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7 Ways the Pandemic Changed Faculty Development

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Pandemic lessons about faculty development should be understood and factored into future offerings.

7 Ways the Pandemic Changed Faculty Development
Credit: Mikhail Abramov / Shutterstock.com © 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic changed much of how people responsible for faculty development approach their work in higher education, and many of those changes have been positive. The lessons learned from remote faculty support should be integrated into future offerings as we chart a new path for faculty development moving forward.

During the 2021 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, fifty-two faculty development professionals from across the United States and abroad gathered to share the lessons they learned during the previous twenty months of supporting higher education faculty through the pivot to remote teaching. One of these participants, Holly Zakos, senior instructional technologist at Lehigh University, pointed out that we "were all struggling with the same issues of dealing with unprepared faculty and trying to get everyone ramped up to teach online at once. … Now [we're also] trying to keep up with lessons learned while combating faculty burnout."

In this article, we discuss seven changes in faculty development brought about by the pandemic, including lessons we have learned at our institutions, examples of how faculty development has changed, and contributions from participants during the conference session. Our goal with this article is to ensure that the innovations prompted by this very difficult time are carried forward and continue to be built upon as we chart a new course for faculty development.

1. Institutional Perspective Shift

As the transition to remote teaching and learning became the main focus of institutions and workplaces, the skill sets of learning designers became essential to institutional initiatives. The field experienced a shift in perspectives, both externally and internally. The day-to-day work of a learning designer became even more diversified. Awareness of the learning design field increased across all levels: faculty, staff, and especially administration. Learning theories and frameworks became both essential and recognized as important on a large scale. The skills in social and emotional intelligence that many designers in the field have so expertly cultivated were imperative for institutions during this time.

Internally, while creating faculty development offerings, designers had to continually display empathy to balance faculty burnout, scaffold programming to meet the needs of faculty with wide ranges of technical skills, and assist in determining individual priorities for each faculty member creating a virtual learning environment based on their content. While we often do many of these in our work already, we were forced to deliver new virtual offerings that were timely and available in an extremely compact time frame. For example, some instructors needed to learn to use video proficiently to demonstrate ballroom dancing techniques, while others were looking to incorporate active learning strategies in an online synchronous course. Most instructors had a week or less to transition their in-person courses to a virtual environment, and almost all needed some type of training, consultation, or upskilling to do this successfully.

Regarding this perspective shift, conference session participant Lindsay Wood, manager of instructional design at Penn State Abington, stated, "When reflecting on the impact of pandemic teaching, those of us working in faculty development and learning design know that there has never been and likely will never be another opportunity to upskill faculty and improve teaching and learning so broadly. It's important … to really take a deep dive into how we meet the moment and ensure the positive changes are lasting. It would be a shame to squander a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adopt innovative practices because we didn't adequately identify the lessons learned and apply them to the future." This seemed to resonate with many participants; they want to see the positive changes from the past two years integrated at an institutional level.

2. New and Changed Faculty Development Modalities

Just as each institution's courses needed to pivot to remote instruction, so did many faculty development offerings. Numerous institutions reported that during the initial shift to remote instruction, workshops were offered in a variety of ways: remote one-on-one consultations, small virtual groups, and large Zoom or Microsoft Teams webinars. The size and scope of these offerings depended on the size of the institutions' faculty development group. Across institutions, sessions were recorded and given to faculty to quickly scale, which led to upskilling many faculty who were new to remote or online teaching. In addition, many institutions created resource sites for just-in-time and reference information for faculty amid the transition to remote instruction. The summer after the pivot provided many institutions the time to create multi-week synchronous and/or asynchronous offerings that capitalized on their learning management systems (LMSs).

