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Easier Said Than Done

October 15, 2013

The recent recession hit higher education hard, but posed a near-existential threat to some small, private colleges without substantial endowments. So when a group of such institutions announced a faculty-sharing experiment in 2012, it attracted a fair amount of attention. After all, it's one thing for colleges to seek economies of scale by sharing contracts to buy laptops or health insurance, but faculty teaching goes to the heart of institutions.

Almost two years later, supporters see promise in the idea, but the program is still working out kinks -- proving that sharing is something more easily said than done.

“It did get off the ground, but there was a pretty long runway,” said Letha Zook, provost and dean of the faculty at the University of Charleston, in West Virginia, which shared faculty in two disciplines. “One of the problems with the shared process is aligning outcomes, meaning when students go to the next course [at their specific institution], do they have everything they need to be successful?”

Faculty attitudes were another roadblock.

“I’m not going to say everyone was ‘buying in,’ ” Zook said. “There was a spectrum.”

In 2011, the Teagle Foundation granted the Independent College Enterprise consortium more than $150,000 to create and put into place a collaborative course delivery model that would reduce instructional costs without sacrificing quality at member institutions – mainly those in the Appalachian region, and all with fewer than 2,000 students.

A year later, the consortium announced two faculty-sharing plans – one for remedial math and one for introductory-level American history – that would free up individual campus faculty to teach upper-level courses. University of Charleston, Bethany College, Davis & Elkins College, Emory & Henry College and West Virginia Wesleyan College all would share a math instructor to design and teach foundational math online, with “facilitators” helping out in the classroom at each campus. West Virginia Wesleyan and Charleston also would share an American history professor, to move back and forth between campuses.

Although all consortium colleges were asked to participate, several declined. Nichols College, in Massachusetts, declined due to its business focus, geographical distance, and planned separation from the consortium, a spokesman said.

Joan Propst, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, which also declined, said via e-mail that the institution initially was interested in participating in the math component. But, "after careful review, we just simply decided to continue to offer the class on our campus. Our faculty believe that students who need developmental classes (math in particular) struggle with the concepts and did not want the struggle students experience in face-to-face classes to be exacerbated in an online environment."

Only West Virginia Wesleyan and Charleston opted to participate in the history faculty sharing program -- with others bowing out, due to lack of need, faculty concerns about what would be taught, and how, and other factors at the other institutions, those involved in the grant said. History department chairs at Bethany, Emory & Henry, and Davis & Elkins all did not respond to requests for comment.

“There’s a lot of ownership in how history is taught,” said Zook. “We did have trouble with that kind of buy-in.”

Both models originally were to start in fall 2012. The math program was not offered, however, until spring 2013 (a head instructor wasn’t hired until halfway through the fall semester, and worked on a half-time schedule until that spring).

The American history program began in fall 2012, but got off to a bumpy start and is now on hold.

"The problem is that when they asked me, I wasn’t really consulted,” said Katherine Lane Antolini, full-time adjunct professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan. She was notified just prior to the semester start that she’d be teaching two courses at Charleston, about 90 minutes away, on top of several other courses at Wesleyan.

Antolini said she didn’t mind teaching off-campus, but that it wasn’t logistically possible to teach two courses so far away. So, with Charleston students already signed up for a face-to-face course on the Civil War and books she hadn’t ordered on the way, Antonlini made it an online endeavor. She drove to Charleston for the other course, a first-semester survey of American history.

Since she’d been given little time to plan for teaching at Charleston, Antolini also was wholly unaware of its unique assessment model, involving rubrics and what Zook calls “embedded outcomes.” Antolini had to forego that model for the first semester.

Despite those concerns, Antolini said that students responded “well” to the online course, in the end. “Students like the experience of sharing faculty because they like being exposed to different teaching styles and different topics.”

The same went for her in-person course. But by the spring semester, she was tired of the commute, and turned her second-semester introductory American history course at Charleston into a hybrid, with online and face-to-face instruction, to cut back on her driving time.

Charleston opted out of the history share this semester, due in part to faculty concerns about aligning embedded outcomes, giving Antolini what she called “reprieve.”

She never met another history professor at Charleston or saw a course syllabus. Going forward, Antolini said, a faculty share could be more successful with better communication between faculty at different institutions.

“I never got any feedback on my teaching, and no one ever sat in on my classes,” she said.

By contrast, the consortium’s remedial math program continues, at four institutions and five campuses (including two Charleston campuses). Two institutions have dropped out -- Bethany College and Davis & Elkins, due to low enrollment and differing curriculum, respectively – but otherwise it appears to be thriving, said Morgan Reed, lead instructor, who is based the University of Charleston’s Martinsburg campus.

“Hybrids are here to stay, I can tell you that,” she said. “I believe in what I’m doing so much, I tell strangers about it.”

Still, the program launch wasn’t entirely smooth. Reed said that given the math personality – “they like their ducks in a row” – faculty at some institutions weren’t entirely on board with their supplemental, facilitator role, administering tests or answering questions but not teaching – or the fact that students, if they wished to, could choose to finish the course early by completing all work.

Consequently, she said, any faculty-sharing program has to have administrative support.

“The administration has to be solidly on board, so that encourages faculty buy in,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes to bring someone along kicking and screaming that it won’t work, because that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Communication also is key, she said. “You can’t let anything snowball or get out of hand. You can’t have hurt feelings.”

Zook said administrators involved in the experiment have learned these lessons well, and chief academic officers and math faculty have been communicating across campuses.

The Teagle grant was supposed to fund the faculty share for three years, after which it’s supposed to be financed through cost-saving. Zook said the consortium is on its way to that goal, pooling resources to "keep the price point reasonable." Many of the kinks -- including faculty buy-in -- continue to be worked out, including by getting each institution's senior academic affairs administrator involved in planning over the summer. But it's been worth it, Zook said.

“This has been a good way for us to discuss these things across the consortium and find ways to be more consistent in the delivery of curriculum,” she said. “We’ve felt blessed in a sense to be a part of this, figuring out how to work at distance learning – how to do hybrids as well as online learning.”

 

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