Wednesday, June 01, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Spreading the Good Word

A thoughtful returning correspondent writes:

For 20+ years there have been all kinds of boards and national
commissions recommending changes in classroom practice but little
seems to come of it (maybe that's just my perspective?). There's lots
of innovation in curricula, pedagogical practices, and general
approaches to teaching that have gotten lots of funding from people
like the NSF (just what I know, I'm sure that someone else could say
something about other fields). Some examples: in Physics there's
project Scale-Up (resource intensive), and in math there are
"group-work focused"* curricula for stats, "general math," calc 1, 2,
and 3, differential equations, ... But, for all of these, market
penetration is tiny.

Thinking in terms of higher education research generally, there's lots
of fairly traditional routes for dissemination: talks at conferences,
papers in appropriate journals (academic and practical), but how much
really penetrates via these routes?

Are there non-traditional routes that, given your experience as an
administrator, you would suggest that a researcher (faculty) wouldn't
necessarily know about?

Are there routes of dissemination to faculty that make sense, but
don't seem to be tried much (the usual list: papers, presentations,
workshops and booths at conferences)?

That is, we spend all this time doing research and, hopefully,
learning useful things. Or, is it that none of what we learn is
actually that useful?

This is one of those “harder than it looks” ideas, and I’ll stipulate upfront that much depends upon context.

It’s certainly true that there’s a wealth of information out there that often doesn’t find its way to the folks who could gain from it. Off the top of my head, I can think of several reasons for that.

The first is incentives. All else being equal, doing something the way you always have is easier than trying a new approach. Learning curves are real, and a new preparation or a new methodology is much more time-consuming than one you’ve done many times before. In a college that values research over teaching, there’s a valid argument to be made that too much time spent on teaching will result in too little on research, with severe career consequences. In a teaching-focused college, the sheer size of the courseload becomes the obstacle. Yes, there’s a conceptual interest in improved student success, but when you have your hands full just doing what you’re doing now, and the benefits from your additional work don’t accrue to you, there’s a strong gravitational pull to just not bother.

(Underlying that paragraph is the annoying truth that outside of a very few settings, the more a college values teaching, the more teaching it requires. The more teaching it requires, the higher the cost of pedagogical innovation. Mass production requires standardization.)

Theoretically, we could get around that by drastically reducing faculty courseloads. But the economics of that are simply prohibitive.

Then there’s the cultural taboo among faculty against being “told what to do.” Any innovation that comes packaged with administrative approval is often regarded as suspect simply because of the approval. I’ve seen settings where that was warranted, and settings where it wasn’t, but there it is.

Field specificity also matters. Techniques that may work beautifully in a lab science may not help much in history. Courses intended as stand-alone samples of a discipline often have more flexibility than first courses in a sequence. “Skills” courses and “content” courses have different demands. These days, there’s also a divide between traditional classes and online classes.

Travel funding matters, too. Most community colleges, as far as I know, have pretty limited travel and conference funding. That means that even when there’s a will to go exploring, there may not be a way. Virtual conferences and webinars try to fill the void, but they’re not the same thing.

Finally, there’s knowing where to look. In the spirit of making failure safe, limited travel funding and limited time tend to place premiums on sure things. In the absence of the time and money to take flyers on multiple different things, there isn’t always much to be gained by looking for alternatives.

It’s a shame, really. The students who most need innovation -- those for whom traditional instruction has largely failed -- are often the least able to get it.

I’ve seen a few expedients that help a bit, but I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers with more.

One is to make it somebody’s job to keep up with this stuff. Titles like “instructional designer” describe people whose job it is to maintain currency with the latest pedagogical innovations, and to work closely with faculty to adapt what’s useful to a particular context. That costs money, of course, but it has promise.

Another is to remove travel funding from the operating budget, and to put it under some sort of endowment. At community colleges, that’s often done through a “Center for Teaching Excellence” or something along those lines. If the Foundation funds it, then it’s immune from state cuts and other budget cuts.

