Engaging Faculty as Catalysts For Change: A Roadmap for Transforming Higher Education

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Key Takeaways

  • The Faculty Fellowship Program at the University of Minnesota aims to change faculty culture to implement effectively the thoughtful and innovative application of educational technologies.
  • Our collaborative report is both a manifesto and a roadmap for creating a broad, holistic vision of a university culture that supports excellence in teaching and learning with technology.
  • The presence of a university-wide approach to faculty development results in the institution's ability to learn from its own practices.

The University of Minnesota's Faculty Fellowship Program fosters a multidisciplinary learning community that

  • explores possibilities and good practices in technology-rich learning environments,
  • produces scholarship in this area, and
  • advances faculty leadership around these issues.

Introduced in 2000, the program grew out of the recognition that, in order for technological innovations in teaching and learning to be adopted and sustained, faculty culture needed to change. The Faculty Fellowship Program was created as a means to develop an active network of faculty practitioners who explore, test, and champion the thoughtful and innovative application of educational technologies. In its current manifestation, the program represents an 18-month commitment. Faculty apply by proposing a project they would like to work on, typically an ambitious course redesign. The program begins with an intensive 2.5-day workshop; thereafter, fellows meet in a seminar-like environment once a month to discuss topics of interest and share their work. They also meet individually with educational technology experts and researchers once a month to advance their own projects and scholarship. In addition to course redesign and research, a unique aspect of the Faculty Fellowship Program is the expectation that the fellows will collaborate on a project. Participants each receive an award of $10,000.

Bradley Cohen, Associate CIO for Academic Technology, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, addresses the strategic significance of the Faculty Fellowship Program (1:35 minutes).

Transcript: So the Faculty Fellowship Program at the University of Minnesota really has been created to build our capacity as an institution across our faculty in their ability to lead in innovating in teaching and learning with technology. One thing that's a constant message in faculty development literature and in change literature in higher ed is the notion of a faculty-led enterprise — this has to be a faculty-led enterprise. That's a noble idea, or ideal. But true faculty leadership is something you have to cultivate. And I think that the Faculty Fellowship Program positions the people who come through that program to actually lead effectively, because we equip them with a foundation of knowledge and an experience that they can apply to the really complicated space of, "How do we as an institution move forward in innovative teaching and learning?"

The fellows' report is really a call to arms; it's a roadmap that helps institutions think through the challenge of making dramatic change. I think there are a lot of voices in the air right now that say it's not a question of should we change or if we change, it's a question of how and how fast can we change? And I think that the report is a gift to higher ed to help think through, at every level of the institution, how to do that.

As the program has matured, so has our appreciation of the potential for faculty to enact positive and significant change on behalf of the institution. The collaborative project was introduced in 2008 to afford program participants the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills in the area of academic technology. The parameters of the collaborative project are broadly defined: The topic is teaching and learning with academic technology, and their first audience is the University of Minnesota community. The form, medium, and focus are left to the fellows.

John Bryson, McKnight Presidential Professor of Planning and Public Affairs, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, explains the university as a system (56 seconds).

Transcript: One of the big ideas behind this proposal, maybe even the biggest idea behind this proposal, is that the university is a system, and that if you're going to try to affect the education of students and the learning actually of the university itself, in a way that increases the effectiveness of that learning and builds capacity for learning over time, you have to treat the university as a system.

So, there are things that central administration can do about funding professional development and building the capacity centrally to provide that support that is needed to really enhance teaching and learning. There are things that colleges can do similarly. Both central and the colleges may want to consider changing some of their promotion and tenure guidelines to provide more emphasis to teaching and learning. Clearly there are things that individual departments and faculty and students also need to be doing.

While at the outset the program focuses on individual classroom innovation and redesign, gradually — and purposefully — the conversation shifts to improving instruction at the institution. Approximately 10 months into the 2010–11 program, we introduced this shift in perspective through a strategy mapping exercise (see figure 1) led by fellow John Bryson. As a group, we responded to the question "What should the university be doing in the next 2–5 years to improve education for our students?" We challenged ourselves to answer the questions "How would we do that?" and "If the university did these things, what would the consequences be?" This process of creating a broad, holistic vision set the stage for this project, which is both a manifesto and a roadmap for creating a university culture that supports excellence in teaching and learning with technology.

figure 1
Figure 1. Strategy map

One of the primary programmatic goals of the Faculty Fellowship Program is to cultivate leadership qualities in our participants. Specifically, we aim to have participants model the influence of the program by

  • discussing technology-enhanced learning with peers,
  • serving as advisors or resources to their colleagues,
  • participating in public conversations about educational technologies, and
  • engaging administrators in conversations about university policies, procedures, and future directions of educational technology.

