AFRET & PgCAP for Technicians
Chris Kennedy, Educational Resources Technician at the University of Glasgow Dental School recently gave a presentation on AFRET (Associate Fellow, Recognising Excellence in Teaching) and PgCAP (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) for Technicians.
He described how he became aware that Technicians throughout the University could be eligible to gain recognition for their teaching.
We asked Chris if he would be able to provide a few paragraphs describing the process he took to gain AFRET and going to study for PgCAP.
As a technician who has gone through the AFRET process, and who is nearing completion of the PgCAP, I have been asked to write a few paragraphs about my experiences of both schemes. First, I have to offer some background on my career and previous education. As with many technicians I was never what might be described as “academic” - my highest level of qualification is from High School, where I was a solid B student. I know some technical specialists have Bachelor, Masters, or even PhD’s, but I’m not one of them. I have always struggled in formal examinations and prefer a more practical hands-on approach to learning.
After dropping out of University in first year, confirming to myself that academia was not for me, I found a job as a trainee Audio Visual Technician in the events industry. I spent five years in that industry before joining Stirling University as a Grade 3 Teaching Technician, mostly looking after teaching rooms and AV equipment, but also looking after the website and VLE. Over my three years there I managed to expand the role into a Grade 4 before taking a job as a Grade 5 Educational Resources Technician at the University of Glasgow supporting a full range of teaching environments and equipment both physical and virtual. I have been in post for seven and a half years, and in that time have again expanded my role and duties as I identified improvements to practice. I was also successful in having the role regraded to a Grade 6.
This is where, as a teaching technician, I struggled to identify the next steps for my career development as there are no clear pathways. Looking at a range of posts that came up at Grade 7 I realised that I had to not just understand what academics did and how, but also why. I also had to begin to better understand the cultures, processes, and language of academia. My experience as a union rep for Unite has taught me that if you don’t ask you don’t get – or more accurately, sometimes if you ask you do get – so I began asking around colleagues , and those who manage teaching technicians or learning technology teams for suggestions on what sort of training or accreditation I would need to move further forward in my career.
Two paths became apparent. Prof Jo-Anne Murray, then-head of the MVLS Digital Education Unit suggested that as I already carried out some teaching – teaching students how to make use of our VLE and ePortfolio systems, and was planning to run an academic skills module for first year students – then I could look in to signing up to the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PgCAP), which is the teaching qualification that all staff on academic contracts are contractually obliged to complete. As this programme would take around 9 months until I would be able to enrol, I also signed up to complete the Associate Fellowship of the University’s Recognising Excellence in Teaching Scheme (AFRET), which I felt would help give me a good starting place for understanding my own current practice.
The RET scheme is the University of Glasgow’s CPD framework. It is based on the UK Professional Standards Framework for Education (UKPSF) and has four levels – Associate Fellow, Fellow, Senior Fellow, and Principle Fellow, based on the four Descriptors within the UKPSF. As a technician who “supports learning or teaching” I was eligible to apply for the Associate Fellowship (AFRET). One of the big advantages of this scheme is that because it is accredited to a national framework it is recognised across the entire Higher Education sector.
First step was to sign up to an induction session where the scheme was explained. The session ran through in detail what aspects of the UKPSF needed to be covered to meet Descriptor 1 (Associate Fellowship) and detailed how I would need to evidence that I met the criteria. The scheme required me to create a small portfolio demonstrating each of the competencies. The portfolio was made up of a couple of short reflections on practice, a reference from a colleague, and a peer observation of my practice.
The peer observation was a great experience, I invited an academic colleague to watch one of my teaching sessions. At the end he gave me some verbal and written feedback on areas which worked well, and areas where I could improve, which was a great confidence boost and I was able to implement some of the advice in a session later the same day. The written reflections were the most challenging for me, as I had never written in an academic style before, nor used proper referencing, so it was a completely new experience for me. Luckily LEADS provided a Moodle page with plenty of advice and run some skills workshop sessions for those who feel they could do with some help. My biggest aid was a book I was able to borrow from the library, Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Engaging with the Dimensions of Practice, edited by John Lea. This book is written specifically to aid staff who are engaging with the UKPSF and has extracts from submissions that real people have written, so you can see examples of the expected styles. It also helps you identify how your work meets some of the criteria, as within the UKPSF the wording can be challenging to interpret into your own practice. As an example, one of the dimensions is “Assess and give feedback to learners”, but I do not do any formal assessment. I do, however, monitor the student’s performance, and when I see them struggling or making mistakes I suggest ways in which they can improve, or direct them towards different approaches – this meets the criteria of assessing and giving feedback under the UKPSF. The process just requires some reframing of your practice into the definitions described by the UKPSF.
These reflections really require you to consider what you do, why you do it, and to take some time to look up what other people do in similar situations/what does the research say about your approach? Because it’s based on your own practice and is mainly on your personal reflections it really is an opportunity to take a step back and really look at what you do. It allowed me to identify areas where I was excelling, and areas that I needed to work on. It also helped me identify what sort of training would help me, and importantly for my next steps on to the PgCAP it gave me a chance to practice academic style writing for the first time.
