Back in February 2012, I completed a chapter on a model for open, online course for online faculty professional development for an eBook that never happened. Although some of the material was revised for publication in the The Journal of Educators Online, this chapter originally featured a Wild West analogy I was quite fond of, and I’m sad it was never published.
Here’s my new acronym: FLCP. It stands for Faculty-Led Community of Practice.
I am working my way through the implications of Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice, mostly trying to decide whether the Program for Online Teaching‘s open, online Certificate Class is one, or should be one, or could be the start of one, or isn’t one at all.
As I did this, I began to consider that what makes our class different is that POT itself, our own group that facilitates the class, is led by faculty. Now, I love educational technologists, instructional designers, and people with masters degrees in the technology-oriented areas of education. But these positions are new compared to college faculty (which go back to the Middle Ages). Both are hired by institutions, to be sure. But there are some major differences that I think justify why communities of practice, particularly those relating to online teaching and the use of internet technologies for education, should be led by faculty.
The first and most important is that faculty-led communities can provide a focus on individual pedagogy instead of institutional goals, procedures, and culture. Often IDs and ed techs answer to the computer department heads, or deans of technology. They must keep institutional goals, enterprise systems, and political issues in mind. This can make individual pedagogy a secondary issue. The emphasis is often on enacting college policies (fulfilling transfer requirements,or student learning outcomes) rather than developing an instructor’s own approach. And often these possible approaches can be trapped due to institutional decisions to limit pedagogy through the support of a particular LMS or campus-developed system. I can’t think of a single educational technologist working at a college who has the power to make decisions about which technologies the institution supports. They, and instructional designers, tend to be caught in between the decisions of higher ups who want to invest in enterprise systems and make everyone use them, and the faculty trying to find their way.
Since centralized IT and educational administrative systems tend to focus on standardized systems, the institutional solution to unprepared faculty tends to be an emphasis on “training”. In this case the word is improperly used to define preparation for teaching online. “Training” is designed to bring everyone in the group to the same place, such as a level of skill for using a piece of software — training everyone to use the features of a learning management system would be a primary example. “Preparation” does not carry that connotation of homogeneity. “Education”, which would be even better, might suggest individual goals as the foundation of the work.
So instead of “best practices” (now often the domain of “experts), we could focus on “our practices”, those that best match the instructor’s strengths with the technological possibilities.
Faculty-led projects can also break down hierarchy. If the core group includes adjunct faculty, then barriers are broken down between full-time and part-time faculty. When it comes to teaching with internet technology (or just teaching in general), both groups have exactly the same issues. Folks connected to administration and technical services have to consider the groups differently (one clearly gets more support than the other), but a faculty group doesn’t.
In addition, if faculty are able to lead such a community, it says something in response to a novice’s concerns about being overwhelmed, having too many students, too much work, too much to do. Working with the technology is what educational technologists, administrators, and instructional designers do all day as their regular job. When they try to lead faculty in making changes, there is a feeling that, sure, those guys can do this stuff all the time, because it’s all they do. If a faculty member (or several of them) have made time for this, it must be crucial somehow to our main job, teaching.
Another benefit is that faculty-led communities of practice can act separately from formal evaluation processes, program reviews, curriculum development, etc. They can also work across the disciplines, apart from discipline-specific and department politics, including turf wars and disputes over standards.
I’ve been reading portions of Palloff’s and Pratt’s The Excellent Online Instructor, and at the end of a section they say that if you don’t have a formal process for getting online faculty together, you can make it yourself by hosting brown-bag lunches or hosting a synchronous meeting online. Although this is true (in some ways that’s how POT began) this puts faculty leadership in a backup position, when it should be the main idea. Faculty groups shouldn’t be playing shortstop to what technologists hit — they should be pitching.
But of course there are a couple of caveats. In George Otte’s article on faculty development and blended learning, he warns against “Shock and Awe”, having highly experienced and competent online faculty held up as a model to emulate. He says people admire such faculty (they are shocked by how much time it must have taken and awed by the result), but they think they are exceptional and don’t copy them. He claims that community-building is primary, and suggests an emphasis on hybrid courses as a good middle ground to encourage faculty to build dedication to teaching online.
Whether it emphasizes the hybrid model or one that’s fully online, a community of practice formed and led by faculty should be the place where new faculty are welcomed into a culture that puts teaching first. In this way, they can develop their own online pedagogy in a supportive environment.
