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Designing informal learning experiences for early career academics using a knowledge ecosystem model

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This article presents a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ model of how early career academics experience using information to learn while building their social networks for developmental purposes. Developed using grounded theory methodology, the model offers a way of conceptualising how to empower early career academics through 1) agency (individual and relational) and 2) facilitation of personalised informal learning (design of physical and virtual systems and environments) in spaces where developmental relationships are formed including programs, courses, events, community, home and social media. It is suggested that the knowledge ecosystem model is suitable for use in designing informal learning experiences for early career academics.
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Designing informal learning experiences for early
career academics using a knowledge ecosystem
model
Faye Miller, Helen Partridge, Christine Bruce & Brian Hemmings
To cite this article: Faye Miller, Helen Partridge, Christine Bruce & Brian Hemmings
(2016): Designing informal learning experiences for early career academics using
a knowledge ecosystem model, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI:
10.1080/0309877X.2016.1177165
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2016.1177165
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JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION, 2016
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2016.1177165
Designing informal learning experiences for early career
academics using a knowledge ecosystem model
Faye Millera, Helen Partridgea, Christine Brucea and Brian Hemmingsb
aInformation Systems School, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia; bSchool of Education, Charles
Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia
ABSTRACT
This article presents a ‘knowledge ecosystem model of how early career
academics experience using information to learn while building their social
networks for developmental purposes. Developed using grounded theory
methodology, the model oers a way of conceptualising how to empower
early career academics through (1) agency (individual and relational) and (2)
facilitation of personalised informal learning (design of physical and virtual
systems and environments) in spaces where developmental relationships
are formed, including programmes, courses, events, community, home and
social media. It is suggested that the knowledge ecosystem model is suitable
for use in designing informal learning experiences for early career academics.
Introduction
A key factor in the successful development of universities is the quality of its support system, particularly
for early career academics (ECAs) (Coates et al. 2009; Foote 2010; Greene et al. 2008; Sutherland and
Petersen 2010). For this group, engaged in establishing themselves professionally, the quality of their
research and teaching outcomes is largely dependent on their ability to eectively build and make
use of a ‘developmental network’ (Higgins and Kram 2001). Such a network is a type of social network
involving supportive learning relationships for career growth with a range of people in both professional
and personal contexts (Baker Sweitzer 2009; Hopwood 2010; Kenway, Epstein, and Boden 2005; Price,
Coey, and Nethery 2014). Themes from the literature of human relationship building (Hopwood 2010),
and developmental networking (Baker Sweitzer 2009; Higgins and Kram 2001) in the context of the
growing use of social, collaborative technologies blended with traditional communication methods,
suggest an increasingly complex experience of information and knowledge use, particularly for the
beginning university academic.
This article presents ndings from a study that explored ECAs’ experiences in using information
to learn while building their developmental networks (Miller 2014). The study used the concept of
‘informed learning’ (Bruce 2008) as its overall framework. This concept identies an approach to learning
that involves paying simultaneous attention to how people use or interact with information and their
learning outcomes (ibid). As aspects of information use have been demonstrated to relate to ECAs’
learning outcomes (Limberg 1999), this study sought to understand the interrelation between infor-
mation use and learning in the development context. Using constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz
2006), a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ model was developed consisting of informal learning interactions such
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 12 January 2015
Accepted 1 October 2015
KEYWORDS
Early career academics;
informal learning;
developmental networking;
knowledge ecosystem
© 2016 UCU
CONTACT Faye Miller faye.miller@connect.qut.edu.au
2 F. MILLER ET AL.
as relating to information to create knowledge and engaging in mutually supportive relationships. It is
suggested that the knowledge ecosystem model may be used to inform the design of informal learning
experiences for ECAs.
This article begins with a brief literature review and an outline of the methodology used to develop
the knowledge ecosystem model, followed by a presentation of the key elements of the model as related
to informal learning experience design for ECAs. The authors then consider some implications for edu-
cational developers and others involved in supporting and training early career university researchers
and educators.
Literature review
A shift in focus from the individual experience to a ‘relational’ experience is reected in the literature
from the elds of human resource development (Heaphy and Dutton 2006; Higgins and Kram 2001),
education (Baker Sweitzer 2009; Edwards and D’arcy 2004; Hopwood and Sutherland 2009), infor-
mation behaviour (Miller and Wallis 2011; Nahl and Bilal 2007) and information literacy (Bruce 2008;
Lloyd 2007). This nding prompts a need for further research into aective and relational dimensions
of information, learning and social networks in a range of contexts, to complement and enhance the
dominant cognitive perspectives that frame our current understanding.
