B.J. Eib and
When faculty development is viewed as an ongoing need and when we approach
faculty development as a long-term, continuous effort, community building
becomes a part of the process. Carefully designed faculty development approaches
can facilitate and create a culture that supports a thoughtful focus on teaching,
while at the same time, nurture a sense of connectedness and collegiality
across the organization that is vital to continuous innovation and improvement.
This paper reports on a program designed to improve the collegial culture
at a higher educational organization in
Keywords: faculty development; community building; professional development; higher education; open and distance education, community of practice; collegiality
The growing number of blended, online, and distance education courses, programs, and degrees offered by institutions of higher education offers challenging new opportunities to re-examine teaching and learning. Carefully designed faculty development approaches can create a culture that supports thoughtful focus on teaching, while nurturing the sense of connectedness and collegiality that is vital to continuous innovation and improvement in post-secondary institutions.
Today, most universities – both open and distance and campus-based alike – have faculty who care deeply about teaching, yet feel isolated and disconnected from like-minded colleagues. Simply working in the proximity of others does not ensure a motivating environment that enhances professional collegiality. All educational institutions and the sub-groups that operate within them should attend to the development of dynamic and nurturing interactions among faculty that support excellence in instruction and the scholarship of teaching. Such conditions, in turn, will promote a collective sense of mutual benefit and reciprocal responsibility among faculty.
Described in this paper is a faculty development program designed to reduce
feelings of isolation among faculty, while building a community of learners,
improving teaching, and building organizational capacity. While the program
was aimed at a Social Work Faculty at a face-to-face, commuter
campus located in a large city in western
According to Smith and Smith (1993), commonly cited concerns among teaching staff at colleges and universities include a sense of isolation, lack of community, and lack of belonging. They contend that if left unattended, such concerns may progress toward exasperation, disillusionment, and the eventual alienation of faculty. “This isolation, tolerable at age thirty, becomes deadening by age fifty,” assert Smith and Smith (1993, p. 82). In response to the isolation felt by teachers and faculty members, Palmer (1999) strongly supports collegial socialization as a core component of professional development programs and refers to the increasing isolation of faculty, their research agendas, and teaching activities as the “privatization of teaching.”
Privatization creates more than individual pain; it creates institutional incompetence as well. By privatizing teaching, we make it next to impossible for the academy to become more adept at its teaching mission. The growth of any skill depends heavily on honest dialogue among those who are doing it. Some of us grow by private trial and error, but our willingness to try and fail is severely limited when we are not supported by a community that encourages such risks. The most likely outcome when any function is privatized is that people will perform the function conservatively, refusing to stray far from the silent consensus on what ‘works’ – even when it clearly does not. That I am afraid, too often describes the state of teaching in the privatized academy (Palmer, 1999, p. 1).
In line with Palmer’s emphasis on addressing the “privatization of teaching,” Smith and Smith (1993) outline two programs that they assess as particularly effective in promoting a sense of belonging and in providing opportunities and challenges for faculty to experience incremental, long-term professional growth: the New Jersey Department of Higher Education and the New Jersey Institute for Collegiate Teaching and Learning Partners in Learning Program. They identified strengths of the collaborative process used in these two programs, including their ongoing nature, faculty empowerment and ownership, and their potential for transformation. They found potential in these programs to encourage revitalization, re-energization, and reinvestigation among participants.
The academics in Zuber-Skerritt’s (1992) study who experienced various methods of professional development indicated a preference for an inquiry type approach to professional development: “The best way to learn about teaching in higher education is not to be given information and advice by outside experts who determine what academics need to know. Rather . . . academics can and should try to learn about teaching as they do in their discipline or particular subject area, that is, as personal scientists” (p. 75). Those who view knowledge building from a Vygotsky’s (1978) social constructivism framework would put this inquiry process in a social context. Learning about teaching within a social constructivist framework is more of a social process involving formulation of knowledge through sharing and comparing learnings and understandings with others. This fits well with the collegial model Palmer (1999) argues for and is represented in the programs described in Smith and Smith (1993). It is also in line with the collegial aspects of the “Process” and “Discipline” approaches to faculty development described in the review of literature on professional development completed by Amundsen and colleagues (2005). Collaborative work in collegial groups to enable individuals to examine their thinking about teaching is one of the characteristics of the “Process” approach. The “Discipline” approach is characterized by small groups of colleagues from the same discipline making explicit their understanding of knowledge development or learning in their discipline to develop their teaching and critique the perspectives and understandings of their colleagues. Both approaches emphasize the important role of colleagues in professional development to support reflection on, and development of, knowledge and skills required for effective teaching (Amundsen, Abrai, McAlpine, Weston, 2005).
