Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Becoming Accident Prone

I read somewhere that you can't make accidents happen, but you can make yourself accident prone. I'm looking at ways to make my college accident prone, and I'm hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have some hints to share.

Some community colleges have something like a Center for Teaching Excellence or an Instructional Technology Center, in which it's somebody's job to chase down the newest innovations in academic technology and/or instructional design and bring back the ones most likely to be useful locally. Ideally, this person becomes a resource for instructors who are looking to try something new in class. What that means will vary from class to class, and rightly so, so the Resident Geek would have to have a fairly broad understanding of both pedagogy and technology. If all goes well, the Resident Geek makes those accidental breakthroughs more likely and more common, to the benefit of all.

The problem I'd like to solve with an RGC is the 'last mile' of innovation. There's no shortage of stuff flying around out there, but most faculty are far too busy with their own subjects and courses to spend a lot of time mucking around with it. I'm hoping that a Resident Geek with a budget and some sense of teaching would be able to do a lot of the bushwhacking so the faculty wouldn't have to, and could come back with only the most useful stuff, presented in understandable ways.

I'm flirting with this idea locally, but I'm running into a few conceptual roadblocks that I hope my readers know how to get past.

First, how do you keep the Resident Geek's center -- I'll call it the RGC -- from becoming Where Ideas Go To Die? I've seen this on another campus. There, the Resident Geek is a former professor who apparently won respect in her previous role, but she has somehow made herself utterly irrelevant to the rest of the faculty in her current role. She dutifully maintains a full slate of programs, readings, podcasts, etc., which the rest of the campus seems to take as license to ignore it all. Their attitude towards new ideas has become "we have people for that sort of thing." Is there a reliable way to prevent the RGC from becoming little more than a repository for whatever nobody else wants to deal with?

Second, should the 'techie' part and the 'instructional design' part go together, or should those be separate people? I'd love to see them go together, for obvious reasons, but I'm not sure how realistic that is. We have full-blown techies on my campus, but they don't speak Faculty. As a result, a great many opportunities fall between two stools. A techie who actually understood instruction would know what to highlight, how to frame it, and what to ignore. I'm not sure where these people are to be found, but I'm reasonably sure they're out there.

Third, does it make the most sense to give a professor some course reassignments to wear two hats, or is this really a full-time gig unto itself?

So, wise and worldly readers, do you have a sense of this? Have you seen a model for an RGC that actually worked? Anything helpful would be greatly appreciated.

We have an instructional tech guy who was an instructor elsewhere -- which I think is the perfect situation. He knows the technology, has used the technology -- but, we don't see him as teaching faculty.

His method is very nice as well, he'll make an appointment to come to your office, then he helps you do it. He'll come back as necessary, always to help us accomplish whatever it is we need to do.
Right up my alley. ;) A couple of thoughts to make your resident geek happy and effective. One, give them 1 course to teach per year. This will keep them honest in terms of classroom realities and will give them the respect they're going to need to gain the attention of the faculty. Two, get faculty involved with the center. An advisory board, or something. At a private high school, two or three faculty served as the resident faculty geeks and were in regular communication with the Instructional Tech person. These faculty can serve to be the RG's advocate so that she doesn't become a version of digital Kinko's and becomes more like and technology mentor. Which brings me to: Three, instead of just having workshops and programming which the same three faculty will attend, the resident geek should plan to embed themselves in a classroom. That doesn't mean they need to go to class every day, but they can work with a teaching situation as a whole rather than layering technology on top of it.

As for your question about instructional designers, yes, it could be the same person, but instructional designers tend to be the kind of people who design online learning experiences and are more likely to be the kind of person whose approach will be to do things for faculty rather than helping them do for themselves.

Another thing that works is to have faculty participate in seminars over breaks or summer. Learning technology is not that different from learning a language. One needs to be immersed in it and not just listen to the tapes on the commute into work.

