Leveraging Networks and Technology to Promote Faculty Learning

The LEAP States initiative was started by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as a formal collaborative of institutions organized at the state or system level that offers educators in institutions, state systems, and consortia an array of opportunities to work together. The Faculty Collaboratives initiative—the next step of LEAP States that created a sustainable network of resources, innovation hubs, and a curriculum for faculty professional learning—sought to engage faculty across LEAP states in learning about proficiency initiatives, liberal education, and student success. Prior research has demonstrated the value of networks for learning, as people are likely to change their beliefs or behaviors through interacting with others (Tenkasi and Chesmore 2003). When intended to promote faculty development and learning, such networks are also known as communities of practice (CoPs) or professional learning communities (PLCs) (Kezar and Gehrke 2015).

As described in the project profiles published in this issue, each state built or is in the process of building a network of faculty interested in learning collectively about student success, liberal education, and proficiency initiatives. One hope was that the project would build community and promote social learning across space and time through technology; specifically, states built online innovation hubs designed to serve as both repositories of information and dynamic spaces for interaction and learning. State project teams were also encouraged to explore other uses of technology, such as social media and blogging, to build their networks and enhance communication.

To get a better understanding of each state’s activities, the learning that took place, and the strategies used to build community and promote learning, AAC&U conducted a qualitative study of the project using several sources of data: social media posts, an exploration of state hub websites, document review including state periodic reports, informal conversations with project members, and participant observation/attendance at conferences. This article distills critical insights learned from the project’s Phase 1 states (California, Indiana, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), who became engaged in the project in 2014, and shares them to demonstrate the value of statewide networks of faculty for professional learning and engagement.

Needs Assessment

States that were especially successful at engaging faculty across the state and building relevant, useful hubs spent significant time up front surveying and mapping the landscape of existing resources in their state and assessing the needs of their fellow faculty. States had different existing infrastructures—teams that surveyed what already existed and identified gaps had greater success during the project in creating something durable and useful beyond providing a repository for information. California and Utah both conducted interviews or focus groups with faculty across the state to assess their needs and determine how best to meet them. California team members set out to design their project around the needs of faculty in their state, and they interviewed faculty about the online resources they use for professional development and teaching in order to direct their hub development efforts. Utah, on the other hand, began the project with assumptions about faculty needs and the direction their efforts would take; however, in the course of their focus groups they found that these assumptions were not correct. The Utah team ended up taking their project in a different direction than originally intended as a result of conducting a needs assessment. The Texas team also evaluated the existing LEAP Texas infrastructure to determine where the gaps were and how they could best position themselves to fill those gaps.

Several of the states referred to this as focusing on audience rather than content—thinking about who would be using their resources and what their needs are rather than just the content itself. Several project leaders mentioned their discovery that the “if you build it, they will come” mentality is misguided. There are now a plethora of online resources on teaching and learning, and the only way to break through the noise to make something relevant and indispensable is to make sure it fulfills a need. Indiana and Wisconsin learned this lesson along the way. They built up their hubs and then sat back and reflected on the need to consider their audience, which they are now successfully doing.

Translating Proficiency Initiatives to Fit Local Understandings and Priorities

Through assessment of needs in their states, Phase 1 teams identified local concerns and priorities of their faculty audiences and framed conversations about proficiency initiatives so that they connected with these local needs. Teams took care to translate the proficiency initiatives into the native or local languages of faculty members and not force down national language that could be confusing or seem irrelevant. As a California team member put it, “We needed to ‘translate’ the language to clarify how to apply [the proficiency initiatives] in practice. It has been important to frame them in terms of problems that faculty identify.” The California team connected the proficiency initiatives with ongoing efforts in the state, such as projects on assignment design, threshold concepts, disciplinary apprenticeships, and metacognition, all of which have enthusiastic existing audiences of faculty members. Additionally, a team member from Indiana noted, “We must persist in finding our own language and ways of contextualizing these initiatives that will resonate (and be trusted) by faculty across the state of Indiana, many of whom are not at all familiar with the concept of LEAP.” For the Indiana team, this meant a broader reach toward the improvement of teaching and learning and a space for faculty across the state to come together and talk about teaching. Texas, too, paid attention to local concerns when deciding how to frame their project; they connected the goals of the proficiency initiatives to their statewide mandated Texas Core Objectives, which faculty must think about when designing their syllabi and creating assignments. This connection and translation work helped make the ideas behind the proficiency initiatives more relevant and appealing for faculty across the project states.

