An 'Opportunity for Improvement'

At faculty development institutes, time away from teaching means time to rethink how to teach. By keeping the sessions small, many institutions hope to recruit a core group of faculty members enthusiastic about online education.

June 15, 2016
University of North Carolina System

Takiyah Nur Amin had a great idea for a course, but when it came to designing it, she “had no idea where to start.”

Amin was part of the inaugural cohort of the University of North Carolina system’s Instructional Innovation Incubator, a faculty and course development program. After attending the program in summer 2014, Amin, assistant professor of dance studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, that fall taught her first hybrid course -- a general education requirement in arts and society.

As summer settles in and faculty members look ahead to a new academic year, faculty members like Amin are taking their seats in classrooms at campuses across the country to learn how to use new digital tools and platforms or how to teach online.

“There’s an increasing recognition that many of us that have earned our academic degrees are not excellent classroom practitioners,” Amin, also an affiliate faculty member in the department of Africana studies, said in an interview. “What we’re seeing with the proliferation of these programs in higher education is a recognition that there’s a real need, and that your most interested faculty are looking for these opportunities.”

Faculty development is routinely one of the most debated topics at ed-tech conferences, and faculty members consistently say colleges should spend more on such programs. A look at some of the programs running this summer shows that many colleges, whether by design or funding limitations, are betting that small, intensive programs can create a cascading effect where a “vanguard” of faculty members go on to train their colleagues.

The UNC system’s incubator, known as i3@UNC, is one such program. Now in its third year, it prepares faculty members in the system to teach a blended or fully online course -- for some, their first such course. During the Wednesday-to-Wednesday conference, faculty members are surrounded by instructional designers as they turn a 1,000-word course proposal into the building blocks of a course, creating assignments, shooting video lectures and learning from ed-tech vendors about the tools at their disposal.

But the program is more than a weeklong online education playground. Once back on their campuses, the participating faculty members commit to completing development on their courses and teaching them the following academic year.

In that way, the program serves two purposes. It trains faculty members to become comfortable with online education, and it also generates a steady stream of sorely needed new online and hybrid courses.

The 17-campus university system enrolls about 225,000 students, and those not taking at least one online course may soon find themselves in the minority. This academic year, 46 percent of students took an online course (up from 39 percent the year before), and 22 percent of faculty members taught one, said Matthew Z. Rascoff, the system's vice president for technology-based learning and innovation.

“That’s a level of digital transformation that would be challenging for any institution to handle,” Rascoff said about the growth in online course enrollments. He said he is uncomfortable with the idea of asking faculty members to teach online when they have little experience with that mode of delivery -- either as instructors or students. “The professional development resources available to faculty to do that work well are not nearly commensurate with the demands that we’re placing on them.”

But the UNC system isn’t cramming its more than 19,911 faculty members into lecture halls to hastily certify them to teach online. Anyone interested in participating in i3@UNC has to apply. Space is limited; this year, there were only 36 slots.

Size isn’t just a limitation, Rascoff said. The program is small for three reasons: it creates a more intimate, hands-on atmosphere, signals the prestige of the program and ensures that the accepted faculty members are truly enthusiastic about course development.

“We want to work with faculty who want to work with us,” Rascoff said.

The UNC system’s model of faculty development is a common one, but nowhere near the only one out there. Pennsylvania State University, for example, last year launched a Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate program, which students can complete mostly on their own time online over a four- to five-week period. In one semester, that program trained more than four times as many soon-to-be faculty members -- about 350 -- as i3@UNC has done in three years.

“That’s the correct criticism of this model -- that it’s small,” Rascoff said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is build a cadre of faculty leaders who will then go back to their own institutions to make the case for more professional development resources, more instructional designers. That can’t be driven from the system office.”

St. Mary’s University of Texas follows a similar model of faculty development, but administrators there aren’t concerned about not reaching enough faculty members. Granted, the small, private Catholic institution doesn’t share many similarities with the UNC system, but its annual Summer Faculty Institute on Learning Technologies does resemble i3@UNC.

Last month, the university brought together 12 faculty members during a four-day conference with the goal of building a “technology-infused curriculum plan.” During the rest of the year, however, the university offers open workshops and one-to-one sessions on accessibility, video recording, web design and other topics.

“We’re not looking for 12 disciples only,” Jeff Schomburg, executive director of academic technology services, said in an interview. “We’re always reaching out to those who did not have four days straight to give of their time to an institute like this. … It hopefully is through this exciting variety that we find ways to reach and improve through as many means possible. Variety is natural and important. The most important of any model is getting the time with the faculty.”

Participants at i3@UNC said the feeling is mutual. Alton J. Banks, professor of chemical education and inorganic chemistry at North Carolina State University, said one of his main takeaways from the program was the dedicated time he spent in the company of other instructors in different disciplines all working on the same core issue: conveying information to students in a setting other than a brick-and-mortar classroom.

“One of the most valuable things for me is that I had two weeks, and I was out of my office and focused clearly on a goal, so I had lots of dedicated time,” Banks said in an interview. “You don’t have to worry about a colleague sticking his head in the door saying, ‘I need to talk to you about this.’ The office phone wasn’t ringing.”

Banks, who has been teaching since 1975, said senior faculty members sometimes stick to one way of teaching, following whatever guidelines their professional societies recommend. Participating in i3@UNC, he said, provided an “energizing” opportunity to refine an online preparatory chemistry course.

Those experiences -- giving faculty members a moment to think exclusively about how they teach -- are what the programs hope to accomplish, Rascoff and Schomburg said.

“If we’re successful at getting faculty to just stop the motion, stop the pace and step back to digest and breathe, it does give them a chance -- and maybe it’s one of the only chances they get -- to look at what they’re doing, what they’ve always done and allow for the opportunity for improvement,” Schomburg said.


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