Some other things I've seen work--having the person be associated with the library and not the IT department. Actually, I'd say the further you can get them from the IT department, the better. IT has become utilitarian. You don't want this person seen that way.
1) If no existing faculty is addicted to this already and has half a shelf to college teaching books, you'll need to conduct a search.

2) 1 course per term seems about right to keep the person honest/in touch with teaching.

3) At a CC, don't you think you can make "putting workshop attendance on your tenure/annual review list" normative without making it mandatory? (Ours gives out attendance certificates--silly, maybe, but visible.) I'd work with your union on ways to get buy-in. Make the position in-unit, for one...

4) Probably the acid test of whether someone is qualified is if they can write a three- or four-page explanation of one minor bit of classroom tinkering in a way that faculty will grasp instantly and be able to use. Many centers have monthly newsletters that have this as a main feature, but it doesn't matter if your person has the TIME to do this regularly so much as they really understand how to communicate what a technique is, when to use it, how to use it, and how to evaluate it informally. Previous writings on this is a sign of "yes, this person's on the right mission" and should be on the ad's recommended list of quals.

5) Write interview questions to suss out if this person keeps up with current discussions but would buffer your faculty from "bleeding edge" distractions. Someone who understands that "augmented reality" iPhone apps might be a great tool for an urban geography course at a SLAC but an awful fit at a CC -- that's the type of person you want.
(grin) Something like this would be one of my dream jobs, actually.

Laura's on to something: you need faculty who are also geeky to help integrate the technology. An isolated teaching excellence center, which my campus also has, is too easy to ignore. I think many faculty also feel it would take too long to bring the people there up to speed on the realities of the classroom. How about hiring (or re-assigning) a faculty member to have a half-time teaching load and a mandate to act as resident geek?

Sherman Dorn's suggestions for a search are very good, BTW.
The way I see it is that the good teachers are probably already taking an interest in pedagogical research and tech. They don't really need an office like this. The mediocre teachers are doing what they've been doing for years. It works, mostly, and they are unlikely to be interested in changing, which is a big part of what makes them mediocre in the first place.

That leaves the bad teachers. Here, I think you could make some progress. Set up an Office of Instructional Assistance, and send them your real problem teachers. Make it clear that their teaching is not good enough, and that you are willing to kick them out if they don't up their game. Then let the OIA figure out what they are doing wrong, and help them improve.
I want to disagree with Johan's last point. Yes, you want to improve your "bad" teachers, but remediation for teachers doesn't usually work. They come in resistant to begin with. They aren't open to new ideas at all. That leaves the Ed Tech person frustrated, the teacher frustrated and doesn't really solve your problem.

It helps to offer rewards to faculty to participate--a small amount of money, food, perhaps a student tech assistant for a couple of weeks. I've seen places offer ipods and other gadgets (some much cheaper than ipods) as rewards. This often draws in at least the mediocre teachers and maybe the bad ones too. My sense of bad teachers is that they don't know they're bad, but worse, don't care and are unlikely to attend sessions regardless of the reward. Maybe someone else has a different experience.
I agree with some of the others who have said the person needs to continue to teach at elast 1 course per semester. We have someone who has this role on our campus but does not teach. He understands the technology, but he doesn't understand how it would be useful in a classroom. I find the best information from other instructors who have integrated the technology into their course in that they know what really works for our students.

As for getting faculty involved, offer little door prizes for attending workshpops or seminars, and then offer a small stipend as a follow-up for those instructors who effectively integrate the technology in their courses. My CC does not do this, thus it is the same 10 people at each workshop usually. A small carrot dangling in front of a few mediocre teachers would give them motivation to at least try it.
This does sound like a fun job. Good luck!
Laura's idea of offering a student tech assistant is great. Your RG should be someone who teaches somewhat and can be, on a semester-by-semester basis, set up to work with faculty members who want the one-on-one assistance such a colleague can provide.

Literally, I could be working forty hours a week supporting my colleagues just in the social sciences & humanities on teaching issues. (A fair bit of that time would be devoted to repeatedly troubleshooting their WebCT set-ups since I find it takes at least three times before anyone learns how to solve a multi-step problem). Of course, I have hundreds of students, myself, to teach in my own regular courses each term. I can't be the teaching guru that my colleagues need.

