Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The failure of teaching and learning centers.

Last week I caught something on inside higher education on the closure of Teaching and Learning Centers (CTL hereafter) in colleges and universities around th country, at a time, where seemingly, there ought to be more demand to keep them open, engage, and train faculty, and be a catalyst for a better college experience for everyone involved. This is what I remember from the article that I read when it came out (currently blogging from a boat crossing the Ionian Sea, no internet to verify, and will be too lazy to go back later to re-read everything).

A friend, and colleague, later emailed me about this trend and also included a more snarky (albeit humorous, I think) Chronicle op-Ed which took the form of a memo from a director of one such center to a university big-wig (from memory this is what I recall anyway). In any case, I chuckled a bit with both stories because it's not really about centers for teaching, rather about the value that universities place on continuing professional development (CPD) of their professoriate, especially those who are in the adjunct ranks. Now, through research and publishing, one might say that faculty do undertake professional development, and I would agree that this is indeed a type of professional development (keeping up with subject matter expertise), but this is only one side of the coin. This is not what CTLs are aimed at. They are aimed at the other professional development, namely the Teaching, Learning, and Pedagogy angle of professional development.

Now, academia has problems, we know that. One of the problems centers around priorities that universities reflect onto new and existing faculty (through various reward structures and mechanisms), and relating to this is the aspect of career ladders for the professoriate. CTL cannot exist in a vacuum, disconnected from this reality, and this is why they have, for the most part in my opinion, been toothless implements of a university structure that treats symptoms rather than treating problems holistically. Is there a problem (or perceived problem) with the ways of teaching of the current professoriate? One solution is a vibrant CTL, but it's only part of the solution, not the panacea that people hope for.

My own experiences with CTLs come from working with the, now defunct, Learning Center and UMass Boston, working as an instructional designer at UMass training faculty and providing consultations, being a classroom technology specialist (my first "real" job!), and seeing what other local area institutions have done with CTLs. I've crashed some development workshops at other universities and had some nice conversations with their trainers and directors. Based on these, albeit limited, interactions in the Boston area I can give you my 2 cents on what is wrong with CTLs:

1. There is never a right time for a workshop when your clientele isn't interested

When I had my first job on campus I started discussing with colleagues what they do and how it all fits in. After all, I was new to the workforce, and most importantly new to the domain of academia. By that point the Learning Center had been on th decline for a while and this was credited to the fact that some key influential figure (who I never met) had left. During this previous director's tenure the CTL was offering a lot of workshops that were well attended, but now neither where they offering many workshops, nor were they well attended. The common reason I heard about the lack of attendance was that there was never a "right" time. Some professors taught three times a week, others two, others stacked all of hybrid teaching in one day so that the only day that they had to come to campus. Thus, with no "common" times, it was hard to fill workshops.

At the time, 13 or so years ago, I bought this as a plausible story, but now I know better. As the moral of one of my old ESL stories goes: "you can't please everyone". The problem wasn't that there wasn't a common time for most professors, it was that professors have little incentive to attend these workshops. We all describe tenure and promotion as being a three legged stool, with teaching research, and service being considered equally. We know, however (at least in the cases I have looked at) that this is a bit of a bald faced lie. Research is BIG, publishing is BIG, and people get into arguments over whose is bigger, who has the bigger grant, who published more books, who has more citations, and so on. With research being so disproportionately weighed, something else has to give.

Tenure-track professors may elect to focus more on teaching since teaching evaluation may be more beneficial than loads of service in a pre-tenure post, but you still have finite time on your hands, so you won't go crazy with these types of workshops. If these workshops, or support circles, for pre-tenure faculty are not satisfactory within the first few tries, then there is little incentive to come back, or even bring friends along. The short version of this boils down to this: external reward structures are not conducive to having a vibrant CTL. If faculty were rewarded, either by earning required CPD credits, by earning required points on their merit every year, or rewarded by other means, they would attend your workshops. I know it's a bit weird, but learning for learning's sake in academia is not a reward in and of itself!

 

2. You are focusing in the wrong clientele

So, as I pointed out above, these CTL seem to focus on tenured and tenure-tracked faculty at their institutions. This has issues, as I wrote above, but there is also an additional issue: the fact that the majority (from what I've read) of the faculty, especially those teaching introductory courses, are adjunct faculty. So, not only are CTLs focusing on the smaller number of faculty, they are also not getting them into their workshops. CTLs, in my estimation, need to focus on training adjuncts in order to meet their mission goals. Sure, adjuncts pose problems. Some, like me, teach one course per semester because we love teaching and interacting with students. Teaching might be thought of more like a hobby. There are adjuncts, who in addition to teaching because they love teaching, might be a "professional" adjunct teaching a number if courses at a number of schools to make ends meet. Adjuncts are generally paid pretty poorly when we compare their earnings to what tenure stream faculty make, so if someone is teaching a number of courses, time to attend CPD is limited, and it's also without pay.