The focus on collegiality and creating a sense of belonging, as well as formulation
of knowledge as a social process, is not new. Rather, it can be found throughout
the ongoing development of the metaphor of learning community. Schön (1973) argues for the development of institutions that are capable of bringing
about their own continuing evolution by functioning as “learning systems.”
Senge (1990) introduces the concept of the learning
organization to explain and justify strategies to enhance the capacity of
all members of an organization to collaborate in the achievement of agreed-upon
goals. Hord, Hall,
Researchers that work in the area of professional faculty or teacher development and discuss elements of learning communities in their models include: Palmer (1999) explicitly describes a social constructivist process of faculty development during which faculty are encouraged to reflect upon and write about teaching incidents: Duffy (1996) asserts that “knowledge is something people do together,” and proposes collegial, collaborative, and team-oriented initiatives aimed at increasing teaching effectiveness. Stahl’s (1996) “open systems dialogue” model of teacher development at the tertiary level includes ongoing discussion to support mutual growth among the participants. Schwier (1997) has articulated the conditions necessary for a learning community within the context of describing what is necessary for virtual learning communities – i.e., allow for participants to have their interests and needs represented (negotiation), intimacy, commitment, and engagement.
The Vision: Make courses and degree programs more accessible throughout the Province and
The Goal: Prepare faculty to effectively integrate technology to support an active learning approach and to prepare them for teaching in blended or completely online learning environments
The Strategy: Focus intense attention on best practices in teaching and learning in an atmosphere of collegial support
In 2000, when the Faculty of Social Work at the
Five years later, not only has the number of option courses delivered through distance learning technologies and the number of students enrolled in them increased, but the Faculty also offers a Master of Social Work degree online and a Bachelor of Social Work degree in a blended format that emphasizes online over face-to-face delivery. How did this happen? We believe the faculty development events and processes that supported this change in capacity and disposition are the very ones that can build and support communities of practice in post-secondary institutions, be they primarily open and distance institutions or more traditional campus-based institutions.
We started with this assumption: a culture that supports learning, nurtures collegiality, and encourages the co-creation, sharing, and use of teaching knowledge and skills is a critical ingredient in a successful professional development effort. We emphasized process and culture-building in our approach, with information sharing and skill development occurring simultaneously with development of a supportive culture. We assumed that keeping current with new information and skills was only a part of what improves teaching. Working to create Senge’s (1990) “learning organizations” or developing Wenger and colleagues’ (2002) “communities of practice” takes time and commitment, but can provide big pay-offs in terms of providing energizing environments in which faculty feel connected and committed to each other and the goals of the organization. The fact that it takes time, and the sense that the whole process is too abstract, often prevents organizations from ever taking the first step and committing to keep taking steps in that direction. What first steps did the Faculty of Social Work take?
Our previous experience with “training” faculty on how to use
technology indicated three distinct groups of learners within our Faculty.
A small group of faculty could be described as ‘early adopters,’
Our observation of faculty members’ typical reactions to traditional technology training led us to believe that our approach to professional development would need to be something fundamentally different from “training” if we were to achieve our goal of helping a significant number of faculty members integrate online strategies to enhance their teaching. To that end, we implemented what we called an Institute designed to engage faculty members by asking them to identify and work on projects that identified and addressed authentic questions arising from their teaching experiences: to put into practice the “personal scientist” concept of Zuber-Skerritt (1992) with the collegial context that Palmer (1999) argues for in professional development programs.
Further, a professional development approach was used that incorporated learning about online educational technology within a context of enhancing teaching excellence. This approach successfully attracted approximately two-thirds of 35-member Faculty to an intensive Institute focusing on the meaningful integration of technology into teaching. Participants in the Institute included not only many early adopters of technology-enhanced teaching, but also instructors with no prior experience using technology beyond email, word processing, and Internet browsing.
The Institute was built on an inquiry approach to learning with activities spanning the course of a full academic year. Prior to the start of the Institute, faculty members identified teaching- and technology-related questions arising from their interest in improving their own teaching. These authentic, faculty-driven questions provided the inquiry-based foundation of the intensive, two-and-a half day kick-off event.
Rather than focusing on technology, the emphasis of the Institute was consistently on enhancing teaching effectiveness. Various online and computer mediated technologies were introduced in a manner that addressed teaching and learning issues. At the end of the Institute, each participant had an individualized plan to implement during the academic year. During mid-year meetings, participants reported on their progress and received feedback and support for continuing work on implementing their plans. At the conclusion of the year, faculty participants shared what they had accomplished and learned, and proposed “next step” ideas.
