Thought-piece: What is the value of an institutional conference on learning and teaching?

The aim of the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference is to bring together staff and students from across the organisation in order to celebrate and share practices and ideas about enhancing the learning experience. The conference this year ran for a full day on April 1, 2014, attracting around 200 staff and students to the exhibition and programme of workshops and papers.  The theme of the conference this year was: Space to Learn, and this thread ran explicitly through the programme, providing delegates and presenters new spaces to occupy, in the sense of virtual, intellectual and physical spaces. More of the conference itself, including papers and accompanying resources can be found at

Events such as this have become part of the fabric of many universities in the UK over the past 15 years, so it is timely to pause, and consider the purpose and the value of a cross-university learning and teaching event.

A strategically symbolic event

Teaching conferences in Higher Education have been a highly visible activity in support of institutional learning and teaching strategies following the Dearing Inquiry in the late 90s (NCIHE, 1997). The event at Oxford Brookes is no different. It is sponsored by PVC Student Experience Prof. John Raftery and fits with the Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience (Oxford Brookes University, 2010-15).

Inspired through graduate attribute developments was a staff:student poster: students of drama and architecture came together to design set proposals and assess each other in a trans-disciplinary approach to foster the attribute of critical self-awareness. 

Poster presented by Harriet Harriss and Lionel Real de Azua (Architecture)  Eleanor Lowe, Carina Bartleet and Laura Higgins (EML - Drama), and students from Drama and Architecture

Poster presented by Harriet Harriss and Lionel Real de Azua (Architecture)
Eleanor Lowe, Carina Bartleet and Laura Higgins (EML – Drama), and students from Drama and Architecture

Conferences such as this are an opportunity for those leading the strategies to demonstrate their influence, to invite others to showcase effective or innovative practices, to highlight new initiatives and to break down some of the silo thinking around departmental innovations that are said to inhibit cross-departmental take-up.

Institutional conferences have evolved over time with the ebbs and flows of the strategies they represent, striking a balance between:

  • top-down or bottom-up steer;
  • external:internal influence and delegate body;
  • staff:student involvement;
  • research:teaching focus.

For me, however, the conference has the potential to signify far more than this and actually to make a change in our practices. In our case, at Brookes, decisions about the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘who’ of the event come from a dedicated conference planning group, which I have been delighted to chair for the past five years.

Virtue ethics in play

Central to my own vision of the conference, and beyond its overtly strategic symbolism, I value the conference for bringing together innovation in learning and teaching with the practical wisdom from colleagues, underpinned with recognition of that which makes us thrive. For me, therefore, it represents virtue ethics in action, a ‘space to learn’ in the sense of developing ourselves in these three strands of Aristotelian ethics, namely: arête (excellence linked to craft and creativity), phronesis (practical wisdom linked to the need to address real problems by developing moral will and moral skill), and eudaimonia (human flourishing which is based on nurturing reason and intellect.)’ (Singh, 2010).

In itself, the conference is a complex learning environment where decisions have been made consciously in order to celebrate the three aspects of excellence, practical wisdom and human flourishing. The richness of the conference as personal development invites us all into action within our own spheres of activity.

Did you join in a ‘walk with me’ on the day? Groups of four or five people at a time walk and talk with a facilitator, either George Roberts or Richard Francis, in and around the venue, their talk framed by the key question: (How) does my teaching transform learning?


Richard Francis taking a ‘walk’ with delegates at this year’s conference

Or perhaps you took part in the perceptions on feedback exercise led by Berry O’Donovan and student researcher Charlotte Johnston, BUS

Hands up response to the ‘feedback exercise’.

Hands up response to the ‘feedback exercise’.

The question remains: where is the transformational effect of your teaching?

Using wisdom in complex situations

Unsolicited feedback from delegates this year, once again, is that the conference was ‘great’ and ‘inspiring’. This is not accidental, and carries parallels with the achievements of great and inspiring teaching. Whilst the conference, or a module, or an individual teaching session, may be experienced as an event it is in fact a process which draws together many strands leading up to and out of the thing itself. The challenges of organising an inspirational conference, as for teaching, require wise decision-making (Snowden and Booth, in Patten, 2010, p.107).

