Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Buddy System

My earliest recollection of having a buddy was in summer camp during swim period. For anyone who swam in the deep water they assigned you to a buddy. The rules were to stay close to your buddy while in the water. There probably were other rules as well. I don’t recall. It is obvious to me now, 40 years later, that this was a sensible solution to having a limited number of lifeguards, who had a limited ability to monitor all the campers who were in the water.

We in educational technology have a limited number of staff and the staff probably shouldn’t be the only people the instructor interacts with as she works through her teaching program and how to effectively use learning technology to enhance that program. Beyond the scarce resource issue teaching, unlike swimming, is highly situated, and a good buddy understands the situation as well as the general premise. So in many ways a teaching buddy is better than and interaction with the staff, because the teaching buddy shares certain affinities and hence can offer more critical and valued feedback. Yet interaction with staff is better than doing everything on one’s own (though some self-experimentation is obviously to be encouraged). So what I’m asking is whether we can improve upon the status quo, not do away with it altogether.

Faculty who are experienced may very well use former students as teaching buddies. Indeed, one reason I favor inward looking service learning is that it enables a buddy system to develop between the instructor and former students. But what about new instructors? Who should be their buddy? How do they find their buddy?

In the old days when we used to give out campus $$$ to instructors to attend summer faculty development workshops, we encouraged them to come in groups of their own creation, so the buddy system was built into the workshop activity. Some of these folks would have done this without campus insistence, because they were planning a substantial roll out with technology at the departmental level. But in other cases the campus stipulation (we didn’t rule out individuals but said that groups were favored in getting selected for the activities) did cause a group environment where it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred and based on some follow up interviews, we know that was reasonably successful.

We are long past the days where we give out $$$ at the campus level for any activity that entails faculty development. At best, we might give out a free (er, subsidized) lunch during one of our workshops. Can we nonetheless find a mechanism so that new instructors have a buddy? After all, almost any interesting use of online technology for teaching involves communication of some sort. You can’t really try that out with just yourself. You need somebody else. For example, yesterday I did a little test of Microsoft OneNote’s Shared Session capabilities. (This was one way of having the TA with the Tablet PC to readily be able to communicate without a bunch of setup in advance and in many respects is an improvement over online White boards.) I needed to use a colleague in Econ whom I knew had the OneNote software to conduct the test.

This is a question that I think important and for which I don’t have an obvious answer. There are some easy cases. In departments that bring in multiple junior faculty in one year, there is a potential group for a buddy system. And something similar might happen with new faculty who are in different departments but who have a common appointment in some interdisciplinary center.

But what about in the harder cases where there is only one junior hire in that department, possibly only one in several years? And on a different but related note, suppose it would be good for the faculty member to have a research buddy. Should the research buddy and the teaching buddy be one and the same? Or different? I should add here that our College of LAS has a teaching mentor program for new faculty and perhaps some of our other colleges have similar programs; I’m not sure. One might ask whether the teaching mentor and teaching buddy should be one and the same. (I think not, but I’d be prepared for the argument that if there is a teaching mentor than maybe the teaching buddy is less needed.)

Perhaps I’m just jealous of the president of He does a really smooth commercial. But, seriously, for faculty getting started with using technology in their teaching they would really benefit from having a peer who is at the same place as they are. Does it make sense for us to collect personal profile information from them so we can make a match?

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