Significant preparation occurred with each participant prior to the Institute’s actual implementation. To meet both individual and group needs, efforts were made to ensure each participant’s ownership of their own inquiry process, to solidify their commitment to specific areas of learning, and to guide the design of the Institute sessions.
After initial support was obtained from faculty administration, an email was sent to all faculty members, inviting their participation in the Blended Learning Faculty Development Institute. The invitation included details on Institute expectations, timelines, and stipends. Faculty members who responded received additional information and instructions on designing a project that reflected the purpose and goals of the Institute; however, the structure left room for addressing improvements they wanted to make in their teaching and use of technology. This approach personalized participation and created the Institute’s inquiry-based foundation. It also formally anchored the use of technology in teaching activities, and imparted the strong message that technology should be at the service of teaching and learning objectives.
Each participant met with the primary Institute facilitator to discuss and
refine their project proposal. Some participants had well-defined plans and
needed only to discuss Institute sessions that would be most beneficial. Others
had drafted plans that seemed overly ambitious or not sufficiently challenging;
with these participants, the facilitator suggested modifications to ensure
their projects were both feasible and significant. Some faculty members wanted
to participate, but lacking basic knowledge about educational technology,
were unable to suggest appropriate projects. The
facilitator helped these participants identify teaching areas and technology
topics to explore during the Institute. In some cases, the facilitator allowed
faculty to postpone finalizing a project until after the Institute kick-off.
A final pre-Institute preparation involved the construction of a Blackboard website to engage participants, support the Institute process, and model uses of that technology. The Blackboard website was used to post Institute schedules and instructions. To help Institute participants access current literature related to their inquiries and projects, a reading packet was also assembled and distributed. Participants posted summaries of readings and their reactions to them. Participants read and responded to each others’ Blackboard postings, thereby using the technology and beginning the collegial discussion of teaching and learning with technology before the kick-off session began in late August.
The two-and-a-half-day Institute kick-off began with lunch and small group discussions during which participants learned about each others’ projects. This, along with several other large group sessions, helped to foster and develop a sense of community within the group – a sense that everyone was learning at different rates and in different ways, but that they were working toward the same goal of teaching excellence. The agenda offered a large number of choices through which participants could tailor the experience to their own needs. There were beginning, intermediate, and advanced technology sessions, plenary sessions, and discussion sessions. Participants selected which sessions to attend. While each participant was provided a personalized agenda, the decision on which session to attend was left to the individual, which reinforced the inquiry-based nature of the event and emphasized individual responsibility for meeting learning needs.
Learning opportunities available to participants can be broadly grouped into two areas: teaching/ learning, and technology. In the area of teaching/ learning, participants were offered a variety of discussions and presentations on best practices in post-secondary education, inquiry learning, the use of portfolios within social work education, various innovative approaches to dynamic assessment, and instructional strategies for blended learning contexts.
In the area of technology, sessions were offered on Blackboard, Centra, videoconferencing, videostreaming, and the use of Excel within research courses and/ or projects. Each session included hands-on experiences for participants, taking into account their knowledge and skill levels and the particular projects on which they were working.
In addition to breakout and general sessions, an online learning environment was created by setting up independent learning stations called e-Stations. These were spaces that contained the technology and instructions participants needed to investigate specific topic areas. Nine e-Stations were made available for participants to explore throughout the kick-off session days at their descretion. Content was also made available online for access anytime, anywhere. Examples of topics covered in the e-Stations include: putting digital photographic stills and video in Blackboard, concept-mapping using software called Inspiration, and classroom assessment and feedback techniques for online learning.
The final session of the Institute kick-off included all participants and involved a modified “Tuning Protocol” activity (Allen and McDonald, 2003). During this session, each participant received peer feedback and encouragement on their particular project ideas and implementation plans. We also collected participant requests for follow-up activities and support.
To enhance the likelihood of success, several criteria were suggested for Institute projects. Projects were tailored to be appropriately challenging for each particular Institute participant, promise increased student learning in classes taught by the Institute participant, and hold the potential for further growth on the part of the faculty member. Each project needed to have a significant technology component and employ best practices for teaching and learning. Finally, projects needed to enhance face-to-face teaching and focus on helping the participant transition from face-to-face to blended or distance teaching contexts.
Between August 2003 and May 2004, Institute participants were offered a number
of short follow-up workshops and project consultations on an as-needed basis.
