Collaboration, not Commoditization

Faculty networks for course innovation (Part I).

March 30, 2015

In a previous post I made a case for the importance of emotional ownership in scaling up educational innovations, in particular how we could “build a bigger Here” as a way to address Not-Invented-Here obstacles. In this post I want to drill down on some encouraging new opportunities to build emotional ownership of educational innovations. These recent developments focus on faculty collaboration within a professional community around the resource and knowledge base for a particular course (more later on why the course has emerged as the right-sized unit for collaboration).  The key is to promote, support and recognize collaboration around a course by faculty, not commoditization of a course for faculty.

The logic of collaboration over commoditization initially centers on building emotional ownership of educational innovations, so that the new approaches to teaching and learning – and the processes to adapt them for our students and our context – belong to an “us” and not to a “them”. But the argument for collaboration over commoditization goes further.  One of our institutional goals in higher education (and helps to justify the “higher” label), one that keeps the “higher” in higher ed, is to develop our students’ capabilities for skilled knowledge work that integrates craft, professionalism, reflective inquiry and continuing improvement.

If we mostly wanted to prepare students for routine commoditized work, then of course it might make sense to have faculty focused mostly on transmitting commoditized content and supporting students in routine interactions. But if we want to prepare students for high-value knowledge-intensive work, we will want to have our faculty model those practices in their own work to create and implement opportunities for student learning. If we want students to work in high-value knowledge-intensive organizations, then their years of work in our teaching and learning environment should be an immersion – perhaps an apprenticeship? – in that kind of work culture.

(Of course, none of this is as either/or as that description makes it sound: we are really talking about the right combination of high commoditization of some elements and high customization of others, such as the recent use of large-scale open course resources in tandem with strong support for local learning communities. And I wish we had space in this post to talk more about how we can make faculty work with professional knowledge for teaching more visible to students as a model ‒ but the Students as Partners direction is a good place to start.)

Developing emotional ownership through professional collaboration networks
Given the growing importance of subject-specific faculty knowledge about teaching and learning, it is no surprise that there is an increasing emphasis on building disciplinary professional communities for teaching in higher education. When they function as innovative knowledge-practice networks, these collaborations have been shown to be advantageous “because they tackle enhancement from the ‘ground floor’, are practitioner-led, and by working within disciplines maintain a contextual focus”.

Let’s take Biology as one discipline example of faculty collaborations to ‘build a bigger Here” that can help scale up innovations beyond the local context:

  • Within a local geographical region where faculty can meet occasionally face-to-face, collaborations like Community College Biology Faculty Enhancement through Scientific Teaching (CCB Fest) provide collaboration opportunities for current and aspiring biology instructors in workshops on evidence-based teaching methods, professional learning communities, and classroom research across institutions.
  • At a larger state or regional level, collaborations like the Ontario Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators provide shared resource spaces, monthly online events (like a discussion of a recent innovation in teaching and learning) and an annual on-site Unconference.
  • At a national level, organizations such as the Association of College and University Biology Educators provide features like online forums and resource-sharing.

No doubt there are other networks that could be added to this list: there doesn’t seem to be a good directory of these opportunities available, either for individual faculty looking for ways to interact with colleagues or for community facilitators looking to learn about what other regions or disciplines are doing (and learning). If you have examples to share from other regions or other subject areas, do add them in the Comments section below.

Cultural, procedural and practical support for advancing collective teaching practice
Professional networks like these can extend the knowledge and resources for teaching beyond a local teaching community, as an expanded “intellectual camaraderie fosters support, challenge and collaboration” (to quote the now-classic How People Learn). Faculty engagement in these professional networks can extend their understanding and capability in teaching, and develop their personal learning networks for ongoing interactions and professional growth.

That’s a great starting point in building emotional ownership for innovations adapted from beyond our local circle of colleagues. But to advance collective teaching practice requires stronger support – cultural, procedural and practical – for collective action. The particular question we want to explore more is a practical one: how can we create a more natural flow between the teaching work faculty currently undertake (in designing, evaluating and improving student learning experiences) and the new engagements we want them to develop with in their larger professional teaching communities?  In tomorrow’s second part of this post, we’ll look at some of the emerging developments around Course-level Professional Networks that have the potential to provide some of the answers to this question.

In the meantime, you can see some examples of procedural support in last month’s post:  the use of periodic institutional Program Reviews as an impetus to review faculty engagement with their professional teaching communities, and the Knowledge Connector role in which one or more faculty serve as guides for their colleagues in connecting with the collective expertise in professional networks for teaching in their subject areas. You can also see examples of building up stronger departmental cultures in case studies from the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, and in the Carnegie’s Foundation’s Networked Improvement Communities working together on a multi-dimensional approach to improving student success in developmental mathematics.

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University, a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Tom previously served as the Chief Learning Officer for the MERLOT network and as a Senior Partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning.


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