Otte, G. (2005). Using blended learning to drive faculty development (and vice versa). In J. Bourne and J. Moore (Ed.), Elements of Quality Online Education, Volume 6 in the Sloan-C Series (pp. 71-83).
Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.
Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of practice – a brief introduction. Retrieved from http://www.ewenger.com/theory/communities_of_practice_intro.htm.
A study by Pearson and Babson Research, published in April 2011, declares that “over 90% of all faculty are using social media in courses they’re teaching or for their professional careers outside class” in the Executive Summary, so I looked closely at the study. I’m spending a lot of time in the appendix. I am not at all interested in personal use, only professional and use with students.
My concern is that the study proclaims massive use of “social media” by faculty. It seems to imply that college faculty are actively participating in social media. I’m looking closer and it doesn’t seem to be true.
I think the problem is the word “using”. 61% of faculty surveyed have “used” online video. This could just mean they’ve shown a YouTube video in class now and again. Only 21% of faculty “posted” online video, and I wonder whether some of these were the videos included in publisher’s packets, such as those provided by Pearson — am I being too cynical here? The statistics for how valuable faculty think these sites are could all be about presentation, not anything social at all.
They have defined social media by site (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) rather than by use (creating slideshows, posting original video, participating in a discussion). The statistics for Figure 15 seem to me the most telling: the numbers are very, very low for using any of these sites to have students post anything.
So to me the “social” part of social media use, particularly in the classroom, is extremely low, and indicates a reluctance of faculty to use social media for anything except presentation.
Is this a case of a study making false conclusions? or is it just advertising? or am I being way too picky?
Why is it so scary to blog and share what we do, as faculty?
Because our job is usually private.
This may sound odd, because we teach in classrooms full of people. But usually it isn’t full of colleagues watching us teach in our disciplines. That tends to happen only during faculty evaluation, and that makes many of us totally nervous. I hate having other faculty “sit in” on my class. What if something goes wrong? That’s the only chance, that one hour, and then they will make their judgement, and that could affect my job, and thus my whole life.
Part of the problem is exactly that — it’s the only chance. If these colleagues were there every day, it wouldn’t be so bad. They’d see the body of my work, the good days and the bad days.
But college teaching is also private for a reason. I am supposed to have academic freedom, the right to teach the subject the way I want to, using my own methods. That’s why I became a college instructor instead of a high school teacher. It is hard to develop innovative teaching methods with narrow-minded people watching my every move and breathing down my neck. I want to try things, experiment, have me and the students working together.
And when I am evaluated, even that’s in private. Yesterday I received a copy of my evaluation packet from last year. It was sealed in an inter-campus envelope with a “Confidential” label stamped across it. My evaluation meeting was conducted in a small room with four other people: my dean, my department chair, one historian, and one faculty colleague of my choice. I did a little show for them, took them through my packet, then I left the room. They talked, in private. They wrote my evaluation, privately. It is so private it is kept in a locked file and I had to go over to the Instruction Office to sign my evaluation. Email isn’t private enough.
Now, I consider myself a public servant, since I work at a public community college. But would I want my evaluation to be public? Perhaps the public wouldn’t understand. There is a pretty anti-intellectual movement going on right now in the public. They think I don’t earn my pay, which is the highest of all the community colleges in the state. They think I take summers off and loaf, talk for a living, produce nothing of importance, and don’t do my job when students don’t get high scores and a degree they can translate into a six figure income. Couple that with administrators whose main purpose seems to be to catch me out not doing my job, not following the rules. Why on earth should I share anything I do?
I’m a professional. Professionals work in peer communities. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and scientists engage in ongoing education in a discipline controlled by their peer network. Their work is published and peer-reviewed. It is public, but not necessarily evaluated in its worth by the public, and there is an understanding that the profession advances society over time, regardless of the vagaries of public fashion. If I leave the evaluation of my work to my students and my bosses, I am not acting like a professional.
And thus I am not treated as one. Adjunct instructors are treated like migrant labor at many places, disposable and expendable. Corporations and publishers are trying to take over the teaching of our subjects through canned online classes and for-profit “colleges” that can hire anyone to “teach” (or, rather, manage the grading of) our classes. This is not OK with me.
As with any other profession, some practitioners put their heart into what they do, and some don’t. Some want the glory of publication and don’t care about twisting the scientific method or their own morals. Some just want to cash the paycheck and have a beer. Some want to teach online so they can ignore their students, run a canned course someone else wrote because it’s easier, get away with not doing a good job. And as the system gets tweaked to try to prevent these abuses, it gets more closed, more private, more restrictive, and less professional.