This study focuses on relationships that are signicant to a persons ‘career growth and personal
learning’ as opposed to those that are merely social and not connected to this goal. Such relationships
are both interpersonal and involve aspects of a person’s informational or life worlds. The theory of
developmental networks has originated from the literature and research on mentoring and the chang-
ing nature of the mentoring experience from traditional one-on-one ‘dyadic’ mentoring relationships
(Mullen 1994; Nakamura, Sherno, and Hooker 2009) to a ‘constellation of formal and informal men-
toring and learning relationships potentially benecial for career and professional growth, satisfaction
and success (Higgins and Kram 2001).
Developmental networks theory has emerged as a response to the changing work and technological
environment, wherein careers have been become more mobile, exible and ‘boundaryless’ (Molly 2005).
Several purposes and benets of establishing and nurturing a mentoring and developmental network
have been identied in the literature, including: access to multiple mentors within one’s organisation
and beyond and other learning partners for dierent purposes within a career (Crocitto, Sullivan, and
Carraher 2005; Higgins and Kram 2001; Molly 2005), development of condence and self-ecacy in
employees (Chandler and Kram 2005); establishment of a professional identity (Baker Sweitzer 2009;
Chandler and Kram 2005); career development and access to job opportunities and career path advice
(Crocitto, Sullivan, and Carraher 2005); and development of learning organisations and social capital
(Emmerik 2004).
This theory appears to be growing in recognition and is being used in studies into a range of profes
-
sional and learning experiences (Baker Sweitzer 2009; Molly 2005), particularly in the corporate context.
However, studies that incorporate developmental networks theory into educational contexts, including
higher education and university settings, are scarce. Studies conducted by Baker Sweitzer (2009) and
Baker and Lattuca (2010) remain the only ones to use developmental networking theory to explore the
doctoral experience in higher education and have led to calls for further interdisciplinary research into
the doctoral and early career academic experience from a developmental networking perspective to
enrich the existing and growing body of literature.
Similarly, mentoring as a broader topic has received little attention in the higher education context,
in comparison to the literature in human resource development. Nakamura, Sherno, and Hooker
(2009) attempt to explore mentoring experiences in higher education, conceptualising mentoring as
‘maintaining a pattern of culture’ and ‘the transmission of values, practices, knowledge and other memes
(or units of information) across generations’. However, this work focuses on dyadic’ (one-on-one) rela-
tionships between mentors and protégés and does not attempt to integrate developmental networks
theory, even though Kram’s early work is referenced. Research into the mentoring experience in higher
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 3
education could benet from broader perspectives that view mentoring as a practice of networking
rather than a single relationship between two people.
The notion that information and learning are inextricably linked (Bruce 2008) via the concept of
‘informed learning’ deserves further attention in a complex information practice such as developmen-
tal networking for ECAs. The ‘informed learning’ concept proposed by Bruce, a re-conceptualisation of
information literacy, has an interdisciplinary foundation as it has emerged from previous research incor-
porating the elds of information literacy and learning. Literature in the mentoring and developmental
networks eld often refers to improving information and knowledge ow or exchange as essential for
building such networks; however, the central tenet of ‘informed learning’, the use of information to learn,
in relation to the building of developmental networks has not been studied in depth. Further study
needs to be conducted to gain a clearer picture of how ECAs are using information to learn within this
key information practice (ibid): to build, maintain and utilise their developmental networks.
Developing the ‘knowledge ecosystem’ model
This study employed constructivist grounded theory methodology. The constructivist paradigm empha-
sises personal, subjective making or co-construction of reality ( Williamson 2002) and a multiple realities/
perspectives approach (Charmaz 2006; Patton 2002). The notion of co-construction of meaning and
theory grounded in both the participants’ and researchers’ experiences adds great value to the study,
to generate new perspectives and concepts that can genuinely represent the ‘voices’ of a somewhat
under-studied group (i.e. ECAs). Being closely linked to the embryonic concepts of informed learning
and developmental networking means that the methodology must allow for exploration of any con-
nections and interactions between these broad areas. As the researchers have had signicant work
experience in higher education alongside ECAs and the lead researcher could also be dened as an
ECA, theoretical sensitivity from the researchers can eectively facilitate the ‘construction’ of shared
meaning or intersubjectivity.
The participant: selection and sampling
The technique of ‘purposive sampling’ (Pickard 2007) was used to identify and select suitable partic-
ipants. This allowed the researchers to dene specic criteria for participating in the research and to
target and locate participants based on these criteria. As the researchers were interested in examining
ECAs’ use of information to learn while developmental networking, the following criteria were used.
A participant must:
(1) Be an ECA – an academic, within their rst ve years of a full-time permanent appointment
to a university faculty, who engages in both teaching and research activities.
