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Take-Away From the Gates Report on Faculty

Some thoughts on the latest report on faculty educational technology use.

February 11, 2015

The Gates Foundation just released a really interesting report on Faculty Trends (PDF). The focus of the report, based on a robust amount of survey data and informed by a solid review of the literature, is professors’ adoption of technology in their teaching and what motivates them to adopt new approaches to their teaching. It’s a really informative report, especially from a faculty development perspective.

But I have some thoughts, especially given that the main coverage of the report has been the alarmist perpetuation of the narrative of the technophobic professor (see here AND PLEASE PEOPLE IN THE COMMENTS STOP MAKING IT DIFFICULT FOR ME TO WRITE A COMPELLING COUNTER-NARRATIVE).

Sorry, did I just type that out loud?

1) Infrastructure: This semester, I’m teaching a Preparing Future Faculty course in “Instructional Technology.” We’re talking about exactly the kinds of issues that the report brings up. Last evening, the class and I talked about the larger infrastructure that exists to run a university, particularly in regards to IT. While the Gates report looks at “Institutional Factors”, they focus on structures that are in place to reward faculty for innovating their teaching and pedagogy (unsurprisingly, most faculty think that they won’t be rewarded by their institutions for teaching). The study also notes that faculty in the Health Sciences are more likely than faculty in the Humanities to innovate their teaching.

What the study neglects to ask is, what is the physical infrastructure in place to help professors innovate their teaching and integrate technology. There has been a lot of investment in health sciences over the past decade; I bet if there’s a new building on your campus, it has something to do with health sciences (or business). Now, those disciplines have access to the newest and most up-to-date classrooms and technology. And how many faculty in the humanities have access to these kinds of spaces and technology? It’s almost impossible to do meaningful collaborative work in a classroom where the desks are bolted to the floor, and when the computer at the front of the room runs is almost ten years old, “innovating” becomes a huge challenge. So, let’s not just say that humanities professors are behind the curve; let’s look at the infrastructure that keeps them there.

If the technology and the spaces aren’t conducive to incorporating technology and innovative practices, no amount of institutional support for teaching is going to help.

2) Networks vs Community: This is a drum that I am constantly beating: it’s less about networks and more about community when it comes to teaching. Faculty, unsurprisingly, feel more connected to their disciplines, thus their departments and disciplinary associations, than they do to the larger institution. So their peers in a department, and the panels on teaching at disciplinary conferences have more of an impact on their pedagogy than the Teaching and Learning center on their campus.

This is their community of peers. This is the group they go to for advice and support and, most importantly, community norms when it comes to research and teaching. We’re all about norms in higher education. And change, apparently, will only come from the disciplinary communities deciding that it is their best interest and their discipline’s best interest (and the students’). Now when I think about a disciplinary conference like the MLA, I start to get a little worried about what kinds of teaching practices are being presented.

The report highlights that:

Surprisingly, faculty from the top-100 liberal arts colleges, and faculty from the top-100 colleges overall, do not stand out as exemplars. They are actually less disposed toward students’ needs and goals, and less inclined to use online or hybrid tools.

MLA membership is actually dominated by faculty at R1 institutions, as was presented that year's conference. This study suggests that our “best and brightest” faculty aren’t leading the way towards pedagogical innovation. And browsing the 2015 program, there were only 27 panels devoted (or had papers discussing) pedagogy, while there were 80 panels or papers that mentioned teaching. This is an area I’ve wanted to explore for a while (teaching and pedagogy at and through the MLA), and this report suggests that this is the kind of work that someone like me needs to do if we want to change the attitudes of those teaching at our institutions. Maybe these conversations around teaching are taking place at smaller, more focused or regional conferences. But we need to start understanding what they are and where they are taking place.

But the other question is, can we create community around teaching and learning that crosses disciplinary boundaries? That’s the harder one.

3) Part-Time Faculty: Speaking of community, the study divides faculty into six groups: The Teachers, The Executors, The Willing, The Disconnected Skeptics, The Principled Opponents, and The Research Minded. They are listed here in descending order of likelihood that they have or will adapt or adopt technology or innovative teaching practices, and is also based on how they view student learning and engagement.

What’s most interesting to me is how they describe the make up of The Willing:

While The Willing fall in the middle in terms of orientation to students, they express a desire to have more student interaction. The Willing say they have the time and resources to improve upon teaching, yet this group is least satisfied with institutional rewards and support. As they are more likely to be part-timers and teachers at 2-year colleges, they do not feel connected to networks and barely attend workshops. Faculty in this segment are tech savvy, express expertise with and feel favorably toward incorporating more digital tools.

Well, I’m glad someone noticed, as it’s been something I (and many others) have been saying for years. Look again at the MLA membership data (as was presented at the 2015 conference) – very few are part-time and community college faculty. But if we are to change teaching, then these are the places and the people we need to be looking at. And, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this segment is the least connected to the larger community. Or feel supported. And why should part-time faculty attend workshops if they aren’t compensated (a topic that has been touched on in this very blog space).

Again, systems and infrastructure matter, and part-time faculty are almost always excluded from them, either because they lack the resources, or because the system is set up to exclude them (and often its both at the same time).

It isn’t a perfect report (I wonder about the limited list of “innovations” they poll faculty about using, and why it’s important to adopt more than one of the techniques to be considered a full adopter), but it is worth a read. I agree that we need to do more to document the successes of those who adopt innovative practices in the classroom, and that’s one area I think Teaching and Learning Centers can help.


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