my postgraduate students need practice with how to reference properly and about one in ten requires individual personal tuition. The policy on "Code of Practice for Student Academic Integrity", could be improved by including some references indicating where the content of the policy was derived from.

The requirement to "Appropriately prepare and complete in a timely manner all assessment items" . In may cases there are optional assessment items, where the student has a choice of which to do. If there is something essential for the student to do, then the assessment should be arranged so that the student cannot pass the course without doing that item.

Similarly, if there is a time limit on assessment it should be enforced. Statements about "Students who do not submit assessable work on time cannot expect the same response regime as their peers" are not appropriate and do not treat students with the respect they deserve.

The guidelines would benefit from being rewritten, with a clearer structure, references to an accepted standard. It would also help to explicitly state the learning philosophy which the university uses, which I expect would be based on assuming students are motivated and honest and the university staff are there to help them achieve their potential.

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