Thursday, October 15, 2009

J. Support: Teach Faculty to Solve Problems

“It just struck me the other day...Life is adversity. That is the meaning of life. We crave adversity. We need to get into trouble and stay in trouble...Teachers who retire go back to teaching because they need to be in trouble again."  - Garrison Keillor, “News from Lake Wobegon,” Feb 25, 2008

On Monday, I summarized my former belief that TLT units should teach faculty two things about emerging TLT ideas and material:
  1. Teach them enough about a new technique or technology so that they can decide whether to learn how to use it ("why") and, for those interested,
  2. 'How' to use it.
And my post assumed that it would be specialized, paid staff who would teach both kinds of lessons.

Those two kinds of support, why and how, aren't enough, however. Nor does any university have enough staff to provide the teaching and help needed for continual improvements in teaching and learning (with technology) across the curriculum. Let's start with the missing links in the content of support; then we'll conclude with a fresh look at who should provide that support.


To improve educational results, it's usually necessary to help faculty and students make qualitative changes in what they have been doing. Putting 'old wine into new bottles' isn't enough. Unfortunately, when faculty use technology to alter course activities, they can easily be ambushed.

Consider difficulties such as these:
  • A faculty member begins teaching online. Some students begin to fall behind.
  • An instructor adds some challenging new online assignments as homework, with the intent of building on that experience in class; but more students than usual arrive admitting that they haven't done their homework.
  • Students begin discussing issues in a chat room. The conversation splinters. Two students get into a violent argument.
  • In response to an assignment, students create web sites. Some projects are good on the content, but badly organized. Others are well organized and easy to navigate, but the substance is shallow. How should the projects be graded?
  • Each student or small group is working on a different topic of their own choosing. Many choose to work on problems that are each outside the faculty member's comfort zone. The instructor doesn't have time to do the reading needed to become sufficiently expert in all of these areas.
  • The instructor's teaching takes an adventurous turn. However, some students object that 'this is not how this course is supposed to be taught,' and complain to the dean. Student ratings of the course take a dive, and the faculty member's tenure case is coming up soon.
Many faculty resist a new TLT approach because they sense that it could lead to unexpected problems, and most professors and instructors know they're being offered no preparation for coping with those TLT dilemmas.

Here are a couple suggestions to help faculty deal with such problems:
  1. Organize faculty seminars to discuss case studies that each describe one such problem. Cases might be just a paragraph or two, briefly describing a problem, or a bit more elaborate (video clip; artifacts such as transcripts of online discussions). For each case, participating faculty discuss their own experiences: how they interpreted their version of that situation, how they responded, and what happened next. Usually most participants are surprised at how many different ways there are to interpret such a situation, and how many options there are to respond.
  2. After a little practice with such disguised case studies, it's easier to do what Steve Gilbert calls a 'clinic.' One of the participating faculty members describes a problem that he or she has seen personally, perhaps something that's troubling them now. Then the other participants share their own experiences with similar problems, and their suggestions for how to respond now.
Technology's role in academic improvement is analogous to the role of yeast in baking a cake. The staff in TLT support units need to be cake specialists, not just yeast specialists: they need extensive personal experience in using various technologies, old and new, for teaching and learning. But I don't know of any institution that has remotely enough staff to serve their faculty. That's especially true for programs that want to engage most or all of their faculty in improving teaching and learning (with technology).


If a program or institutions to improve teaching and learning on the large scale that technology enthusiasts hope to see, much of the help needs to come from the faculty themselves. That's true even if the TLT improvements are usually low risk, low cost, increments. The professional TLT staff's role should be to support, organize and sustain those faculty-to-faculty efforts. The only way for such mass engagement to happen is if faculty want it, and if their departments and the institution recognize and reward faculty who help their colleagues. [The focus of this post is how faculty can help one another. But that faculty effort can also be complemented with support from trained student technology assistants.]

Not all faculty need do the same things to help their colleagues. The scholarship of teaching and learning provides one set of possibilities. The teaching case study seminars above are another; the cases should be created and published by faculty (the clinic discussions should help identify candidates) and the seminars should be led by faculty. Similarly, 'scrounging' for TLT ideas and materials needs to be done mainly by faculty. And to develop the constellation of support workshops described earlier requires faculty participation as well.

I'm curious. Does your institution's support service for faculty go beyond the 'why' and the 'how?' Does your program encourage faculty to help each other? Can such faculty engagement be scaled up enough so that, over the years, a large proportion of the faculty can comfortably, cumulatively improve their courses?

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