Friday, March 24, 2006

Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source 2: Building the Primer and Keeping Book

One of the unanticipated benefits of blogging for me is the looking to others for their views and perspective to see if it coincides with mine and also to see if I’ve thought about what they have to say. This may seem like a dumb remark – of course blogging is about community and certainly learning from one’s peers is what happens in a community. This is true enough. But, truthfully, over the years I’ve developed a certain arrogance or insularity of process in how I learn – there has to be some experience on which to reflect and then there has to be a substantial time and effort in reflection. At this point in my life what appears to me as instinctive behavior is to search inward for answers or ways to frame an issue. I’m trusting of that inward looking process and skeptical of outside generated alternatives. This is the way I was trained to think, probably starting as early as eighth grade on the math team, and certainly reinforced by more math and formal economics training thereafter as well as a whole lot more informal educaiton. Finding answers by looking inward or through my own self-explorations seems natural. Learning from outsiders whom I know only via their online persona seems anathema.

I mention this because I want to argue that blogging in itself is insufficient in some sense and that blogging is other than open source development, though it is certainly open and done in communities. Indeed, I’ve come to think about faculty development in the way the post title suggests in large part because my blog, which has gotten significant attention from learning technologists and others with a professional interest in learning technology (librarians, software developers, etc.) has nevertheless been a total failure as a mechanism for faculty development in the sense that it has not enabled conversations with individual instructors who want to engage in the subject of how they are using the technology in their own teaching. I had hopes that the blog would do otherwise and I maintain the belief that many instructors want to have such conversations, but my blog has not proven to be such a gateway. My best guess as to why is quite simple – these instructors have never read my blog or, if they’ve looked at a post or two, they did not have that resonate with their own situation and thus didn’t see the point of making the connection. I believe that in being skeptical of the opinion of unknown outsiders, I typify the faculty view, and so I have no trouble understanding this. The mystery is why I thought when I first started the blog that it would be otherwise – live and learn.

Thus, by my title, Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source, I definitely do not mean a global based effort of interested faculty who come together via online discussion. That can’t work here and certainly I’m interested in an approach that can be implemented on my own campus. I’m also skeptical that it can work elsewhere. Rather, I mean a centrally coordinated effort where the faculty development happens primarily in situ, while the instructor is teaching and where via indirect but explicit means one instructor addresses the teaching problems posed by another instructor via an approach that they implement in their own course. This contrasts both with the complete decentralization practiced by the edu blog community, where there is no central coordination at all, and with self-directed approaches to understand learning and teaching method as characterized by work on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). With SOTL, the researcher typically both poses the research question and then does a study based on that question. There is then no obvious role to be played by the support provider in that study. SOTL certainly has a national following but it may very well place too high a bar on instructors in terms of doing inquiry about their own teaching and hence may only engage a sliver of the faculty in this type of research.

Traditionally, faculty development activities happen at interludes where the instructor is taken outside the teaching environment. This may happen in a two-hour workshop or a week long seminar aimed at giving the faculty member the appropriate training and hands on experience with new teaching tools and approaches. It is then the faculty member’s job, thereafter, to incorporate what was learned in the workshop into the actual teaching. While this is the common practice at an intellectual level it is rather odd as an approach, especially for those who believe in learning by doing, because it means the true learning will happen when the faculty member is off on her own. At best, then, this type of seminar or workshop can be viewed as preparation for the real learning that will happen during the process of implementation, perhaps providing a framework for that or getting the faculty member into the right mindset.

It is during the implementation phase where instructors need to discuss what they are trying, bounce ideas off of somebody else, and get mentored through the inevitable pitfalls and failures until something that seemingly fits together is produced. So, some have proposed a formal mentoring program around instruction where senior faculty members from other departments mentor junior faculty about their teaching. The approach is strong on giving the junior faculty member an informed ear from an experienced colleague. But it is weak on both the incentives of the senior member in participating fully in the partnership, particularly at R1 institutions such as mine where there is the constant question of how valued is teaching really and shouldn’t the junior member merely learn to satisfice in that domain so as to spend the bulk of her time in building her research portfolio, and in transferring the lessons from that mentoring to others. A premium is placed on providing a little hermetic environment so as to encourage the partners to open up and discuss candidly what is going on in the teaching, but of course that closedness also provides a the senior member with a convenient cloak under which to shirk from the mentoring responsibilities and to encourage, in effect, very little to transpire.

Consider, as an alternative, a Linus Torvalds styled leader, whose full time job it is to promote faculty development and to make overt the lessons learned from the implementation process, when faculty who are new to a teaching approach put into practice what has been preached to them in those workshops and seminars. Suppose the leader does this by adopting an ethnographic approach and making regular entries, perhaps daily, in a publicly available Web space about what is going on in the implementation, both from the instructor’s end and from the students’ reaction to it. For this to happen the leader would have to engaged with the parties in conversation or via direct observation of what they are doing so as to have interesting and relevant things to record. But for the participants to be willing to participate in this conversation the dialog must be two-way. They leader must provide some mentoring on the implementation and must contribute to a sense that if things are broken then they will fixed and that there is process for resolving such issues. It is in this sense that faculty development process imitates open source development.

