A 'Growth' Field

Some centers dedicated to teaching and learning have closed as a result of budget cuts. But the field is one of growth over all, experts say.

May 30, 2014

When Endicott College shutters its Center for Teaching Excellence this summer, it will be the latest in a string of such post-recession closures that have rattled the close-knit online community of teaching and learning center directors and employees. But even as each closure reminds instructional specialists that their profession is one in flux -- and that not all centers will survive an era of smaller budgets and the perception among some that technology can stand in for good teaching -- leaders in the field say that it is growing over all, and that many centers are thriving.

“Our listserv is hit hard when centers close,” said Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, president of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, or POD, and director of faculty development at the Center for Transformative Learning at Berea College, in Kentucky. (Ortquist-Ahrens is also an associate professor of comparative literature.) “Often faculty developers are the only ones [of their kind] on their campuses, so they’re more closely linked to people in the network and beyond their campuses. It gets people concerned and feeling vulnerable, and there have been certain budget cuts.”

One such casualty was the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching at Western Kentucky University, in 2013, after 25 years of serving faculty and graduate students.

Sally Kuhlenschmidt, the center's former director, who has returned to her position as a tenured professor of clinical psychology, said that some of the center’s work – mentoring graduate students and helping professors teach with technology – has been absorbed by the university’s distance learning staff.

But there are other intangibles related to having a dedicated teaching center that campuses lose upon their closing, she said. Kuhlenshmidt, who has studied distance learning centers for POD in the past, said there’s a strong correlation between the presence of a center and enrollment. What drives that relationship is unclear, she said; it could be that higher enrollments help fund centers, or it may be that larger enrollments pose greater faculty concerns about teaching.

But having a center might also increase “institutional capacity” to attract students, through more skilled teachers and better faculty morale, she said. Similarly, it may be that “an institution that deeply values teaching is more likely to attract students and be willing to support faculty who value students.”

At Endicott, administrators say that budgetary concerns did not factor into their decision to close its center. (The center's officials referred questions to the college.) Kathryn Barnes, dean of academic resources, said that Endicott had “outgrown” its eight-year-old center, with faculty members taking on many of the programs that it initiated. The college is confident the conversations about scholarship and teaching that occurred through the center will continue, she said.

Other centers haven’t closed, but have been reorganized or restructured with more of a focus on technology. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, the longtime faculty developer Karron G. Lewis said that she is now the last full-time instructional specialist, from eight or nine a year ago. Many employees have been reassigned to more technology-oriented positions, increasing her faculty consulting load (to about 13 professors).

As a result of the reassignments and program changes, some of the pedagogical discussions between professors across disciplines – what Lewis called a key benefit to teaching and learning centers – have suffered, she said.

Program cuts and changes signal that some decision-makers “don’t understand that the faculty do want places to find out about teaching and learning strategies,” Lewis said.

Despite those changes and others, the faculty development field over all looks to be growing, not shrinking, Ortquist-Ahrens said. POD doesn’t track center closings or openings (it’s trying to establish a small fund to do so formally), but based on job listings and other factors, administrators seem to be recognizing the role centers play on their campuses.

Across academe, teaching is becoming more important and valued – not less – even as technology makes its way into more and more classrooms.

That may be counterintuitive to some, Ortquist-Ahrens said, but technology doesn’t replace the instructor; it enhances the instruction. “Technology comes in many forms – chalk can be a technology. It’s a thing that you use for a purpose. You want to know how to use that thing well.”  

Centers also are taking on new formats, to better serve students and faculty.

At Berea, for example, faculty development is offered through the Center for Transformative Learning. The center also houses student services, such as the internship office and career development, which makes it a central, vital point on campus, bringing together faculty members as well as students.

Although there’s no central way to track teaching and learning centers, Kuhlenschmidt said research institutions are much more likely to have teaching and learning centers. And one of the biggest and most thriving is the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. It’s got a budget of about $2 million and offers faculty members multiple means, both formal and informal, of enriching their teaching practices. The center even has its own theater troupe, which it uses to perform faculty development skits on such topics as diversity.

Matthew Kaplan, director of the Michigan center, said he has noticed increased interest in teaching and learning centers from faculty and administrators in recent years. Online learning environments having faculty members rethinking their pedagogies, from blogs to online quizzes, he said.

“There is a whole range of ways of reaching students beyond traditional lectures, and it opens up real opportunity,” he said. So the question becomes less one of teaching “tools,” but rather one of “best practices” – what Kaplan called “backward design.”

“What do you want the student to get out of the course by the end of the semester, and what technology can be brought to bear?” he said. “That’s a discussion that teaching and learning centers engage in all the time.”

Ortquist-Ahrens said that the concept of an instructional specialist as “a Maytag repairman, sitting in an office waiting for someone to come,” is an “outdated” way of looking at teaching and learning centers and their potential.

Luckily, she said, many institutions “recognize their power to play a really key role as a bridge between constituencies,” and have opted not to make the “shortsighted” choice of closing centers as a means of cutting costs.

Kaplan said some centers may close for reasons beyond their control, but that it’s important for centers to “make themselves relevant.”

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