Saturday, June 04, 2005

On Promoting Community with Instructors

I'm back from the conference in Chicago where a major focus was (though this terminology was not used) providing community for up and coming staff who work in information technology. The thought is that the bosses (as typified by me) do have community and do interact with others in the profession, but more junior people do not, yet should. The meeting was to a large extent about finding ways to change that.

I suppose there is some irony in that when I started this blog my aim, in some round about way, was also to promote community too, but with a different group. I wanted to give instructors some reason to talk about their own teaching, to understand that there is value in that, and that there might be value even in having them reflect a little on the teaching of others. I am convinced that every faculty member wants to talk about their teaching. It is a signficant piece of their professional lives and I believe it is natural to want to talk about your work. But whereas we are very mature about our research ideas and more readily discuss those, we may be less mature about our teaching ideas and so less willing to voice those ideas initially and in addition there aren't obvious places for such conversation. A typical faculty member may not try to start such a conversation with a peer about teaching because there is no clear signal the peer wants to participate in such a discussion.

In that respect, I'm in a unique role. My job is to promote interesting and effective use of technology in instruction. I am more than willing to have conversations about teaching with other faculty. My blog is aimed at signaling that willingness. I'm trying to do that via showing there is a depth and subltety to teaching issues that are worth discussing and that while I do have views on a variety of teaching issues I can see there are possible and interesting alternative positions. So let's talk about them.

My goal, until now still idealistic and not yet realized, is to first get a few instructors to have some discussions with me online. Then, since all conversations going through me doesn't scale and actually would limit points of view, I hope we'd reach the next step where the instructors would find each other and have their own conversations. And, finally, the ulitmate goal is that with some diversity of participants these discussions would attract others and, lo and behold, we'd have a community. In climbing this ladder I would morph my own role as catalyst to that of participant and do that happily.

What is beginning to be realized now is something more modest. There are a few regular readers of the blog and perhaps that regular readership can grow. Some of the readers, I know, have important positions in doing things similar to me - promoting the use of technology in instruction. Out in the profession I believe there is less reflection on the issues than there ought to be and the informality of this blog contrasts with the style in the various online journals devoted to this area. So it fills a niche.

I pose this question to the collective current readership. How do we go to the next step up and get the faculty involved? I might add that I wouldn't anticipate faculty to be permanent and regular readers or commenters on the blog. Their focus on teaching usually is of limited duration. They think about it for a while but then return their focus to their research. The issue is how to get their attention during that time window when their interest is with their teaching.

And the problem, of course, is that even then their time is quite limited and anything that seems too remote and not immediately useful will not be accessed. This is why so much of what my EdTech unit produces is in the form of online tutorial and help that serves as reference material for the instructor. That content satisfies the usefulness requirement. The approach is fine but it has its limits. A lot of teaching questions are not about the technology per se but rather about the nexus between the technology and particular issues in that class. Most of the interesting questions are so situated that one is unlikely to find the answers in a manual. Ergo the community of instructors, yet that answer still leaves a large gap in determining how to get there.

In the optimistic scenario, I along with some of the current readers happen on a topic that hits the nerve of some instructors at the time they are ready for it. I don't expect those sparks to fly till closer to the start of the fall semester. In the meantime, we can think of ways to make this more likely.

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