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…


3 thoughts on ““Workshopped!”

  1. Interesting comments, Jeff. I would hate to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater, so the concept of completely eliminating workshops strikes me as too radical. Rather, I would suggest that workshops be refocused into the “how” category, whereas the “why do it” category needs to be more individually or cohort focused. This suggests faculty developers need to get out of their Centers and into the schools, building relationships and projecting the “why.” When critical mass takes over, workshops provide the efficient mechanism for limited Center resources to provide the “how to do it” training to larger numbers of faculty.

  2. Perhaps the terminology around “workshops” needs a “makeover”. Oh, how I hate that cliché. But, what I mean is that by designing sessions to be more participatory learning opportunities and reflecting that in the language of our promotional materials, we may better define our goal and attract new participants. How about dropping the term workshop and adopt something like “learning circle”. We might further consider a learning circle to be a group conversation and possibly hands-on experience, which is designed to lead individuals or special groups toward consultation which will address their specific needs. As you said, (ultimately) “Informal consultations and small projects with individual faculty may be more impacting…”

  3. Pingback: compos(t)ing » Favorite things from ELI 2008

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