Why the current professional development model is broken
The faculty development workshops and conferences have ended, and most faculty and instructors have headed off for a well earned vacation. Many thousands will have learned how to use a learning management system for the first time, and hundreds of others will have been introduced to new technologies such as e-portfolios, mobile learning, and open educational resources. Fewer will have been introduced to new methods of teaching built around the potential of new technologies. All good stuff – and all totally inadequate for the needs facing instructors in the 21st century.
This blog is prompted by excellent responses from Andrew Chambers and Simon McIntyre of the University of New South Wales to an earlier post of mine: Learning to teach online: a professional-development-resource, where I somewhat harshly criticized the short five minutes videos made for instructors about online learning. I complained that these were inadequate in terms of depth and the necessary expertise needed to teach well online. I accept my criticism was somewhat unfair, because these videos were innovative and dealt with a specific need, of encouraging faculty to get involved in online learning. Nevertheless they are symptomatic of a system of training that is completely broken, at least as far as online learning is concerned (and probably also inadequate for classroom teaching, but that’s another matter).
First let’s start with the challenge. By 2016, more than half of all post-secondary students in North America (and probably Australia, the UK, and other Western countries) will be taking at least one course fully online (Ambient Insight Research, 2009), Currently around 15% of course registrations in Ontario’s post-secondary education system are in fully online courses (Ontario, 2011). This is anticipated to expand rapidly over the next few years – to at least double. If we add in a move to hybrid courses (courses with a mix of reduced classroom teaching with the rest done online), we could well end up in a few years with a majority of courses having at least some significant online component. Online teaching then is no longer a fringe activity, but is likely to be, if not already, a significant part of most instructors’ portfolio of teaching in the near future.
The current system
There is no requirement to have any training or qualification in teaching to work in a university in most Western countries. What counts is a post-graduate research degree. Indeed, at UBC post-graduate students interested in experimenting with learning technologies were often deliberately discouraged by their supervisors from doing so as it would detract from their research. Some post-graduate students who act as student instructors may get a briefing on how to manage large lecture classes, and may have a volunteer faculty member as a mentor, but that is all. Teaching in post-secondary education is now about the only profession where pre-service training is not mandatory.
The situation is somewhat different in two year colleges. Many jurisdictions (but by no means all) have a regional, state or provincial Instructor Diploma Program that some colleges require instructors to take on appointment or shortly afterwards. However, many of these programs have not been adapted to take account of online learning. I was an external reviewer for one such program a year or so ago, and there was almost no mention of online learning. This program categorized educational technology into two categories: projector technologies and non-projector technologies. Most of the technologies discussed had been in existence for at least 20 years.
Increased use of adjuncts exacerbates the problem. Being on contract, they require payment for any training, but institutions are often reluctant to train contract workers who may then leave at the end of the contract and take their training and skills to a competitor.
The lack of comprehensive and systematic training in online learning at a pre-service level places a disproportionate burden on ongoing professional development, which is at best ad hoc and variable in both quantity and quality. Above all, it is an entirely voluntary system – in other words, faculty can choose not to take any workshops or courses on teaching, if they decide – as most do – that their professional development time will be better spent focusing on research rather than teaching. Christensen and Mighty (2010) argue that less than 10 per cent of all instructors take professional development activities focused on improving their teaching, and the faculty that do opt in are often those in least need of training as they are often already excellent teachers.
Professional development departments in most universities and colleges are staffed by faculty (who themselves may have had no formal training in teaching) who are nevertheless outstanding classroom teachers. While they may provide inspiration for classroom teachers, they are often at best indifferent and at worst hostile to online learning. Indeed professional development units are often separately organized from learning technology support units, and it is the latter who are often called upon to provide professional development workshops for online learning, but with a heavy focus on using technology to support classroom teaching rather than on the re-design of teaching to develop the potential of new technologies.
Lastly, most faculty and instructors do not base their teaching practice on empirically-based evidence or research on the effectiveness of different approaches. Julia Christensen Hughes, of the University of Guelph, and Jo Mighty, of Queens University, have edited a collection of studies on research on teaching and learning in higher education (Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010). In the opening chapter the editors state:
‘…researchers have discovered much about teaching and learning in higher education, but that dissemination and uptake of this information have been limited. As such, the impact of educational research on faculty-teaching practice and student-learning experience has been negligible.’
In the same book, Christopher Knapper (also of Queens University) states (p. 229-230):
‘There is increasing empirical evidence from a variety of international settings that prevailing teaching practices in higher education do not encourage the sort of learning that contemporary society demands….Teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide skills….
[However] there is an impressive body of evidence on how teaching methods and curriculum design affect deep, autonomous and reflective learning. Yet most faculty are largely ignorant of this scholarship, and instructional practices are dominated by tradition rather than research evidence.’
Lastly, it is not as if we have to invent or discover what’s needed to teach well online. There is a well-established literature and generally agreed best practices, at least for the standard, LMS-based model of online learning, yet many if not a majority of online instructors are unaware or continue to ignore these standards. Many of the rules for good classroom teaching also apply to many aspects of online learning (and provide an excellent guide for more experimental online course design built around new web 2.0 tools) yet as Christensen and Mighty have pointed out, the vast majority of post-secondary instructors are unaware of these guidelines.