(2) Have signicant industry/professional experience before joining academia.
(3) Have experience with networking for professional and personal development as a means of
learning how to be an academic.
The cohorts of potential participants were identied through consideration of their availability, dis-
ciplinary diversity and ability to engage with enough data to ‘saturate’ categories. The researchers also
expected to generate wider and richer networking experiences from participants with relevant industry
backgrounds. All participants had between 3–10years of industry experience relevant to their current
teaching and research, and this was important as the knowledge from their industry experiences added
to the quality of their teaching and research. Academics with no relevant industry experience were
excluded, as they would have provided limited data outside of the traditional academic environment.
The number of participants was guided by the grounded theory position on saturation. Constructivist
grounded theory’s data generation process involved reaching theoretical saturation through diversity
4 F. MILLER ET AL.
of data generated from a minimum of 10 participants (Charmaz 2006). Saturation was reached when
no new concepts could be constructed from the data.
Generating research data
Research data were generated from the two phases of this study: phase one consisting of eight
semi-structured interviews and preliminary analysis, and phase two consisting of fourteen semi-struc-
tured interviews (including the rst eight interviews) and data analysis incorporating early ndings
from phase one.
Phase one
Phase one of this study was carried out during the period December 2010 to February 2011. The rst
phase of data generation consisted of eight semi-structured interviews with ECAs, from a range of
dierent disciplines, who met the participant criteria. Interview participants were identied through
searching a university communications directory and academic sta web pages online. Sample char-
acteristics were: eight ECAs based at one campus of a regional Australian university across the Faculties
of Education (2), Science (3) and Arts (3).
Phase one of this study was designed to identify preliminary concepts and themes in the research,
as well as to improve and focus the interview questions for the next phase of the study. Findings from
the preliminary data analysis and reections from phase one of the study provided evidence that the
interview guide and data generation method had developed eectively, through the formation of
themes developed from category saturation. This clearly indicated that the interview schedule and
interview techniques were well designed for obtaining the necessary amount of quality data to answer
the research question and to develop grounded theory. The following sections describe phase one of
the study, its participants and interview method. The grounded theory approach, as discussed in earlier
sections, was implemented through the following stages of phase one.
Eight interviews lasting approximately 45 minutes were audio-taped using a digital voice recorder
and transcribed by the lead researcher. Below is the interview guide used in the rst phase of the study:
Can you tell me about your position as an early career academic? How long have you been in
your position?
Can you tell me about your professional experience prior to becoming an academic?
Can you tell me about your experiences with developmental networking as an early career
academic?
How do you use information to learn while building your developmental networks?
Phase two
Phase two of the study involved exploring the connections (actions and processes) between what
informed learning (i.e. information/knowledge resources), using informal information to learn, reciprocal
relationships between ECAs and their key sources of development (or developers) and their various
relationship ‘layers’ encountered while building their developmental networks. Phase two of the study
took place between November and March 2012. Data were planned to be generated from approximately
six ECAs located at a dierent university.
In the second phase of data generation, the researcher chose a second site, an Australian metropol-
itan university, from which to select and recruit six participants to add to the total sample of fourteen
ECAs. Gathering data from two dierent sites would allow the researcher to identify a greater varia-
tion in ECA experiences and any similarities or dierences in data patterns. A key dierence between
the regional and the metropolitan university is the latter provides its ECAs with the opportunity to
participate in formal academic development programmes. This minor change in methodology was
reected in the research ethics variation approved by the university where the study was administered.
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 5
Participants in the second round of data generation were selected in consultation with key gatekeepers
of information relevant to this formal developmental programme.
Participants were then contacted, scheduled and interviewed by the researcher using the revised
interview guide. Six ECAs from a range of disciplines (namely, Business (2), Health (1), Science (2) and
Engineering (1) at more than one campus of this university were involved. Participants in the second
phase were interviewed virtually for approximately 45 minutes. Each interview used Skype videocon-
ferencing where possible, and was recorded using a digital recorder. The researcher also engaged in
note-taking/memo-writing during the interviews, to record impressions of visual experiences of con-
texts to supplement the voice recordings. The revised question wording of What informs you while
learning to build your developmental network?’ was helpful in facilitating responses that were not
limited to their conceptions of information.
