The power of twitter: #ECRchat on developing teaching skills

Ellen Boeren  Sometime last year, when I was exploring the opportunities Twitter could offer for my twitter3development as an academic, I stumbled upon the hashtag #ECRchat. Further investigation made clear that #ECRchat was used as the hashtag for Early Career Researchers who wanted to interact with each other, and who were keen to give and receive peer support on various career related issues. #ECRchat is still alive and, as a general rule, chats take place every fortnight, alternating between the US-UK and UK-Australian time zones.

After my discovery I became a regular participant in these #ECRchat sessions.   Indeed after a few months, I moderated my first session on ‘Establishing and maintaining international networks’.  After a year or so, I decided to have another go at moderating a session.  First I had to decide upon a topic.  While #ECRchat has hosted many discussions in relation to publishing, grant writing, mentoring, gaining research independence, job searching strategies and even strategies on how to leave academia, it seemed that the topic of teaching had never been put forward.  Time for change, I thought, and so I introduced a discussion on ‘the importance of teaching in your academic career development’.  As a participant in the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice here at the University of Edinburgh, it is also in my interest to discuss teaching related elements, as a way to enhance my reflections on my own teaching practice.

The #ECRchat session on teaching took place on Thursday 27 November 2014.  The chat was followed on and off by a number of people from different disciplines, and from different parts of Europe and Australia. In order to generate discussion, I introduced five questions:

  1. Do you currently have any teaching duties?
  2. How important is teaching for you in terms of career development?
  3. Have you followed any training and how useful is that?
  4. Which specific aspects of teaching do you need some extra support for: designing courses, delivery, marking and feedback…
  5. Do you have any experience with supervising student: e.g. BA/BSc or MA/MSc dissertation projects, or doctoral students’ projects?

In general, participants in #ECRchat are often on fixed term contracts, with some still working towards their PhDs and others working on fellowships or in research posts.  As such, the participants are not usually employed in lectureship positions where you have to take responsibility for an entire course. Instead, some had been tutoring on other peoples’ courses.  While some ECRs had experience in supporting undergraduate or Master’s level students in writing up their dissertations, we did not speak about doctoral supervision, apart from the informal interactions taking place between doctoral students and Early Career Researchers, who are just one level up on the academic career ladder.

In answering the question on teaching and career development, participants focused on the strong Ref 2014importance of publications, and felt that prospective employers would be more interested in their publication records than in their teaching experience.  In times where there is such a high focus on the Research Excellence Framework exercise, it did not come as a surprise that many researchers felt stressed about the need to list at least a few 3 or 4 star publications on their CVs.  In general, from a career perspective, there seemed to be little need to develop teaching related skills.

But is this too restrictive a view?  Is it helpful to develop teaching skills?  One of the elements we focused on in this session was the need to participate in teaching related training.  If you want to build a career in academia (and in the UK especially) it is highly recommended that you obtain a postgraduate qualification such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, or a similar Postgraduate Certificate in University or Higher Education Teaching.  Participants recognised the need to improve their teaching related skills, especially in boosting their confidence in areas such as speaking in front of a group of students, but also in relation to designing new courses, and in managing students’ expectations.  As a host, I referred to my own participation in the Edinburgh PG CAP, and I found out that all the topics that were introduced by the participants were – in one way or another – were dealt with in the courses that I have  taken so far in the PG CAP.  On example of this was the entire option I did on ‘Designing Courses’.  Also the idea of supervising students was mentioned several times, which was explored within the course on ‘Working with post-graduate students’ that I took during the Spring 2014.  Interestingly, the main inspiration for teaching and supervising seemed to be grounded in ECRs’ own experiences as students or supervisees.  It is ECRs intention to perform as well as their own outstanding lecturers or their very supportive supervisors, or – on the other hand – to make sure they avoid triggering the same negative experiences among their students that they had to undergo themselves.

So what conclusions can we draw from this?  #ECRchat sessions are not of course representative of the ECR population.  But nevertheless, as an educationalist, I would like to continue discussing teaching related topics with fellow ECRs and recommend that further funding will be made available to continue high quality training, as well as to conduct further research, on the role of teaching in the academic career. While the REF has dominated many of our academic discussions over the past few months, we should not forget about other metrics such as the Student Satisfaction Surveys.  In the end, we are academics who need to contribute to knowledge, but also to teaching and making society a better place to live in.  Gaining more knowledge on teaching, learning and assessment, and increasing ECRs’ confidence in order to carry out teaching related duties in a competent way, is therefore highly recommended.  From my own personal experience, participation in the PG CAP has absolutely triggered critical reflection on my own teaching practice and this, in the end, is what our students deserve.

About the author

Ellen BoerenEllen Boeren is Chancellor’s Fellow, Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests are situated in the field of higher/adult/lifelong education.  She conducts European comparative research and has a special interest in survey methodology.  Her teaching duties include ‘Research Methods’ for MSc students at Moray House.  Together with her colleague Deborah Fry, she coordinates the School’s Early Career Research Network.  You can follow Ellen on Twitter @ellen_boeren

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