#EBCMgt: Evidence-based Practice in HE Course Management

Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD) research proposal:

Evidence-based practice experiences of course leaders in small-specialist land-based higher education institutions in the United Kingdom


Currently, UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are required to evidence that they meet or exceed government benchmarks for institutional performance at course level. In most HEIs, the management of these metrics falls under the remit of the course leader, who has responsibility and accountability towards them. Generally, course leaders have access to central departments who manage and manipulate this data, and even to course administrators who can assist in data preparation (Moore, 2018), but in small-specialist land-based (formerly known as agricultural) institutions the size of the HEI often requires course leaders to play a much more involved role in these areas (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 2005). Moreover, because small-specialist HEIs generally are teaching-focussed institutions relying on tuition fees as their main source of income (Brockhurst, Miller and Westwood, 2014), market fluctuations can have much more dramatic consequences. Due to their position within the institution, course leaders are ideally placed to translate institutional policy into appropriate curriculum and pedagogy strategies (Milburn, 2010) and to bridge academic and pastoral care for both cohorts and individual students (Blackmore et al., 2007). The impact and influence of course leaders on the institution are therefore far greater in regular HEIs. This makes a thorough understanding of this role and how course leaders in small-specialist HEIs use evidence critical.

It is currently unknown how course leaders in small specialist institutions make decisions that affect metrics used for benchmarking, but the changing nature of higher education means rankings and league tables are becoming ever more important (Gunn and Fisk, 2013). For small specialist institutions, who lack the data processing units of large universities, doing well will become a challenge. The onus will be on academic staff to find and utilise data to inform decisions. Therefore, a greater understanding of how evidence-based practice can support course management decision making would be useful not only for course managers themselves, but also for the institution and for the student experience. At the institutional level evidence-based decision making would provide an evidence trail for external and internal audits, and could inform quality enhancement and student experience initiatives, which would then positively impact on metrics used in HE benchmarks.

Research Focus

This project will attempt to answer the following research question:

How do course leaders in small specialist land-based higher education institutions in the United Kingdom experience evidence-based practice and how do these experiences influence their practice?

Research Methods

Course leadership is an understudied area of research, with few publications discussing the role of the course leader in higher education

Course leader experiences will be investigated using recorded semi-structured interviews. Participants in course leader roles from the three UK small specialist land-based HEIs will be recruited via email. Following initial less-structured interviews in the open coding stage, further participants will be sought purposively once core categories start emerging as part of theoretical sampling during the selective coding phase. The changing degree of structure to the interviews is typical to grounded theory (Duffy, Ferguson and Watson, 2004) and is driven by the constant comparison process. This approach is supported with extensive theoretical memoing to enable analysis and development (Glaser, 1978). This process is specific and critical to grounded theory and allows for constant comparison to take place through the research project (see also figure 1). Due to the nature of grounded theory, there is no a priori determined number of required participants (Urquhart, 2013). Instead the recruitment of participants stops once the core categories have been saturated, that is, no more new concepts are discovered in the data.

During the open coding stage, data will be analysed for behaviours line-by-line, and key words will be attributed to each discovered incident. Through constant comparison, these codes will then be grouped into conceptual categories after which constant comparison will result in the emergence of a core category. The emergence of the core category will allow the researcher to progress to the selective coding stage. The focus will then shift to the core category which will refine the interview questions to reflect this focus. This process, called theoretical coding, will facilitate the integration of categories into higher-level substantive concepts (Glaser, 2005). At this point, the researcher will engage in theoretical sampling, where the analysis of the substantive concepts will highlight relationships between them, allowing for a theory explaining the basic social process to emerge. Finally, the literature will be consulted to facilitate emergence.


Figure 1: Classic Grounded Theory and it’s coding stages (Jones and Alony, 2011).