Grounded theory data analysis
Once open coding of interview transcripts was carried out, from the initial and line-by-line codes, memos
containing early categories were developed. These early categories (‘using informal information sources
while learning’ and experiencing informed learning while developmental networking as building mutu-
ally supportive relationships’) formed the basis of the themes discussed in the ndings. Additionally,
early memos outlining preliminary conceptions of ECAs’ developmental networks, potential sources
of development and early discussion of the information used to learn in this context were written. Two
main categories reached saturation: (1) the primary conceptualisation of the multilayered nature of
mutually supportive relationships between people in a developmental network (between ECAs and
their mentors or developers); and (2) the primary importance of using informal information to learn in
this context. However, in the next phase of the data analysis, further categories and sub-categories were
developed from focused coding and compared to ndings from the preliminary phase. In the second
phase, these preliminary emerging categories were compared to focused codes and categories from
the second round of data generation and data analysis to develop nal themes and grounded theory.
The lead researcher transcribed recordings and carried out line-by-line coding on all of the transcripts.
A thorough immersion in the data helped this researcher to identify and consolidate the two initial
categories formed from the rst round of data analysis, and to develop stronger categories related to
contexts where developmental networks were being formed and experienced. Data analysis in the
focused-coding phase targeted key processes (verbs from the transcripts) and these became processes
and sub-processes within the major categories. Coding during this phase was guided by a series of
questions generated by the researchers to focus coding. (i.e. ‘What is a developmental network for an
ECA?’ and ‘What information is used to learn and how is it used?’). The majority of open and focused
coding and category/theory development was carried out manually using tables in a word processor
for engaging with the constant comparison technique and theoretical sampling. Theory from memoing
was then developed from these categories, which eventually became the basis for the theoretical model.
Knowledge ecosystem and informal learning experiences
A ‘knowledge ecosystem’ model, inuenced by knowledge management researchers (e.g. Chatti 2012),
was developed consisting of informal learning interactions such as relating to information to create
knowledge and engaging in mutually supportive relationships. The knowledge ecosystem (Figure 1)
consists of the following key elements: resources (knowledge resources and information resources),
interactions (relating to information to create knowledge; knowing self; knowing others and sub-in-
teractions), and informal sphere of learning. The whole knowledge ecosystem model represents the
experience of how ECAs use information to learn while building developmental networks, as depicted
in Figure 1, and can be viewed through either one of two ‘lenses’: inner focus and outer focus. A com-
plete discussion of this model and its development is presented in Miller (2015).1 Key elements of the
6 F. MILLER ET AL.
model are presented here to highlight aspects of interest to the academic development community,
in particular those related to designing informal learning experiences.
The model in Figure 1 shows that, while building their developmental networks, ECAs’ learning is
informed by knowledge resources and information resources (explained in detail below). Knowledge
resources are created from three main interactions: the ECA relating to information resources to create
knowledge resources; knowing self; and knowing others by the sub-interactions listed in Figure 1. These
interactions occur within the informal sphere of learning, which encompasses informal types of learning, and
their associated information resources and knowledge resources. The inner focus concentrates on learning
by interacting with knowledge resources within human-to-human relationships, while the outer focus
highlights learning by interacting with information resources outside of human-to-human relationships.
The following sections provide detailed discussion of the three key elements of the knowledge ecosystem.
Figure 1.Knowledge ecosystem of ECAs building developmental networks: key elements.
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 7
Informal sphere of learning
While each participant in this study discusses formal, non-formal and informal interaction, the recur-
ring pattern emerging from the data is clearly the use of information and creation of knowledge from
informal interaction as being most important for learning. The informal sphere represents a way of
conceptualising the collective forms of informal learning, knowledge and information located within an
ECA’s knowledge ecosystem. The informal sphere is a key concept in this research, as it provides a ‘mental
space’ for understanding how ECAs experience informal learning and interaction between knowledge
and information located within their knowledge ecosystem. The informal sphere also includes informal
interactions around learning types in the non-formal and formal spheres.
Resources: knowledge and information
In this study, the research showed that knowledge and information are viewed by ECAs in very specic
ways. Knowledge is viewed as an intangible resource that is created through interaction between an
individual learner and various people within their developmental networks, known as developers.
Information, in contrast, is seen as a tangible resource that refers to texts, tools or devices for receiving
information, contextual information gained from experiencing cultures and environments, and informa-
tion stored within individual humans that is not being used. The model proposes that when a learner
interacts with these tangible information resources, knowledge is created (for example, stored in their
memory) that can inform their learning. The outcomes suggest that ECAs experience the intangible
resources, rather than the tangible, as primarily informing their learning. The participants in this study
experience information and knowledge as separate things, with intangible knowledge created from
interaction with tangible information being more important for their learning. It was a recurring pattern,
in that each participant either implied or directly responded to the question ‘What informs you…?’ by
saying that the most valuable resource for learning was intangible knowledge (from interaction with
people).
