Helping Engineering Academics to Undertake Education Research: A Model for Practice

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Helping academics to engage with and investigate their own teaching practices is difficult. Some are hesitant to question their current practices, or lack the skills, time and confidence to investigate and evaluate the effectiveness of any changes. This is particularly the case for engineering academics, as their traditional research training in basic sciences does not adequately prepare them to undertake quality education research. However, there is increasing pressure from institutions to improve student learning, engagement and retention often requiring academics to investigate their teaching practices. Further, improved teaching practices and scholarship are increasingly being linked to academics' performance reviews and promotion processes. Strategies to encourage academics to examine and research their teaching practice ranging from edicts from upper management, to one-off professional development sessions may fail to achieve long-term change.

What is required is a strategy to help engineering academics undertake education research on their teaching, and in the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoLT); often also known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) (Boyer, 1997). For the purposes of this paper, SoLT is seen to include the conduct of education research, as well as an engagement with existing knowledge (literature) and a public sharing of ideas (dissemination). For long-term change to occur, the focus of any strategy needs to be on internal change that develops through learning rather than on superficial change that is imposed externally. The strategy would need to be supportive and attuned to academics' particular learning needs as adult learners. It would also need to support the learning of a new discipline, education, which is vastly different from most of their backgrounds in technical sciences.

Some attempts have been made to support academics to investigate and improve their teaching and learning practices, particularly using a community of practice framework (Green & Ruutz, 2008; McDonald et al, 2008; McDonald & Star, 2008). However, these are often not strategically aligned with institutional goals, and are commonly perceived as mere support mechanisms rather than focused on meaningful learning, resulting in changes to practice.

Other successful attempts have been made in Australasia in supporting staff to undertake engineering education research. One example is at the University of Southern Queensland (Brodie et al, 2011), where a group was created to improve the learning and teaching practices in the engineering faculty and to assist the leadership role of the Associate Dean Learning and Teaching. The group was situated within the faculty structure, which helped to provide legitimacy. Brodie et al (2011, p. 4) argued that the group "was successful in increasing publications and raising the profile of Learning and Teaching at a faculty and university level". While this group was well aligned to members needs and had good leadership, its limited resources constrains the level of assistance it can offer to its members to learn about education research.

The issue is that engineering academics need to be supported to learn about and develop their practice of education research, as it involves learning both new knowledge and skills, and also a change of paradigm and epistemology (Douglas et al, 2010). Further, an understanding of the institutional context and culture in engineering faculties is required (Godfrey, 2009) in order to understand and overcome the barriers and motivations to staff undertaking engineering education research (Brodie et al, 2011; Chang & Mann, 2010).

This paper reports on a Model for Action and Learning in Engineering Education Research (MALEER), developed to support academics in improving their teaching and learning practices. Through its use, it enables individual academics to learn how to undertake education research in a supportive, collaborative environment. …