If I keep my work in private, with private evaluations subject to the whims of student surveys, hour-long cursory class visits, and administrative traditionalism, my work as a teacher may stay safe and protected, but it can’t grow. Over time I will be unable to articulate the goals of my methods, or develop new ones.
BUT if I put it all out there, I can communicate better with my peers than in a closed system. I can see what others are doing and share my ideas. I can engage in my profession, not just in my discipline (other historians are of somewhat limited help when it comes to teaching issues) but in my calling as a teacher.
We have a right to be treated like professionals, with our approaches and methods respected, debated and analyzed by our peers. I have been teaching as a professor for 23 years. A few years ago, I started to open everything up, until now I put my evaluations online (that “Confidential” seal was truly silly in my case) and publish as much of my work as possible on the web. I am creating a body of work, which my peers can evaluate and comment on. Rising above the private system has enable me not only to grow as a professional, but to insist I be treated as one.
NPR reported on this debate, which is how I found out about it. And after thinking about it for awhile, and remembering my years as a hard-working Teaching Assistant at university and knowing how large my student load is now, I nevertheless have come to the conclusion that this sustained attack isn’t just about money or “productivity” (a bizarre concept for intellectual work), but about culture.
We are becoming a culture that thinks of “knowledge” as a commodity, and the college systems provide a wonderful locus for attack on intellectualism in general. Although we are not yet at extremes, it hearkens back to the Cultural Revolution in China, where the 7 May Cadre Schools were created to “re-educate” professors and intellectuals by having them perform manual labor on farms. These professors weren’t just a “capitalist elite”. They were seen as not doing “real work” — they were not productive. They too were “dodgers” and “coasters”, producing no identifiable product and rather representing the archaic system the communists wanted to tear down.
“Going to live and work in a production team to wage revolution, 1969” from Chineseposters.net
Yes, I realize that comparing a conservative-backed attack on liberal education might not seem to correspond to a communist attack on elitism, but the motives seem to be the same. Instead of moral jeremiads, physical violence and relocation, we have a simple “release of data” and “reform institutes” releasing “studies”. So the attacks are positivist rather than metaphysical, to use Comte’s epistomology. That doesn’t make them less hostile to intellectual values.
I am not saying that data has no place in higher education, or that workloads shouldn’t be examined. In fact, the issue revealed by the data to me is more one of workload than anything else — adjunct and younger professors may be carrying far more weight than is just or right, even if you only consider a college as a workplace. The cultural aspects that lead to such formulas (dodgers and coasters are obviously derogatory) could lead to some issues that ought to be examined beyond that of cost and productivity.
It may be starting in Texas, but in today’s climate of accountability, “data-driven” decision making, attacks on unions, criticism of school systems, the high cost of college, and questioning of the value of a college education, this is going to spread.
Maybe it’s not really about a choice between an LMS and web/social media.
First, I found it interesting that Kelly Trainor (Yavapai College, Arizona) said in his faculty showcase that he uses a great WordPress blog for his class, but still uses Blackboard for the gradebook.
Then, I discovered this cool resource of online teaching videos from the University of New South Wales, and watched this one:
And what occurred to me was that the issue is this:
And the question is: Where’s the door?
cc WordRidden at Flickr
If you want to take advantage of the affordances of both venues, where do you want students to enter your class? From the web or a social media site (Flickr, YouTube, Ning, Facebook, a WordPress blog) or through a Learning Management System (Blackboard, Ning)?
The front door is important. Ask any real estate agent.
With the door in the LMS, you can link out to open web sites or social media (or use course menu buttons to make things appear to be inside the LMS).
With the door on the web or at a social media site, you can provide a link to the LMS for whatever needs to be done there.
The choice here sets up different kind of hierarchies, implies differences in pedagogy, and creates different kinds of opportunities for learning.
Starting in an LMS implies:
closer connection with the college and its structures
greater concern for issues like security, privacy, homogeneity of systems
a similarity in importance put on tasks (if using a course menu)
Depending on how it’s used, it could also imply:
emphasis on presentation and content over interactivity and community
a teacher-centric model
Starting on the open web or in a social media site implies:
a greater connection with the outside world
greater emphasis on communication and creation
a supposition of diversity in tasks and approaches
Depending on how it’s used, it could also imply:
an emphasis on community over content
a more constructivist (or even connectivist) pedagogy
a more learner-centric model
I think it’s important to know what we’re saying to our students, not only with the “inside” of the course design, but with how you enter the space in the first place.