While we have empirical evidence (from program evaluation data) and anecdotal evidence (from a host of examples) of how we have fostered a broad community of educational technology leaders, the report summarized here is, in our estimation, the best evidence of our program's impact in both form and function.

Report Recommendations

Our full report begins with a grounded response to the question "What would it take to bring about a learning revolution at the University of Minnesota?" Inspired by our individual and collective experiences in the 2010–11 iteration of the Faculty Fellowship Program, we unequivocally state that "the answer lies in a coordinated, sustained, and holistic approach to faculty development in technology-rich teaching and learning." Citing extensive internal evidence that demonstrates

  • the desire of faculty to learn more about thoughtfully employed technology in the classroom,
  • students' perceptions of technology's effectiveness and utility, and
  • empirical and anecdotal evidence of the transformational impact of educational technologies,

we establish that the demand and need for these resources is widespread. Where we fall short is in providing an environment that supports and sustains faculty exploration of new and better uses of technology in the classroom. Presently, the kind of faculty programs and experiences offered are limited in both scope and frequency. What is needed, we argue, is a diffused, "programmatic, evidence-based model of faculty development." We recognize that the resource-intensive Faculty Fellowship Program model outlined cannot scale to cover every instructor at an institution. There are, however, many actions that can be taken at various levels of the institution to improve the situation for everyone. The remainder of our report is dedicated to outlining the attributes of a university culture that support excellence in teaching and learning with technology.

Fellow Aaron Boyson, Associate Professor, Communication, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota Duluth, discusses the transformative impact of the Faculty Fellowship Program and the imperative that institutions of higher education create a faculty development culture (2:19 minutes).

Transcript: I really feel that it's important to mention how significant an experience the fellowship was to me. I know I've said it a lot when we've met, to you all, to the other fellows — having the opportunity to work with a small group of people who are not from my discipline, to have it be funded and supported fully, to have people who have expertise in teaching and learning and in the use of technology, has been unbelievable. I am quite convinced that the university that figures out how to take this fellowship and make it available to every faculty member will be the university that sets the bar for everybody else. And we've talked about it a little bit — I don't think that university exists right now. I'm not sure that the University of Minnesota system will be able to adapt and do that quickly enough, but I hope that they would. This experience has been that powerful to me. To think that for the first time, in my sixth year at the University of Minnesota, but my first time as a professor, that I will have had some formal training in teaching, is amazing but also kind of sad. I am so grateful that the fellowship was here to give me that opportunity and that you all structured it the way you did. It could have been done many different ways that were much worse and it wasn't, so I think there's a lot of magic and I want to shout that from every mountaintop that I could find to every administrator that I could find at the university, that you ought to look carefully at what's going on here, that the Faculty Fellowship Program as it exists is, as we've talked about, a critical innovation that should really be replicated, I think, in as many places as possible. I know that's a hard problem, a hard thing to do, and will take a lot of political will, and in terms of both just the restructuring that might be necessary and the problems with faculty wanting to do that, as well as the costs, either money or time. But it's definitely — I feel like for sure the information environment, the information economy that we have, demands it. So, it's a long way of saying I'm very grateful for the opportunity to have been a fellow.

In the report we delineate six features we deem necessary to faculty development programs designed to promote excellence in teaching and learning with technology. These include:

  • Fostering good practice
  • Offering an enduring and ongoing learning community
  • Incorporating expert mentoring
  • Responding to different levels of expertise
  • Embracing the iterative and experimental nature of teaching practices
  • Evaluating the impact of the program and assessing the interventions it supports

Good practices, as distinct from best practices, are grounded in scholarship that demonstrates which approaches to teaching improve student learning, given a variety of contextual and situational parameters. Ongoing learning communities consist of members who both contribute to and benefit from their collective knowledge and experiences to accomplish far more than could be done individually. Incorporating mentors with classroom experience and expertise in the scholarship of teaching and learning and educational technologies provides a solid resource base on which participants can draw for individual and collective endeavors.