One potential way to get CTL to be relevant is to work with the administration to provide CPD for adjuncts. At the moment many are beholden to the course evaluation which can be a double edge sword. If you get marked down by students for being "too tough" that might be the end if your teaching career at that school. If adjuncts had annual reviews, where classroom innovation, CPD, and teaching were factored in, this could be an instrument to reward good adjunct faculty (increase on their base pay), provide for pathways for improvement (for those who want to improve), and provide for a mechanism to get rid of the dead wood that doesn't really serve the institution and it's students well. This would help remediate issues with adjunct equity, as well as make the CTL relevant again.

 

3. Don't focus on just individuals workshops, think grander!

Back when technology (computers and the internet) in the classroom was new, and when I started working full time, my supervisor at the time had procured some money for technology. He was also a trainer and instructional designer. He opted to spend this money on laptops, which at the time were bulky (compared to what you get today in the likes of a MacBook Air) and expensive (around $2000 if I remember correctly). He went out to departments and marketed a training program where faculty would apply to be part of a cohort. This cohort would get one of these laptops, and work on "converting" a face to face class to an online course. The laptops would have everything they needed. All they needed to do is to attend biweekly workshops with their cohort, submit homework by the due dates, and participate throughout the year (October to May if I am not mistaken). At the end, if you participated in all of the workshops, came in for the monthly brow bag lunches with your cohort to show off what you did and show others how to do it, you got to keep the laptop. No catch, it was yours!

People came in by being lured with a free laptop, but got one or two courses "converted", got to form bonds with the fellow faculty, and, in addition to skills, they had a support network. The workshops all connected with one another and, at this point, the closest analog would be the Effective Online Teaching workshops that Sloan-C provides, as well as the Sloan-C bootcámp course that you do when you want to undertake their certification. Motivation to continue on a course of study (as we've seen recently with MOOCs) is a pretty complex thing, but having some buy-in, some rewards (both tangible and intangible), and some way to keep cohorts connected with one another (peer support/peer pressure) helps in getting people to attend, and to continue to attend, such valuable workshops.

 

4. Hire the right people for the job

This is my last point, and I don't mean it to be a dig at anyone in particular. If you are a colleague , or friend, running a CTL or related organizations (such as faculty development offices, centers for improvement of teaching, instructional design departments, and so on) don't take this as an attack on your credentials. What I am about to write is meant as a general observation, and the hypothetical director of a CTL is an amalgam of everything that is wrong.

Many years ago, when I first joined Facebook, one of the things you could add to your profile was a quote. At that time, one of my long time friends had posted a quote from Anton Chekov which went like this: "any idiot can face a crisis; it is the day-to-day that wears you out." I think this quote is really applicable to CTLs. It appere to me, again through my limited experience, that CTLs are operating in crisis mode. There is some issue, or perceived issue, and they aim to take care of training for it. Alternative credentials and badges are all the rage? Workshop! University purchased new software? Workshop! Moving to a new LMS? Workshop!

While it is easy to count the number of workshops we've offered and pat ourselves on the back, this is no different than having MOOCs tell us that they enrolled 100,000 people. What's important is not the raw score of workshops (or number of participants for that matter), but rather the number of repeat faculty at these workshops, and the overall effectiveness of what we are doing. Anyone can "research" the current trends and offer workshops in those trends, but it takes a really great leader of a CTL to go to where the puck is headed, not to where the puck is.

Relating to this, One of the problems I've seen revolves around hiring. We know that PhDs aren't prepared for teaching (in most cases) but they are also not prepared for managerial duties in academia. So what better candidate can we get for director of CTL? Someone with a PhD who is neither prepared to teach others, nor is he prepared to manage! Both being really important job duties for such a direct, especially one in a startup phase which might not have dedicated trainers or bleeding edge folks on staff. That was a snarky comment if you couldn't tell, but that's what happens. Someone with a phd in English Literature, History, political science, or other liberal art, with little to no connection to teaching and learning gets these posts. There may be good candidates within those ranks of PhDs, but that would not be my first choice for staffing. People can be good at many things, but this would be the exception, not the rule as far as I am concerned.

So those four points around the failure of CTLs. The battle is lost, the war is not over. Faculty do need CPD, and CTLs have a role to play in this. Without the right frame of mind, goals, and overall university culture, I would say that CTLs on their own just won't do it. We need a reboot of this organizational unit, and that reboot should not be out off any longer. Your thoughts?

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