Intentional Collaborations: Building a Virtual Community of Mentoring and Practice

In Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Vincent Tinto (2012) writes that to reach the goal of student success and retention, institutions must “invest in faculty development” for both full- and part-time personnel. He recommends faculty development activities to foster the use of “classroom assessment techniques and pedagogies of engagement.” Tinto goes on to explain, “The classroom is the building block upon which student retention must be organized. . . . If we hope to make significant gains in retention and graduation, institutions must focus on the classroom experience and student success in the classroom” (124).

In order for faculty members to change the classroom environment, they must be well versed in effective pedagogies that support student engagement and promote student success—in other words, faculty development is the key to student success. Yet at many colleges and universities, faculty development is thinly staffed by an individual, a small office, or a committee. In this context, how can those involved in this work benefit from the shared wisdom and operational knowledge of their colleagues in the professional development field? In this case study, we will discuss how the authors—a group of three faculty developers—responded to this challenge by creating a virtual community of mentoring and practice composed of teaching and learning center directors, who met regularly to share experiences and resources across institutional and geographic divides.

The Beginnings

What happens when you combine three passionate faculty development professionals from geographically distant colleges, thrown together by attending the same national meeting? Often, a good conversation is the outcome, or perhaps e-mail addresses are exchanged. Our initial meetings developed into a virtual community of mentoring and practice that has sustained and encouraged each of us in our professional lives. It has also magnified the resources we each bring and has resulted in benefits to each of us personally and professionally, as well as to our respective institutions.

Our community of practice began with our participation in a national grant program, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Roadmap project. Two of us, Mary Carney from the University of North Georgia (UNG), and Dallas Dolan from the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), met in summer 2013 at the AAC&U summer institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success. At the 2014 AAC&U Annual Meeting, we met the third member of our group, Donna Seagle from Chattanooga State Community College (ChSCC). Over lunch the three of us talked about the joys and challenges of being faculty developers in settings with no peers. These brief face-to-face conversations and shared workshop experiences were critical in creating a rapport that allowed us to begin to talk in depth about our institutions and the work of fostering student success through faculty development. After such a rich exchange of ideas, we imagined what we might do if we worked together.

Over the next eighteen months, we met more than thirty times and built a strong supportive alliance that led to measurable improvements in faculty development at each of our institutions. We presented our work at the AAC&U annual meeting in January 2015, almost one year to the day from when our trio first met, and since that time we’ve continued to build a strong working group that has sparked new collaborative projects.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Early in our collaboration, Dallas Dolan shared Etienne Wenger’s conception of communities of practice, and as our group began meeting we reviewed the literature to see what it had to offer in the way of guidance. In Cultivating Communities of Practice, Wenger, with colleagues Richard McDermott and William Snyder (2002), describes communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (2). Wenger and his colleagues describe the benefits of such a community as going far beyond the solving of problems and sharing of knowledge among the group. Accordingly, a community of practice “is not merely instrumental for their work. It also accrues in the personal satisfaction of knowing colleagues who understand each other’s perspectives and of belonging to an interesting group of people. Over time, they develop a unique perspective on their topic as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches. They also develop personal relationships and established ways of interacting. They may even develop a common sense of identity. They become a community of practice” (3). We experienced this evolution.

Our community of practice also drew on the concept of formation mentoring from Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities in Higher Education (Felton et al. 2013) to shape our interactions. In this book, Felten et al. describe a “formation mentoring community” as “a time and place to be in conversation with others who are holding our deepest well-being at heart, who have no vested interest other than contributing to the best that we can all be. It is a place of safety where we find acceptance and are listened to generously” (13).

We adopted the stance that the three of us were mentoring each other, as we were all traveling the same professional roads and we could be more creative together than individually. Our strong community has grown into an opportunity for sustained, meaningful conversations about living up to our aspirations as higher education professionals. Such work together has begun to illuminate new dimensions of our academic identities and a clearer sense of purpose for our work lives.

Benefits

Through our alliance, we have created a virtual community of mentoring and practice. This partnership is focused on creative collaboration in the development of programs and resources to benefit all of us, as well as our faculty colleagues at our respective institutions. For instance, while we each had materials on diversity and inclusive classrooms, CCBC’s long-standing Culturally Responsive Teaching program provided materials and approaches that enhanced the work at ChSCC and UNG. Another example of creative resource sharing occurred when, over the course of several meetings, we reviewed and discussed UNG’s assessment of faculty development program materials. Each of us came away from that experience with a better understanding of how to take our assessment efforts to a new level. A final example of the benefits of our collaboration was inspired by ChSCC’s shared library subject guides, which provide annotated bibliographies, current research studies, and teaching and learning resources for faculty and campus communities. A conversation about these guides served as an impetus for CCBC and UNG to create and update library subject guides for their faculty. Our collaboration has focused on how our diverse institutions could better support full-time and part-time faculty in order to meet the needs of students. Throughout the partnership, we each have contributed to a shared repository of information and resources; in this way, we have multiplied the resources and knowledge around relevant topics for faculty development. Our virtual community has proven to be a low-cost way to share knowledge of effective faculty development.

Needless to say, a practiced expertise in virtual communication and resource sharing is invaluable to us as professional development officers. By using online conferencing, collaborative presentation software, and free tools such as Google docs to build and sustain a close working relationship, we have gained technological knowledge and skills, an unexpected and valuable byproduct of our collaboration. Each of us provides professional development at institutions with multiple campuses and remote locations. The tools that helped facilitate our work also have helped us to broaden our reach at our multi-campus institutions by connecting and sharing resources with full- and part-time faculty members at a distance. Leveraging the technological and logistical skills practiced in our community, we have expanded our institutional professional development to faculty members who previously could not benefit.

Building upon the success of our community of mentoring and practice, we have been inspired to engage in a long-distance action research study to investigate the extent to which faculty members apply in their classrooms what they learned from professional development. To study this issue across the three institutions, we are collaboratively developing two workshops for new faculty members. The first will focus on culturally responsive teaching methods and the second on the use of rubrics to facilitate metacognition. We plan to survey faculty members at each of our institutions immediately after the workshops and again several months later to determine the extent to which faculty members applied the new pedagogy in their classes. Through the comparisons of our survey data across institutions, we hope to better understand rates of applications and the strategies that facilitated these applications.

Implications

This cross-institutional community filled a need for each of us and bridged our three single-person programs through active face-to-face and electronic communications. Our strong alliance and virtual community have allowed us to share knowledge and tools that have enriched our professional development programs, deepened our commitment to furthering academic excellence, and advanced faculty development at each of our institutions. Our work together has enriched our ability to foster faculty talent and continuous improvement through the implementation of evidence-based practices in the college classroom.

Our case study demonstrates that forming a virtual community of mentoring and practice with colleagues from different institutions who share an interest in professional development can foster shared wisdom and operational knowledge. The many successes and benefits of our sustained virtual collaboration have demonstrated the value of forming and nurturing a community of mentoring and practice. 

References

Felton, Peter, H-Dirksen L. Bauman., Aaron Kheriaty, Edward Taylor, and Parker J. Palmer. 2013. Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, Vincent. 2012. Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wenger, Etienne, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder. 2002. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


Mary Carney, director, Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership, University of North Georgia; Dallas Dolan, director, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Community College of Baltimore County; and Donna Seagle, director, Faculty Center for Excellence and Innovation, Chattanooga State Community College

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