In understanding how we come to reach wise decisions, and how these decisions are perceived and experienced by others, I have found it helpful to acknowledge that we are choosing to act in a situation that is not complicated but, rather, complex.

The complicated/complex narrative comes from one of my favourite books to be published in recent years, namely Patton’s 2010 exposition on Developmental Evaluation. One of the central premises in this book is Zimmerman’s framework of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic (in Patton, 2010, p106). Patton draws parallels between this framework and Snowden and Boone’s framework for leaders in decision-making, the ‘cyenfin framework’, which distinguishes between:

  • known – simple,
  • knowable – complicated
  • unknowable in advance – complex and
  • unknowable ever – chaos

(ibid, p107).

The complexity of the situation for the organisers of the conference comes from reclaiming learning spaces for staff and students outside of the regular flow of the curriculum. The challenges posed are enormous, since the conference steps across concealed boundaries of permissions, roles and expectations. The conference pushes the envelope, often at the expense of control and order, and emerges with unexpected and serendipitous outcomes.

One example from this year’s conference was the decision to use a brand new venue and run events in unknown and untested spaces within that building. There was scope for great possibilities, but also uncertainties. In the run-up to the event, the organisers walked and imagined scenarios of activities through the spaces, negotiated and renegotiated what was desirable, what was possible and what was allowable with a large number of stakeholders.

The photographs and videos from the day reveal how spaces were used to suit the activities within them. Similarly the imagery of Sian Bayne’s slides inspired connections with my own thoughts and reflected richly the complexity of learning and spatial awareness in a way that will influence my own design thinking.

Dr Bayne, University of Edinburgh challenges us to think of ‘distance’ and ‘placelessness’ as the norm in higher education

Dr Bayne, University of Edinburgh challenges us to think of ‘distance’ and ‘placelessness’ as the norm in higher education

One of the striking moments of Bayne’s talk was the SecondLife alternative graduation for her distance learning students. This ceremony of avatars is run simultaneously with the Vice-Chancellor-led ceremony in Edinburgh, bringing together virtual and physical attendance and breaking down the barriers between those who do and those who do not visit the Edinburgh campus. This surely is a call to action for us at Brookes in how we might develop a stronger sense of our own institution as a place to celebrate learning, whether physically present or virtually connected.

Getting back to the basics of higher education, we asked how can we make more of reading – not just as information input, but “more challenging and uncomfortable but potentially life-changing”? The workshop by David Aldridge and Judith Seaboyer (visiting from University of Queensland) considered the challenges and obstacles to making space for reading in a busy academic schedule.

Judith Seaboyer, visiting scholar from University of Queensland

Judith Seaboyer, visiting scholar from University of Queensland

David Aldridge, Brookes Teaching Fellow, HSS

David Aldridge, Brookes Teaching Fellow, HSS

Further feedback on the conference is invited via a survey to attendees, with an emphasis in our questions on what ideas and practices colleagues are taking from the event into their own practices. Many delegates have already recounted to me names, practices, ideas or projects they want to take forward from the conference. This is at the heart of our evaluation of the conference, this is for me the true value of an event like BLTC14.



Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2014, available online at (accessed 11 April 2014)

Dearing, R. (1997) The national committee of inquiry into higher education: Higher education in the learning society, Report on National Consultation. London: Higher Education Quality Council

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, T., & Yorke, M. (2000) Institutional learning and teaching strategies in English higher education, Higher Education, 40, pp. 351–372.

Oxford Brookes University (2010) Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience, 2010-15. Available online at: (accessed 11 April 2014)

Patton, M. Q. (2010) Developmental evaluation: Applying complexity concepts to enhance innovation and use, Guildford: Guilford Press

Singh, G (2010) The Virtues and Vices of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Today, Keynote talk at Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2010, Harcourt Hill Campus, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

Frances Deepwell

Dr Frances Deepwell, SFSEDA, SFHEA, joined OCSLD as an educational development consultant in 2008. She has a specific focus on higher education professional development, evaluation research, and reward and recognition in teaching and learning.

Posted in Perspective

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