Guest post: Educational Development Centres – Issues, Challenges and the Future

(This is a guest post by Santanu Vasant, Head of UEL’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching as part of #HEBlogswap)

As you may know, I am coming up to a year in the post of Head of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of East London. I have worked in departments like this for just over 15 years in a number of well known London Universities. As I come up to this 1st year anniversary, I have been thinking and discussing with ex colleagues, some now retired, others no longer in academia, about what it means to run a department like mine in the 21st Century and what activities make the biggest difference to the institutions. In this blog post, I will explore some of the issues, challenges and opportunities that affords educational development departments.

The Dearing Report (1997)

Before the late 1990s, there were few educational development departments in higher education. Following the Dearing Report (1997), one of the 93 recommendations was for higher education institutions for institutions to train teaching staff to teach within their first year of probation. The year 2000 saw the formation of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which later became the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and since last August has become AdvanceHE. This body, governed by Universities UK and GuildHE, still oversees the HEA Fellowship scheme and others such as the National Teaching Fellowships scheme (NTFS) and the Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE).

For many educational development centres this is still the focus of their activity. However, with the introduction of institutional and up coming subject level TEF next year (2020), there has never been a more metric driven agenda to educational development centres and there is more scrutiny than ever.

What else do educational development centres in the UK do?

If asked every head or director of educational development centres, they would probably give you a slightly different answer, but here is my answer. Firstly, they run the PGCert in Higher Education (some don’t, maybe because there is a strong School of Education?), they may also (given size), run a Masters in Education (or Academic Practice, or similar) and some even run doctorate level programmes in education studies.

Secondly, they run workshops for all staff, academic and professional services or they operate a consultation service, whereby the heads of division or degree course or programme leader identifies the need their staff need and training is delivered locally.

Thirdly they sometimes, but not always have the Learning or Educational Technology Team within the department. This is largely down to the vision of the institution and where they see Educational Technology, an add on or an integral part of the staff development process. Even when Educational Technology Teams are within an education development centre, there can be some them and us culture (more in the next section).

Finally, departments like this run various events from annual conferences, to termly community of practice events, to talent or showcase awards centrally or in each School, which can be a great way of discovering and building a pipeline those staff who could apply for NTFS or CATE awards in the future.

Challenges in running or working for an educational development centre

There are many challenges of running or working for an educational development centre (Knight and Vasant, 2017). Resource and either what to do with it strategically if you don’t report to the Pro-Vice Chancellor Education (more on this later) or not having enough resources in the first place, hence prioritisation becomes a crucial skill. By resource, I am referring to people and CPD projects and equipment budget for your own staff and others in the university you service, to deliver on some of the things I alluded to in the previous section.

Engagement is another big challenge. With a sector average of 20% of academic staff engaging with an educational development department, it’s not hard to ask, what about the other 80% of academic staff? The answer lies in the way teaching in many universities is not seen as equal, in fact I used to get told in one institution I worked for, that I was the lowest of the low, as I wasn’t even a teaching fellow, I was an administrative member of staff. The perception isn’t helped when within educational development departments there can sometimes be a ‘them and us culture’ (Hudson, 2009).

Recently, to add to these challenges, the teaching excellence framework (TEF) has added the notion of impact of educational development projects. As developing staff is often a proxy to the student progression, retention and graduate employment, there might be a correlation to these metrics, but causation is difficult to prove, let alone that the interventions of the educational development centres have led to those improvements. So how do begin to show impact? This is what we’ll discuss next.

Measuring Learning Effectiveness

Whilst educational development centres might be no one than 25 years old in most universities, there has been the development of staff more generally for decades, through Human Resources and the Learning and Development departments that sit under HR. Indeed some educational development centres might sit under HR. They have had to prove impact for a number of years. It is said that in a recession, the first thing to be cut is staff training and those delivering it.

I was browsing my institution’s LinkedIn Learning platform, and I came across this course ‘measuring learning effectiveness’. It had the usual Kirkpatrick Model (1954) explanation, but also some other nuggets that I will summarise for you.

