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.


  1. The notion of Faculty Learning Communities is one that fascinates me and has a strong professional interest. What would be the ideal balance between learning strategies and technology in such a cohort? Has anyone a study of Best Practices in this arena?

  2. Dan, I'm not sure what you mean by "ideal balance between learning strategies and technology." "Technology" (in the sense of an evolving set of digital tools and resources) has at least two kinds of relevance to faculty learning:

    a) first because changes in technology for teaching and learning create new opportunities (and research puzzles) for faculty (e.g., for years, faculty in composition have been studying new issues around student writing, created by student use of word processing);

    b) second, because 'technology' offers faculty new tools for studying teaching and learning (e.g., clickers, surveys, video recordings of think alouds by students, quick communication about findings from such research with peers, etc.)

  3. alberto canales11:14 AM

    Hi Dr. Ehrmann,

    Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading the Washington Center's Change Magazine Article "A New Era in Learning-Community Work" by Emily Lardner and Gillies Malnarich, when I decided to take a look at TLT Group TGIF 2 Issue #33.

    Just one comment -- Perhaps this should be called "teaching" communities.

    Alberto Canales


What do you think?