Nine out of the eleven faculty members in the Link-Structure participated in individual interviews which were between 40 and 60 minutes long. Two declined participation on account of limited time. Among the three male and six female participants the disciplines of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, dietetics and health technology were represented. The clinical practice settings they worked in were tertiary hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. The participants ranged in age from 32 years to 47 years. Each participant worked in professional practice for at least 5 years before assuming their faculty position in higher education. The length of time spent working in higher education ranged from 4 to 11 years. The length of time of participation in the Link-Structure ranged from eight months to four years. Research interests of the group included topics such as mobility difficulties, scleroderma, chronic fatigue, computer assisted articulation, and use of technology in health care provision. More detailed participant information cannot be given to safeguard confidentiality.
The thematic analysis resulted in six themes that elucidate the nature of professional development arising from participation in the Link-Structure as experienced by the participants. After seven interviews, no new codes were added indicating that data saturation was reached for this group.
Theme 1: Individual motivation to approach professional development opportunities
Participants reported that they chose to participate in the Link Structure because of their interest in re-establishing links with healthcare practice in which they perceived themselves to possess expertise. They reported positive affective associations with practice. Participants also reported ambitions to progress professionally through research.
“I just found it nice to go back into practice” and “update (my) knowledge of healthcare practice”. “I had built up a certain level of expertise in the past on the topic of [____] and I felt that I wanted to contribute to practice through my expertise.” (R4). “I just wanted to observe what happens in practice to go along and see what they do and what they talk about.” (R7) “I had the ambition to do a PhD. The expectation in the Link Structure is to do a PhD. Therefore, I started it (participation in the Link Structure)” (R3).
The participants’ words indicate that they are motivated by the performance of tasks that relate to subject matter expertise and professional development as a researcher. Their primary motivation for engagement did not to originate in wanting to consciously broker a connection between research, practice and teaching.
Theme 2: Professional identity across contexts
Participants described themselves as having multiple professional identities.
“I see myself primarily as a researcher and thereafter as a teacher. But to be able to do both of these jobs well I need to be excellent at my field of expertise. I go into practice to keep up my professional practice knowledge.” (R8) “When I am here at the university, I am one of the teachers but when I am in the practice setting, I am one of them -therapist. So, when I talk about “us” it is a different “us” in practice than here.” (R3).
A number of identities known in literature for research-active academics at universities of applied science (22), were discernible. The participants described themselves as researcher, disciplinary expert and evidence-based teacher. None of them, however, reported having an identity that related to being a broker for example the identity of ‘liaison officer’. They associated different identities with different context and appeared to separate these from each other. Their engagement in the clinical practice setting informed their roles of educator and researcher but they did not report seeing themselves as someone who connected the two organisational contexts with each other.
Theme 3: Intra-personal boundary crossing as a mechanism for professional development
Participants identified differences between the education context and the clinical context which existed in the domains of culture, organizational structure, language use and conceptualization of certain theoretic constructs. Observing these differences encouraged them to learn. Learning mechanisms associated with boundary crossing (10), identification and reflection, were identifiable in their words. Identification and reflection on differences in culture between contexts led to intra-personal learning through boundary crossing.
“My tunnel vision decreased…. It (the hospital) is a totally different place of work but also a different culture. This is within the discipline of occupational therapy and also the academic teaching hospital at large. It has a very different work culture than we have in university and that is interesting. It provides me with a lot of food for thought to be able to move within it, to learn … because I often make mistakes” (R3) “Actually I have to say that I saw things in practice which I had read about in a book but to see them in practice is totally different. Also, the people (are different). Yes, the healthcare language, healthcare practice is a totally different world… it was an eye opener” (R7).
Participants described how their engagement with information from one setting transformed their work in the other. The use of information from the clinical setting not only enriched the content of their lessons but also contributed to their credibility as perceived by the students.
“I can give a very nice example, whereby I was in the ICU one day with a lady who was knocked off her bike by a motorist. The next day I had a case example for a head injury during a lecture. That really fitted very well. These are the cases that you now use in your lectures.” (R1) “….obtaining and using real-life case examples of patients during lessons with students… this makes my lessons more interesting but the students also view me in a totally different light” (R3).
Through the engagement across contexts, the participants started identifying and reflecting on differences which increased their understanding of the clinical context in relation to the education context. They also started using first-hand experiences from clinical practice as boundary objects in their teaching, thereby facilitating practice-teaching connections. In these ways, they perceived their teacher role to improve and develop through their engagement in clinical practice.