Whatever you do, don't just set up a centre with a faculty member/expert and one support staff member, then expect a monthly newsletter, Twitter feed and podcast pipeline to work miracles. Your RG is going to be successful only if she or he works individually with faculty who've already agreed to make their own investment of time. (You follow that up with a semester of student assistant support and you'd be golden!)
At my old university sessions were run by people specific to RGC and largely ignored. At new university sessions are run by librarians/information technology people or actual faculty. (There is a RG running the thing but he does very little of the actual presentations). Plus we get points that count towards raises for attending a certain number in a year. At old university I went to nothing at new university I've been to four this year and will actively seek out a fifth that interests me to get my points.
If cost is an issue, I would try to make deals with software companies to get a small number of licensed seats for the software you are trying to get people to use and allow people who attend the workshop to have free software. The point about small stipends for people who attend the workshop and implement is spot on. I would also try to find those people who are the "early adopters" on campus - the people who gravitate towards using tech and innovative methods in their teaching. I would invite them to be part of an advisory board for the center (with perks - perhaps software or early release of new products or a chance to sit on a committee choosing the next learning management system or whatever). I'd also have an instructor in residence position that rotates through different colleges and allows faculty to get release time to come in to apply new methods and develop more. The center will be more effective if you have converts in each college/department ready to go back to their peers and evangelize.
So this *is* my current job. I would recommend a few things from my time in the trenches:

- I would concur with a partial teaching load. It gives credibility and a live lab for the person to dogfood.

- Bag the workshops, unless you serve food. As others have suggested, this person needs to be out working with the faculty as a one-on-one consulting. Workshops are, at best, a marketing tool to set up the one-on-ones.

- Our current model is a balance of one full-time person (who teaches part time) to choreograph the riot and work with faculty, and then several faculty working with partial release time. So far, it's working fantastic. We can reward innovators with release time, they in turn work with the faculty in their discipline, and we can rotate the position around the campus. The full time person provides continuity, handles administrative stuff, and works directly with faculty.

- Did I mention getting out to work one-on-one with faculty? In fact, set up follow-up meetings, or better yet, a series of meetings. Manage it like a consultant.

- As Sherman Dorn said, find someone who won't go chasing every little app. (Think Pixar's Up: "SQUIRREL!")

- Similarly, find someone who won't use podcasts and web sites exclusively to market. Those are great for reaching your already-savvy faculty, but this person needs to be out hanging out in the faculty lunchroom, gladhanding at faculty meetings, etc.

- And last but not least, don't get wound up on the difference between Instructional Technologist and Instructional Designer. There's little consensus even among us about the difference, and less among job seekers. Decide what balance you want (more tech-savvy vs. teaching savvy, for instance) and then see what the pool brings. We all apply for both titles; anyone who's hung up about it isn't someone you want anyway.
Isn't this kind of ridiculous in the context of the All Adjunct Faculty?

I mean, if you're not gonna pay me, and if you're gonna hire "beige" anyway, what precisely is my motivation?
I agree with Marc about the title distinction. It's the description of the job that matters. People who want to set up online courses and troubleshoot technical issues with your course management system probably won't apply for a job that asks for the kinds of things people are suggesting here. If they do, you'll probably realize it's a misfit pretty quickly.

I'd also second the one-on-one stuff. That's most of what I did. I did a lot of walking the halls and stopping to talk to people. Workshops were indeed marketing for those one-on-one sessions. I also attended several faculty-oriented informal research groups related to teaching and learning. And I went to events and lectures. In other words, I made myself very visible.
One more suggestion: if at all possible, give the faculty some incentive to work with the RG on a new or existing course. Here (an R1 with, um, multiple offices providing RG services...we'll just ignore that part), the RG service has an annual competition open to the faculty & staff. You propose a course and make a minor effort at indicating what technological support you think you might need, and the RG service spots you an S&E budget as well as consultant time and effort. You can use the S&E budget for whatever you like, including hiring a student to do the heavy typing. A couple of times during the school year, the RG grant recipients meet to workshop their projects, and then there's a little postmortem event when everyone is done.