By fall 2021, despite many institutions' having returned to in-person courses, session participants overwhelmingly reported that their institutions were continuing to offer online synchronous faculty development sessions (sometimes to the exclusion of all other modalities). However, a number of institutions are returning to offering in-person engagements in addition to the new modalities. Part of this change is a focus on extra planning and coordination, including communication of social and health norms for each unique session, and many offerings are in a mixed modality, streaming the sessions to an online audience. While this type of offering took additional planning, keys to success included embracing the discomfort of in-person interactions—especially with the first few that were offered in-person—along with reminding both faculty developers and faculty to enjoy the in-person opportunities when possible.

3. Accessibility and Inclusivity

This shift of dominant modalities for faculty development has been beneficial for a variety of reasons, most importantly those surrounding accessibility and inclusivity. Online synchronous sessions boast ease of attendance and increased enrollment, as remote sessions are often more equitable and accessible to a larger portion of faculty members for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., scheduling, disability concerns, and parenting responsibilities). Additionally, many online synchronous sessions are still being recorded, closed captioned, and shared with faculty who are unable to attend, increasing accessibility and the potential faculty audience even further by making these offerings available both synchronously and asynchronously. Some institutions have made recordings and resources searchable so faculty can easily find what they need. In addition, for those institutions that created multi-week synchronous and/or asynchronous offerings, these workshop series are offered regularly once or twice each year, increasing the opportunities for faculty participation.

4. Content and Delivery Improvements

The change in workshop modalities was not the only shift in the faculty development community. At some institutions, more faculty voices were incorporated into workshops, creating a platform where faculty could share best practices and classroom success stories with each other. This allowed a variety of perspectives to be shared—rather than hearing from just one voice with one perspective, faculty across institutions were exposed to a variety of teaching strategies from a multitude of disciplinary content areas. The inclusion of faculty teaching "experts" in these conversations encouraged social learning opportunities, which often led to more consistent and lasting changes in teaching practices. Some offerings also focused on student perspectives, such as incorporating student panels and asking faculty to work through an online student orientation course.

Incremental learning opportunities became not just good practice but necessary in helping faculty upskill quickly. Because time was of the essence, faculty development offerings needed to provide clear standards and directives. Faculty were presented with the bare minimum needed to get started with teaching online and, later, offered just-in-time training based on feedback and observations. Creating and providing LMS templates with varying levels of complexity (i.e., beginner, intermediate, advanced) allowed faculty to focus on content shifts and remote teaching strategies rather than online resource presentation. Some institutions even created microcredentials that helped break down large chunks of materials into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Across all institutions, there has been an increased focus on interactivity and the modeling of key teaching practices within faculty development sessions. The pacing of the participant interactions within the sessions, which included active learning strategies every 5-7 minutes, was key in many professional development offerings. This seemed to be consistent across higher education institutions and can be aligned to one of the most frequently cited papers in educational psychology, George Miller's "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which theorizes that there is a limit to short-term memory capacity for processing information that includes seven chunks of information, plus or minus two, at once.Footnote1

Finally, the past two years forced us all to realize the importance of technical fluency in faculty engagement offerings. As was noted in one Blackboard LMS blog post, "One of the greatest challenges in the abrupt transition to fully remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic was the lack of fluency in the tools of teaching online."Footnote2 Although institutions typically offer a variety of technologies to their instructors in training and onboarding sessions, those sessions are not always required. We need to rethink the opportunities we provide instructors and staff to become technically fluent. Instructors who teach online courses are often required to take courses on the technologies that they use and on the pedagogical applications of those tools, but residential instructors are not always required to do the same. The pandemic taught us that a lack of investment in technical fluency for almost all faculty and staff is a costly mistake. As a result, some institutions are continuing to offer "tech academies" or similar initiatives for new faculty and staff.

5. Rapid Iteration Based on Feedback

The switch to remote teaching forced faculty developers to improve how they gather and incorporate feedback from workshops and sessions. Because workshops were developed incredibly quickly (sometimes within only a few days or even hours, rather than weeks or months), an iterative approach to workshop creation and revision was necessary. About a third of the participants said that they surveyed faculty, in part to determine what was beneficial about their offerings but more importantly to identify what could be improved for future workshops. This led to feedback being integrated into workshop revisions quickly so that the next offering could better meet faculty needs.

