Professional development for quality
enhancement of learning and teaching

Case Study - Developing Induction Processes for Transnational Teaching Teams

Overview

This paper provides an overview of the process undertaken to develop a support mechanism for the induction of members of transnational teaching teams. Data was obtained through interviews with faculty in two campuses of an Australian university, one in Australia and the second in Vietnam. The research aims to identify challenges facing transnational teaching teams and to provide a better understanding of issues affecting faculty across multiple campuses, including relationship management; the identification of issues for pre-semester, in-semester and post-semester discussion and the establishment of practices to support academic equivalence, contextualisation and customisation.

Keywords

Transnational education, teaching practice, quality assurance.

Background

This paper reports on the experiences of faculty teaching business programs in two campuses of the same university - one in Australia and the other in Vietnam. Perspectives of stakeholders from both locations were sought in a series of semi- structured interviews which explored the notion of the transnational teaching team. Thirty individuals, including faculty from both campuses who teach in the programs, those who coordinate the courses, and those involved in the design, moderation, and coordination of courses and programs were interviewed. Some interviewees had multiple roles. Questions were developed from the literature (Keevers, Harper, Lefoe and Dawood 2011, Hicks and Jarrett, 2008, Connelly Garron and Olsen 2006, Hicks and Jarrett 2008, Leask 2009 and Lee, Poch, Shaw and Williams, 2012), and were designed to identify their views and experience about quality teaching and learning, the extent of their association with the transnational teaching team, communication processes within the team, and course-related decision-making practices.

Analysis of data obtained through interviews with faculty in both home and offshore campuses indicates significant differences in perceptions about communication, curriculum development and professional practice. A resulting model is proposed which defines communication and negotiated practice and quality in teaching and learning as the catalysts for the effective functioning of a transnational teaching team.

diagram
Fig 1. Functions of effective Transnational Teaching Teams

The focus of the project

The transnational project team of two academic developers (one in Vietnam and one in Melbourne) met regularly via videoconference and five times face to face to design an induction process for transnational teaching teams, specifically focusing on the needs that were identified in interviews with academics on both Australia and Vietnam campuses.

What pedagogical processes were used?

Between the videoconferences and face to face meetings, the academic developers created guides on the issues related to induction and maintenance of effective transnational teaching teams. A shared online space was established to enhance communication for resources.

Findings

The challenges

Four challenges that transnational teaching teams are faced with were identified.

Staff turnover

Staff turnover was identified as a key challenge in the implementation of transnational teaching teams induction processes. The Vietnam campus is an environment in which turnover of faculty is an expectation rather than an exception. Thus, the maintenance of teaching teams was an area of concern. In addition, the concept of a “team” differed among different course teams. On some courses the team was considered to be just the Course Coordinator and academic staff in Vietnam, with the Coordinator and academic staff in Melbourne seen as a separate group. Professional development activities may take place with the “team” in Vietnam, consisting of the Vietnam Coordinator and the teaching team members in Vietnam, but will not necessarily include members from Melbourne. For this reason the induction framework places particular emphasis on establishing roles and expectations of all team members.

Different student cohorts

The difference in the student cohorts in Vietnam and Melbourne are substantial, and this was identified by faculty as another area of challenge of developing strong transnational teaching teams. Students in Vietnam are primarily Vietnamese, while a typical class in Melbourne may have a range of different nationalities. Thus the different campuses have a history of working independently to address the needs resulting from their particular context. This lack of shared experience highlighted the importance of the ‘Student Learning’ issues identified in the interviews (Refer to Case Study 1: Unpacking Effective Transnational Teaching Teams).

Differences in campus focus

The primary focus of faculty in the Vietnam campus was on teaching, while the Melbourne faculty had stronger focus on research. In Vietnam, contextualising course content and delivery was a key aspect of teaching team activities in Vietnam. This involves ensuring that local research, case studies and examples are used to situate curriculum originating in Melbourne within the local context. Ideally, coordinators at both sites would be able to balance their differing priorities and still work together effectively in the process of delivering effective courses. For this reason clear objectives and learning outcomes were emphasised in the induction program outline and facilitator’s notes.

Differing professional backgrounds

The fact that academic staff in Vietnam often come from an industry background and may be relatively new to teaching was another challenge. Thus, they may have differing professional development needs as compared to their Melbourne counterparts. This meant that the induction package needed to acknowledge and incorporate introductory content, as well as to recognise and reinforce good practice. An example of the team’s response can be found in the “FAQ” and the “Course Coordinator Checklist” documents.

In addition to these challenges, three groups of issues emerged during the course of interviews: communication and negotiated practice, support for student learning, and professional practice. Some elements are acknowledged in the literature and others have yet to be written about to any significant extent.

