A level head amid dizzying change

A level head amid dizzying change

Observing the pace of change in the higher education sector can be a dizzying experience.

Sweeping reforms to policy and rapid shifts across the technology landscape have had implications for student enrolments, funding and the ability of universities, private colleges and TAFEs to remain competitive. 

However, amid these changes, some universities have managed to thrive by integrating technology into their teaching and learning programs in an innovative way. One of them is Curtin University, located in Perth.

Below, The Educator talks Professor Rhonda Oliver, the head of the University’s School of Education, about the University’s success, and how she believes educational research and teaching should be done in the 21st Century.

TE: What has been the most recurrent 'call to action' for education policymakers, or within the higher education space more broadly?

RO: The need to respond to reform agendas and to the changing needs and diversities of students have been the two most significant demands. There has been a general emphasis across the higher education sector on increased accountability and while this is both necessary and welcomed, it brings with it some challenges for universities and the schools within them. Ensuring that graduates have the skills and abilities, particularly those to equip them adequately for industry, results in increased resourcing demands for the host institution. These play out both at institution level and in specific programs and in many different ways.

Teacher Education, in particular, has been a focus for deep and wide reform, as presented in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group’s 2015 call to action through its “Action Now: Classroom-ready teachers” recommendations.  Responding to this comprehensive reform agenda has prompted scrutiny of all layers of the school’s practices and brings with it considerable demands on resources. Our commitment to providing assurance, in the terms of the national agenda, of quality teachers for our children has brought new and resource-intensive aspects to our operation. As just one example of many, the national Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE), although a worthy inclusion for quality assurance, but managing this requirement and supporting the students who must pass it if they are to graduate, needs processes and practices that impact significantly on our budget. 

The “call to action” for the school has required us to commit authentically to the reform agenda, while ensuring that the school’s broad operations and courses are both profitable and appropriately serving the needs of a diverse student group. For us at Curtin University, our successes with broad-scale online courses has been a key factor in being able to manage this balance.

TE: Is there anything you feel sets Curtin University's School of Education apart from those of other universities in terms of what it offers to prospective graduates?

RO: In the last decade we have become an extremely agile School of Education. We are flexible in what we do and provide flexibility in how and when our students can study. Our teaching is informed by the quality of our research and in many ways, we are punching above our weight in the research domain with eight ARCs attached to our school and/or staff within our school. With our teaching we don’t just give lip service to the cycle of reflection and improvement, we genuinely adapt and innovate in all that we do. For instance, we hold a key position in OUA in the education space. Our OUA courses have been carefully developed and regularly interrogated for efficacy in terms of their pedagogy. In this regard we ‘put our money where our mouth is’ and our OUA courses and students are given equal status and the same level of support as those involved on-campus. We provide all our students opportunities to study not just in semester times, but in our four online study periods. Our students can select their study load, when they study and in what mode (online or on-campus). We also constantly seek feedback from our stakeholders – industry partners and our students – and modify what we do as required, and we introduce new units and courses when we identify needs and opportunities. We are not frightened to change, or archive units as demands and requirements evolve. We combine diverse but contemporary areas within our school – these include, of course, literacy, numeracy, HASS, developmental and inclusive education and our teacher education courses have a strong orientation towards socially-just education. We also have a considerable strength in the STEM areas, as well as Applied Linguistics and Languages (Chinese and Japanese).

TE: What do you see as the most inspiring and/or ground-breaking initiatives to have come out of Curtin University's School of Education, and how is the University building on these in 2019 and beyond?

RO: Many within our school continue to pursue research, and as indicated, in the last few years our school as a whole has been extremely successful particularly with national competitive grant funding, but also in securing funding and research partnerships with industry and other educational bodies. Most academic staff within our School of Education are well published and each year we continue to produce hundreds of quality research outputs – books, book chapters and journal articles. As well as award-winning researchers, including some very esteemed and internationally recognised professors, we also have prize-winning teachers. This reflects the close nexus between research and teaching in our School of Education. 

Our strength in this way is demonstrated by our success in winning the tender for the state government ‘Centre of Excellence in the Explicit Teaching of Literacy’ which combines rigorous and careful research, with professional learning for teachers. It is also represented by our ‘Professional Learning Hub’ – an outreach arm of our School which provides organisational support to help us provide opportunities for educators in the field who come along and have our staff and other leaders in the field conduct seminars, colloquia and conferences.

Inspirational work in our school, both in our research and teaching, and that which reflects our educational ethos, includes our strength in Inclusive and socially-just education. Our highly successful, large-scale fully online courses have brought higher education to many hundreds of students previously experiencing barriers to accessing tertiary learning. We also have a particular strength in the areas of understanding language and diversity and second language acquisition. In addition, we have a strong commitment to helping to graduate more Aboriginal teachers which is represented in programs we are creating and the research we do.

TE: The pace of technological change and education reform in recent years is a significant challenge for universities' School of Education. What is Curtin University's School of Education doing at an executive level to ensure it remains competitive and successful amid these changes?

RO: Because of our strength in both the online learning, especially but not only in the OUA space, and because of the nature of Curtin University (as a technology higher education provider), remaining at the front of technological innovation in pedagogy is integral to all we do. Our course delivery and teaching materials use technology creatively and the teaching and learning opportunities that we offer are cutting edge.  Teaching staff regularly interact with students across the nation and, in fact, the world using real-time videoconferencing tools such as ‘Collaborate’ sessions and Zoom and EdX. Our newly refurbished building is well equipped, both for teaching and for the students in their learning. There is also a commitment both within the School and University to support innovation – for example we have a dedicated team who work collaboratively with our teaching staff to ensure that optimal technological solutions are found for their pedagogical approaches. Many of our research projects have a strong online and/or technological component.

The School of Education, Curtin University, represents how educational research and teaching should be done in the 21st Century – it is innovative and creative, but also rigorous and inclusive.