Why we need professional educational developers

In recent years, Finland has been named “the world’s best education system”, especially with its high ranking in international league tables such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Consequently, many policy-makers around the world have looked to the ‘Finnish model’ of education as an answer to educational problems in their respective countries.

The factors involved in Finland’s success are many but the most popular is that all its teachers have a masters degree in education.

According to the educator Pasi Sahlberg, this requirement enhances teachers’ confidence, autonomy and curiosity to try new strategies.

He further argues that these features distinguish Finland from other countries that have been infested by what he calls the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) virus, which “is often promoted through the interests of international development agencies and private enterprises through their interventions in national education reforms and policy formulation”.

Features of GERM include standardisation of teaching and learning, corporate models of change and a focus on competition and ‘choice’ when it comes to education.

What is striking from research is that the impacts of GERM on the overall quality of education systems have been negative for teachers’ work and students’ learning in schools.

For instance, the use of standards to guide teaching and learning has narrowed the freedom and flexibility of classrooms to generate context-based solutions to their instructional problems. What is more, it “minimises risktaking in teaching and learning and therefore reduces creativity”.

Another example is that competition between schools frustrates meaningful cooperation or sharing of ideas when schools face common challenges.

ICT in Malawi

The need to find a ‘vaccine’ for the GERM virus cannot be overemphasised, especially for developing nations which, given their dependency on external donors, seem to be at higher risk. The issue of information and communications technology (ICT) integration in Malawi’s higher education system is a case in point.

Within GERM, ICT is positioned as a driver of change in education, including from instructor-led to more learner-centred activities and has been promoted for its potential in making education accessible to many students through online and distance learning.

In Malawi, this can be seen in the establishment of online and distance learning courses in institutions such as Mzuzu University, the Malawi Polytechnic and the Kamuzu College of Nursing. However, as I observed in a recent article, research shows that external donors are active in setting the ICT agenda and provide financial support for ICT development in Malawi.

The extent to which the manifestation of GERM through learning technologies is stifling educational development in the country requires further investigation. However, it is my view that educational developers can boost the immunity of higher education institutions. As Sahlberg also notes, the best way to avoid infection by the GERM virus is to prepare teachers and leaders well.

What do educational developers do?

Educational developers are an emerging (or new) profession within the higher education sector and it remains contested as to whether they are a ‘profession’ or a ‘discipline’.

This debate has been clarified elsewhere, so it is not necessary to go into greater detail here. However, as Joshua Kim notes, there is a consensus that the main role of educational developers is to “collaborate with individual instructors, academic departments and larger campus units on a range of teaching and learning activities”.

The work of educational developers is also influenced by the way academic development is organised, which varies from institution to institution. According to Alison Hudson, one arrangement has been to use stand-alone ‘Centres of Teaching and Learning’, while in other institutions such efforts are spread across academic faculties or departments.

In Malawi, most universities follow the latter model, although the emergence of e-learning courses has also stimulated the establishment of stand-alone centres dedicated to ICT or open distance learning.

For instance, at Chancellor College where I work, the ICT centre provides technical support to staff and students through interventions such as training sessions and consultations based on demand from clients, as well as whenever an innovation is introduced.

Faculty development is promoted through two policy guidelines: 1) quality assurance and 2) teaching, learning and assessment policy. There is also a special committee responsible for the strategic oversight of teaching, learning and assessment of student experiences.

Call to action for educational developers

With their main work revolving around supporting ICT use in teaching and learning development, employees such as those based in the e-learning and ICT centres could be identified as ‘educational developers’. This professional identity puts them in a critical position to spot, negotiate or act as ‘shock absorbers’ against the infection of the GERM virus.

To boost the immunity of higher education institutions against the GERM virus, those of us working as educational developers must collaborate across departments, faculties or institutions. Unless we get organised and begin advancing our own professional identity and practices, it is very likely that our efforts will remain uncoordinated and therefore have a fragmented impact.

The current work, positioning and practices of educational developers seem to be problematic because they are not specifically recognised as a professional group. For starters, the profession could benefit from a recently established association that seeks to advance the interests of universities in Malawi.

Educational developers can also develop professionally by joining other professional bodies such as the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa.

The current policy context also provides fertile ground for the recognition of professional educational developers, for instance, the focus on enhancing the quality of learning and teaching in universities following the establishment of the National Council for Higher Education. The council, in collaboration with higher education institutions, might take a step further to facilitate the professional development of educational developers.

Foster Gondwe is a lecturer at the University of Malawi School of Education, currently pursuing a PhD at Hiroshima University, Japan. His research work focuses on instructional technology, faculty development and teacher education.


CJ Han-Frey on the University World News Facebook page: They are the “best” in the world because they don't have private education. All the rich parents send their kids to public school, and since they demand the best for their kids, they end up by default getting the best for all kids. There's no secret to their success – it's that they don’t let rich parents siphon off their kids and their money into private schools.