Theme 4: Research as a boundary activity
Despite not seeing themselves as a broker at the outset of their engagement in the Link-Structure, participants reported that their research linked the clinical context with the education environment in various individually mediated meaningful ways. Research projects and the researcher’s role were described as a link between education and clinical practice. Participants increasingly presented research results gained in the clinical setting during lectures in the education setting. Elements of PhD research formed the basis for bachelor students’ theses and faculty members felt that doing research themselves increased their competence in supervising student research. Participants reported that they learnt a lot from their PhD trajectory in the link-structure. The following words of participants illustrate these findings:
“That is the crazy thing about research: the link with practice and the link with education and I really see it and I am enthusiastic about it. My research skills really have a bearing on my daily student education activities. (R5)”.
“A lot (of my work in the Link Structure) relates to my PhD and therefore also a lot to students bachelor theses…. I have presented the results that arise (from my PhD research) in one of the elective modules for undergraduates. Therefore, what is found (in research) ultimately lands again in student education.” (R1).
I had to “supervise student research but the fact that I did research myself was a factor in doing this effectively … I could caution students about things that I had done wrong previously… In any event, the research that I do. I learn a lot from that.” (R6) “
The boundary activity between research in practice and teaching developed as participants progressed their embedded research and continuously engaged with knowledge and work processes in the clinical context and education context simultaneously. A familiarity of both contexts allowed them to use the role of researcher to link the contexts through knowledge management and capacity building.
Theme 5: Networking and relationship building as part of the learning process
The theme networking encapsulates the participants’ description of important social processes that are necessary to access learning opportunities across contexts. The outcomes of building effective professional networks and behaviours are described. Network behaviours such as being habitually and predictably present, being visible and being reciprocal in work activities were reported as important. The establishment of a network in the clinical setting benefited the faculty members themselves who got to work with experts. It also benefited their students who had more learning opportunities and better support during practice placements in the faculty members professional network.
“… networking is very important and at the beginning I did not realise how important it is… Networking is about things like this, being present at lunch (in the hospital) every Monday” (R3), “being predictably present in the clinical setting at the same time every week” (R6), and “setting clear rules of engagement with each other with regards to attendance” (R1).
“I work on … things that are important for the hospital but that are also important for my PhD. So, in this manner we have made a connection that works for both. … If a course is to be held, I can secure (free) facilities for this. It is nice that the people from the hospital conduct their courses here in the university building. I mean it gives us exposure and the prestigious logo (of the hospital) adorns the course” (R1). “We can see what can be done together…. in collaboration. It seems good to look out for each other.” (R7)
“I spend time with our own students here on placement. It is difficult for a practitioner in the paediatrics department who does not work at the university to understand what students know, how they are being educated and what they could mean in your department… what kind of expertise they might have that could be meaningful. And, if you work in the university you might not understand the kind of expertise necessary to work in the paediatrics department…. you cannot simply place a student and expect them to find their feet themselves. No, it (the practice placement) could not have worked without my presence here.” (R2)
Of all the participants, only R8 reported an awareness and an attempt to contribute to his team of colleagues in the education setting. “From time to time I discuss my Link Structure activities with my head of department to see how our education setting can also benefit from my participation in the Link Structure” (R8)
Networking is known as an important activity category in brokering connections between contexts. However, participants did not report planning strategic networking activities. They noticed during their performance of Link-Structure related work, how important networking behaviour was as a pre-requisite for engagement across contexts for themselves and their students. Networking facilitated personal links and collaboration opportunities in the research-education-practice triangle.
Theme 6: Organisational facilitators for professional development
In addition to the professional development processes mentioned in the five themes above, several practical and administrative elements associated with the Link Structure were seen as pre-requisites for professional development. These were, the association between the university and the clinical context at institutional level, the protected time, the freedom of choice in the research topic and the high degree of autonomy in designing of own work engagement in clinical setting.
“It is helpful to be taken off the roster (for teaching tasks) for a little while. Then you really have the freedom to think. I have freedom and that motivates me …” (R7). “The exact tasks to be conducted in the practice setting were not dictated…. the freedom of choice and the luxury of time played the most important role in the ability to plan and work on projects” (R3).
Having legitimate access to a second work context without requiring a second employer was seen as a facilitating factor to participating in professional development opportunities offered in the Link Structure.
“I have previously had multiple employers and I don’t find that pleasant. Of course, now I have more people I have to take into account but with regards to financing and administration everything is clear.” (R2)
In faculty development and workplace learning opportunities, the practical pre-requisites play an important part in whether or not the learning opportunity is tenable for an individual. In the case of the Link-Structure it appears that the pre-requisite conditions not only facilitated but also motivated engagement.