Fellow Aaron Boyson shares his appreciation of the mentorship provided (47 seconds).

Transcript: Technology, information technology in particular, advances far too fast for me to be able to grasp all of the possibilities that exist, much less how to use them in my job, for my research or for my teaching, but in particular for how to improve my pedagogy, how to improve how I interact with students, and get the most out of all of my classes. This is a full-time job. And I think most people probably realize that to be at the front of technology, to be able to take advantage of all the things that the existing tools offer us, is really maybe just beyond our grasp, and we need experts to help us with that process.

Recognizing that one size does not, in fact, fit all, programs that are flexible and nimble enough to respond to the variation in skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by instructors serve participants well by meeting them where they are and providing what they need. Since many instructors receive little, if any, formal pedagogical training prior to joining the faculty, and given that teaching is not an inconsequential component of one's tenure and promotion dossier, the recognition of the iterative nature of experimentation in teaching and the rewarding of that experimentation is paramount. Systematically evaluating the impact of faculty development programs on participant attitudes, values, and behaviors and assessing the effectiveness of technological interventions in the classroom are necessary both to the justification of resources expended on the programs and to the contribution of knowledge regarding teaching and learning, respectively.

The report unpacks and operationalizes each of these six features into a series of concrete recommendations that can be implemented at the university, college or departmental, and individual instructor levels.


In addition to distributing the report widely at the University of Minnesota, we also presented it to two key constituencies: the Academic Technology Advisory Committee, which brings together key faculty, instructors, and staff across the system to provide insight and input on the university's academic technology directions and priorities, and the University Senate's Faculty Consultative Committee (FCC), which serves as the consulting body to the president and as executive committee of the Faculty Senate. Our meetings with these bodies significantly increased the visibility of both the report and the program that produced it. In late spring 2012, we received word that the budget for the program would be doubled, allowing for a near tripling of the number of participants (from six to 16) for the 2012–13 iteration of the Faculty Fellowship Program.

We are now confronting the challenges and issues related to scaling resource-intensive faculty development programs. To accommodate the greater workload that accompanies the expansion of any program, we have increased the number of consultants from two to four and the number of researchers from one to three, for a total of seven educational technology professionals. Our conversations previously took place in highly intimate and free-form seminars; we now are experimenting with additional formats designed to overcome the challenges posed by this larger group and more long-distance attendees. Regardless of the challenges, we welcome the opportunity to test our limits and put our ideas into practice.

Claudia Neuhauser

"This document is an impressive and much needed blueprint for faculty development in the area of teaching and learning with technology. Particularly valuable is the division according to University, College/Department, and Instructor, which has structured the discussions on the Rochester campus where professional development of faculty is embedded throughout the academic year and often has a focus on teaching and learning."

—Claudia Neuhauser, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Director of the Center for Learning Innovation, and Director of Graduate Studies, Biomedical Informatics, and Computational Biology at the University of Minnesota, Rochester

One promising outcome of this project is the use of the recommendations in the report to assess where departments and units are with respect to faculty development and a culture that supports teaching and learning. We think that a system-wide discussion informed by the features we have outlined can help university leaders and administrators, together with educational technology experts, identify strengths and weaknesses to help departments and colleges create and meet long-term goals with regard to integrating technology into the curriculum.

We look forward to sharing the results of our efforts with this and other communities in the future. And, we welcome the opportunity to collaborate and consult with other colleges and universities as they begin to consider the approach we have outlined here.


We would like to thank the members of the 2010-12 Faculty Fellowship Program cohort whose good work we represent here: Aaron Boyson, Associate Professor, Communication, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota Duluth; John Bryson, McKnight Presidential Professor of Planning and Public Affairs, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; Christina E. Clarkson, Assistant Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; Sehoya Cotner, Associate Professor of Teaching, Biology Program, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; Michelle Driessen, Director of General Chemistry, College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; and Carol Flaten, Clinical Assistant Professor, Population Health & Systems, School of Nursing, University of Minnesota Twin Cities. We also wish to thank the following individuals for lending their talents and skills to the completion of this article: Kem Saichaie, Dave Lindeman, Kellie Greaves, and Shayla Dallmann.