I’ve been at the ELI Annual Conference the last few days, and as always it has been both an energizing and thought provoking experience. It will take some time to cook this stew down, but I wanted to take some time here to comment on a session I sat in on yesterday.

Gardner Campbell from the University of Mary Washington, led a learning circle session guided by the framing question: What are creative, innovative ways to engage and motivate faculty to develop their expertise in information technologies? This session was at the end of the day and the room filled to capacity – 70 people or so – in a circle…well more like an amorphous oval. Gardner asked each person to go around and do a brief intro, sharing something that was happening at their institution with faculty development that was working or that they were challenged by. As might be suspected there was a good deal of diversity, but also some impassioned beliefs about what works and what does not. I was struck by the following two themes:

1) Workshops don’t work! There were several folk who were fairly vehement about this, saying that they tried and tried and tried, but that in the end workshops had little impact on meaningful change. “We have stopped doing workshops!” stated one participant. A faculty member at the session underscored this idea by stating, “I don’t like being workshopped!” This was the first time I had heard this phrase, and it spoke to some pretty powerful feelings that I think lie beneath the surface for many faculty – that they see workshops as something done to them as if they somehow were in need of fixing and repair. This is a problematic notion that needs to be addressed by those interested in engaging faculty in the meaningful use of technology for learning. The workshop format and notion is overloaded with negative perspectives for a significant number of faculty in the academy…they will never come to the table.

I think we have all had our fair share of being in some poorly designed workshops and sloppy conference sessions, so it is not difficult to understand how time-constrained faculty members can quickly become inoculated to the notion of attending workshops. And while I tend to agree with the views on overall efficacy, I’m not sure workshops can be easily dismissed. Part of this has to do with the many complex variables that intersect at a particular college / university – numbers of faculty, technology resources, IT support, staff capacity, mission of university, etc. – sometimes workshops can’t be done because of limited resources, and sometimes they are done because of large numbers of faculty who expect to receive (and prefer) some F2F learning opportunity. There is not a clear formula for deciding here. Each institution is different, and this gets sorted organically – or perhaps chaotically – as the variables dictate.

That said, I came away thinking once again that the workshop notion is in real need of some [re]conceptualizing. I do not have an answer. But, I think one of the things that may be key here is the notion of formal v. informal learning opportunities. Informal consultations and small projects with individual faculty may be more impacting, and one challenge is how to capture some of this for larger groups or cohorts…consistently and with limited resources.

2) Faculty Learning Communities are Gaining Traction! Several people in the session indicated that they were beginning to explore the FLC notion and wanted to hear more about how they function and work. I found this to be fairly encouraging. The idea of faculty learning communities has been around for a while, and I found it encouraging that this idea was being more widely considered by those with an IT focus. I suspect that one of the reasons for this might be that university teaching and learning centers across the country are taking on increased responsibility for working with faculty on exploring and using IT to support learning. This is a trend that is likely to increase in my opinion, and I think represents an opportunity to – collectively – begin to have some real impact. I have been engaged in facilitating a faculty learning community focusing on enhancing teaching and learning for the past two years, and it has been a hugely rewarding experience. I plan to blog about the FLC a bit here in a follow-up post.

Overall, the session was engaging and I was happy to see so many people at ELI take up the question of the challenges of faculty development. These challenges in my opinion are significant. Perhaps collectively, we can really begin to chip away at some of this and make some lasting impact. I’m hopeful…


Technology innovation and the adoption dilemma

One of the things I have been paying more attention to recently is the extent to which much of the IT professional development we offer to faculty, primarily attracts the early adopters. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice because we receive early confirmation that the ideas, tools and practices we are putting on the table are actually of interest to someone else…albeit the numbers of folks is usually rather small. It’s a curse, because it leaves us at a loss for taking the next steps to attract and engage the next wave of potential adopters…faculty who may be sitting on the fringe, interested but unsure about what the new technology or practice might offer them.

We tend not to think about this until the numbers of faculty showing up for a particular workshop dwindles to almost zero. Then we start scratching our heads, wondering why more folks don’t “see the light” that we see. Workshops often work well for the early adopters. As a group, they are easy to work with because they are already interested in learning and exploring, and come to the table with a strong dose of being self-directed when it comes to technology.

For those of us involved in faculty development, I think early workshop success can be misleading and can lead to a false sense of success, reinforcing the perceived need to run workshops and training sessions. Don’t get me wrong, workshops are a necessary evil. They serve an important function of providing initial introductions to new tools, act as conversation starters, and provide faculty with the important opportunity to network with colleagues. But these are largely hit-and-run events, and can’t sustain adoption of new practices on a larger scale.

At the same time, the world in which we live, teach and learn in is becoming increasingly complex. Change is rapid and the sheer amount of information generated is overwhelming. Early adopters of technology innovations – instructional technologists included – often pick this stuff up quickly and then move on to something else. The question becomes how we can sustain our enthusiasm and interest in a particularly useful technology while it takes time –sometimes several years -for the second wave and late adopters to also find it of value? Bill Buxton, a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recently talked about the concept of the long nose of innovation. In this piece he describes how much innovation is often of low-amplitude and takes place over long periods of time, sometimes as much as 10 years.

I think this creates a bit of a practice dilemma for the instructional technologist working with faculty members interested in exploring technology to support learning. As we take the time to learn about the next emerging tool – Twitter, Ning, Facebook, blogs, podcasting wikis, etc. – we forget that the vast majority of faculty we encounter in our work will not likely adopt these tools for years, if at all! By the time the long nose of innovation runs its course, entire new chapters of internet history will have been written. From this perspective it seems that most technological innovations in education are limited to the early adopter, constraining potential change on a wider scale.

With the mad rush to the “next best thing” how can we pay more attention to and provide more support for the deliberate consideration of the instructional value of these tools to the folks who don’t see it the way early adopters see it? It takes more time. Change is slow. Workshops and online tutorials are not for everyone. The idea of “bringing it to scale” may not have a logical and linear progression, that includes a neatly designed workshop series, or community of practice, or whatever, that will bring along others to engage in similar practices.

Has the pace of innovation outstripped our capacity to exist simultaneously at multiple points on the adoption curve? Perhaps we need to slow down a bit ourselves, find a balance. A balance between engaged participation, deliberate reflection, and importantly a continuous and embedded critique of what we are exploring. I guess it’s that last part that seems to come late in the game…usually just before we head off exploring the next greatest tool that will change education and learning…forever.