Wednesday, September 23, 2009

G. To engage most faculty, support must meet many needs

How should an institution help faculty improve teaching and learning (with technology)? I'll respond to that question in different ways over the next three weeks. Here's my first set of suggestions for faculty support (e.g., teaching centers, information technology units, library staff, distance learning staff, ...).

At most institutions, support programs only influence a small fraction of the courses each year. And support staffs are usually so small and under-budgeted that they're often kept pretty busy serving just the small fraction of faculty who actively pursue their services.

But if you're looking for a reason why we haven't seen major improvements in teaching and learning (with technology) at most institutions over the last thirty years, this is certainly one of them. Faculty aren't getting the help they need. Or, from the point of view of the helper, we might say instead, "Not enough faculty are asking for the help we think they need."

Under what circumstances does an institution need to engage large numbers of faculty in some teaching and learning improvement (using technology)?
  1. When a major is being transformed (e.g., to offer a degree program at a distance, or reshape a degree program as MIT did when it created the CDIO program) many faculty need to be engaged in order to offer a full constellation of courses, provide advising, etc.
  2. As that Reed senior said about learning how to rethink his reasoning and writing, 'I don’t think I could have learned that from just one course. But, over the years, it gradually sank in.' If one's goal is to improve what the average graduate is able to do, or think, or feel, make many small changes across many courses. That requires the participation of lots of faculty.
  3. (Technology-supported) innovations are sometimes resisted by students who say, "No one else is asking me to do this but you." For innovative faculty, there's safety in numbers.
  4. Get enough faculty engaged in an improvement big enough, visible enough, and last enough to gain an advantage in the competition for new students, new faculty, donor support, grants, and other resources that the program needs to function, as we discussed in an earlier post. That's why a degree program or an institution might decide that it's a priority to work for 5-10 years to internationalize the curriculum, to develop a national reputation for the design skills of its graduates, or to become widely known for the work of its faculty and students in responding to climate change. Those are just three examples of technology-supported improvements in teaching and learning.
  5. Accreditors might have targeted this area as a deficiency that needs to be remedied over the coming years.
  6. Sometimes a new foundational technology is introduced which works better and better as more students and staff use it, e.g., email, sharing of documents and social networking.
In any of these circumstances, faculty support units will need to ask themselves, "How can we engage large numbers of faculty to work in this chosen direction?" One key is to recognize that different faculty members want different things. For example,
  • Headline some of your offerings with the issue itself as your headline (e.g., adapting curricula to respond to climate change.') If you've chosen the right issue, that should attract a significant number of faculty. But probably not enough. How can you attract more faculty to learn about and work on your issue?
  • Some faculty love fooling around with new technology. So, if the goal is important, some support offerings for your issue should be headlined, "Play with this new technology" (even if the priority only uses that technology as one ingredient in a larger strategy).
  • Some faculty are focused on their own teaching (i.e., lecturing, writing). Can they advance your priority by developing that skill? If so, headline your offering with the skill, and use your issue as the example. (Here, as in the other bullets, we're talking about a fraction of your total offerings relevant to the chosen priority.)
  • Some faculty member see it as important to understand their students so that they can help each student excel. If your priority can help with that, headline some offerings with that need (e.g. learner-centered teaching). (What's marvelous about many educational uses of technology is how many of these headlines can be used with integrity. To internationalize the curriculum effectively, for example, all these kinds of changes are enabled.)
  • Some faculty want to survive. Can something about your priority save them time? help make their teaching less like pushing a boulder up a mountain? If so, make that the headline some of the time.
To repeat: don't make promises you can't keep. If you headline a workshop with 'time-saver for faculty,' it had better both advance your priority and also save participants some time. Support for a high priority issue should also be offered in a variety of modes, each designed to engage a different subset of the faculty, e.g.,
  • summer workshops;
  • online tutorials;
  • brown bags;
  • 5-10 minute sessions led by faculty as agenda items in departmental faculty meetings.
  • enlisting one or more faculty in each relevant department to play a more active role, e.g., studying what other institutions are doing in this arena and then sharing their findings with relevant colleagues in their department.

To sum up, it's important that faculty and support staff work together to set a few priorities for improvement. For those priorities which require engagement of large numbers of faculty, staff should offer support in several modes (e.g., workshops, one-on-one consulting, peer-to-peer strategies) and frames (e.g., new technology, educational priorities, saving faculty time).

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest priority setting in a culture that values academic freedom. And I certainly wouldn't rely on this strategy alone. But such a widely-embraced priority has the power to mobilize the resources needed over many years to power major, cumulative improvements in education.

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