The Long Tail of Teaching Talent

The tail of teaching talent in your institution is longer then generally recognized, and it extends to your librarians and technologists. Perhaps this long tail of teaching talent encompasses others as well, such as the professionals in institutional research, human resources, building operations, and many more.

November 22, 2009

The tail of teaching talent in your institution is longer then generally recognized, and it extends to your librarians and technologists. Perhaps this long tail of teaching talent encompasses others as well, such as the professionals in institutional research, human resources, building operations, and many more.

The idea that the only qualification for developing and teaching a college course is a Ph.D. is stunningly counterproductive. The knowledge necessary to design a course is not the exclusive property of the terminally credentialed. The passion necessary to teach, which really means to co-learn, does not co-vary with years spent in school. How can we recognize that staff have the ability and background to teach, and that the work they do often lends itself to translation into courses? How can we set up systems, processes, incentives and rewards to enlarge the pool of instructors to include staff?

At many colleges and universities staff have been brought into the teaching process with great success. I've seen this occur most notably in freshman seminar classes. These small courses, led by faculty and staff partners, often focus on the ethical and behavior issues (or sometimes study and interpersonal skills) essential for new students to engage with but often not covered in the regular curriculum. Community building freshman seminars can reduce the risk of attrition by connecting new students with a supportive group of adults working at the college and peers early in their college career. Since these courses are often new offerings, and they are instructor intensive to design and run, there seems to be a great flexibility in enlarging the pool of acceptable instructors to the large staff population.

But we can, and should, do more. Almost any professional project work that staff participate in and complete can be thought of and repackaged as a course. Every new academic application design, coding, and rollout process can be turned into a course. Each new library outreach initiative or new program or service can be transformed into a course. The point is not to have students do our work, or work with us during the completion of our normal tasks, but to take what we normally do and replicate and repackage these activities into a course.

Let's pick an example I know well: the selection of a Learning Management System (LMS). What would this process look like as a credit-bearing course? The final course deliverable would be a group (2 or 3 students per team) written report and presentation to be given to the class (and maybe a wider audience at the institution). This report and presentation would somewhat match the sort of work that we normally would do for a project such as this, although would be expanded to contain more research, a literature review, citations etc. The course could be scaffolded to included the various sections of the report as the semester went on. For instance, one section could be about the project management process and tools for managing work. Another section could examine the learning theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, informal learning...etc. etc.) and then map the different LMS systems to each theory. Still another section could research the market dynamics of the LMS vendors, looking at the competition between models (open source vs. proprietary) and the history and current status of the companies. Still another could examine the changing nature of Internet enabled communication and Web 2.0 collaboration and social learning tools, analyzing how the LMS fits into these developments. Students could conduct original research on how the existing LMS is currently used on campus, and develop a set of requirements to evaluate all the options.

A class such as this would cross many disciplines. We have some materials from education, psychology, business, computer science, sociology, and perhaps other disciplines. This multi-disciplinary way of working is much closer to the way people work in real jobs then a single-discipline approach often found in traditional coursework. Someone teaching such a course could bring in guest speakers from all these departments to provide detailed information. The final product, a paper and presentations with strong arguments based on evidence, closely matches the actual analytical work that our students will need to become fluent in to succeed in the labor market.

I'm sure you can think of other big projects that you are involved with that would lend themselves to being repackaged into a course. Perhaps this would be an opportunity to think creatively about the course structure, for instance being willing to offer mini (1 credit) courses in addition to traditional classes. If enrollments are kept small then non-traditional spaces could be used for class meetings, such as library, residential or dining spaces.

I'm not suggesting that we simply require staff to teach, or that we throw them into the classroom. We should give staff the tools they need to succeed at this task, just as we would for any major project. Staff can be paired with a faculty mentor. Staff could start as teaching assistants, working with their faculty mentors on existing courses before beginning their own teaching. Staff could work closely with learning designers on campus to put together the course and develop the weekly modules and assignments in the campus LMS. Small peer supervision groups of staff, learning designers and mentor faculty can be formed to support staff in the course development and teaching process. An effort could be made to oversee the courses as they are taught, and to collect student and peer data on student engagement and learning in order to provide real-time feedback and support for the teaching staff.

What is crucial here is that teaching becomes part of the job description of interested and able staff. Rather then pay the staff as an adjunct and expect the course to be developed and taught on top of their regular duties, course development and teaching becomes part of their regular job.

How many courses could we offer (with small class size) if 20 percent of professional staff time was devoted to teaching? Could this be a plan to increase enrollments, and revenue, without the need for new spending to hire more adjunct instructors? What benefits would we see if staff learned to understand the challenges of developing and running a course from the inside? How would this new knowledge translate into better technology, library and other services and support for faculty? What would be the professional development benefits to staff for learning a new set of skills in translating their knowledge base to the practice of teaching? How many students would benefit from the opportunity to take small classes led by professionals who work in jobs that may be similar to careers these students may aspire? How much would the whole campus community benefit by opening up opportunities to teach (and learn) to more of our members?


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