Data analysis revealed two main categories of knowledge in ECAs’ experiences: knowledge of self
and knowledge of others. As seen in Figure 1, ve knowledge resources are created that can be classed
as either knowledge of self or knowledge of others, these are: experiential, personal, technical, discipli-
nary and interdisciplinary. In developmental relationships and networks, these intangible knowledge
resources are shared, or potentially shared, between ECAs and their developers. The following section
discusses the ve knowledge resources constructed from the data that inform ECAs’ learning. Each
knowledge resource refers to knowledge co-created within relationships: knowledge from the ECA
(knowledge of self) and knowledge from their developers (knowledge of others).
Knowledge gained and stored in one’s memory from past experience is experiential knowledge. This
includes tacit knowledge, intuition or ‘know-how’ gained from practical experience that may dier from
or contrast with expert or technical knowledge. In the context of this study, experiential knowledge
can include knowledge gained from being a practitioner and a new academic.
Personal knowledge arises from personal or social interaction, which includes common sense’, ‘sur-
vival instinct’, ‘interpersonal skills’ and ‘social savvy’, and rational and emotional knowledge, such as
trust and empathy.
Technical knowledge refers to knowledge of processes related to technology, skills, scientic expertise,
policies and procedures. This knowledge can be found in humans or in databases (e.g. how-to guides).
It was suggested that some forms of technical knowledge can only inform one’s learning to a certain
extent, and that experiential knowledge is far more useful for learning one’s role.
Disciplinary knowledge refers to knowledge that is unique to a particular academic discipline. This
means that each discipline has dierent understandings of particular concepts, or each discipline has
contributed specic theories. This knowledge appears more often when interacting within ones own
discipline and learning more about disciplinary-specic research or teaching.
8 F. MILLER ET AL.
Interdisciplinary knowledge is knowledge gained only from interdisciplinary interaction and collabo-
ration. It is often synthesised from sources of dierent disciplinary knowledge such as experts working
on a joint project or the project work itself.
Interactions: relating to information to create knowledge
As shown in Figure 1, ECAs experience three key interactions involved in using information to learn in
this context. It is important to note that these interactions are not part of a linear process; rather, they
are iterative and linked to dierent kinds of learning outcome. The primary interaction is relating to
information to create knowledge. Relating to any form of information within the ecosystem as described
in the previous section is a pivotal interaction in terms of building human relationships and networks.
Once the learner can relate to information, knowledge is created. Once knowledge is created, the
learner interacts with the knowledge through the next two processes of knowing self and knowing others.
The process of knowing self involves identifying, testing, feeling, discovering, reecting on and oering
knowledge of self. The process of knowing others involves accessing, monitoring, aligning, seeking,
applying and sharing knowledge of and with other people. The three interactions occur concurrently
as a means of building relationships and networks for development.
To build on this notion of human relationships, in response to either of the open-ended questions
posed, each participant suggested and discussed the idea of ‘reciprocity’ as being critical to successful
creation and maintenance of developmental relationships and networks. Such reciprocal relationships
are conceptualised as being mutually supportive, in that they provide benets in the forms of infor-
mation, learning and support to the ECAs and those people who act as their mentors or ‘developers’.
A developer in this study refers to someone who does not act as a mentor but still has a signicant
impact on an ECA’s learning, such as a colleague, friend or relative.
Implications for educational developers
It is suggested that educational developers who aim to design informal learning experiences for ECAs
can use the knowledge ecosystem model. The model oers a way of conceptualising how to empower
ECAs through 1) agency (individual and relational) and 2) facilitation of personalised informal learning
(design of physical and virtual systems and environments) in spaces where developmental relationships
are formed including programmes, courses, events, community, home and social media.
Three main ndings from the current literature on developmental networks have particular salience
for this study. These are that developmental networks (in general):
Consist of multiple mentors for helping people grow and develop in a variety of areas relevant to
their jobs (Crocitto, Sullivan, and Carraher 2005; Higgins and Kram 2001; Molly 2005).
Are successfully built and experienced through mutually supportive relationships (Dobrow et al.
2012).
Involve quality interactions for learning (Baker Sweitzer 2009).
Findings from this study clearly reect these current trends, with this study making a specic con-
tribution to our understanding of the experience of developmental networking in academia. Mentors,
especially informal, self-selected mentors, are identied in this study as key developers and key knowl-
edge resources within ECAs’ developmental networks. Research supervisors and senior academic leaders
such as heads of school, deans and highly experienced members of the professoriate, are also identied
as key knowledge resources, and accessing their experiential knowledge is regarded as very important
for ECA development. The developmental networking experiences of the participants suggest that the
design of higher education support systems needs to better facilitate multiple relationships with key
developers to improve access to specic knowledge resources needed to learn informally and perform
their jobs successfully.
