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Incentivizing Faculty to Make Scaling the Educational Environment a Reality

The EvoLLLution | Incentivizing Faculty to Make Scaling the Educational Environment a Reality
While faculty still tend to be resistant to new technologies, institutions need to invest in and support faculty using technology to enhance their academic product—either online or in-class—to incentivize their adoption.

Scaling through technology is central to the updating of the academic environment. Today’s students, whether on-campus or online, demand a technology-enhanced educational experience that matches their past experiences and their knowledge of what is possible. Though the most visible roadblock to the adoption of these technologies is typically faculty, the structure around them disincentivizes technology-enhanced education. In this interview, Albert Powell discusses the importance of technology in the educational environment and shares his thoughts on how to help faculty become more comfortable with this switch.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How could technology be leveraged to create a more customized and personalized educational experience for students?

Albert Powell (AP): Customization is possible but it takes time and it takes effort. At some point, though, you realize that you’ve accomplished as much as possible with the time, resources and staff available. We know there are visual learners, auditory learners, hands-on learners and other learning styles I see people go on about optimizing learning for all these styles and my question is, “Who has time to do that?” To some degree, the first step is figuring out the needs of the majority. After all, if I’m a faculty member and I’m having to do a significant amount of this work myself—especially if I’m at a research institution—the rewards for putting a lot of time into customizing instruction are limited at best.

With technology you have to think about how to achieve the greatest benefit for the greatest number of students. The same goes for customization. One of the really low-hanging fruits for educators, when it comes to using technology to improve and customize the learning environment, is to stop writing on the whiteboard in large classes. After all, if you have more than 50 students in the class, the back half of the class can’t read what you’re writing. Use some kind of electronic whiteboard device and hook the output of that electronic whiteboard into the data projector for the room. In other words: make your writing big. It’s really easy to do that. That’s one way that you can do more good for more people in a physical environment.

If you’re teaching in a distance environment then the fact that you can capture and record—or just capture as a file—the annotations that you’re doing electronically becomes a huge plus. Now you can give those annotations or that content to your distance students either in a recording such as lecture capture or in a separate file that allows them to review what you’ve done.

That’s customizing the learning experience with technology and it’s really low-hanging fruit.

Evo: If an institution can provide this sort of technology-enhanced, customized learning experience, how does that differentiate its learning offerings from what other institutions offer?

AP: Understand that there’s a difference between the campus and the distance-learning environment.

In the campus environment, each student has already made a decision about where they’re going to spend their money and their time. As we have all done up to this point in history, they basically live with the shortcomings of how technology is used on the campus as well as the advantages of how it’s used.

In a distance environment, though, you have to do a great job teaching right from the start because students will vote with their feet. They’re not tied to a physical location and if they’re going to be involved in this learning process for four to five years in pursuit of a degree, they’re not going to put up with crappy distance learning materials, with bad class plans, with no posted syllabi, with no class discussions and with no media to help them understand concepts. It’s crucial to have these online learning tools in place right from the start.

Now, faculty are smart people and they don’t want to do a bad job in any aspect, and they do care about the student experience. Depending on what buttons are being pushed—by tenure, promotion, rewards and all those other things—they’ll put more or less work in improving the student experience. That’s going to differ not only on an institution-by-institution basis but also on an academic department-by-department basis.

Evo: Currently, how is technology being leveraged in the academic space?

AP: To a great degree there’s an assumption made about the best way to teach. We teach a certain way in the classroom, and many educators believe that if they simply take that format and put it online they’ve created a successful distance ed offering.

We have a weird situation in higher education in that the one thing you don’t need any training to do is teach. Nobody is required to have had any training in any aspect of teaching in order to get, at least at a research institution, a job teaching. As such, professors and instructors are learning in the classroom through on-the-job training. They’re figuring out as they go. The same thing is happening in distance education. People are learning on the job and although we’re tending to translate the classroom experience into online, we are getting smarter if we are paying attention as semesters go on.