Connections with Existing Networks

Some of the Phase 1 states were able to capitalize on meaningful existing networks to gain traction for their activities and ideas. By connecting with these networks, the state teams significantly eased the burden of building relationships and making inroads into the consciousness of faculty across their states. For example, the California team plugged into an existing partnership between the California Community College system (CCC) and the California State University system (CSU) by incorporating some of their existing concerns into Faculty Collaboratives planning, as described in the previous section. They joined previously planned meetings, connected with already engaged faculty, and steered many of the existing conversations in slightly different directions to meet everyone’s goals. Texas also had a robust existing network through LEAP Texas, a dues-based membership organization with existing programming and an existing network of hundreds of faculty and administrators throughout the state. Wisconsin was also able to leverage the existing LEAP infrastructure in their state, though networks there were not quite as robust as in Texas due to the changing higher education landscape in that state. Utah partnered with an existing statewide network of Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs) about halfway through the project. The Indiana team discovered that their state had never had a statewide faculty network, so they had to build theirs from the ground up. However, they learned from Utah’s discoveries and are exploring ways to connect the CTLs in their state. Additionally, faculty across the Phase 1 states learned about national organizations they could connect with, such as the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education. While all the Phase 1 states still had to work to build relationships, those that identified and connected with existing networks were able to get their projects off the ground more quickly and devote more of their time and energy to core tasks rather than network building.

Engaging Participants through Social Media and Technology

All the Phase 1 states and AAC&U experimented with innovative uses of technology to engage participants, promote social learning, and foster communication about their projects. This use of technology included the hub sites themselves and social networking sites such as Twitter. For example, the AAC&U project staff hosted several facilitated Twitter chats around project-relevant topics, which attracted participants from nearly all project states and encouraged cross-pollination of ideas. Utah experimented with Twitter to share information and connect with faculty across the state. Additionally, Texas used Twitter to promote several week-long series of online events, each organized around one of their six core objectives. These events included facilitated Twitter chats, webinars, live streams from Periscope, and daily questions for participants to answer on Twitter using the #LEAPTexas hashtag. California used a videoconferencing platform called Zoom to host “Collaborative MeetUps” on topics of common interest such as growth mindset in the classroom, how to start a faculty learning community, or transparency in teaching and learning. These were sixty-, seventy-five, or ninety-minute sessions facilitated by Faculty Collaboratives team members. Wisconsin created “Salon Sessions” through Blackboard Collaborate, in which faculty participated in thirty-minute informal chats on preselected topics such as equity-mindedness, general education, or VALUE rubrics. And Indiana used their learning management system, Canvas, to host discussions about various project topics.

While these innovative uses of technology all encouraged engagement with the project, a key lesson teams have learned is that technology is best used to complement or supplement rather than supplant in-person relationship building. Phase 1 states all had more success engaging participants in online activities if participants also had opportunities to meet and connect in person. Multiple project participants noted the value of attending the 2016 all-project meeting and getting to meet face-to-face with others. There were significant upticks in Twitter activity around the project during and immediately after conferences, including those hosted by state teams. For example, the California team utilized a series of small conferences to build relationships with CSU and CCC faculty and seek input on potential collaborative meetup topics. After engaging participants in this way, they were able to generate excitement and buy-in around their digital activities. This finding is also borne out in research on faculty development networks: hybrid modes of development that incorporate both online and in-person elements can work, but some people just prefer one way of communicating to the other (Brooks 2010). To connect with the most people, it is important to have both online and face-to-face components that complement one another. Similarly, one project participant noted that “online activity should be in service of [our] goals and purposes rather than an end in itself.” Teams that were clear about their project’s purposes were able to leverage technology in ways that successfully complemented their other activities and helped them meet their goals.

Conclusion

The Faculty Collaboratives project revealed four key lessons for how to promote faculty learning by leveraging the power of networks and technology. First, states that were especially successful did up-front work to determine their audience and its needs before deciding on the details of their project’s design. Second, states that framed Faculty Collaboratives work in ways that aligned with faculty members’ existing priorities were able to generate more buy-in and engagement. Third, teams that connected with existing networks in their state had an easier time building an audience and generating engagement than teams that tried to create new networks from scratch. And fourth, state teams utilized technology to engage participants in a variety of ways, but it was generally most successful when it complemented project goals and supplemented in-person activities. The insights from this study can help other groups or states interested in building faculty networks or exploring innovative uses of technology to promote faculty learning and development. 

References

Brooks, Catherine F. 2010. “Toward ‘Hybridised’ Faculty Development for the Twenty-First Century: Blending Online Communities of Practice and Face-to-Face Meetings in Instructional and Professional Support Programmes.”Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47 (3): 261–270.

Kezar, Adrianna, and Sean Gehrke. 2015. Communities of Transformation and Their Work Scaling STEM Reform. Pullias Center for Higher Education.

Tenkasi, Ramkrishnan, and Marshal Chesmore. 2003. “Social Networks and Planned Change: The Impact of Strong Ties on Effective Change Implementation and Use.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 39 (3): 281–300.


Elizabeth Holcombe, Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate, Pullias Center for Higher Education, University of Southern California

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