Saturday, October 03, 2009

H. Faculty support for programmatic improvement: The Treblig Cycle

This "Ten Things" series of posts is discussing some counter-intuitive ideas about how technology can enable major, long term improvement in academic programs: improvements in what is learned, who learns, and how they learn.

Such deep programmatic improvements are more likely to develop when most faculty feel that a change is important enough to warrant patient, persistent effort over a period of years. In these days, when money is tight and competition ferocious for many academic programs, an unusual number of faculty may feel this way.

What kind of faculty support could help such sweeping programmatic improvements develop?

The most problematic requirement for such faculty support is scale: the need to involve most faculty in this academic program. If the program's leaders hope to improve what's learned, who learns, and how they learn, they need to help most faculty develop some new skills, tools, and materials.

My colleague, Steve Gilbert, has been developing the concept of 'frugal innovations,' innovations that can work, and spread, when time and money are scarce. He recommends a cycle of individual improvement and peer-to-peer sharing of those experiences and mateirals. He has called this process 'nanovation.' Lewis Hyde would call it a 'circle of gifts.' I call it the Treblig Cycle (pronounced treb'lig). If you're curious why I suggest that name, read this article'.

As I interpret what Steve has been saying, the Treblig Cycle consists five steps:
  1. A faculty member learns about (or invents, or reinvents) an improvement for teaching and learning with technology. The materials or tools needed should be freely available or nearly free to this faculty member and his/her colleagues. To make this cycle work, the improvement should also be low risk, obviously rewarding, possibly time-saving, and easy to learn. Steve has called such tools and materials “Low Threshold Applications” and such improvement ideas “Low Threshold Activities.” We usually refer to both as “LTAs”. "Low threshold" is a relative term, not an absolute. Something which is low threshold for some people in their institutional context may be expensive, high risk, or too hard to learn for other faculty in a different institutional context. For the Treblig cycle to work, however, the improvement must be low threshold for most people who learn about it. And, for the Treblig Cycle to help the strategic change of interest, this particular LTA should be an incremental step in that direction. If the faculty are trying to slowly and, eventually, dramatically improve the creative skills of their graduates, for example, then this LTA should help advance that effort just a little bit: a tiny step in the right direction. The fact that many faculty agree that this programmatic change is important - that's one of the things that attracts their attention to this LTA.
  2. The instructor tries the improvement, and finds it rewarding. (If it weren't rewarding for him or her, the process would stop here.)
  3. He or she tries the idea again, gathering feedback to guide the activity and/or to describe its outcomes;
  4. In the process of trying the idea, he or she may also tweak, personalize or otherwise improve it;
  5. He or she helps at least two colleagues inside or outside the institution to begin this same cycle; in other words, these colleagues are now at step 1 of the Treblig Cycle. If each of them in turn gets two or more colleagues to enter the cycle, the low threshold improvement will spread in an accelerating way.
The Treblig Cycle is more likely to work if the environment rewards (a) faculty sharing information with colleagues inside and outside of the institution, (b) improvements that aid the chosen programmatic goal.

Obviously, many improvements can't be spread by the Therblig Cycle. Some improvements don't meet a widely felt need so they won't be rewarding enough to excite their users to share them. Other improvements aren't low threshold for most people.

So, if your academic program is developing a strategic academic/technology plan for the next 5-10 years, or considering which of several strategic options to choose, ask whether each proposed strategic change could be implemented with the help of the Treblig Cycle.

Relying on the Treblig Cycle does not eliminate the need for faculty support units. Quite the contrary. Faculty support units can use the Treblig Cycle as a tool for supporting faculty. For example, the faculty support unit could search for relevant LTAs, could create materials describing the LTAs, and find more ways to encourage faculty to share such ideas. (We'll return to some of these themes in coming weeks.)

To summarize: crucial elements for applying the Treblig cycle to transformative uses of technology are (a) agreeing on a direction for change that reflect widely felt needs among the faculty, (b) collecting Low Threshold Applications and Activities that many faculty would find rewarding, and (c) encouraging the sharing of such ideas and movement in those directions.

Your comments? Can you imagine an academic program or institution using the Treblig Cycle to support a 5-10 effort to transform itself, eg., internationalizing its curriculum? Developing a world class reputation for the design skills of its graduates? Does the Treblig Cycle suggest a reasonable route to a slow revolution?

1 comment:

  1. Another framework to overlap this model is Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations. With this, you pay attention to each innovation's attributes that contributes to its adoption: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. Building this into the faculty support model will advance adoption.

    Relative advantage speaks to the innovation's ability to enable faculty to make their job easier, to complete tasks more quickly, to improve the quality of their teaching, to do things they couldn't do before using the innovation. Compatibility means that the innovations fits into their teaching style - it's a comfortable fit. The innovation shouldn't be too complex to use. They need to have opportunities to try it out in low risk settings, and to observe demonstrations.

    However, it can't stop there or, as you've said, nothing really changes; we've only added a new technology. The use needs to go deeper. We also need to provide opportunities for reflection and collegial discussion. This is what is currently missing.


What do you think?