I’ve long observed that when a faculty member creates a distance course, that course as it’s first offered to students is termed, “Course 1.0.” I’ve told faculty before by the end of the first semester you’re going to be teaching Course 1.2 or 1.3 or 1.4 because every week they’ll find things that don’t work as well as they thought, and they’ll be tweaking and changing and adjusting the course as they go. At the end of the first semester they’re probably going to have Course 1.5. Now, when will that course become stable and actually a decent course that delivers a quality experience to students? Probably around year three when you get to Course 3.0 or 4.0.

That means, by the third year, you either have a course that’s completely outdated (if you’ve neglected to adapt it) or you have a highly engaging course that has been tweaked and changed and transformed over time.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks to getting from where we are with technology to where we need to be, where technology is being used regularly in the academic environment?

AP: I think the main factors, like most things in life, are time and budget. It’s often said that the main roadblock to using technology more effectively is faculty. If that’s true, and I think actually that it is, you should take the next step and say, “Why?”

My background is at four-year research universities with large enrollments and large graduate programs. The culture at those institutions is focused on research agendas and publication; teaching is a requirement that is rarely rewarded. Fortunately a lot of institutions are starting to change their criteria for tenure, promotion and advancement, but if faculty are the obstacle then faculty also are the people moving forward. It’s important to consider why they are an obstacle to scaling through technology. In many cases, it’s simply because they have a successful way of dealing with the physical classroom and they want to translate that into an online environment. But you have to think about it from the faculty perspective. “I’ve never had any training in teaching! How do I use an online course? What’s a discussion group for? Do I have a copyright issue on my hands when I link to or embed web content?” Somebody needs to be supporting the faculty and answering some of these basic questions and maybe even building them a scaffold or creating for them an online class design that has some of the blanks filled in.

There are different possibilities for how faculty use technology just based on the sheer numbers and the amount and type of interaction and engagement that they need to do. In a big undergraduate class, faculty can use multiple choice tests but if they have 100 or more students it’s really unlikely that they’ll be closely marking assignments like essays by themselves. In a graduate class, faculty have to spend more time reading and analyzing those papers for content, accuracy, clarity, analysis, research, wording and sentence structure.

Faculty do limit what they can do because they are the people that are doing the planning and taking on the “performance” of teaching. It’s absolutely true that it’s possible to be a great instructor or a lousy instructor in any medium. You can be a great instructor face-to-face and be an inexperienced and ineffective instructor online and vice versa. There are teachers I know who never should set foot in a classroom but they are great online instructors because they’re good at interacting with people one-on-one and that’s what the online environment ideally is, a one-on-one interaction between the student and the instructor. Doing that in a 100-person undergraduate class is a whole other kettle of fish than doing it for a 10-person graduate class online, and there’s a limit to the interaction you can have. A faculty member can’t be online all the time. But somebody is online all the time, which is why one of my favourite techniques is to turn what have traditionally been instructor-student interactions into student-student interactions. Part of what instructors need to learn to do is stop being the gatekeeper for information. Don’t be the only source from which knowledge comes. Find a way to pass some of that process of talking about knowledge and discussing knowledge to the students and let them grind on it and discuss it. That’s one way that you can help deal with the time commitment and you know what? It doesn’t cost any more either.

Budgets are a big deal, but time is an even bigger deal. We estimate that a lot of the faculty at our four-year research institution invest 60 to 70 hours a week in academic work of various kinds, including research, grading, correspondence and class planning. That’s a big commitment of time and you have to have the time to make the change if that change is going to happen.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of scaling the academic experience through the use of technology?

AP: It’s important for faculty and administrators across higher education to understand that traditional-age students walking in the door right now know more about technology than they do. These are kids that, generally speaking, have been working with smart boards since they were in first grade. They are kids that have had a laptop or a tablet in their hands in many cases since they were infants. They know how to use this stuff. They live on their smartphones and are completely prepared to deal with technology. In fact, today’s generation of traditional-age students find a lack of technology boring. Now we can debate the virtue of whether that’s good or bad but let’s face it: you have got to keep up or you’re not relevant.

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