Participants were also alerted to related campus services and events. In February,
a half-day session was held that allowed participants to share their progress,
get advice from each other, and continue conversations about enhancing teaching
excellence with technology. Most were present in
In May 2004, participants and guests attended the closing Institute session either face-to-face or via videoconferencing. Each participant presented the outcomes of their project, with emphasis placed on learning from each other. Participants reflected on where they had started, describing not only what they learned about the use of educational technology but also what they learned about teaching and learning. Discussion included identifying components of the Institute process that had been most helpful, and aspects of their own work that had been most important. Individuals talked about what they saw as “next steps” and, as a group, discussed potential “next steps” for the Faculty of Social Work as a whole. This contributed to the perception and feeling that neither the Institute collegiality nor the learning process was over. This “closing” day was just part of the process – not the end.
The scope of the Institute was such that a description of participant projects as a whole is impossible. We offer a brief description of three projects to provide a general idea of the types of activities undertaken by Institute participants.
One Institute participant proposed to use student interest areas to guide his clinical course while incorporating inquiry approaches and using digital video. Early in the course, he asked students to identify situations in which they wanted to gain knowledge and skill. The students and instructor drafted scenarios, which they then discussed with professional actors (simulators) who helped them further develop the characters and scenarios. The actors played the part of couples in therapy, the instructor was the therapist, and the simulated therapy session was videotaped. The instructor then edited the tapes to embed the pertinent sections into a PowerPoint presentation, which also presented content on couples’ therapy. The instructor could stop, start, repeat, and skip sections of video as he and the students pointed out therapy techniques and discussed alternatives. At the completion of this project, the instructor believed the process could be expanded to support a fully online course on therapeutic interviewing.
Another participant, who was already skilled in the use of various technologies, focused on active teaching. In the semester following the Institute, this participant incorporated a new, experiential activity into his classes on a weekly basis. These activities were drawn from two books: 101 Active Learning Techniques (Silberman, 1996); and Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo and Cross, 1993). He also adapted several of these activities to be done via Blackboard and/ or Centra.
A third participant wanted to see students more engaged with the content of her course. She planned to use online discussions to extend classroom discussion and encouraged students to select alternative products to replace the traditional final course paper. Even though she had no personal experience developing webpages, she offered webpage development as an alternative to final papers, and arranged for interested students to receive training in basic webpage development. Ten of the 11 students in her class elected to do webpages; they researched an area of interest and constructed webpages to convey their research findings. These pages will now become part of the course website.
According to Guskey (2002), professional development efforts can be evaluated on five levels. These levels move from simple (i.e., participant satisfaction) to complex (i.e., organizational change), and build upon one another to provide a well-rounded, multi-dimensional understanding of the impact of the development effort under consideration.
Feedback began during the pre-institute conferences when participants commented to the facilitator on the Institute design and helped shape the agenda timeframe and topics. This level of formative evaluation continued through the duration of the Institute, with daily checks made to see how participants were feeling and to determine what needed to be altered. At the end of the kick-off phase, there was an excitement about what had happened and what was to come. More than one participant commented that it was the best professional development experience they ever had. Following the Institute, participants completed an anonymous survey online. Generally, the institute was considered to be a success. Participants reported they had learned a lot, were given plenty of choice and were excited by the opportunity to learn and converse in an atmosphere of support and collegiality.
At the May 2004 closing meeting (Phase 3), participants demonstrated their projects and outcomes, which then became part of the evaluation and feedback process. Approximately half of the participants had completed their projects and were able to deliver comprehensive presentations. Some advised that they had not completed their projects, but were able to provide an update on what they had accomplished to date and indicated when they would finish. Two participants told us that they had not accomplished very much and explained the reasons for that. A handful of participants in the last two categories – uncompleted projects and not accomplished – volunteered to forfeit their reporting time to others. While time adjustments were made to allow more time to those who had fully completed their projects, the facilitator asked everyone to present work to date and share their reflections on that work. We believed this approach was needed to maintain a community of learners who felt responsible to each other.
All participants, in order to claim their final stipend, were required to submit a brief written report including their own assessment of how their project work met the required project characteristics. Generally, participants were deeply reflective and insightful in their reporting, noting accomplishments as well as what they felt were short-comings. Themes that emerged were:
One participant stated:
“I found the Blended Learning Institute to be a highlight of this past year, for a number of reasons. In general, I believe the Institute served as an open and safe platform from which faculty members could discuss their own development in using technology in the classroom. More importantly, the excitement that one could feel when we shared learnings was tangible. It was possible to literally feel the sense of accomplishment and plans for future development on the part of faculty members.”