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 9
Recent reviews of developmental networking as a general human resource development strategy
highlight the importance of the ‘mutuality perspective’ (Dobrow et al. 2012). Findings from this current
study of ECAs reect the reciprocal nature of successful contemporary developmental relationships.
Mutually supportive relationships comprised of ECAs’ self-knowledge and knowledge of others, as iden-
tied in Figure 1, can be linked to research into early career practitioners, particularly the concepts of
‘relational’ and ‘individual’ agencies (Edwards 2006; Edwards and D’arcy 2004; Hopwood and Sutherland
2009; Warhurst 2008). As participants each discuss both working collaboratively and independently,
according to their learning needs and situations, this study suggests that a combination and/or bal-
ance of relational (knowledge of others) and individual (self-knowledge) informs learning and growth.
One of the main issues raised in the ECA development literature is the need to support the develop-
ment of agency, or the capacity to act in a certain way, for new professionals, particularly a balance of
individual and relational agencies and the need for ECAs to recognise when dierent forms of agency
should be exercised (Sutherland and Petersen 2010). In this study, the knowledge ecosystem contains
the key interactions of knowing self and knowing others. The identication of these processes and
interactions works towards our understanding of how ECAs use information to learn, and also learning
by the balancing of individual agency, through knowing self and developing self-concept, professional
identity and self-ecacy by interacting with self-knowledge, and relational agency, through knowing
others and how they collaborate by interacting with the knowledge of other people. While relational
agency has come to the forefront of the current discussion in this research area, this study suggests
that both forms of agency are critical to ECAs’ empowerment for learning and development, and ulti-
mately for experiencing success in their roles. From these ndings, it can therefore be suggested that
successful development of individual and relational agencies can be achieved by facilitating informed
learning experiences for ECAs.
Quality interaction for learning, in the context of this study, refers to ECAs’ interactions with personal
knowledge (including aective knowledge such as trust, empathy and social savvy). This nding is sup-
ported by the concept of ‘high quality connections’ (Heaphy and Dutton 2006). Among other ndings,
research into building ‘high quality connections’ has revealed that these types of relationship enable
eective information and knowledge exchange or sharing (ibid). These areas are relevant to this study,
in terms of extending the theoretical and practical implications and providing a more holistic, balanced
view of the experiences of ECAs’ practices.
Facilitating personalised informal learning
The value of this contribution is a holistic and unied model, which identies the main elements of
ECAs’ knowledge ecosystem containing informing entities that ECAs interact with to learn. The model
can be used to inform design of university or workplace-based experiences such as professional devel-
opment programmes, events, courses and experiences external to the university such as social media,
community and the home.
This section presents the implications for a range of stakeholders in terms of practice. The impli-
cations are outlined for the higher education sector in Australia and internationally for the studied
group (ECAs) and key groups involved in their development as professional academics such as research
supervisors, mentors, experienced academic colleagues, professional development programmes for
academics, information, research and teaching support services, industry, external research users and
funding bodies from a range of sectors, university senior management, graduates and students and
personal contacts such as friends and families of ECAs.
Early career academics
This study provides an empirical model for assisting ECAs to prepare for the challenges associated
with learning how to be an academic and how to develop in their roles. While the ECAs in this study
are within the rst ve years of a full-time role, not all have completed formal research training or
have signicant teaching experience. This model incorporates the experiences of those ECAs who are
10 F. MILLER ET AL.
attempting to balance a variety of roles such as PhD candidate, beginning teacher and ex-practitioner.
This study nds that even though their experiences are varied, the processes associated with building
mutually supportive relationships and networks for learning and development are no dierent for full-
time academics who have completed their research and teacher training and full-time academics who
are working towards completing their research or tertiary teaching qualications.
ECAs interviewed for this research represent a variety of stages in their development and are also
working within dierent disciplines. The main implication here is that, despite these apparent dier-
ences, ECAs engage with similar interactions of using information while building developmental net-
works. This research outlines and examines specic interactions of ‘informed learning’ associated with
knowing self and knowing others to inform their learning regarding how to be an academic. Fostering
informed learning in the informal sphere is a useful perspective to increase ECAs’ awareness of the
multitude of ways in which they can experience information use. Being conscious of these interactions
as they participate in a range of tasks and activities assists in making explicit the types of information
and knowledge that inform their learning. This in turn enriches the learning experience and fosters
higher quality output in terms of academic research, teaching and service and overall career and life
satisfaction through rewarding relationships.