Communication and Negotiated Practice

Semester misalignment

The misalignment of semester dates between Australia (which has two semesters) and Vietnam (with three) was seen by some Australian respondents as a challenge, particularly when an Australian coordinator was responsible for more than one transnational course offering.

Quality and frequency of communication

Faculty who had been teaching in Vietnam for longer periods of time tended to be more relaxed abut the quality of the relationships, apparently having developed confidence in their own ability to interpret the university’s guidelines without significant dependence on the explicit direction of their Australian coordinator. A Vietnam coordinator commented that “I felt when I started, especially when I started as a course leader I felt like I had to look for approval of everything I did”.

Use of technology to facilitate communication

Those faculty who had travelled to Australia, or whose Australian counterpart had visited Vietnam described a significant improvement in the effectiveness of the relationship. In the absence of frequent face to face contact, respondents identified a range of technologies that contributed to the establishment and maintenance of mutually beneficial relationships.

Support for Student Learning

Equivalence of course content

For many Vietnam faculty a lack of communication was seen to have contributed to misunderstanding. Those who had positive and productive communication with their Australian counterparts commented favourably about the freedom to contextualise and try new things – within the framework of existing standards and guidelines to follow, understanding that “as long as the topics are covered, it doesn’t have to be the exact same thing as Australia”.

Understanding of the Vietnam learning context

Interview responses consistently revealed the view that Australian faculty would benefit from developing a better understanding of the context in which their courses are taught in Vietnam. An Australian coordinator shared: “We have new people (in Australia) who have no experience of Vietnam, no experience of anything like that. And so again it’s a question of education”.

Teaching material for student learning

Most of the time allocation of faculty in Vietnam is primarily dedicated to teaching and they expect to spend considerable time working to on material sent from Australia, which may be of uneven quality and not always readily transferable to the Vietnam context.

Professional Practice

Identification with the concept of a transnational teaching team

The importance of trust was a key theme among faculty in Australia. As most course coordinators interviewed are responsible for at least one transnational course offering, the establishment of a productive and collegial teaching team is seen by them to be critical. References were made to the university’s ‘equivalence and comparability’ framework which facilitates an understanding of the importance of ‘context’ and the need for faculty in Vietnam to be responsive to the needs of their students.

Professional development for course leaders

A representative view of many Australian respondents was that “there are some people here in Australia who don’t know how to interact with Vietnam, and there are some people in Vietnam who don’t know how to interact with Australia. The biggest problem is a lack of awareness.”

The lack of formal mechanisms in Australia for induction into transnational team coordination was seen to be a serious omission. Addressing this gap would facilitate the development of an appreciation of the difference between the Vietnam ‘campus’ offering and the offshore arrangements using partner institutions.

Summary of Findings

As identified in Case Study 1, evidence from the interviews indicates that communication and negotiated practice and quality in teaching and learning are the primary catalysts of convergence in the activities of course teams in individual campuses to achieve a unified, cross-campus transnational teaching team. With few exceptions most of the issues identified in the interviews were raised as a result of insufficient attention being paid to the early establishment of expectations on both sides of the transnational relationship. In the absence of a formal induction into their roles, faculty are forced to rely on informally conveyed ‘custom and practice’ associated with curriculum development and professional practice. In the best of cases this practice results in positive outcomes; however, it is an inherently high risk practice. The establishment of clear communication channels is a necessary precursor to ongoing effectiveness.

Principles underpinning effective professional development for transnational teaching teams

Transnational Teaching Teams are sites of rich professional learning when they are supported by professional development that is based on sound principles. The seven principles below were developed by the project team in response to their experiences of the project and the literature and provide an underlying basis for professional development.

Professional Development for Transnational Teaching Teams:

  • Principle 1 — is practice-based
  • Principle 2 — builds trust and a sense of belonging
  • Principle 3 — involves all members of the teaching team
  • Principle 4 — addresses the intercultural nature of transnational teaching
  • Principle 5 — harnesses the diversity of the teaching team
  • Principle 6 — promotes distributed leadership
  • Principle 7 — is flexible and context-sensitive

Transnational teaching team members who have been educated in Australia and who have experience limited to Australia or other western countries may not share the same cultural and pedagogical frames of reference. Leask, 2005, reminds us that transnational teaching may be both similar to and different from previous types of teaching activities. In particular, there is a need to be aware of and understand the nature of diverse cultural differences that exist between teachers and students or within student cohorts. Having an understanding of these differences as well as their own culture, adjusting teaching approaches to accommodate differences, providing relevant resources and flexible contextualised activities and aligning this knowledge to the seven principles can help transnational teaching teams achieve good teaching outcomes.

What processes were used?

