Setting the Stage

Doug Hamilton
Professor
School of Education and Technology
Royal Roads University

Pedro Márquez
Vice-President
Global Advancement Marketing and Business Development
School of Business
Royal Roads University

Niels Agger-Gupta
Associate Professor
Leadership Studies, Executive Education
Royal Roads University

Living our Learning: Chronicling the Implementation of an Institutional Educational Framework

A university’s institutional identity is a way of describing the culture of an organization related to the collective meanings associated with “shared attitudes, values, goals and practices” (MacDonald, 2013, p. 153). As such, articulating an institutional identity can be an important tool for promoting organizational sense-making, encouraging institutional affiliation, supporting change management efforts, and shaping long-term identity and culture (Stensaker, 2015; MacDonald, 2013).

Over the last 30 years, the post-secondary environment has become highly competitive (Bok, 2003). As a result, universities and colleges constantly seek ways to differentiate themselves and help potential students understand their institution’s unique strengths and characteristics. Nevertheless, communicating key aspects of an institution’s educational identity can serve many more purposes beyond supporting competitive marketing and recruitment efforts. In addition to framing a message to prospective students, an explicit articulation of the institutional identity connects current students, faculty, and alumni, and is helpful to those responsible for representing the university to funding agencies, accrediting bodies and other governmental agencies, research grantors, and philanthropically-minded individuals and groups. A clear understanding of institutional identity is helpful in making sense of both internal and external organizational dynamics and changes, supporting the development and reinforcement of an organizational image, supporting further organizational innovation and creativity as well as fostering and promoting employee and constituent engagement (Stensaker, 2015).

The articulation of this identity via the development of an “institutional educational framework” can assist faculty, staff, and senior administrators in a university in describing or articulating the characteristics related to learning and teaching that are most relevant to the unique educative mission of their institution. Articulating a common and institution-wide understanding of the unique mix of history, learning approaches, curriculum, teaching strategies, and educational practices that give rise to a particularly institutional identity is a laudable exercise. Many efforts to help define these characteristics happen at the school, program, or faculty level, where prospective students often engage in their own comparative analyses. At the institutional level, however, recruitment and public relations departments are often charged with the responsibility of communicating the institutionally unique characteristics to prospective students, industry representatives, and community partners, which means that an institutional-wide articulation strategy has the potential for increasing the reach of engagement and involvement within the institution.

In the first part of this chapter, we describe the attributes of institutional education frameworks, explore the reasons why such frameworks exist, and articulate the benefits of developing them. Next, we present the Royal Roads University Learning and Teaching Model (2013) as an example of an institutional framework and describe the model’s rationale, core characteristics, development process, and some of the key lessons learned in its implementation.

Description and Rationale

“Institutional frameworks” are described as “the systems of formal organizational structures, rules, and informal norms for service provision” (International Ecological Engineering Society, 2016). Wiktionary goes beyond this to include “…regulations, and procedures, and informal conventions, customs, and norms, that shape socioeconomic activity and behaviour” (2016).  Institutional frameworks have been identified for a variety of sectors, most notably in government and the environment, since the mid-1980s. Four examples of this development are: Oakerson’s Model for the analysis of common property problems (1986), Freestone and Davidson’s The institutional framework of the European Communities (1988), Ostrom’s Governing the Commons (1990), and, more recently, Lee’s An institutional framework for the study of transition to adulthood (2014). These identify institutional perspectives as frameworks, typically in fields of endeavour that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, such as government regulation (whether at the level of the European Community, or municipalities), the environment (at the macro level of the UN’s Law of the Sea charter and ongoing dialogues, and local environmental regulation), as well as human development. Institutional frameworks can therefore be descriptive, regulatory, or even aspirational.

Ostrom reviewed how environmental regulations were seen across jurisdictions, and in particular the differences in Common Property Resource Management. She attributes the first look at what she called an institutional framework as dating from a series of papers commissioned for a US National Academy of Sciences conference in 1985, and published in 1986 (Oakerson, 1986). While Ostrom was highly influential in understanding the transdisciplinary nature of institutional frameworks (2007), there is, as yet, no comparable definition applicable to the post-secondary education field.  The development of using the language of an institutional framework to describe how Royal Roads University works at its best is part of this 30-year tradition.

In this paper we define an Educational Institutional Framework (IEF) as a description of the current and agreed-upon learning, teaching, and research characteristics that help define the unique identity of a university or college. The IEF articulates the current or intended qualities and contexts of the learning and teaching process in the institution, its intersection with student and faculty research, and how the administrative, resource, and technological infrastructure of the college or university are engaged and support student learning. Thus, IEFs provide a means of connecting the university’s mission and values and the learning and teaching practices that support them. “Agreed-upon” implies that the process of developing the framework involves some degree of collective examination of the key learning and teaching characteristics that results in a coherent and common understanding of the unique educational qualities of the institution.

