How did you come across this topic?
Before I started working with research on CTLs, I was working in Germany on a project on the rise of new professional roles that contribute to improving teaching at European universities. This was happening around 2012, 2013. A huge funding programme for increasing teaching quality was available. Several German universities then started implementing the Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). That development was already taking place in countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the UK. I was very interested. What could be the impact of such a center?
Meanwhile, you have been researching CTLs for a long time. What is a CTL?
As soon as people hear the term, they imagine a department where many specialists are dealing with everything around education. But in my research, I have discovered that a CTL has different forms. I therefore define it as structures, which strive to improve education in institutions. A CTL focuses on three different activities, namely training (especially) teachers, developing educational innovations and disseminating them. I would like to add that the development of teaching innovations in a CTL, originates from a research-based strategy.
Why start a CTL?
For example, to raise the educational institution’s profile in the field of learning and teaching. Or to achieve a certain goal such as better performance. At the University of Twente, we have had a CELT for a few years now. Before that, there was a support structure for education, but it was very fragmented. Another example is a German university where I did research. It had performed excellently in the ‘Exzellenzinitiative’ for research but from the student evaluation came the demand to be excellent in teaching too. The quality of their teaching stayed lagged, the development of this CETL was more student-driven. You can also start a CTL because of educational issues related to an increasingly diverse student population. Or you might start a CTL for making explicit knowledge about good teaching at higher education institutions.
Can you tell us more about the design of a CTL?
Yes from my research, two designs were found to be common. The first form is mainly supported by educational professionals. It is a place within the organisation where a lot of expertise on education is gathered for all kinds of roles. People go here for support and help. The educational professionals mainly have a consultant-like role and it is usually a centralised unit in the institution. In my research, I call that a Central-Unit CETL.
The other form is a network-style CETL where the effort to improve teaching comes from the academics themselves. For a certain period, they set up a quasi informal structure; a kind of project structure where a group works together to improve education. In itself, though, it is a formalised plan that is submitted in advance and for which funding is given.
The organisational impact of these two forms is different. The network CETL is organised in a more collegiate academic way. There is mutual agreement on who plays what role in the group and other academics are invited to join the group. The network CETL is more bottom-up oriented, participants make their own choices about what they want to achieve, and how they want to do it and they formulate their own goals for improvements. While the central unit CETL is more focused on the fulfilment of institutional goals, sometimes in a top-down manner.
Are there advantages and disadvantages per form?
You cannot say that one form is better than the other. Both forms have the disadvantage that they cannot achieve changes on a large scale throughout the institution. The developments in a network CTL tend to stay within the group, meaning with the participants. A central CTL trains individuals based on the idea that once enough individuals are trained, there will be a certain tipping point that ensures change. But such a strategy does not apply to groups.
One of the problems I see is that we approach issues of learning and lecturing from the perspective of the individual, the group or the board. It turns out to be difficult to connect these three departure points, which prevents real change. I think this is due to a lack of a shared understanding of good teaching at most institutions. For an institution, that notion should be the foundation for all activities in this area.
What advice do you have for colleagues who are getting started with a CTL?
I have several. I would choose a hybrid form. At a large university, we saw how they built a web of experts across the university. The implementation of different functions of CTLs was in different places, so people had to break boundaries for advice from the different functions of the CTL.
Make sure the CTLs work well with lecturers. Don’t make it a center where only educational professionals, designers etc. work. You can think of part-time positions in the centers for academics as ‘work package leaders’, they ensure the right balance between the management objectives and what educational professionals need.
Processes based on design thinking are a good approach to start with. When developing a CTL, involve the stakeholders who are the users of your CTL, such as students, lecturers and so on. Openly scan what they want from such a center, without imposing your idea. In the center itself, ensure good cooperation between the experts; it should be reinforcing. Make the center demand-driven. A CTL needs a lot of supportive leadership; the development of a shared understanding of good education must be supported by the management of the institutions. And finally, don’t create solutions for problems that don’t exist!