Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 2 - Support Staff and Adjunct Faculty Development

It's helpful for me to think back to the second half of the 1990s and all the mistakes I made conceptually in formulating what we should do with learning technology on campus, especially once I got named as the Director of the Center for Educational Technologies, after having taken over running the SCALE project from Burks.  The core error is best illustrated with this diffusion curve based on the work of Everett Rogers.

SCALE funded course development projects with quite generous grants.  Many of the grantees did cutting edge work.  As I was providing financial support for that work via the grants, and got to know many of the grantees pretty well, I felt quite smart about it.  I knew how to pick winners, or so it seemed to me at the time.  And the model was remarkably simple, once you identified the grant recipients.  Give them the resources and let them create.  They did some wonderful things.  In several cases, the Spanish Project one prime example, derivatives of what were implemented then are still in use in current instruction.  (The Spanish Project got funding from other Campus sources in addition to SCALE, such as for a complete redo of the Language Learning Lab.)  Interestingly to me, among those pioneering faculty who were then younger or mid-career instructors, several went on to become high level administrators on campus.

In case it is not obvious here, all of these grantees would be classified as Innovators in the above diffusion curve.  Innovators drive innovation.  In this case the innovation was how to teach in an imaginative way utilizing technology, with the particular utilization spurred by the creator's matching of what the technology could do to the learning issue at hand.  In this framing of the innovation, the technology itself was an enabler, much as paint and canvas are an enabler for an artist.  The technology wasn't the driver for the cutting edge approaches that were developed then.  The people were the drivers.  The mistake I mentioned was confounding one for the other.

The mistake mattered for what came next.  It didn't happen all at once and indeed CET started in its mission earnestly, with high energy, and evidently doing some good.  That mission was to bring educational technology to majority faculty, at least those in the majority who showed some interest in having this happen, with the hope that some of the benefits found in the courses taught by the innovators would likewise happen with this much larger group of instructors.

Further, in considering how CET should go about its work, I was informed by something we did the year before in the SCALE project.  Varkki George, then a faculty member in Urban Planning on Campus and one of those real innovators with the technology, had been a "faculty fellow" in SCALE.  His mission was to assist other instructors who were WAC faculty (WAC stands for Writing Across the Curriculum) into using technology to assist them in their teaching.  If you teach a WAC course, you are a dedicated teacher.  Teaching a course with extensive student writing is much more labor intensive than delivering a straight lecture course.  What Varkki found was that even these very dedicated teachers were somewhat wooden about implementing the technology.  They simply didn't see how it would help them and open up interesting possibilities that they hadn't tried before.  Varkki's contribution was getting these other instructors to see the possibilities.

So I envisioned the mission as one where my CAIS staff (CAIS was an old designation from the Plato days and stood for Computer Assisted Instruction Specialist) would coach faculty in much the manner that Varkki did, getting them to see how the technology would open up interesting possibilities in their teaching.  And at the outset there was a fair amount of time that the staff put into this function.

But over time there was a drift toward the help desk function, a necessary complement of the core mission, but one that seemingly ended up overtaking the core mission.  There were many reasons for this drift, some of which had to do with CET becoming CITES EdTech after merging with the large Campus IT organization.  But I'd like to focus on just one factor here that is something else, a factor to reckon with whenever there are staff who support faculty but who are not faculty themselves.  The support relationship best happens as a horizontal one.  The instructor and the support professional then are peers.  Each must bring something to the relationship.  The support professional implicitly understands this and, especially if the person hasn't ever taught before, or its been quite a while since last teaching, it is easy enough for the person to substitute expertise in the technology itself for expertise in how the technology might improve the teaching.

Once this happens, then it becomes the faculty member's job to find the interesting use.  But if the finding that Varkki had first shown remained true, most faculty members would not find the interesting use.  The technology would be used only in a matter of fact way, providing some convenience but doing nothing to transform how learning happens. 

Fast forward to six years later, after I had started this blog and at about the same time we had rolled out our enterprise learning management system on Campus, Illinois Compass.  Several months later I wrote a post called Where are we going with learning technology?  The paragraph below, from that piece, marks this change.  It clearly bothered me.  A year later I was no longer doing the Campus job, because I didn't like what we had become.  I had hoped we could be truer to the original mission.