IEFs are still quite rare in colleges or universities, although robust examples exist at: the University of Calgary (2016) in Calgary, Canada; Open University of Catalonia (2015) in Barcelona; Utrecht University (2016) in the Netherlands; University of New South Wales (2014) in Sydney, Australia; Tecnológico de Monterrey (2015) in Mexico; and Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (2011) in Lima, Peru. Nevertheless, based on the number of new educational frameworks that have emerged over the last five years, the development of these frameworks is becoming more prevalent worldwide as universities and colleges strive to define, articulate, and sometimes, to preserve a unique institutional identity within a broader post-secondary landscape. Our review of these frameworks indicates that many of them combine research from the current literature on learning, teaching, and pedagogical innovation with an inductively-generated description of the educational principles, characteristics, or elements that guide learning and teaching with the specific institution.

Why would university or college officials want to develop an IEF? These frameworks can be developed to help set academic priorities, to describe the current Learning and Teaching Model (LTM), or to provide guidance for the institution’s unique qualities and characteristics related to the learning and teaching enterprise. Table 1 provides a summary of many of the key benefits of developing institutional frameworks. According to our review of the frameworks above, most are established with the view that they will be revisited, augmented, enhanced, or revised over time in response to changes in the strategic mandate of the institution, to keep pace with new developments in learning and teaching theory and practice, and/or to respond to shifting policy requirements at the national, provincial, or state level or changes in accreditation requirements. Two examples of current frameworks that clearly display this evolution over time are the frameworks of Chadron State College (2014) and the Open University of Catalonia (2015).

Table 1. Benefits of Institutional Frameworks (Hamilton, Márquez, & Agger-Gupta, 2013a)
  • Serve as descriptive, not prescriptive guides;
  • often based on an evolutionary, not revolutionary “stretch goals”;
  • promote conversations and dialogue about learning, teaching, and program planning;
  • guide future infrastructure, resource, and policy decisions related to learning and teaching;
  • inform professional development strategies and activities;
  • help in course design and program development;
  • support faculty recruitment and selection efforts;
  • make tacit assumptions about the institutional learning and teaching culture more explicit; and
  • promote a strong sense of coherence in learning and teaching approaches across the university.

It is important to note that frameworks are not plans but can serve as the basis for a plan. For instance, the IEF from Ohio State University (2014) is described to serve as “a structure to guide change over time, ensuring that the academic missions drives the physical environment, and connecting ideas and information to implementation.” In fact, the framework can serve as an anchor point for the development and implementation of successive plans because it helps to flesh out the academic mission of the institution and describe its essential qualities as they pertain to the learning and teaching functions, services, and programs.

IEFs take time and effort to develop and validate within the organization but if carried out with a clear purpose, strong leadership support, and broadly-based consultation they can be highly beneficial in helping to develop and re-affirm a strong and unique sense of institutional academic identity.

The Learning and Teaching Model at Royal Roads University

Royal Roads University (RRU) in Victoria, British Columbia is a Canadian public university that specializes in applied and professional programs that are mainly aimed at learners who are already in the workforce. In 1996, the university was given a mandate from the government of British Columbia to respond to the emerging needs of a changing world and workforce through its own provincial Act (Government of BC, 1996). Over the last 20 years, the university has developed a national and international reputation for delivering programs designed specifically for aspiring and experienced professionals who want to advance in their professional careers. To provide a flexible and accessible learning experience for these professionals, most programs at RRU are delivered through a combination of short-term residencies and longer terms of online study.

The university’s mandate to meet the needs of professionals and aspiring professionals necessitated the development and evolution of an approach to designing and delivering undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as professional certificate programs that focus on relevance, application to practice, theory-practice connections, and the responsiveness to changing labour market needs and conditions.

Over the last 16 years, the design of programs has evolved to support and reinforce this approach. The general approach to teaching and the ways in which our university provides support for students have evolved. During this time, it was not uncommon to hear faculty, staff, and administrators make reference to “our learning model”. This phrase became embedded in the vernacular of university culture which meant that, in the past, most faculty and staff could articulate a version of the model verbally but there had been very little actual documentation of the specific characteristics of the university-wide approach. In describing this rather tacit model and the lack of an overt articulation of it, the university’s Academic VP Dr. Steve Grundy once quipped that “it was our secret sauce with the emphasis on ‘secret’”. Finally, in 2013, the university’s Academic Council recognized the benefits of commissioning a team of administrators and faculty members to engage in the necessary research that would lead to a clear and overt articulation of the model.