The course outlined the Association for Talent Development, ATD competency model (2014) and competent of it referring to evaluating learning impact. I know, it’s not for academic development specifically, but if we put our academic status to one side and look at the mechanisms, these are the basic steps in this model

Identifying customer expectations (this is what your project sponsor wants to know – a senior management member)

Selecting appropriate strategies, research design and measures (what to measure, what model(s) to use and how to capture the data)

Gaining support for an evaluation plan (summarise your evaluation plan for your project sponsor and stakeholders)

Managing data collection (apply consistent and accurate methods, monitor data collection and document the data)

Analysing data (go back to the research questions, look for data to answer those questions and drill down to find out why)

Applying learning analytics (linking a project to wider institutional needs)

Making recommendations (sharing the evaluation results with the project sponsor, might ask you if the project goals were met, what worked well, can the training program be improved and are there lessons that can be applied elsewhere in the institution?)

Imagine we all ran our projects like this. Food for thought I’m sure.

It’s worth remembering that Kirkpatrick’s original PhD thesis was entitled ‘Evaluating Human Relations Programs for Industrial Foremen and Supervisors’ – he only wanted to determine if his programs for managers and supervisors were successful in helping them to perform better on the job.

We know educational development is more complex, but at some level, are we not also checking if our CPD courses and training offered in educational development departments are helping staff perform better? How are we going to observe that behaviour change (Level 3 of Kirkpatrick), if we don’t do some spot checks to look at things covered in previous workshops are actually being applied (this is peer observation at its core).

Things that need to be in place for a great educational development centre

So where does all this leave us for educational development centres in the future. Here are some final thoughts in conclusion about the climate needed for great educational development to grow.

Institutions need a way of talking about curriculum with academic staff and it should be mandatory and linked to the quality process. Therefore, learning design is key to this and it should be for educational development centres to drive this agenda. If there is a signature pedagogy (i.e. you know if you go to institution X you will be taught in this way). I have written about institutional pedagogy before (Vasant, 2017).

If you want your staff to stay and develop, you need a talent framework, with rewards, awards and linked to staff progression. As I have been reminded by external Professors and internal colleagues, academics know what to teach, they might not know how to teach, so developing them, will make them more employable in the future.

Supportive management can’t be stressed enough. I believe it helps if the Head / Director reports to the PVC Education, it gives more visibility and accountability, however the PVC Education should be supportive and the champion of teaching and learning along with the educational development centre. I have seen many types of management over the years in London Universities, but the best places are where the management get it and they communicate this to all staff. They also drive the agenda, make suggests and have a vision, but give the agency to the academics and professional services staff working for them. Staff need to find their teaching ‘voice’ as a Professor said to me recently.

More than ever, with budgets tight, a flashy initiative may grab attention, but needs substance to sustain it! It is that simple, so more constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2011) and less constructing a TV studio, motion sickening VR or a fancy Learning Space. As my MA dissertation supervision, Professor Neil Selwyn, used to say ‘think state of the actual, not state of the art’.

Utilisation of Microsoft Teams (or similar technologies) to continue dialogue about learning, teaching and assessment, build and sustain a community of practice. There should be reward or time back for taking part in this for busy academics (liked to point 2).

Good joint educational initiatives based on institutional strategies, because everything can’t be done at once.

A final quote from Steve Wheeler’s Blog on the development of staff and their use of technology, which sums up the importance of developing our academic staff in higher education and assuring them, that through this development they will still be relevant, both crucial points institutions must continue to remind staff as we go through continued uncertainty in the sector in the UK.

“Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will probably replace teachers who don’t” (Wheeler, 2013).


Whatever your context this forthcoming academic year, it’s worth reflecting on the journey educational development has come in the past 20 odd years and where it needs to go to, maybe with some more structure, drive and direction than in the past, but above all it must be valued by senior leadership at Universities and allowed to grow. Moving and restructuring and even closing departments is short term gain and ultimately takes huge energy, that could be spent, to make education better (#makeEDUbetter). Think about how you will make education better this autumn. Good luck!



Association for Talent Development (ATD) ATD Competency Model. Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]


Biggs, J. B. and C. Tang (2011).Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th edn, Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Dearing, R (1997). Higher Education in the learning society. Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]


Hudson, A. (2009) New Professionals and New Technologies in New Higher Education? Conceptualising struggles in the field. PhD Thesis. Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]


Kirkpatrick, D. (1954) Evaluating Human Relations Programs for Industrial Foremen and Supervisors. PhD Thesis. Kirkpatrick Publishing.


Knight, R, A. and Vasant, S. (2017) Strategies for enhancing learning and teaching focussed continuing professional development. Higher Education Academy Conference July 2017 Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]


Vasant, S (2017). Institutional signature pedagogy- like avocado on toast? Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]


Wheeler, S (2013). Technology won’t replace teachers. Available Online: [Accessed: 27th August 2019]





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