Saturday, February 23, 2008

Faculty Learning Communities: A New Strategy

Imagine a faculty learning community - a community of inquiry and evidence - that is doing collaborative research in order to improve its members' success in 'teaching online' (or teaching with ePortfolios, or teaching with student response systems, or fostering digital writing, or teaching in a computer classroom, or any other technique or technology you choose). The TLT Group and Washington State are now beta testing a new kind of survey tool that opens up new avenues of research for such communities. The tool is Flashlight Online 2.0 and the strategy it supports is called a 'matrix survey.'

Let's imagine that the faculty learning community is going to do research together on its members' uses of ePortfolios, in order to discover ways in which its members could improve learning in their courses.

Up until now, if the community were interested in using a survey or interview protocol, members might have assumed that all students in all classes would need to be asked the same questions, so that faculty could pool their data:
  • "How satisfied are you with the use of ePortfolios in this course?"
  • "Is the ePortfolio easy to use?"
  • "How much is the ePortfolio helping you learn?"

These are 'lowest common denominator' questions. After the community gets answers to questions, would they really understand student learning any better? would they have learned something useful for improving learning? Probably not. The questions are so sterile because they have to be conceptually broad enough to cover the wide variety of uses of ePortfolios across courses.

And there are many activities for which ePortfolios can be used, but only a few are likely to be important in any one course. Here's a list that Susan Kahn (IUPUI) and I developed:
  1. Reflection as a means of deepening learning
  2. Integrate/synthesize prior learning and course learning
  3. Student academic self-assessment, guidance (within degree program)
  4. Building a sense of professional identity
  5. Personal/developmental: Each student develops/describes own goals & abilities
  6. Audiences and assessors for the student’- more, better
  7. Learning communities, support of
  8. Department reframes major in terms of competences across courses
  9. Faculty share practices, perspectives
  10. Job and school applications
  11. External accountability
An activity that specific is much easier to study: do the students understand the goal? what are the software's strengths and weaknesses when used for that purpose? what factors are helping and hindering the student in doing this particular thing? and so on.

Research would be much easier for a community if all its members used ePortfolios the same way. But the needs of real faculty learning communities is seldom this neat. Different faculty are likely to use ePortfolios in different ways. And that's where the matrix survey can play such an important role in supporting more focused, flexible research.

Imagine members of the community working together to develop a useful set of student feedback questions for each of those eleven activities above (assuming each of those activities was a goal for at least one of the participating faculty).

Flashlight Online 2.0 enables each faculty member to fill in a menu specifying which of those eleven activities are important for her course, automatically a student response form that contains only questions about those particular activities.

Once the students have responded:
a) the individual faculty member can get a report on how her students have responded; and
b) the faculty learning community can get a report on how all their students have responded, activity by activity, for all eleven activities. Imagine that there are 25 courses being studied. The report on activity 1 might come from 17 of those courses, on activity B from 4 of those courses, and so on. The community could use this pool of data to study each activity, searching for insights from the larger pool of data. I emphasize activity F in my course and saw something that surprised me from my own students: is that typical for courses that emphasize activity F? or unusual?

Such a survey is not just a one-time thing. The faculty learning community could use its matrix survey term after term, even if different members of the community were on different academic schedules (or even at different institutions), accumulating data.

To read more about matrix surveys, with examples of such survey questions for different uses of ePortfolios, click here.

To comment on this idea or ask questions, please post a comment below.

And, most importantly, if you are interested in working with us on developing such a matrix survey strategy for a faculty learning community (or any other purpose), please contact me.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fostering Incremental, Cumulative Improvement

For over a decade, Steve Gilbert and I have been working on ways to help institutions foster incremental, cumulative improvements in teaching and learning with technology.

It's easier to attract attention to the opposite: big grants and top-down redesign. What's wrong with that? Nothing, but that 'big push' approach is quite limited, especially in times of tight budgets:
  • It's hard, and rare, to get such chunks of time and money
  • What do you do a few years later, once the initial capital has been expended? does the innovation that stagnate, regress, or what?
  • Most change in higher education can't be achieved through such an approach. Most faculty, most courses, and most student learning experiences would remain untouched.
To foster an incremental, cumulative improvement in teaching and learning (with technology) here are some ideas, materials and tools that The TLT Group has developed for its subscribers.

