New ideas in T&L: February

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Social networks in science teaching and learning

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Kelly Matthews

SaMnet – the Science & Mathematics Network of Australian University Educators – highlights the essential role of social networks in spreading ideas and innovations across science higher education. The ACDS TL Centre, as of 2016, will lead important social networking activities, including central coordination for SaMnet, the annual ACDS TL Conference, and the Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education (ACSME). This blog post draws on a study that explored the SaMnet project funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching (2012-14).

Social Network Perspectives

Relationships between people, groups, and organisations as members of a broader social structure are central to social network perspectives. Analysis of such networks examines social interactions, the flow of information, and the links that connect people within and across social groups to reveal patterns and understand network dynamics. This focus on groups is essential because individuals are highly influenced by their social environment – no person forms beliefs, makes decisions, or acts in a vacuum. Higher education scholars now agree that disciplinary context is a primary influence on academics’ teaching beliefs. This highlights that efforts to enhance teaching need to focus on how individuals relate to their working environment with emphasis on disciplinary practices and beliefs.

Research drawing on social network perspectives has found that academics rely on a small circle of trusted colleagues, who are typically localised to an institution and discipline-specific, to discuss and form beliefs about teaching (see here and here).

The sense of belonging we get from being part of a group is a central part of our personal happiness. Humans are social creatures. Academics enjoy the collegiality inherent within disciplinary departments – being surrounded by those who understand us. The problem for those of us trying to introduce new teaching approaches and reform curriculum is that disciplinary networks become closed. Members trust and rely on each other but they come to possess the same knowledge and come to know the same people. Thus, their links to other networks become diminished with limited access to new ideas from outside the group. In social network research, the role of weak tiespeople who connect across networks – are often featured as a vehicle to spread ideas from one group to another.

Leveraging weak ties in SaMnet

SaMnet was formed to leverage social networks to enable the transfer of local teaching practices to new contexts whilst building the capacity of members in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). The SaMnet model involved the formation of four-member teams within universities across Australian science and mathematics departments all linked by shared goals and a centrally coordinated communication and support hub. SaMnet project leaders deliberately wanted to connect scientists to broader expertise in teaching and learning – folks outside of the discipline connected to broader institutional and national teaching and learning structures. Thus, the team formation included:

  1. a junior academic who was driving the initiative,
  2. a senior academic with firsthand experience in delivering innovations in teaching and learning,
  3. an academic developer who could provide insights garnered from the educational literature, and
  4. the Associate Dean with overall responsibility for education in the faculty who could ensure that the project objectives aligned with faculty or institution-wide priorities.

In a study on SaMnet, the role of academic developers as ‘outside’ experts in teaching and learning was specifically investigated using the idea of weak ties. Two case studies of SaMnet project teams were presented that highlighted the benefits of involving an academic developer as a weak tie who linked the team to grant opportunities and broader networks that enabled transfer of teaching approaches to new contexts. Moreover, evidence emerged of academic developers supporting junior academics in promotion processes and teaching award applications.

Optimising weak ties to link across groups

Ideal, right? Yes and no. There were many successful SaMnet projects with evidence of academic developers adding new knowledge within teams. However, only two clear cases emerged (read them here) where academic developers fulfilled the theoretical expectation of weak ties by connecting teams across networks. This implies that opportunities to link beyond local contexts could be enhanced.

Implications for science curricular leaders

As curricular leaders, we want to learn from new approaches and ideas that can advance university science education. The SaMnet model that deliberately linked local teaching teams to people outside the discipline is an important reminder for us to involve outside perspectives meaningfully – people who can build relationships across science and higher education boundaries. While inviting a philosopher to give a seminar on teaching critical thinking is a good idea, a better plan is to advocate for interdisciplinary teams on teaching and learning projects.

When drawing on the resources of university teaching and learning centre staff, remember to be explicit about networking goal – central staff connect your colleagues to broader ideas and opportunities.

As the ACDS TL Centre becomes the new ‘hub’ for SaMnet activities, the goal to connect across various academic networks to optimise opportunities and spread innovations will remain central.

Kelly Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education
Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, Faculty of Science, The University of Queensland