The role of personal networks in supporting academics’ professional learning and transformation of teaching practice
Nina Pataraia, Dr Anoush Margaryan, Dr Isobel Falconer, Prof Allison Littlejohn
The project explores how academics capitalise on their personal learning networks for professional learning. The project identifies authentic learning spaces, identifying critical sources of novel ideas, knowledge and support required for effective teaching in HE. The project is a funded PhD study by candidate Nina Pataraia.
This investigation adopts a personal network perspective, which allows us to explore academics’ significant learning and support relationships across multiple settings, whether embedded in formal and informal structures of professional learning, within or beyond institutional boundaries, or in personal acquaintanceships.
The study included participants representing three different HE contexts from the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands. This mix of countries and contexts allowed us to examine the role/implication of networks for academics’ learning and support across diverse academic cultures.
High level findings
- When directing their own professional learning, most academics draw upon two types of personal networks: interest-driven and task-specific. Resources embedded in these personal networks include expertise, information and guidance, which academics draw upon to carry out work-related tasks and to solve problems related to teaching and other academic responsibilities.
- A high proportion of academics’ significant learning and support relationships are based within and limited to the boundaries of local institutions, representing approximately 63% of all contacts elicited. Results highlight disciplinary differences in terms of the composition of networks (i.e. evidence shows that academics specialising in Humanities and Life Sciences are least inclined to cultivate learning relationships beyond their local departments).
- Personal networks facilitated the acquisition and development of different types of knowledge and skills required for efficient teaching. This knowledge was in the domains of pedagogical, instructional, curricular knowledge, as well as enhancing self-appraisal, curriculum planning and technology skills.
- Professional learning activities commonly used by academics included informal discussions, making inquiries, sharing experiences/resources, collaborating, and following peers’ postings in social media.
- The changes academics applied to their teaching practices through knowledge obtained from their personal networks tended to relate to modifications of teaching strategies. These changes included the application of new learning technologies for teaching, implementation of new learning theories and methods, as well as adoption of new assessment methods. Commonly sought advice encompassed issues related to instruction, pedagogy, curriculum, institutional regulations, and student issues.
Implications of personal networks for academics’ professional learning, development and change
- By adopting a Social Network Analysis Approach, this study captures a detailed view of academics’ learning and advice-seeking that other diagnostics cannot provide, further informed by in-depth, qualitative interviews.
- Academics' personal networks have hallmarks of homophily, physical proximity and density, marked by closely-knit learning and support relationships. Even if such a network structure promotes trust and common values, it inhibits the flow of novel ideas, the diversity of knowledge, expertise and insights, thus limiting opportunities for learning, change and innovation.
- The synopsis of this study of academics’ use of personal networks for professional learning cautions against the limitations of networks (determining expertise/knowledge gap and excessive reliance on a limited number of people) and offers suggestions regarding how to improve network efficiency.