As you'll see, many of these items have a common working assumption: most faculty are interested in improving their teaching, and the learning of their students, to the extent that each such improvement can be achieved without undue time or risk.
  • Identify "low threshold" ideas for improving teaching and learning, and circulate them (e.g. via frequent, brief, read-at-a-glance e-mails.)
  • Offer brief, hybrid workshops (BHWs) to faculty - each just 5-15 minutes -- to help them learn low threshold ways of improving their teaching. These workshops should be well-documented (e.g. with brief online tutorials, brief testimonials from faculty who have used the ideas in the past). If faculty participate in such a workshop (e.g., as an agenda item in a departmental faculty meeting; during a brown bag lunch), try the idea in their own courses, and like the results, they should be able to use the same workshop materials to help other interested colleagues to adapt the same techniques. In other words, a good BHW can be offered peer-to-peer, without always requiring a highly skilled leader.
  • Train students to help faculty improve teaching, especially teaching and learning with technology. For years, The TLT Group has offered subscribers help in upgrading their programs for student technology assistants so that the students can provide this kind of aid to faculty.
  • Help faculty use student feedback in order to figure out how to improve their teaching. The TLT/Flashlight program to develop such brief hybrid workshops is called "Asking the Right Questions" (ARQ).
  • Support faculty who act as 'compassionate pioneers' (e.g., helping their colleagues use ideas that the first faculty member has already tried)
  • Stretch and coordinate the use of scarce faculty support resources by developing a virtual Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center. In strategy for encouraging incremental, cumulative improvement, faculty have to do much of the work: identifying a need and making an improvement. But that doesn't mean they're completely unaided. So how can the institution speed help to all interested faculty when, at almost every institution, support resources are splintered among faculty development, information technology, the library, distance learning, individual departments, and other units? By having as many of those support staff as possible work (in many ways) as though they were one unit. Such a virtual TLT Center can have a single help line, a single calendar, co-planning of events, shared development of its (their) own staff, etc.
  • The study done by TLT/Flashlight of the MIT/Microsoft iCampus program revealed more ways to support incremental, incremental change. For example, it is far easier for faculty member B to understand, appreciate, and implement a teaching idea from faculty member A if A & B teach the same course, perhaps with the same text, perhaps with the same academic calendar, with a similar approach, and similar concerns. In that case, B can 'grok' what A is saying almost instantly, decide quickly whether to try the idea, and (the first time) try it by copying what A did. It's a relatively low threshold process. So the trick is to find a way to pair A and B. Interestingly, the larger the universe of faculty (e.g., a big system of institutions, a statewide effort, a national professional association), the easier it is to create such pairs and small groups of like-minded faculty.
Everything I've written so far focuses on how to invest in and support incremental improvement. What about making enough such small changes, and congruent changes, so that the results are 'cumulative?" Over time, we'd like the results of all these tiny changes become apparent to instructors, and also to students, departments, alumni, accreditors, etc.

At most institutions, the job of larger entities (departments, professional associations, institutions, libraries) is to work to support all kinds of improvement (and thereby offend nobody). The job of the faculty member is 'merely' to choose.

There are real problems with that working model. Few of those larger entities can afford to support all conceivable incremental improvements. And few faculty have the time to scan all those opportunities, and then choose one.

Doesn't it make more sense for those larger entities (departments, associations, and institutions) to choose some directions for improvement, and focus on incremental improvements in those directions.

I'm indebted to Chris Alexander of Berkeley for that insight. Decades ago, in his book The Oregon Experiment, Alexander rejected the idea of campus master plans and instead argued for focused support of incremental change in the university's physical infrastructure. The goals would be agreed on and adjusted through community governance.

As it happens, The TLT Group also helps institutions organize Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtables. One role that such TLTRs can play is to pick some goals for incremental instructional improvement, and then help the institution maintain its focus for enough years so that the results become visible, valued, and rewarded. What kinds of goals are worth the candle? How about "learning community," "undergraduate research," "writing across the curriculum," or "building a culture of evidence"? The important thing, for departments as well as institutions, is to pick a few such goals of real importance, where systematic support of incremental, cumulative improvement can really pay off for students, faculty, the department, and the institution.

Your comments? What strategies have I missed? What resources?