After submission I received some useful feedback on the different aspects of my submission, which allowed me to tailor my practice even more. I also received a certificate from the University certifying my Associate Fellowship, which I was able to use as evidence as part of my P&DR process the following year. It’s also something which I can put on my CV. Mostly, though, it was a confidence boost that I now knew I was performing to a defined standard, and that my professional practice compared favourably with my peers. As teaching technicians often work in silos across the university, either alone or in very small teams, it was good to have this frame of reference. Another good element of the scheme is that because it is aligned to the UKPSF framework, even if you don’t currently meet all of the criteria it shows you where to target your CPD and what skills you need to improve to progress – something that is often not clear without such a framework.
I would recommend any technician who meets the criteria to at least attend the induction session, I found the whole experience worthwhile. Remember, it’s not just teaching technicians who meet the criteria, many research technicians who, for example, teach students (even postgraduates) lab skills could meet the wider criteria. If you have contact with students, and support their learning, it’s worth looking in to if the AFRET is for you, and I know that LEADS are more than happy to discuss with you whether RET is for you.
The Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PgCAP) is a formal qualification awarded by the University which forms the first part of it’s integrated MEd in Academic Practice. Academic staff at the University are contractually obliged to complete the PcGAP as part of the Early Career Development Programme, however technicians who have enough teaching workload can also apply. As we are not contractually obliged to complete PgCAP we can choose to do the full programme, or pick up specific modules as CPD.
As somebody with only a handful of Highers to my name, and who dropped out of my Undergraduate in first year, I had misgivings at the start – “What right did I have to begin studying a postgrad at the University of Glasgow?”, “I’m not academically gifted, I’ve failed before, what’s to say I won’t fail now?”, “Academia isn’t for people like me.”
I was wrong.
What I have found through the last 18 months on the PgCAP programme is a very supportive environment and framework for looking in detail at my professional practice. Because all the assessment is based on reflecting on and writing about different aspects of my own teaching practice and how I could do better, rather than traditional exams, I was able to look in real detail at how I do my job. All of the learning felt like it was relevant, and real, and there were parts of my final assessments that I could take to my manager as suggestions for how my department could do some things better, based on the research I had looked in to. I was even able to present the research I carried out as part of my “Course Evaluation” assessment to the University of Glasgow Learning & Teaching Conference, and have had a submission to the Association for Learning Technology Conference accepted which is based upon some of the work I have carried out through the PgCAP. My engagement with the programme has absolutely made me not only better at my job but has turned me into a scholar and opened up new opportunities to share my practice.
The learning method is completely different from my failed undergraduate experience. Each 10-credit module is roughly 10 hours of classroom-based learning, and the rest (notionally 90 hours per module) is expected to be self-directed learning. However, as it’s a fully blended programme it means that if you happen to miss a classroom session you can complete all the activities online instead. There is also no expectation of learning by rote, or didactic teaching either, the sessions encourage active learning and small group discussions throughout, enabling you to share experiences and opinions with your peers. At its heart is an idea that they cannot proscribe to you how to teach or support learning, but what is essential is that you can justify your choices and opinions within the literature or research in the field. If you can engage with literature, logically follow an idea to its conclusion, or construct an intellectually rigorous argument, then you would have no real problems. My largest difficulty came in learning how to write in the academic style, and how to reference properly, but these are skills that can be learned and the teaching staff on the programme could not have been more supportive with the advice and feedback they have given throughout. I personally found that completing the AFRET first gave me a bit of a running start at the PgCAP, and a chance to practice reflective practice and academic writing before beginning on the bigger course, and I’m glad I did it that way.
Upon completion of the PgCAP it is possible to continue on to a Postgraduate Diploma, or a full Masters programme. The PgCAP typically takes between 18 and 24 months, and the full MEd anywhere between 4 and 8 years, taking between 10 and 20 credits per semester.
One of the best aspects of taking part in the PgCAP is the confidence it has given me about my own practice. Despite “only” being a technician, I now know aspects of teaching practice in which I have more knowledge and experience than many academic colleagues and am therefore able to offer them advice based on evidence and research, framing it in ways which will complement their own teaching practice.
It’s also a major change for me, having begun my career as a university drop out and trainee audio visual technician I would never have thought that my career would take me to a place where I will soon be receiving a postgraduate qualification from one of Scotland’s most prestigious Universities. I used to believe that University and formal education was not for me, but the methods and support throughout the PgCAP have changed my mind. I now intend to progress on to the Postgraduate Diploma (PgDip) and Masters in Education (MEd). If you do enough teaching to be eligible to take part in the PgCAP, I strongly recommend that you do so, it’s both professionally and personally a very fulfilling experience.
If you’re uncertain whether your teaching practice is enough to meet the criteria, in my experience LEADS are more than happy to give advice, and even if it turns out that you are not eligible for the full PgCAP they may be able to recommend other CPD routes.
Whether you’re interested in professional recognition via AFRET or want to go for a Postgraduate qualification through the PgCAP/MEd, it’s worth taking the chance and asking the question. The last 2 years have been the most fulfilling of my career and have offered me new opportunities to try different things, all at no cost to me other than an investment of my time and effort.
The best thing about both schemes is that they offer the space and framework for reflection on your own practice, allowing you to contextualise your work within the literature and not only identify where you are doing well, but where and how you can do better.
For the first time in my life I am enjoying formal learning. It would be great to see more Technicians have these kinds of opportunities, it’s good for the technician, good for the University, and good for our students.
First published: 13 June 2019