But in some other ways it will differ, of necessity. Open source development, of course, is driven to produce software code. That is its raison d’etre and that in itself provides a center of gravity for the participation by hackers. In contrast, I don’t believe faculty will actively participate in such a program unless there is some prior commissioning process. That, in turn, would most likely happen if some academic unit, a department or college, wanted to take a new direction, for example in embrace of blended learning for residential students, or to start a new online degree program for students at a distance, or to encourage some cross curriculum goals such as information literacy promoted via a new coordinated approach to instruction. This type of strategic reform would provide impetus for the faculty to participate and in turn the entire faculty development effort would be viewed in common as a means for achieving the goals of that reform. At least on my campus, I would think such an external motivator is a requirement for this type of faculty development process to work.

Nonetheless, I believe it helpful to consider that the faculty development activity produces a product, just as open source software development produces a product, and in the title of this post I called that the primer, short for Primer of Transferable Teaching Practice. While individual faculty members may be motivated to explore implementing new approaches in their own teaching for the benefit of the classes they teach, the leader will be motivated differently, to take novel and interesting approaches and commend those to others who might try them, so that not all wheels have to be recreated from scratch and so to get others who might be less willing to try the completely novel to nonetheless modify their approach where improvement seems likely.

So the leader will have a broader view of what is at stake and therefore will be in a position not just to mentor an instructor about things that might work in their own teaching, but also to encourage the instructor to try things that might be of interest to other instructors, who would imitate the practice. This, I believe, changes the social dynamic in SOTL, because there the individual faculty member drives the agenda. Of course that is still possible under my proposed alternative, but to the extent that the dialog with the leader is perceived as a welcome benefit by the instructor, there is now a negotiation between the two as to what things to try in the next round of implementation and which of the instructors self-generated ideas should be modified so they might be more palatable to others who would imitate.

The leader needs to establish credibility in this regard and the primer is a mechanism for that. So periodically the leader will attempt to distill from the daily ethnographic writing common themes, observations, and apparent lessons. Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which I mentioned in the previous post, provides a nice example of the sort of distillation I'm suggesting, which will itself be written up and published openly. These essays will be chapters and the essence of the primer. But where for his purpose Raymond focused on himself as the leader in the Cathedral and Bazaar, the primer must be written in such a way that there is prominent recognition of the efforts and accomplishments of the implementing instructors.

The leader has yet another job. There will be many instructors who prefer to try approaches tested previously by others rather than to implement something novel on their own. Thogh these instructors will be reluctant to experiment on their own they nonetheless will have questions and concerns about their teaching and based on their prior experience they will have a host of issues when it comes to instruction. These too must be recorded. And they must become part of the wisdom and the culture of the faculty development so that the approach taken is seen as addressing these. Where possible, they should be written about in the regular postings and where because of delicacy and respect for the faculty members sense of discomfort in making overt apparent weaknesses in the teaching, the leader must nonetheless keep a book of these issues so that they come up in discussion with the experimenting instructors in the group.


Christopher D. Sessums said...

A thoughtful post re: teacher professional development. I have been researching PD models that utilize social software and your post has given me much to consider.

I recently ran across the cognitive apprenticeship model and see a certain amount of overlap in what you're describing.

I must admit I loathe creating or following taxonomies and prefer the term guidelines as a more learner-centric means of getting to a richer practice.

I believe professional development needs to be redefined to be more "a part of the water" rather than an additional activity tacked on to an already demanding schedule.

Thank you for stirring the pot!


Lanny Arvan said...

Chris - thanks for the comments. Since my background is economics, rather than education, my metaphors come from there. I want to consider the support provider as a market maker and, in agreement with your "part of the water" comment, the market has to be made while the instructor is preparing for teaching or possibly while in reflection for a class just taught.

Terry Anderson said...

Excellent and thought provoking post Lanny.

I was really pleased that you got to the "they have to be building" something together at the end of the post. As you suggest this could be a decision of a department or faculty to embrace some new pedagogy or technology. But here I see a role for a PD professional like yourself in stimulating demand for such strategic teaching and learning thinking and subsequent initiatives. These become 'interventions" in design-based research models of educational change.

The focus on the intervention is critical, just as Open Source programmers need a concrete product to instantiate their collective energy and learning.

Lanny Arvan said...

Terry - thanks. I agree that part of my job is to stimulate such strategic thinking. But I will point out that many such curricular initiatives focus on content rather than method and so department heads may not be "looking" for such this type of analysis.