The Learning and Teaching Model (2013) development process was designed to respond to the following questions:

  • How do we create educational environments that reflect what we know about effective learning?
  • How do we shift the focus from teaching to learning to better serve our students now and in the future?
  • What if we provided advanced learning opportunities for emerging and current leaders and other professionals that supported the enhancement of 21st century skills and knowledge?
  • What if we were able to provide learning opportunities that were authentic, relevant, and integrative?

These were some of the fundamental questions that the team considered in developing a working paper describing the LTM and the current research about effective learning and teaching that supported it (Hamilton, Màrquez, and Agger-Gupta, 2013b). The two main phases of developing the framework were: (1) Pre-Draft and (2) Post-Draft .

The pre-draft phase was best described as the primary “information-gathering” phase of the development process. The research team began by systematically reviewing all programs at RRU to identify and examine the foundational LTM elements that these programs had in common. The starting point was to take a ‘slice in time’ approach by beginning with an inductive analysis of every program’s structure and curriculum, then examining current practices, systematically reviewing program and course proposals submitted to the university’s curriculum committee, holding discussions with colleagues, reviewing a database of comments on their learning experiences provided by graduates, and looking at recent research related to learning and teaching in post-secondary learning environments. The desired outcome of this phase was to produce a working paper that could be broadly circulated in the university community to seek an informed response and guided feedback for incorporation into an eventual formalized version of the model. The resulting paper articulated 11 core components of the LTM, described their benefits, and illustrated how these components work together to provide an authentic, relevant, and integrative learning experience for RRU students. As well, the authors examined the teaching philosophy, key curriculum design elements, and learning processes that are a common foundation for all RRU programs including both credit and non-credit programs.

The post-draft phase was designed to evaluate the reaction within the RRU community to the draft paper and to seek input into the creation of the final version of the framework. A draft of the paper was circulated to faculty members, administrators, and staff across the university. People were invited to respond to a series of questions related to its meaningfulness, applicability, and relevance to the institution. This consultation process involved presentations to formal committees such as the Board of Governors, Academic Council, and Curriculum Committee as well as exploratory dialogue sessions with key committees and offices responsible for operational planning and support such as the Academic Leadership Team, the Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies, and various school meetings. Furthermore, a series of ‘community cafes’, modelled after the methodology provided by Brown (2005), were organized where faculty, staff, and students could interactively discuss the model’s merits and shortcomings. These sessions were live-streamed to facilitate participation by members of the university who could not attend one of the face-to-face sessions. Finally, faculty and staff members were invited to submit response briefs about the model. This enabled the consultation process to extend its reach to faculty and students who did not live in the local region. On the basis of the feedback generated through the consultation process, the paper was revised and then launched publicly online and in document form.

Reflections on the Development and Implementation Process

Our experience in developing the LTM has led us to reflect on both its achievements and challenges, as well as the opportunities it has created to profile important aspects of the learning-related culture at RRU.

First, the actual experience of engaging in the development process has enabled us to stand back and consider various approaches to the development of institutional educational frameworks. On this basis, we have developed a conceptual model that describes three main approaches to developing a framework. The first approach, Describing, suggests that a framework can be dedicated to documenting and describing the existing realities of learning and teaching at the institution including an analysis of the perceived strengths of the current approaches. This approach is synonymous with a ‘slice in time’ orientation where the focus is on accurately capturing the current status quo that exists within the institution. Not only does this involve profiling the ‘best practice’ explanations and actions within the institution, it also involves engaging stakeholders in describing their experiences with the aesthetics of the LTM: what does the LTM feel like, for students, faculty, and other stakeholders, when it is working well (Lewis, Passmore, & Cantore, 2008; Maturana & Varela, 1987; Oliver & Brittain, 2001)?

The second approach, Extending, suggests that frameworks can also help to identify promising areas of expertise and innovation that are desirable to continue to refine and expand across the institution. This approach focuses not only on identifying core competencies related to learning and teaching but also on how to extend these competencies by identifying and promoting innovative practices in the hopes that they may be more widely adapted.

The third approach, Envisioning, focuses on identifying practices that may not have taken solid root in the organization yet but are considered highly desirable to promote, implement, and support within the institution. This third approach is considered more future-oriented and aspirational than the other two, because it embodies the hopes of stakeholders for more effective teaching and learning, resulting in effective, innovative, and engaged student outcomes in their workplaces across Canada in a broad range of sectors of industry, professions, and services in society.