This has worked quite well here, and will take the sting out of the inability to offer course relief to the faculty/staff, which has become the fabled El Dorado around here.
Many great comments here and having had a role like this at a departmental level agree with almost all of them.

1) Designer vs technologist is not necessarily a firm decision but they are distinct cultural lineages, even if the actual people in the roles come from diverse backgrounds. Your problem here is not making the technology work, but getting uptake - this is a design issue rather than a technological one, and the risks you identify in hiring someone tech-focussed are substantial, so people skills first.

2) As others note, the last mile of innovation is about the mindset of the teacher. Our systems reward a proprietorial approach to teaching - many teachers I have worked with, particularly of an older generation, struggle when asked to make their methods assessable, let alone change them. Agree with the advice above on identifying those interested in change, get the RG to work with them to develop some quick wins and improvements, use the success to build the case for structured incentives for engagement. New, team-taught, and/or distance courses might be the easiest to introduce changes.

Good luck!
This works reasonably well for us, especially that portion called "The Teaching Academy." Members get some props for strong teaching advocacy. Sometimes they're faculty who would rather teach than do research, and use this as a way to "legitimate" teaching as a metric for tenure--as if teaching should recur same!--and sometimes they're simply people who are interested in new approaches.

The advantage of the "Academy" model is that it's a kind of crowd-sourcing: e.g., not everyone who becomes a member will be an IT or geek-pedagogy person, but all members will know that, in the full membership, *someone* will be able to respond to a query or a request for assistance.

Also, creating a culture of faculty who themselves are encouraged and facilitated to develop some geek-chops, even if only by reading lifehacker or webworkerdaily or something similar, can help too.
Please strongly consider a solution that includes mentor-people from multiple disciplines rather than One Tech Person To Rule Them All.

As a high school math teacher, the workshops I found the most aggravating were those in which someone spent all day training me on some new thing or other to "use across the curriculum" that really helped kids become better writers/really interact with social studies/include more critical thinking in their notes/etc and then they had the Token Math Example, where they flailed around in the entire 6-12th grade math curriculum to find the one place where I could somehow apply their Neat Teaching Thing. If I'm only going to use it one hour a year at best it is probably not worth several hours of my time to learn in the first place unless I am out of other things to learn about. Math people tended to pick the new ideas that helped their teaching the most, and they tended to be the things that I could use on a regular basis and so I felt my time was much better spent.

I like the idea of multiple release-times from different departments suggested by a previous commenter. You'd have to build in some clear targets for what was to be accomplished on that course release so it didn't just get lost in the chaos of grading/planning/research/etc but having several one-course releases spread across different divisions would get you a lot more diversity of strategies and a more distributed knowledge base so it would scale better as needs grew or shrunk.
I make a distinction between tech help and course development. You don't need an Educator to "help me make it look (or work) like this". You might, possibly, need one to come up with ideas on how it should look or work.

The problem with our system is that the person we hired is totally clueless about almost half of the classes taught at our college. Math or science. Clueless.

That one class each semester idea is OK if it isn't some toy class like a web course with a dozen or so students. If you want to relate to people teaching a content course to a 60 student lecture hall, you better show us how THAT is done.
So I'm an administrative type that adjuncts one class at my uni. We have one of those educational technology and innovation centers... but you know how much training I got there even if I quit typing now. Forget innovation, I had to figure out how to get a roster and submit grades for myself. When I asked about instructions, they said that was covered in new faculty orientation. Yeah, also not for adjuncts.

So my suggestion is not to leave out the adjuncts, not that you would do that Dean Dad.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
I haven't had time to read through all the comments, but could you make the resident geek a co-mentor for new faculty? As a future (next fall) new faculty member, I would appreciate the new methods, and be more likely to use them (not so set in my ways yet).
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