This seems common sense to me and on the teaching and learning side, in particular, we used the mantra in the SCALE days – it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it – just to hammer home that point. However, now that I’ve been involved with campus support of learning technology for a number of years, and that includes the smart classrooms as well as the online piece, I have to say the focus is quite different. Most of it is on use, and how the faculty implement with (or opt out of) the technology. Rarely is there a discussion of transformation of practice and where we’d like to be going in that respect.

Faculty development that has a chance to transform the recipient's teaching is of necessity labor intensive. One should therefore ask which instructors get this opportunity.  Most of the opportunities I am aware of are by instructor opt in, either through a formal competitive grant process or via a registration process based on first come first served, where the event might get sold out.  Instructor opt in makes good sense for the providers offering the faculty development opportunity.  They can then proceed under the assumption that every instructor who is there wants to be there.  But the economics of opt in activities, in general, produces the following consequence.  The usual suspects opt in.  This is just as true with undergraduate research and other high touch opportunities for students to interact with faculty, where it is the elite student who consumes most of these activities, as it is for faculty development and other opportunities for instructors to improve and share their experiences about teaching.  The implication is that there will be some instructors who are untouched by significant faculty development opportunities, even if, when viewed from the Campus level, it would be a good thing for these instructors to receive faculty development and modify their teaching as a consequence.

An alternative approach would be to have faculty development as a normal condition of employment, just as having a computer is part and parcel of the job.  Indeed, in the old SCALE days Virginia Tech linked replacement of the faculty computer to the faculty development activity.  The two were bundled together.  At the time I was jealous of the Virginia Tech approach and wished we could do something similar here.  I doubt our campus could do that now, but perhaps it would be possible with adjunct faculty, as teaching is their job and the campus should assure they are proficient and current in their approach to teaching.

Much faculty development happens in workshop form - often a week (or something close to that) in the early summer when the instructor can devote full attention and not be distracted by the ordinary obligations of the fall and spring.  The atmosphere is typically collegial and quite engaging.  Staff when preparing for such an event usually are in high spirits.  This is what they'd like to be doing much of their time.  The enthusiasm for the endeavor notwithstanding, there are limitations to the approach, especially if the attendees are late majority or even laggards as depicted in the graph above.

One should consider the workshop as the start of a process of innovation cycles, with the cycle approach to innovation in teaching suggested by Nancy Chism, among others.  This means the workshop helps the instructor with the initial framing of the teaching issues and with the first set of ideas to implement.  The instructor is more on his own after that.  The reaction of students to whatever is new with the teaching, adjustments in mid semester based on early feedback, the instructor's reflection on the course and what to try the next time around, these are equally important.   Yet the instructor will often not seek help for that part of the process, unless the help is built in at the outset.  Further, it is well known that for technology innovations in particular, course evaluations are apt to go down after that first time with the innovation - the instructor is not yet comfortable with doing the new thing and the instructor's discomfort is evident to the students.   Something in the instructor's head must say, "stay the course."  Otherwise, the instructor will be tempted to revert to what he was doing before.  That is a safer play.

These thoughts inform the recommendation given below for a different type of approach to faculty development, one that is specifically aimed at adjunct faculty.

* * * * *

Let's begin with a brief sketch of our hypothetical adjunct faculty member.  He teaches one 200-level course a semester, about 600 students in total, in two different lecture sections, each of which meets for three hours a week. This course is straight lecture, no discussion section.  He has one Teaching Assistant, who helps with the online communication within the learning management system and does some of the course administration, of which there is a large amount given the class size.  He also teaches a totally online section in the summer, with the grad assistant then teaching the face to face summer offering as a stand alone course.

He's been doing this now for upwards of 6 years and it is pretty much teaching by the numbers at this point.  He does have to be careful when writing exams, so they are similar to but not identical to the parallel exams given in prior semesters, this to deter cheating and make the testing fair to those who do prepare for exams the right way.  Otherwise, the course is time invariant.  He is a nice guy and students sense this.  So he gets decent course evaluations, though the students find the subject a bit on the dry side. 

Is the approach working?  How would he know?   How would anyone else know?  The exam scores are decent, though not great.  But the exams are of necessity all multiple choice.  He'd like to ask essay questions to better test student understanding, but who would grade those essays with just him and the one TA?  And even with essay questions, there are only two midterms and a final.  The course is jammed full of content.  The exams test on a sampling of the content only.  What about understanding on the stuff that wasn't tested?

The innovations proposed here are meant to address those questions.  They are not meant to offer up changes in teaching the large course, at least not directly.  Such changes might come later.  First, the instructor needs to get a much better picture of what is actually going on in his class.  But with 600 students, and substantial diversity within this group, how does one get a realistic picture of what is going on?