ECAs acknowledge the complexity of their information environments and systems. By selecting
what is relevant and meaningful to them, they are collecting and creating knowledge for learning
solutions. One design principle is to simplify a complex experience by empowering the user/learner
(ECA) to self-select (or relate to) information from a variety of sources and create their own knowledge
resources to draw upon and interact with during learning activities. Here, empowerment can mean that
it occurs through (1) agency (individual and relational) and (2) facilitation (design of physical and virtual
systems and environments). These systems can facilitate personalised informal learning in unstructured
(self-directed, incidental, informal mentoring, social media) and structured (non-formal) spaces. Informal
interactions with various stakeholders or groups who form part of the ECAs’ developmental network
or support system, and the implications for these stakeholders, are discussed below. A dual focus on
learning and what informs learning benets the following ECA developer groups accordingly.
Professional development programme designers
Internal professional development programmes including workshops and various forms of mentoring
are generally experienced by ECAs as sources of knowledge, particularly experiential, personal and
interdisciplinary knowledge for learning. The presence of well-developed programmes for ECAs at
universities allows them to feel valued and supported by their employers, thus increasing retention and
success. The programmes can be experienced as gateways to experiential knowledge from peers within
and from other disciplines and from senior academic role models. Formal mentoring in which a mentor
is assigned is often viewed as useful for induction into the workplace; however, participants report that
long-term relationships with mentors are often more benecial when the mentor is self-selected by
the ECAs and the relationships are formed naturally and continue in an informal manner. Being able
to personalise their experience of the programme based on their individual learning needs, styles and
preferences is important for optimising development. Generic experiences such as group mentoring
or workshops that may not be relevant to the ECAs’ needs are viewed as not so eective. This suggests
a need to facilitate ways for ECAs to self-select sources of knowledge that are directly relevant to their
situations and needs.
Academic mentors
Mentors are regarded as key resources of experiential knowledge that is valuable for ECAs as they learn
how to be an academic and how to handle various situations related to their multiple roles. Academic
mentors need to be strong role models and to also possess the wisdom to oer sound advice. Mentors
need to recognise that their mentees may have multiple mentors from other areas of their role and that
ECAs may select or piece together knowledge or advice from a wide range of sources, so a traditional
dyadic mentoring relationship whereby the mentee accepts information and knowledge from one
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 11
mentor cannot be assumed to be experienced by ECAs. In this case, mentors need to act as gateways to
knowledge resources, through introduction to relevant people or information based on their knowledge
of the ECAs. Mentors are in a strong position to facilitate individual and relational agencies through
helping the ECAs increase their self-knowledge and knowledge of others.
Research supervisors
For academics supervising ECAs undertaking a research degree, this study has implications for the
design of supervisory pedagogy. Successful ECAs reported feeling more condent with networking
activities when their research degree experience allowed them to take ownership of their project and
to network independently to expand or steer their research in a way that prepared them for future
employment. Self-directed learning is important for establishing networks that can serve ECAs during
and after the transition from PhD candidate to academic sta member. Encouraging research candidates
to seek and establish relationships in the key spaces identied needs to be emphasised in research
supervisory pedagogy, as this relationship-building side of the research degree experience is regarded
as of equal, if not more, importance to the writing of the thesis itself. It is important for research super-
visors to establish trust in the ECAs’ ability to be self-sucient in regards to management of the project
as well as their ability to collaborate with and ask for advice from supervisors and other key developers.
Senior and mid-career academic colleagues
Academic colleagues who are not acting as mentors need to support ECAs by encouraging open infor-
mation and knowledge sharing and collaboration on research and teaching projects. This provides
opportunities for ECAs to feel part of the academic community, to learn, observe and acculturate within
their immediate environments and to make contributions to high prole projects.
Information, research and learning support designers
This study suggests potential for technologically supported networking for ECAs that can also act as
a facilitator for oine interaction. Social media platforms for career development such as LinkedIn,
Academia.edu or Yammer are being utilised somewhat; however, users or potential users in this study
are nding them dicult to integrate into their daily workow or to customise these platforms based on
their particular tasks or learning needs. This often results in ECAs feeling overwhelmed or that potential
information or knowledge is not being accessed. The ecosystem model within the spaces of develop-
mental network formation could potentially act as a guide for designing interfaces and applications to
facilitate personalised knowledge management that aggregates identied information and knowledge
resources. These include directing ECAs to explicit knowledge recorded digitally and facilitating easier
access to implicit knowledge located in certain developers, integrating personal contacts, day-to-day
tasks, goals and opportunity (project, funding or collaboration) management. Such resources could
reach across the library, the research and graduate studies oce and educational developer services
and could be accessed using mobile devices for user convenience.