6. Resource Sharing

In many examples discussed during the session, faculty development resources were shared during the pandemic far more widely than ever before. Instructional designers and faculty developers created a wide variety of templates (sometimes with varying degrees of complexity, such as beginner, intermediate, and advanced) for structuring LMSs and syllabi; aligning goals, objectives, and assessments; digital assessment measures; and other areas of instruction that needed to be quickly brought online.

The teaching support community has long been known for its collaborative spirit, and the early days of remote teaching and learning made this more apparent than ever. Over the past two years we shared ideas, resources, and practical templates with our colleagues to help each other develop resources at a breakneck pace. This allowed materials to be accessed by more faculty than ever before, often gathered into central, easily accessible repositories. We have proven that we can come together not only to share resources with each other but also on national and international levels by sharing our work on highly visible platforms, such as those provided by EDUCAUSE.

7. Focus on Mental Health and Empathy

Faculty support staff recognized very quickly that they were susceptible to overwork and burnout at the beginning of the pandemic, just like faculty and students. Over the past two years, we realized that we need to shift our thinking about productivity and acknowledge the reality that we are living in a time when many people's lives are consumed with a wide variety of stressors and that the pace at which many of us were working at the onset of the pandemic is not sustainable. We need to remember to take vacations, routinely evaluate our workloads, and make adjustments based on priorities from leadership and encourage our colleagues to do the same. Additionally, we need to celebrate our (and our faculty's) successes regularly and in real time when possible. This can help improve morale, but discussions of positive outcomes can also help inform and strengthen subsequent course iterations.Footnote3

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, we are not the only faculty developers participating in these discussions. In "Faculty Development Post COVID-19: A Cross-Atlantic Conversation and Call to Action," the authors asserted, "In purpose-driven institutions like colleges and universities, all stakeholders need to be engaged in discussions that determine answers to what is essential in their communities at the institutional level in response to the challenges resulting from COVID. … Our practical advice is to offer faculty development programming that acknowledges and accounts for career stages and work-life issues; creating communities bound less singularly by discipline, institution, or nation but more purposefully and thematically organized in global communities."Footnote4 Our conversations with other faculty developers during the 2021 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference epitomized this idea and made clear that the changes we made to our work over the past two years cannot be ignored. We cannot—and should not—go "back to normal."

Participants such as Laura Thompson, learning strategies coordinator at Delaware Technical Community College, enthusiastically shared their experiences and learned from others. She remarked, "It was refreshing to have an opportunity to exchange ideas. … I realized that I was not alone in my experiences, and I also developed some thoughts for next steps. A takeaway from this session was that the questions from the session formed the foundation of a discussion that we had in-house to assess our past year." Our hope is that we will continue to improve the field of faculty development collaboratively, incorporating both what we have learned over the past two years and also what we learn from each other.

Notes

  1. George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," Psychological Review 63, no. 2 (1956): 81–97. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Robert Speed, "4 Ways Education Will Change Post-COVID-19," Blackboard Blog, Blackboard, July 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Dan Donaldson, "The Role of Faculty Development in the Future of Online Education," The EvoLLLution, November 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Vicki L. Baker and Christel Lutz, "Faculty Development Post COVID-19: A Cross-Atlantic Conversation and Call to Action," The Journal of the Professoriate 12, no. 1 (2021): 55–79. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

Amy Kuntz is an Instructional Designer, Teaching and Learning with Technology, at the Pennsylvania State University.

Sara Davis is an Instructional Designer, Teaching and Learning with Technology, at the Pennsylvania State University.

Erica C. Fleming is the Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning, College of Information Sciences and Technology, at the Pennsylvania State University.

© 2022 Amy Kuntz, Sara Davis, Erica C. Fleming. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.