Our review of the existing frameworks described earlier suggests that educational institutions tended to combine two or three of the approaches in their descriptions of their frameworks. For this initial attempt at articulating a framework at RRU, we were mostly concerned with providing a current description of practices as well as identifying some key areas of extension. For example, team-based learning and authentic learning are approaches to learning that were identified as important in effectively supporting our university’s mandate. Experienced professionals need to know how to work effectively in teams and they can benefit greatly from being engaged in learning experiences that enable the direct and timely application of skills and knowledge. Nevertheless, as a collective entity, we still have a lot to learn from our own practices, as well as other institutions’ innovations, regarding how best to design, teach, and assess both team-based learning and authentic learning. As a result, our approach provided a combination of Describing and Extending. For other institutions, the specific combination of approaches will depend on the overall strategic goal for developing the framework as well as the relative maturity of any existing institutional educational frameworks. For instance, an institution might begin its first framework with a description of current practice but develop future frameworks later that are more aspirational.

In its first three years of implementation, the LTM has provided an organizational frame for deepening and sustaining a dialogue about learning and teaching in classrooms, schools, and committee meetings. It has also served as a helpful framework for organizing and presenting faculty development programs and activities, both online and face-to-face.

One of the key benefits of developing the LTM has been the emergence of a common language and, perhaps, a greater common understanding about the key characteristics of RRU’s learning and teaching approach across the university. The articulation of the LTM has helped to demystify valuable terms such as learning outcomes, authentic learning, and transdisciplinarity. This common language has been helpful in faculty recruitment efforts because most schools now require prospective applicants to read the LTM prior to interviews and site visits. Serving as a helpful heuristic, the LTM has functioned as a launch pad for perspective sharing and meaningful dialogue regarding learning and teaching at RRU. Some of this dialogue has been oriented towards the future evolution of the model and the next steps in its ongoing developing. This kind of conversation has been insightful because the LTM was never intended to be a static, rigid, and prescriptive entity. As one example, the initial statement of the LTM was silent on faculty and student research and how this contributed to improved teaching and learning outcomes. Through faculty dialogue and input, faculty and student research has now been added to the framework. In a second example, the School of Leadership Studies created a set of four principles in alignment with the LTM elements (Harris and Agger-Gupta, 2014).

The LTM has also helped to provide a sense of coherence to the existing work by faculty members who have been engaged in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). The model contributes to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning by serving as an organizer for the various SOTL-related research studies already conducted by RRU faculty that contribute to the knowledge base that is specific to many of the 11 core components identified in the white paper such as promoting student engagement, assessing team-based learning, designing authentic learning experiences, assessing the impact of capstone projects, building student and faculty learning communities online, and facilitating student action research in professional workplaces. The current volume serves as the first means of organizing and sharing this body of work that focuses on case studies of existing practices, institutional change and transformation initiatives, and new innovations in learning, teaching, and faculty and student research. Secondly, in addition to helping to organize existing case studies, the LTM has served as a launch pad for new investigations that have enabled deeper examination of some of the key components. SOTL-related case studies of how the model works (or does not work) in practice have been sought from both faculty and staff. For instance, recently a series of studies have examined both faculty and student perspectives related to the Learning and Teaching Model (Harris & Walinga, 2015; Walinga, & Harris, 2014; and Walinga, Harris, & Slick, 2013).

A recent article by Hamilton (2014) describes the kinds of institutional support structures that are helpful leverage points related to the three categories of leadership, planning and policy, and organizational structure presented in the typology have been key to the LTM implementation process so far. First, leadership for the development and the dissemination process related to the model has been broadly-based and includes the university’s Academic Leadership Team (ALT) as well as a number of faculty and staff members who have played key roles in writing the white paper, organizing consultation processes, conducting background research, and supporting the development of the case study process. This collaborative development process would not have been possible without the stewardship of a senior academic leadership group that was open to dialogue and the sharing of divergent perspectives about important learning and teaching issues. Engaging the campus community to help determine what is both unique and essential in the institution’s learning and teaching identity was also an important source of information for the framework and a means of instilling its presence in ongoing departmental and committee conversations about academic matters.