Using these underpinning principles and the learnings from the literature and during the interviews described in the previous case study, a model was developed (Figure 1, p.1, this case study paper) which identified four key aspects to the effective functioning of a transnational teaching team – Student Learning, Professional Practice, both essentially linked by Communication and Negotiation and Quality in Teaching and Learning. The aspects of student learning (incorporating curriculum design) and professional practices occupy much of a teacher’s working life. However, these two major concerns can falter, if left unsupported by effective communication processes and an agreed focus on quality.

An induction toolbox was developed by a transnational team, comprising staff in Melbourne and Vietnam. The material was validated in consultation with course coordinators, program leaders and lecturers in Melbourne and Vietnam.

The toolbox explored issues that were identified both in interviews and in the literature and formed the basis for toolbox topics. Some issues necessarily overlapped with others.

The induction toolbox includes:

  • Section 3 — An induction program outline and summary of the objectives and learning outcomes
  • Section 4 — A facilitator’s guide, with suggested discussion points regarding the rationale and importance of objectives, what to emphasise to achieve learning outcomes, examples of good practice, and resources
  • Section 4.1 — A quick guide of effective teaching practice, containing brief sketches of good practice
  • Section 4.2 — A checklist designed for first time coordinators of transnational teaching teams, outlining responsibilities required of them in the three phases of their activity: before, during and after the teaching period.
  • Section 4.3 — An explanation of the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and their impact on course/unit design and delivery
  • Section 4.4 — A quick guide of questions that are frequently asked by new members of transnational teaching teams, the answers to which can provide the basis for a discussion leading to a shared and endorsed understanding of roles and responsibilities. The guide is complemented by a list of related literature and a checklist for personalised responses to the frequently asked questions
  • Section 4.5 — A course/unit review checklist for end of semester covering Teaching and Learning Quality, Student Learning and Preparing a Report and Improvement Plan

Supporting documentation sourced from within RMIT include:

Dissemination

Workshops

The project team maintained close links with faculty at various levels in Vietnam and Australia, who provided ongoing advice and encouragement. In Vietnam, workshops were conducted in Ho Chi Minh City with a skype link to Hanoi. The workshops were attended by course coordinators, program leaders and other academics responsible for the delivery of transnational courses. The workshops introduced the project aims, and explained the processes undertaken, the interview findings and the resulting model that was developed to represent the transnational teaching team relationships. Feedback obtained during the workshops and follow up meetings evidenced support for the project aims and products.

In Vietnam a range of workshops related to transnational course coordination was also developed, that included sessions about the role of the course coordinator in a transnational teaching team and quality initiatives such as annual course and program review processes.

In Melbourne separate workshops were delivered to senior faculty, with the key topic being the conduct of the transnational course review process as a catalyst for the development and maintenance of the transnational teaching team. To complement professional development that was tailored for particular staff cohorts generic information sessions were offered throughout the College of Business.

To disseminate the project outcomes as effectively as possible, and to model the sharing of good practice a transnational forum was attended by senior representatives of five different partners or campus locations, covering Melbourne, Vietnam, Singapore, Shanghai and Jakarta. During the forum the project was explained and the model representing transnational teaching team relationships introduced. The concept of professional development for transnational teaching teams was work-shopped and participants explored the practicalities and benefits of processes established for the development and ongoing maintenance of effective course teams from the perspective of their own contexts. Feedback from the project reviewers added significant value to the final products.

What worked well

The transnational project team comprising educational developers liaised constantly with stakeholders at various levels, in both campuses. Having access to stakeholders meant that current issues were constantly in the minds of the project team.

The process of interviews, discussions and workshop development, implementation and evaluation allowed for all participants to reflect on and appreciate the aspects of transnational coordination that were going well in addition to areas that could be improved upon.

Aspects for improvement

Some very large courses may have a teaching team of 12 in Vietnam and similar numbers in Melbourne and other offshore locations. The logistics involved in regularly getting this number of people together across different time zones reinforces the importance of defining membership of and roles in transnational teaching teams.

A second area of improvement would be in the ability of teaching teams to connect through face to face meetings. Feedback from course coordinators in both locations indicated that opportunities for course

teams to meet face to face, although potentially costly, would establish a foundation for effective ongoing relationships.

Professional development activity often focuses on local needs rather than on fostering improvement in the way transnational teams operate. Increased targeted institutional support for the development and maintenance of transnational teaching teams would enhance the experience of both faculty and students.

Conclusion

This case study has provided an overview of the process undertaken to develop a support mechanism for the induction of members of transnational teaching teams. The induction toolbox is designed to facilitate better understanding of issues affecting transnational teaching teams across multiple campuses.


For further details please contact:

Dr Cathy Hall College of Business RMIT University
Email: cathy.hall.vandenelsen@gmail.com

Casey Scholz
Learning and Teaching Unit
RMIT International University Vietnam
Email: casey.scholz@rmit.edu.vn