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No One Is an Island, But How Can We Build a Continent? (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | No One Is an Island, But How Can We Build a Continent? (Part 2)
Avoiding the creation of a micromanagement culture is critical, but senior leaders must still be actively engaged in the activities of their teams. This is where organizational culture becomes particularly important.

This is the second installment in a four-part series by Jamie Holcomb on the creation of engaging and inclusive faculty communities. In the first segment, Holcomb outlined the issues with the nomenclature we assign to adjunct faculty and instructors. In this installment, Holcomb will discuss the creation of educational partnerships and the importance of expectation management.

To See, or Not to See: Developing Partnerships

As mentioned earlier, being an online adjunct can be lonely. And, regardless of your motivation level, the lack of recognition of your hard work and effort can eventually lead to diminished motivation and a further sense of isolation. In a 2011 study by Vera Dolan titled, The Isolation of Online Faculty and Its Impact on Their Performance, she states the following:

The results of this study suggest a few issues that online schools must address in their efforts to improve adjuncts’ sense of affiliation and loyalty to their institution, which in turn will positively affect student retention levels. The main issues of concern to adjunct faculty are (a) inadequate frequency and depth of communication, regardless of the means used, whether online or face-to-face; (b) lack of recognition of instructors’ value to the institution; and (c) lack of opportunities for skill development.[5]

The second point raised in the excerpt above specifically references instructor recognition. This presents a challenge for some institutions based on their approach to working with online adjuncts. As mentioned initially, some institutions maintain limited contact with their online adjunct faculty and communicate with them sporadically at best. When working with people in this way, it is next to impossible to recognize their contributions or value to the organization. The flip side, and a topic of recent debate, is the generation of too much oversight, or micromanagement of faculty.

But what do we actually see?

Do we actively visit online classrooms? Do we take time to see all the wonderful ways people are engaging their classrooms? The answer lies in how we approach this and “expectation management” which I will touch on next. My belief is that we should take time to truly see what is going on in the classroom. How else can we possibly recognize work and acknowledge innovation and accomplishment?

Some universities have embraced the concept of team leads or leaders, who are often experienced, successful, veteran online faculty. The role itself is likely approached differently by different institutions. Some online organizations rely on team leads to keep administrators informed of what is going on within the classroom and of those faculty meeting or not meeting expectations outlined by the university.

While this is important, more important to me is the development of educational partnerships. Again, this can be a hurdle to overcome especially for faculty who are used to being on their own.

To my mind, an educational partnership is an arrangement in which two or more individuals share the benefits and challenges of an educational endeavor. This definition suggests that no one is alone and educators are always working in “partnership” with each other. This term can be applied to almost any combination of stakeholders within education, which is why I like it. It fosters teamwork and collaboration. By using this term, there is shared responsibility and therefore a natural give-and-take of information that is continuous and beneficial for all partners in the educational endeavor.

The basis for any successful partnership is trust. Without it, there really is no partnership. So the question is, how do we establish trust with people we never see in person?

It’s not easily obtained, but it is, without a doubt, possible. The answer is consistent, caring support of instructors’ work within the classroom by team leads, to include the frequent acknowledgement of successes (big or small). This should also accompany two-way conversations about strategies that strengthen the work within the classroom by navigating those challenges together (shared responsibility).

Furthermore, it is important for administrators to become the third partner, so to speak, to recognize instructor contributions, ideas and innovation within the classroom in a larger forum while also tackling challenges together with faculty and team leads as well. It is important to mention that successful partnerships do rely on frequent communication which might be a relatively new concept for online adjuncts and one that can contribute to feeling “micromanaged.” So how do we address that?

Expectation Management: Establishing a Culture of Community

My husband says that the key to happiness is expectation management. What does this mean?

To me it means that we’re happier overall when we have a good idea of what to expect. Knowing what to expect ahead of time naturally reduces many unwanted surprises, unnecessary worry, and even disappointments. Expectation management, with regard to establishing community in an online forum, might present itself in many different ways. As mentioned above, frequent communication with those instructors who haven’t experienced much contact before can lead to the feeling of being micromanaged.

In an effort to avoid that, we should work to establish the culture of the organization/group/team right from the start by explaining the communication plan, the goal/expectation/joy of teamwork, and the connections instructors can expect to forge throughout the term. By establishing the culture ahead of time, it helps reduce worry and frustration because frequent communication is now expected and “normal” for the culture of the institution or team. To further the success of an accepted culture of teamwork and collaboration, the communication plan/teamwork message should be shared frequently so that it stays in the forefront of everyone’s thoughts and awareness. Words like “we” “our” “us” “team” “together” “in collaboration” “colleagues” etc. should be used whenever possible instead of “you” and “your” which are singular in nature. One should focus on bringing everyone together by choosing the right words to express positive and friendly collaboration within the team/group/organization.

Furthermore, I believe that community, friendship and collaboration are not achieved through formality. What do I mean? The key to forging strong and effective team-based relationships lies in keeping communications simple. Formality reinforces separation between faculty, team leads and administration by emphasizing distinct roles. By communicating in a more relaxed and simple manner, one creates a framework for collaboration and teamwork. The message of “we are all in this together” is more easily read and put into practice by all members of the team regardless of seniority, position or role when the message uses inclusive language meant for everyone.

In the next installment of this series, Holcomb will discuss the creation of virtual communities. All references will be listed in the conclusion.

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