So let's consider answering a simpler question.  Consider a three-part classification of students in the class - the elite students, those who are putting in honest effort but producing only adequate performance, and those who don't appear to be trying much at all.  When I first started with SCALE I wrote a series of essays.  The first one had such a classification scheme and offered a more colorful labeling - eager beavers, drones, and sluggos.  Let us focus only on the drones.  How much are they getting out of the course?  That is the question we'll concentrate on.

To answer that question there will be a small, high touch section of the course taught by the instructor, as an addition to the large lecture.  This section will have between 15 and 20 students and be by invitation only.  Some students whose profile fits the drone category will be invited to register.  This section will offer one credit hour in addition to the 3 credit hours earned from the lecture class.  The invitees will be told that the course offers them a way to have closer contact with the instructor, to have their own formative thinking critiqued by the instructor, and to get a better sense of the subject "under the hood."  These students will also be told that there will be weekly informal writing assignments, as a way for the students to get their ideas out, but no quizzes or exams.  Individual assignments will be read and commented on but not graded.  The students will receive two formal assessments about their writing and perhaps also about their in-class performance - one at mid semester, the other at end of term.  This will be the basis on which the grade is determined in this high touch section. 

The hope with this design is that invited students will welcome the experience, the extra work notwithstanding, because it gives them a chance to be noticed by the instructor rather than to fade into crowd, as they do in the large lecture.  They want the attention, but office hours as they are currently construed don't deliver that well, because going to office hours signifies they have a problem.  Being a student in the high touch section does not in itself carry this additional baggage.  And because the touch is bi-directional, as mentioned in the previous post, the instructor will come to understand how these students are doing in his class in a way he has not been able to understand previously.

The high touch section is meant to be ongoing, taught in the fall and the spring, in conjunction with the lecture class.  It is a way for the instructor to continue to stay close to some students, to begin to see how much the impression of them he has developed depends on a particular cohort and how much holds true longitudinally, and to help the instructor get a sense of the impact of any modifications he makes in the large lecture.  Of course, it is also meant as a benefit for the students who get into the section.

However, one might reasonably anticipate some tough sledding with this approach at the outset.  The instructor doesn't have prior experience in teaching a small class and may get thrown by the distance between him and the students shrinking.  The high touch section is meant very much in the spirit of Argyris and Schon Model II.  But that approach likely will be new for instructor.  He may become startled by what he learns about the students and become disheartened if it seems they understand much less than he had assumed.  The cognitive dissonance so created may inadvertently encourage him to revert to Model I. 

For these reasons, the high touch section will be co-taught with a support professional the first two times it is offered.  The co-teaching is where much of the faculty development will happen.  To give the support person something substantive to teach the students and make the relationship between her and the instructor a peer relationship based on mutual comparative advantage, the high touch section will also be tasked with an inquiry about the students' learning.  What can the students do to be more effective learners?  This question will be posed both in the context of the instructor's course and more generally for other courses the students take.  During these early versions of the high touch section, the support professional will be getting real and substantial feedback on the issue of how passive students can become more active learners.  Getting such feedback will serve as a big source of motivation for the support professional to participate in the co-teaching.

With this co-teaching approach, there are then multiple intellectual challenges in how to integrate the agendas of the instructor and the support professional into a coherent offering.  These challenges provide a basis for an inquiry cycle model of teaching.  At first the inquiry will concern the high touch section only and how to make that work well.  Eventually, the inquiry will turn to the large lecture as well.  What modifications can be made there that might improve matters for the rest of the students?

If this approach is not done as a one-off but rather there is a cohort of adjunct instructors, each of whom receive faculty development via co-teaching a high touch section with a support peer, then it is natural to make that cohort into a community via weekly (monthly?) meetings, done over lunch or coffee.  Sharing experiences, both successes that might be emulated and failures that might be avoided, and observations that are neither success nor failure but are important yet weren't anticipated at the outset, will help to foster the inquiry and make the adjunct instructor feel less alone in the endeavor.  Further, members of an experienced cohort might then be called up once in a while to assist subsequent cohorts in their process and make it seem more do-able.

In closing, the above is only indirectly about making improvements in the large lecture and some may be impatient and want to make direct changes there.  But on what basis would such changes be made?  The approach described here is first and foremost about the instructor better understanding the students as learners.  Isn't that the right place to start?

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