Behind organisational change at Northampton (Part 1)
Two gigantic undertakings are occurring now at University of Northampton. The first one is a colossal pedagogic change, whereby all academic modules are being redesigned to be Active Blended Learning friendly. The other is the construction of a purpose-built and designed future campus to adapt to 21st century teaching. Northampton campuses are to be consolidated into a sole campus and located in a strategic position on the banks of the River Nene.
The Staff Development Forum had the opportunity to do an interview with Professor Alejandro Armellini to learn more about him and his contribution to these exciting developments. Professor Alejandro Armellini is the Dean of Learning and Teaching and Director of the Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at the University of Northampton. Prior to this, he worked at the University of Leicester. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy since 2007.
I would like to begin with a few questions to get to know you and what you value. What are Alejandro’s three rules?
The rule of evidence, whereby you can get people to change and you can change yourself if there is evidence. The rule of support as you can be determined to change on the basis of evidence. However, very often, you need a helping hand, hence the second rule of support. The rule of agency, which means giving the person that you are working with the power to decide on that change. Agency is power. Evidence, support and agency are the three rules that we systematically apply here at University of Northampton to generate organisational change.
An interesting twist to that question is what happens when there is no evidence and you still feel you want to implement a process of change. That takes you to the notion of innovation. Those in this position are probably the most exciting people to work with. People who are prepared to invest time, effort and money on a project or initiative that has no evidence based. Sometimes, perhaps very often they fail. Sometimes, they hit the nail on the head and they innovate as a result.
You have touched on two key themes: failure and innovation. In early attempts to implement blogs in education, for example, it is possible to say that many of those projects, if not all, failed. However, blogs are currently mainstream.
Absolutely. When you are in a project that doesn’t deliver what it set out to deliver that can be seen as failure. However, if you are comfortable in a context where failure is understood to be positive, as a lesson learned, then you are working in a supportive environment that tolerates that sort of lack of success and sees that in a positive way. I would describe that as an opportunity for innovation, where it (what you wanted to achieve) didn’t happen this time but if we make some changes it may happen next time.
A good example of this is the catastrophic UK e-University. There was a great number of staff employed, mostly to set up a complex online learning platform. Some people learned from the failed experience, some didn’t. In the political environment not a lot was learned, in the academic environment a lot was learned. So much that there were no attempts to produce such a complex online learning platform again, all the way until Future Learn. In the intervening period, we used platforms like Blackboard and Moodle. A lot was invested in learning about how not to do things.
You played roles as learning technologist at the University of Kent and researcher at University of Leicester, where I met you. You also worked as a lecturer in Education and programme leader for the MA in Educational technology and TESOL at the University of Manchester. Throughout your career, who has been your role model?
This is difficult to say as there isn’t a single person that encapsulates all the features I would like to see in a role model. I hesitate to name people, because throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with outstanding line managers and colleagues from whom I learned so much. Those valuable bits that I learned from them would be part of the criteria for my role model. Others have taught me things, which were not necessarily academic and that I have taken on board. They all have been different people.
Person X, in a certain institution, would be your typical role model in terms of management and people management. Person Y, in another institution, would be your perfect role model that combines leadership with academic standards and research outputs. Person Z, in a different institution, would provide the vision for moving a large complex organisation forward, although the person themselves wouldn’t produce a single academic paper. They were key in moving us forward. In this example, I have identified three individuals at different stages in my career that have influenced me significantly. I wouldn’t like to be exactly like any of them. Ideally, I would want to chop a bit of them, put that together and that would be my role model.
Sometimes people have an attribute that makes them distinctive from others. What is your superpower?
Superpower is a bit of an overstatement. I have a passion and, I think, a particular ability in enabling people to learn. It is a grand statement to make, because you say that and you may sound arrogant and awful. I tend to face very complex tasks that generally what they would have in common is to enable people to come to terms with or to make sense of a particular idea or concept. I really enjoy addressing that problem and find ways of enabling my students to articulate the answer to that problem, in creative, sometimes unusual ways. To simplify that, I would like to think that a superpower is one that makes me passionate about enabling learning.
A strength, if you give me a particular group of people and particular set of concepts, is that I thrive in making them grasp it. This is a big challenge. Just to be clear, I am not saying I am good lecturer or that my students love my teaching. What I say is that I usually succeed in finding appropriate ways that touch the nerve of appropriate groups of individual learners (sometimes after trying several times). There is always a way. The fun part of the jobs I have been doing in the last decade and a half is finding those gaps, finding those ways to put a wedge in, and to enable people see the other side of the wedge.
How would you say you would do that?
There isn’t a set technique. To reduce that to a technique, or to a method or even an approach would be risky. One of the features of teaching is that it is irreplicable. You can never do the same “act of teaching” twice. This is what in Spanish we call “el acto de enseñanza”. You may be teaching the same content, in the same room, even with the same students. That unique “act of teaching” happens once. Next time, it will be different. You may apply and refine what you know. You may increase your expertise at applying what you did before. However, “the act of teaching” will be different and, hopefully, it will be better.
Moving on to your definition of success, what victories have you celebrated?
A key one is academic growth. A good way to test that is to hold a mirror up and look at yourself and compare what you were like 15 years ago or, more interestingly, 25 years ago. What has your trajectory been like? What has been the key learning? What were the key windows? What were the periods in which you learned the most? What chances did you have to reflect? What breaks have people given you to incorporate learning into your baggage? You can take a transactional view of what success. This means that you could see it as getting from post A to post B, then from post B to post C over a relatively short period of time. Such journey can be seen as a series of successes.
I would say that there are some highlights of success, which I associate with learning opportunities. We say in Spanish “Los títulos no le dan brillo a sus dueños, sino los dueños le dan brillo a sus títulos”. There isn’t an equivalent in English, to my knowledge. Qualifications give you prestige. You should honour you qualifications by giving them the right light. When you put a plaque in your office. The plaque gives the person a good name. In fact, you need to keep polishing the plaque. You need to give shine to the plaque.
What I am referring to is more a conceptual. You are lucky, you feel rewarded and privileged to have a certain qualification or recognition by your peers. It is your job to keep that going. It is your job to keep that shining. To do that you have got to carry on. You have to be better than what you are. You may think that what you were doing in your PhD was good. Actually, when you look at your own PhD 5 years later, you may think this is awful. That’s a sign of success.
Those windows of learning, those chunks of key learning from people that formed my ideal role model, which I used for your previous question, the opportunities that I have been lucky and privileged to have to work with colleagues and students, those are the ones that I see as success. I was privileged to be working with those people for a period of time. I have been lucky to be in a position to take away from those experiences things that have made me grow as academic, manager, and leader.
What would you like to have more of?
Time. That’s moving on to the selfish territory. If I could have it my way. I would like to do more of certain things and less of other things. I am never tired of having more opportunities to learn from leaders and mentors, which have made me grow, I want that too. For that I need time, they do need time too. I can’t expect them to carve time. Those leaders and mentors need to gain something in return as well. We live in very constrained times, where the commodity of time is in short supply. One has to prioritise very well. If I had more time, the quality of my life will improve, the quality of life of those around me will also improve.
Dr. Rossana Espinoza
SDF Communications officer