Industry, research users and funders
Industries linked to the ECAs’ eld of research and/or teaching need to provide opportunities for ECAs to
get more involved through professional associations, publications, events and projects, so they can make
a stronger impact on advancing industry through their teaching, research and potential consultancy
work. Collaborating with ECAs on projects in voluntary capacities can help attract external research
funding and projects. These collaborations can directly benet organisations from a variety of sectors.
Research students
Current and potential research students being supervised by ECAs need to recognise that the ECAs are
learning their own preferences and needs as new supervisors, and that a collaborative relationship in
which information and knowledge can be freely shared is preferable.
12 F. MILLER ET AL.
Personal contacts
Family and friends of ECAs can help in the development of informed learning by having regular informal
conversations to help build understanding and empathy for the experiences of ECAs. They can provide
emotional support by providing ‘outsider’ or ‘everyday’ perspectives that are not coloured by academic
or institutional experiences. These experiences usually take place in and around the home, in the com-
munity or at relevant events. There is an implication that friends and family can better support ECAs by
creating stress-free spaces that allow them to take dierent perspectives. Some ECAs have friends and
family who are also associated with academia, and these relationships have added empathic knowledge
to strengthen support. ECAs with friends and family outside of academia are able to utilise these people
as resources of experiential and personal knowledge that goes beyond academic life, providing relief
or a perspective that can be adapted to the academic environment.
University senior management
ECAs note the importance of feeling valued and included by their direct supervisors (heads of school,
deans and above). Having easier access to knowledge resources located in senior management is impor-
tant for ECAs’ development. This implies that traditional hierarchical structures that typify universities
are hindering information and knowledge ow and sharing within these organisations and that a atter
structure may be conducive to better access to knowledge for learning. There is a need for an improved
culture to empower ECAs rather than relegate them to the lower levels. This culture of empowerment
needs to be pervasive through institutions and beyond. Additionally, informed learning as experienced
by ECAs in the knowledge ecosystem model needs to be integrated into university strategic plans for
research and teaching development.
Limitations
It is understood that this research examined ECAs’ experiences within particular contexts across dier-
ent universities. The research involved participants from several academic disciplines within dierent
faculties of only two universities. This approach may limit the relevance of this study to particular
disciplines. However, as the research aimed to contribute to the larger research agendas of informed
learning, ECAs and developmental networking, this approach can potentially deepen our understanding
of how ECAs use information to learn. The availability of each research participant for more than one
interview may have limited the grounded theory approach, which often involves revisiting the initial
interview to compare experiences and understanding with initial theory development (Charmaz 2006).
Conclusion
In general, learning experience design strategies and principles to facilitate informal interactions
through relationships of mutual benet are needed. Academic developers (for teaching, research,
career), mentors (formal and informal), ECAs and information and knowledge managers within higher
education need to collaborate to provide enriching learning experiences within the informal sphere.
This could involve providing opportunities and support for informal interaction and informal informa-
tion use, both online and oine, to develop personalised developmental networks to facilitate quality
learning experiences for ECAs and their successful development of ‘relational’ and ‘individual’ agencies.
Note
1. The model presented in Figure 1 is an adaptation of the original model explained in detail in the lead researcher’s
nal PhD thesis (Miller 2014); however, for the purposes of this article, this section is a discussion of the ndings
related to designing informal learning experiences.
JOURNAL OF FURTHER AND HIGHER EDUCATION 13
Acknowledgements
A Write-Up Scholarship from Queensland University of Technology supported the development of this article. The research
team wishes to thank the early career academic participants of this study who added much value to the ndings.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Funding
This work was supported by Queensland University of Technology (QUT Write Up Scholarship).
Notes on contributors
Faye Miller has recently completed a PhD in the Information Ecology Discipline, Queensland University of Technology,
Australia. Faye is currently a lecturer in Information Management and Convenor of Professional Practice and Research
Projects (Masters) at the University of Canberra. Her research interests focus on academic researchers’ information experi-
ences and developing communication and networking capabilities for research and knowledge work.
Helen Partridge is a professor and pro vice chancellor (Scholarly Information and Learning Services) at the University of
Southern Queensland. She is also an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests
focus on the interplay between learning, information and technology.
Christine Bruce is a professor in the Science and Engineering Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
She is Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Academic Program Director of Research Training for STEM
research students. Christine is also Chair of the QUT Higher Education Research Network. Christine has research interests
in doctoral study and supervision and information and learning experiences in digital spaces.
Brian Hemmings is Sub-Dean (Graduate Studies), Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is also
Associate Director of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE). Brian’s research
interests include the productivity of academics and the development of their research capacity. He has produced an online
induction programme for early career academics to help build their research capability.
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