This aspect of evaluation focuses on the effects of the professional development effort on the host organization (Guskey, 2000). Potential impacts include change to the climate and procedures of the organization. Organizationally, the institute provided a vehicle to develop teaching capacity required for the Faculty to deliver its Leadership Masters of Social Work online (the first cohort graduates in 2006). The Institute also contributed to development of support in the Faculty for the creation of a new director-level position dedicated to e-learning and distance education. Plans for a Bachelor of Social Work degree program, delivered primarily online with some face-to-face components sparked interest for a two-day session held in October 2004. The program, focused on rural, remote, and Aboriginal practice, has since been developed and began in August 2005. At the time of writing, a Clinical Masters of Social Work in a blended learning format was in the planning stage. These are examples of the Institute’s direct influence on capacity and disposition in the Faculty of Social Work.
The Institute, spanning almost a year and a half, from initial interactions to final project implementations, was deemed highly successful by almost all participants. Individual faculty members improved both their teaching repertoires and their technology skills. Significantly, the Faculty of Social Work developed the capacity to deliver entire programs online. The Institute accomplished what it set out to do using a faculty development process grounded in best practice as confirmed by decades of literature. We nonetheless saw room for improvement and identified what could have been done better and what should be done next.
The feeling of excitement and community that was so palpable in the hours, days, and weeks following the Institute is no longer so acute. The community is not as connected and working together toward the same purpose. It did come very close, however, to being a community of practice, though unfortunately, it is not one now. Nonetheless, many participants continue to grow and develop in the ways the Institute supported; small clusters of colleagues do share resources and insights with each other, and the Faculty of Social Work continues to improve programs and develop new ones – but the fact remains that it is not a community of practice. Wenger and colleagues (2002) describe communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). “What makes [communities of practice] successful is their ability to generate enough excitement, relevance and value to attract and engage members . . . nothing can substitute for this sense of aliveness” (p. 50).
At the conclusion of the Institute, participants suggested that another one be held. They said it did not have to be on blended learning; it could be on a different topic, such as globalization or diversity for example. They advised that the process had been influential and important, and they wanted to keep it going. Unfortunately, there was no structure in place to support a continuation of the process. We were focused on the goal of achieving the capacity to deliver online and blended programs, not on sustaining the “aliveness” that the Institute nourished.
Wenger and colleagues (2002) outline seven principles for designing to evoke aliveness:
The Institute did all of the above; and the later professional development activities accomplished all but two of them. Although there was a coordinator for the Institute, there was no ongoing community coordinator and no one worked at sustaining the rhythm of the Institute after it formally concluded. This shortcoming points to the much needed next step: a community coordinator focused on supporting and maintaining a rhythm for several communities of practice, some within the Faculty and others that work in interdisciplinary communities with members of other faculties. Ideally, all should be focused on improving teaching and learning from different aspects and different content perspectives.
Professional development in line with the approach described in this paper may well be a vehicle that allows institutions of higher education to truly become learning organizations through communities of practice. By leveraging current and emerging technologies, communities of practice can cross the time and location barriers that exist in open and distance universities. Interactions can occur in asynchronous formats like online discussion forums and email. Others can occur synchronously via telephone, videoconferences, or via audiographic conferencing tools such as Elluminate or Centra Horizon. Still others can take advantage of face-to-face events, such as conferences and institutional meetings, to gather community members together.
Presumably, people in open and distance education organizations know how to teach effectively online or at a distance. Many of the same strategies known to be effective in teaching and learning online can be used to facilitate professional development programs that support communities of practice with a focus on continuous growth and development of teaching. The following is one scenario that can be used to implement the approach to professional development described in this paper in a distance or open university context:
While the Faculty of Social Work's Blended Learning Institute was not designed to produce formal research, we are of the opinion that it is a logical next step. We would welcome the opportunity to work with others to design similar projects in the future, especially one tailored for an open and/ or distant environment.
In conclusion, through providing a blueprint for implementing our approach to professional development in a distance or open university context, this paper attempts to show that effective faculty learning and development can happen and it can happen at a distance. A core criterion for an effective faculty development process is that, through the act of participating, faculty perceive greater connectedness to a community of practice that encourages, engages, and supports them in their teaching practice. As Senge (1990) points out, “When teams are truly learning, not only are they producing extraordinary results but the individual members are growing more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise” (p. 10). Critical factors for success, whether in face-to-face or online environments, lie in effective design of the teaching and learning environment, facilitation, and support of the process and, underlying all of this, commitment to the goal of developing communities of practice and learning organizations by those in decision making roles.
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