Smashing Faculty Skepticism

Faculty members need one-on-one consultation, positive reinforcement and examples from early adopters before they'll commit en masse to transforming their classrooms.

February 14, 2018

NEW ORLEANS -- During a session at the Educause Learning Initiative annual meeting last month, panelists asked a succession of attendees to read out loud a prewritten list of complaints faculty members often raise when asked to pursue innovation:

  • I've been a teacher for 10 (or 20 or 30) years, so I shouldn't have to undergo development.
  • I have enough qualifications already.
  • Students don’t like working groups and they don’t work well in active learning environments.
  • Students need to learn how to take better notes.
  • I’m not technologically capable.
  • Teaching is an art and should be treated as such -- you’re either a natural or you’re not.
  • If I fail, I won’t get tenure.

Some of these concerns are legitimate; others, perhaps, ought to be abandoned. They formed the core of the discussion during this session, which aimed to offer “secret decoder ring” techniques for circumventing such skepticism and encouraging meaningful change. The biggest takeaway? Students must come first.

“We’re not always great at this, but we try to remember that that’s what we’re here for,” said Matthew Aron, blended curriculum lead in teaching and learning technologies at Northwestern University. “We always try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of our students and encourage faculty to do the same.”

Some key takeaways from the session:

Supporting early adopters is key. Reinventing the classroom is difficult for most instructors -- none more so than those who are the first at their institution to embark on such a project. Those pioneers need external validation for their efforts, and they need to hear that they won’t be chastised if their attempts fail.

“Sometimes it’s nice to say, ‘Good try, that’s awesome and let’s do it even better next time,’” Aron said.

Never eliminate one-on-one consultation opportunities. As technology efforts grow, more instructors need help from a fixed number of on-campus experts, often through workshops and other group activities. But Aron said it’s important to maintain the possibility for consultations with individual faculty members.

“It’s the one thing we won’t tinker with,” Aron said. “Even when we offer all different kinds of workshops, if someone says, ‘I need help,’ we want them to know we’ll sit down with them in our office and give them an empathetic ear.”

Innovators want others to see the fruits of their labor. Whether through active learning centers that give faculty members space to experiment or a spring showcase event that allows for sharing ideas and praise, panelists said positive reinforcement helped spur other instructors to follow early adopters’ example.

Support from administrators helps as well -- according to Cody Connor, manager of course design and development at Purdue University, instructors signed on to the institution’s course transformation initiative in much greater numbers once the provost’s office began publicizing it. Connor said he believes faculty members want to feel like administrators will appreciate their work and potentially reward them for it.

“At the beginning we were struggling to recruit faculty to participate in the program,” Connor said. “Now they are knocking down our door.”

Progress moves slowly and requires patience. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a group of strategic learning technology consultants descend on the institution’s schools and colleges to cultivate long-term relationships with faculty members and students. Over time, some of them have transformed traditional classrooms into active learning spaces, simply by demonstrating sustained interest in the course material and a good-faith willingness to collaborate with subject matter experts.

According to Sarah Miller, an academic technology leader at Madison, the work involves setting a vision, contributing to instructional design and performing an "ethnography" of sorts.

"They are learning the culture, politics, power dynamics, strengths, expertise, sources of pride, tension points and personalities while engaging with the vision and strategy," Miller said.

Madison's learning technology consultants have advanced degrees in a wide range of disciplines including curriculum and instruction, teaching, and educational leadership and policy.

"Because there is no one academic pathway to this work, the team has diverse expertise and perspectives -- a strength they draw upon regularly through collaboration," Miller said.


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