Why the system needs to change
When university education was limited to an elite few students, where faculty had a close, one-on-one relationship with students, it was possible to manage quite effectively without formal training in teaching. That is not the case today. Faculty are challenged by large classes, and heterogeneous students who learn in a variety of ways, with different learning skills and abilities. The emphasis is changing from knowledge as content to knowledge as process. Teaching methods need to be chosen that will develop the skills and competencies needed in a knowledge-base society, and on top of all this, constantly changing technology requires instructors to have analytical frameworks to help choose and use technologies appropriately for teaching.
In particular, the profound effect of the Internet on scholarship, research, work and leisure requires major reconsideration of our teaching methods, if we are to develop the skills and knowledge our students will need in a knowledge-based society. This requires comprehensive and systematic training of our instructors, not a system that depends heavily on opting-in, and that fails to reward adequately excellence in teaching as measured by the standards required in today’s context.
Moving to online learning requires a much higher standard of training for faculty and instructors. It is not just a question of learning how to use a learning management system or an iPad. The use of technology needs to be combined with an understanding of how students learn, how skills are developed, how knowledge is represented through different media and then processed, and how learners use different senses for learning. It means examining different approaches to learning, such as the construction of knowledge compared with a transmission model of teaching, and how technology best works with either approach. Above all, it means linking the use of technology to the specific requirements of a particular knowledge domain or subject area.
The expansion into online learning has been facilitated mainly by the establishment of separate learning technology support units to support faculty and instructors who do not have the experience or skills to teach online. Although this is essential, it will be prohibitively expensive to continue to expand such units as online learning continues to grow (Bates and Sangra, 2011). It is much more cost-effective to provide adequate initial pre-service training so that learning technology units can concentrate on training, professional development and R&D into new methods of teaching and learning as new technologies develop, rather than being extra staff in course development and delivery, as valuable as that is.
What needs to be done
Identifying the problem is much easier than fixing it. In particular, the culture especially of universities protects the existing system. Academic freedom is often used as an argument for the status quo, and unions in the college system insist on payment for instructors for any time spent on training over and above their normal teaching load. As we point out in our book (Bates and Sangra, 2011) this is a systemic problem. It is difficult for one institution to change for fear of top research faculty moving to another institution where training is not demanded.
1. Recognize that there’s a problem
First, it has to be recognized and accepted by institutional leaders, faculty, quality assurance boards and state funding agencies (i.e. governments) that there is a major problem here. Developing skilled post-secondary teachers (I hate the term ‘instructors’) is as much an economic development as an educational issue. If we want people with the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century, then their teachers must get the knowledge themselves about how to develop such skills, and in particular recognize that learning technologies and online learning are critical for the development of such skills.
2. Start in graduate school
It is much more economical and effective to prepare instructors properly at the start of their careers than to try to get large chunks of their time for training while in their mid or late careers. The problem needs to be tackled at the pre-service level. For those wishing to work as faculty in universities, we need to examine the post-graduate degree and in particular the Ph.D., to ensure that there is adequate time for courses on and practice in post-secondary teaching.
3. Adopt a system-wide approach
At the college level, ideally the local Council of Colleges should get together and develop a comprehensive system of training for all instructors and ensure that such a program is continually updated. Similarly, state or provincial university Presidents (or more likely Vice-Presidents) need to get together and agree a common plan and set of standards for hiring and promotion linked to proper training of faculty in teaching and learning, through the establishment of an appropriate working group that must include professionals from learning technology units and faculty development offices.
4. Set standards
The Presidents’ or VP Academics’ working group should agree on a ‘core’ curriculum, minimum standards, and measures of performance for pre-service training. No person should be hired to new tenured faculty positions without recognized training, once the training system is in place.
For in-service professional development, implement an individual professional development plan for every instructor that that is annually negotiated between the faculty member and their head of department. This plan should include regular up-dating in new teaching methods, similar to the compulsory professional development programs for medical practitioners, etc. Different plans will be needed for different subject areas.
5. Government as watch dog and enforcer
Governments should exert pressure on the university and college presidents to ensure that an adequate pre-service and in-service training system is in place, as a condition of future funding. Governments should refuse to fund any public institution that does not follow the standards for training in teaching set and endorsed by their university or college Presidents’ Councils.
6. Integrate internally
Online teaching should be seen as an integral component of professional development, not a separate activity. Therefore faculty development offices should be integrated with learning technology support units into Centres for Teaching and Learning (either centrally or divisionally, depending on the size of the institution).
We would not dream of allowing doctors or pilots do their work without formal training related to their main work activities, yet this is exactly the situation regarding teaching in post-secondary education. We have to move from good old boys’ amateurism to a professional, comprehensive and systematic system of training for teaching in post-secondary education.
I have suggested some solutions to the problem, none of which is likely to be accepted. Others, such as Tom Carey, have gone along the professional communities of practice route, which is more culturally acceptable to university faculty, but does not for me meet the test of comprehensive and systematic, which is a sine qua non for me.
Short five minute videos have their place in a systematic professional development strategy, but alone they are spitting in the wind. Online learning itself is not the cause of the problem nor the solution, but once again e-learning provides a necessary catalyst for change. Our students deserve no less than properly trained teachers. The current situation is indeed a scandal, a truth no-one dares to speak. It’s about time we dealt with it.
1. Is this system broken? Or does it work reasonably well, taking all things into consideration?
2. Do you or your institution have a comprehensive, systematic approach to faculty training and development? Would you be willing to share it?
3. Do you have better solutions than mine?
Ambient Insight Research (2009) US Self-paced e-Learning Market Monroe WA: Ambient Insight Research
Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co.
Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95
Global Knowledge Canada (2011) Looking to the Future Toronto ON: Global Knowledge Canada
Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto ON: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities