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?

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