Regarding policy and planning, Weimer (2006) suggests that commissioning a faculty-prepared white paper on pedagogical issues identified as important across the institution and then discussing these in forums across the institution can serve as an important starting point for further institution-wide engagement in pedagogical inquiry. For us, it was a key step in developing a tangible conceptual model that could then be critiqued and revised. Determining the institution-specific intelligence that was already available at the university and that could benefit from wider analysis and dissemination was aided by starting the process with an audit of existing SOTL studies. This step involved doing a meta-analysis of the key themes and conclusions stemming from SOTL-based inquiries as a means of informing the development of an institutional framework and for determining intersection points between the identified themes and an existing institutional framework. The process helped to reveal gaps in institutional knowledge about learning and teaching that could be addressed through future SOTL studies or by commissioning future campus-wide studies.

The Learning and Teaching Model now serves as an important reference for key university-wide academic decisions and has been integrated into the development of the latest institutional academic plan. Furthermore, key steps were taken to ensure that the model was in alignment with the three overarching institutional strategic research themes at the university: (1) learning and innovation; (2) thriving organizations; and (3) sustainable societies and communities. This is consistent with Weimer’s (2006) advocacy for creating a positive institutional research agenda that actively inquires into learning and teaching issues that are important across the campus.

Finally, regarding organization structure, the linkages between the model and the promotion of the scholarship of teaching and learning across the university is dependent on two existing structures of support. The first means of support is provided by the services offered by the Office of Research. This office provides small-scale research grants for faculty that they can use for the development of the case studies and related SOTL research as well as for the dissemination of the findings from the case studies. Applicants for small-scale funding through internal research and professional development grants must clearly indicate how their proposals directly relate to at least one of the three strategic research themes mentioned above. In fact, the theme of “Learning and Innovation” sends a clear message across the university that the institution is supportive and actively encouraging research that addresses this topic. Those scholars engaged in SOTL-related work can make strong arguments for why and how their proposed research is related to this theme.

The second means of support is provided by the central institutional body responsible for promoting faculty development and instructional development—the Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies (CTET). In 2014 and 2015, the centre organized a series of workshops and sharing sessions for faculty and staff around most of the 11 core components of the model. These events and activities have provided important forums for faculty and staff members to discuss perspectives, issues, and innovations related to the learning and teaching model. This kind of discussion serves as a form of “teaching commons” (Huber & Hutchings, 2005) that provides instrumental work for increasing faculty interest in engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning at RRU.

Central to the development of a viable and sustainable teaching commons is the support for ongoing dialogue about learning and teaching issues and the degree to which this dialogue permeates the operational fabric of the institution. Evidence that this is happening at RRU includes the degree to which the model has become central and strategic in supporting faculty development plans, programming discussions at departmental meetings, orientations for new students, recruitment sessions for prospective students, presentations to visiting delegations, papers at research conferences, monthly research project lunch and learn sessions, regularly-scheduled “teaching talks” coordinated by deans, and the development of international partnerships. In many ways, the efforts put into describing and articulating the LTM have helped to consolidate a rather cohesive RRU-wide learning community.

Despite these benefits, there have also been important challenges to address, resolve, and overcome. Although the LTM has seemingly been met with a highly receptive response with the university community, there is a constant danger of it becoming an overly simplistic heuristic tool that ends up being too prescriptive, formulaic, static, and rigid in its application. What is occasionally lost are the origins of the LTM as a description of what made RRU unique, rather than this being a set of specific actions and orders for teaching success. Not all programs at RRU make use of all 11 of the elements of the LTM—and this diversity is generally acceptable—within the context of the values of the RRU mission. But when used as a prescription, the LTM, in a way similar to how learning outcomes are occasionally used, can begin to limit, instead of facilitate, innovation into teaching, and to indoctrinate, instead of socialize, people into the RRU learning and teaching culture. Herbert Simon (1956), in a playful essay on the uses and limitations of models, reminds us that: “The [models] that actually occur do not have the same content as the phenomena to which they refer. They do not tell the truth or at least they do not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth (p. 3).” Thus, it is best to be mindful of the LTM’s role in serving as a helpful map — but not the territory itself (Korzybski, 1933, p. 58)– and to be constantly vigilant to its overuse and inappropriate application.

Conclusion

The papers that follow in this volume attest to the value of articulating an institutional educational framework and describe how our institutional framework, the RRU Learning and Teaching Model, is enacted in practice. Our description of the development of our institutional framework adds to the SOTL literature by providing one of the few existing chronicles of the development of an institutional educational framework. It is clear from our case description and the other cases in this volume that the LTM needs to continue to evolve. This is an ongoing process. Engaging the broadly-based learning community, including students, faculty, administrators, and technical support personnel in the development of our institutional framework has continued to remind us of the value of ensuring that an inclusive, dialogic, flexible, engaging, and emergent process needs to be at the core of our efforts to describe, refine, and revisit our educational framework.

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