Ethical Considerations

Ethical approval and gatekeeper access will be sought before commencing this project. All participants will be sent a Participant Information Sheet and a copy of the consent form and will be given the opportunity to ask questions before agreeing an interview date. Before the interview starts, participants will be provided with a copy of the consent form for signing, and consent will be re-confirmed after the interview has taken place and before the interview is transcribed. Where participants are colleagues of the researcher, they will be reassured of the confidential nature of their responses.

All interview recordings and transcripts will be stored on a password protected encrypted hard drive accessible only to the lead researcher and the supervisory team for a maximum of one year after submission of the thesis, after which they will be securely deleted and destroyed. Interviews will be transcribed independently by a professional transcribing service, which will be subject to a confidentiality agreement. At all times this project will be GDPR compliant.

As grounded theory is concerned with conceptualising participant behaviours, rather than with the participants themselves, the need for anonymisation is limited to the initial transcripts, where participants will be assigned an alpha-numerical code for use throughout the project. Due to this conceptualisation, at no time will the participants be identifiable in the thesis or any other academic output.

Key References

Ahmed, S. and Haag, M., 2016. Entering the Field: Decisions of an Early Career Researcher. The Grounded Theory Review, [online] 15(2), pp.76–92. Available at: <http://groundedtheoryreview.com/2016/12/19/entering-the-field-decisions-of-an-early-career-researcher/&gt; [Accessed 13 May 2017].

Blackmore, P., Dales, R., Law, S. and Yates, P., 2007. Investigating the capabilities of course and module leaders in departments. [online] York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: <http://www.academia.edu/download/44877342/Investigating_the_capabilities_of_course20160418-3342-in1ap4.pdf&gt; [Accessed 10 Mar. 2017].

Brockhurst, R., Miller, A. and Westwood, A., 2014. Innovation systems and the role of small and specialist Higher Education Institutions. [online] London: CREST/GuildHE, p.328. Available at: <http://www.oecd.org/cfe/leed/heis-report.htm&gt; [Accessed 3 Aug. 2017].

Duffy, K., Ferguson, C. and Watson, H., 2004. Data collecting in grounded theory – some practical issues. Nurse Researcher, [online] 11(4), pp.67–78. Available at: <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rzh&AN=106676836&site=ehost-live&gt; [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].

Glaser, B.G., 1978. Theoretical sensitivity: advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.

Glaser, B.G., 2005. The Grounded Theory Perspective III: Theoretical Coding. Mill Valley: Sociology Press.

Gunn, V. and Fisk, A., 2013. Considering teaching excellence in higher education: 2007-2013: a literature review since the CHERI Report 2007. HEA Research Series. [online] Heslington: Higher Education Academy, p.60. Available at: <http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/87987/1/87987.pdf&gt; [Accessed 12 Feb. 2017].

Jones, M. and Alony, I., 2011. Guiding the use of Grounded Theory in Doctoral studies–an example from the Australian film industry. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, [online] 6, pp.95–114. Available at: <https://www.informingscience.org/Publications/1429?Source=%2FJournals%2FIJDS%2FArticles%3FVolume%3D6-2011&gt; [Accessed 23 Aug. 2017].

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 2005. Management of Small Higher Education Institutions Network (MASHEIN). [online] MASHEIN. Available at: <https://www.lfhe.ac.uk/en/programmes-events/mashein/&gt; [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Milburn, P.C., 2010. The role of programme directors as academic leaders. Active Learning in Higher Education, [online] 11(2), pp.87–95. Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1469787410365653&gt; [Accessed 20 Mar. 2017].

Moore, S., 2018. Beyond isolation: exploring the relationality and collegiality of the programme leader role. In: J. Lawrence and S. Ellis, eds., Supporting Programme Leadership and Programme Leadership, SEDA Special 39. London: SEDA, pp.21–26.

Urquhart, C., 2013. Grounded Theory for Qualitative Research: a practical guide. London: Sage Publications.

van Veggel, N. and Howlett, P., 2018. Course leadership in small-specialist UK higher education – a review. International Journal of Educational Management, 32(7), p. 1174-1183.

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