In a more perfect world, individual faculty would have actual job-based incentives for classroom improvement; the issue there is in definition and evaluation. The union at my college is convinced that merit pay is a tool of the devil, and simply won’t hear of it; accordingly, pay is based on seniority. Over time, you get what you pay for.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface on this one. Have you seen (or come up with) an effective and realistic way to disseminate pedagogical innovations so that they might actually get used?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Absolutely agree. Sharing knowledge and experience is very important. It should be a priority to provide community schools with more fundings.
I think it’s important to remember that when new things are tried, a certain large percentage are not going to catch on. But I think the way we teach and communicate with students outside of class has changed dramatically over the last 9 years – some changes have happened in the classroom too.

In my on-line classroom, we went from being able to communicate with students through an installed wired network (that required constant supervision from a tech person) to webcasting (broadcasting over the web) to having open access to a webex style platform that could be accessed by any computer with an internet connection. The LMS has become a part of about half of our classes. Assignments are turned in electronically and checked for plagiarism through a website. We have on-line office hours and use e-mail far more now than we did 10 years ago.

We have video projectors in every classroom which allows instructors to use images and videos in their lectures (and most of the younger faculty do). There are more free form labs at my campus – where the students are given the freedom to design projects and experiments in their lab rather than cookbooking things. People use small group work as a part of their teaching even in our largest lecture hall.

The enemy of further change is time, an unthinking preference for what’s always worked in the past, and funds for the technology that makes all the gizmos go. But I see lots of change and look forward to seeing more.
Another enemy of change is that instructors need freedom to fail. If I try a really new teaching strategy in a class and it doesn't work, student evaluations are likely to be way down. And if my state were to ever give us a raise (which it hasn't in a long time, and is instead cutting our pay), especially a merit raise, then I'd be hurt by my attempt at innovation.

And resources: in composition, research shows that teaching a class of about 16 is ideal. You can do all the short, frequent writing with responses and such that are shown to be way more effective with a small class. Yet my school limits our comp classes to 28. It's cheaper, but it stifles innovation.

Finally, we're constantly being asked to spend more time doing assessment stuff without easing our workload in any other way. Time can only be stretched so far, and if I'm asked to document assessment (and do so), then I'm dropping behind on something else: my exercise (and health), reading up on pedagogy, yep.
A topic near and dear to my heart.

My old boss and I have a shared passion for outreach and instructional design, and we did several projects together. I'd say that the ones that worked best were the ones that could be delivered as a coherent, unit-sized package, rather than as a procedural change across an entire class. The "activation energy" required for the more sweeping changes was just too much. Once the instructors got to try the unit, they often adapted its principles to other parts of the class.
As an adjunct professor, two main problems/excuses come to mind. First, I am teaching six or seven classes at three or four schools, which leaves little time for major innovation. I utilize technology much more now than in the past, but I have developed much of this on my own. This leads to the second problem. Because I am jumping from school to school, little that is being done on the administrative level gets down to me. So administrators may be trying to promote some useful stuff that I am generally unaware of. I operate independently, not as a member of a department. This is the inevitable product of jumping from place to place.
I heard from the head of a business school recently that she had encouraged all her staff to engage in what sounded like informal circle mentoring: each taking time to drop in and be present when a colleague is teaching. This seems like a "low threshold activity" -- no particular pain for anyone, but a chance to observe, sympathise, suggest and share.

Above this, we have a formal peer review system, and even though this comes with a U-Haul of paperwork as you might expect, the practical experience is that reviewers get to sit at the back of a room and watch someone else teach, and I always come away having learned something new. The stipulation is that the teachers being reviewed get to sit in on the reviewers' classes in return, and again this is an opportunity for change to get around in the system.

Because it happens at the request of the teacher being reviewed, this seems more respectful, collegial and just plain user-friendly than the alternative, which is institutional strategic planning for innovation. As if.
I agree with Bardiac about freedom to fail. Furthermore, you need backing from whoever is likely to get student complaints when students go over your head. Otherwise, when students complain about the new technique, there becomes a pressure to stop doing it. I know I've had situations where admin didn't have my back and I spent a lot of time explaining to an administrator why I not teaching math in the same way everyone else always had.
This is kind of silly; universities are institutionally indifferent to good teaching, or else they'd be willing to pay a premium for it.

If you want to teach well, great. But understand that it's your hobby and your volunteer work that might help your job a little but isn't what you're being paid for.
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