Chapter 13: Supporting teachers and instructors in a digital age
13.2.1 The need
By mid-August in most countries in the northern hemisphere, teachers’ pro-d and faculty development workshops and conferences have ended, and everyone has headed off for a well earned vacation. Many thousands will have learned how to use a learning management or lecture capture 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. A smaller but significant number 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 teachers and instructors in a digital age.
13.2.2 A broken professional development model
In universities, faculty are trained, through the doctoral route, to do research, but there is no requirement to be trained in teaching methods. At best faculty development is voluntary for faculty once appointed, and although post-doctoral students may be offered short courses or in some instances even a certificate in preparation for classroom teaching, this is usually voluntary and minimal. Indeed, post-graduate students interested in experimenting with learning technologies or taking professional courses or programs in teaching are often deliberately discouraged by their supervisors from doing so, as it would detract from their research. Increased use of adjunct/contract faculty exacerbates the problem (see Chapter 13.4). 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 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, and probably none are yet up to date on blended learning. I was an external reviewer for one such program a while ago, and there was almost no mention of online or blended learning. Most of the technologies discussed in this program were at least 20 years old.
The lack of comprehensive and systematic training 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, teachers or instructors can choose not to take any in-service 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 Hughes and Mighty (2010) argue that less than 10 per cent of all university 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.
Lastly, most faculty and instructors do not base their teaching practice on empirically-based evidence or research on the effectiveness of different approaches. Christensen Hughes and Mighty (2010) have edited a collection of studies on research on teaching and learning in higher education. 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.
This book has shown that we do not have to invent or discover what’s needed to teach well in a digital age. There is a well-established literature and generally agreed best practices, yet, as Christensen Hughes and Mighty have pointed out, many if not a majority of teachers and instructors are unaware or continue to ignore these standards.
13.2.3 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-based 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 blended, hybrid and 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 blended and 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 blended and online learning continues to grow (Bates and Sangrà, 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.
13.2.4 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 Bates and Sangrà (2011) have pointed out, this is a systemic problem. It is difficult for a university, for example, to change for fear that their best young researchers will move to another institution where training in teaching is not demanded.
There are many different ways to address this challenge. I set out one possible strategy below.
188.8.131.52 Recognize that there’s a problem
First, it has to be recognized and accepted by institutional leaders, teachers, instructors and faculty, the relevant unions, quality assurance boards and state funding agencies that there is a major problem here. Donovan et al. (2019) in a national survey of post-secondary institutions in Canada, found that while 71 per cent of all institutions rated online learning as very or extremely important for their long-term future, 79 per cent reported that the main barrier to greater adoption of online learning was inadequate training, and in only 29 per cent of institutions was it required in order to teach online.
Developing skilled teachers (and that’s what we need in schools, colleges and universities) is as much an economic development as an educational issue. If we want people with the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age, then teachers must get the knowledge themselves about how to develop such skills, and in particular recognize that learning technologies and online learning are critical components in the development of such skills.
184.108.40.206 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. Although technology will change over time, the basic essentials of teaching and learning are relatively stable. Thus 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, or develop a parallel route for developing teaching and research skills.
220.127.116.11 Adopt a system-wide approach
Ideally the state or provincial Council of Universities or Colleges, or school boards, should get together and develop a comprehensive system of training for all teachers and ensure that such programs are continually updated. Similarly, a common plan and set of standards needs to be established across a jurisdiction for hiring and promotion linked to proper training in teaching and learning, through the establishment of appropriate working groups that would include professionals from learning technology units and professional development offices.
We need to walk the talk, and use technology to support professional development. Increasingly, centres for teaching and learning are creating web sites with ‘on-demand’ resources for faculty and instructors, such as best practices in using video, podcast production, or designing a course with technology. Too often, though, other faculty development support sites focus on the technical operation of technology or just provide a schedule of faculty development workshops, rather than providing pragmatic advice on best educational practice in the use of a particular technology or medium. Also, teachers and instructors need to know about such sites – and use them.
18.104.22.168 Set standards
The system-wide working groups should agree on a ‘core’ curriculum, minimum standards, and measures of performance for pre-service training in teaching for each sector. These standards should include knowledge and skills needed by learners in a digital age. No person should be hired to new positions that have a major teaching component without recognized training in teaching, once the training system is in place.
ALT (Association of Learning Technologists), UK, provides professional accreditation of learning technologists, operating at three levels (novice, career, advanced) through certified membership of ALT (Association of Learning Technologists). It uses a combination of personal portfolios of work and peer assessment. A similar program could be extended to teachers and instructors, enabling a form of accreditation based on practice as well as taking courses.
For in-service professional development, one strategy would be to require an individual professional development plan for every teacher or instructor annually negotiated between the teacher and their head of department. This plan would include regular up-dating in new teaching methods and technologies, similar to the compulsory professional development programs for medical practitioners. Different individual professional development plans will be needed for different subject areas.
22.214.171.124 Government as watch dog and enforcer
Governments should exert pressure on school boards, colleges and universities 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 the relevant system-wide authorities.
126.96.36.199 Integrate internally
Blended and fully online teaching and learning technologies should be seen as integral components of professional development, not as separate activities. 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), where this has not already occurred.
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 a system of voluntary amateurism to a professional, comprehensive system of training for teaching in post-secondary education, and a modern, up-to-date curriculum for pre-service and in-service training of school teachers. This book attempts to provide at least a basic curriculum for this kind of training.
I have suggested some solutions to the systemic problem. Others support the professional communities of practice route (see for instance Carvalho-Fino et al., 2019), which is more culturally acceptable to university faculty, but does not meet the test of being comprehensive and systematic.
Online learning and new learning technologies are not the cause of the problem nor the solution, but they do provide a necessary catalyst for change. Our students deserve no less than properly trained teachers. The current situation, at least in post-secondary education, is increasingly unacceptable, a truth no-one dares to speak. It’s about time we dealt with it.
Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co.
Carvalho-Fina, M. et al. (2019) Twelve tips for implementing a community of practice for faculty development Medical Teacher, February 1
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
Donovan, T. et al. (2019) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2019 Canadian National Survey of Online and Distance Education Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association
Knapper, C. (2010) ‘Changing Teaching Practice: Barriers and Strategies’ in ChristensenHughes, J. and Mighty, J. eds. Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Toronto ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press
Activity 13.2 Identifying your professional training needs
1. Do you believe the professional development system is ‘broken’? Is this as true for school teacher education as it is for post-secondary education? Or does the training system in your organisation work reasonably well for teaching in a digital age?
2. Would it be better not to train faculty in universities to teach, but just put them in working groups with instructional designers and media producers?
3. Having read this book (or parts of it) can you now define your own professional training needs? Can you get support for this where you work?
4. In universities, faculty themselves control appointment, tenure and promotion committees. What could be done to make teaching count for more in appointments, tenure and promotion without weakening the academic status or standing of a university?
There is no feedback for this activity; my views on this should be clear from this section!