Joe Murphy: On Professional Development, Teaching, and Virtually Connecting

An EDUCAUSE Member Profile

min read

“So a music professor and a chemistry professor are trading teaching tips, and…”

Sound like the beginning of a joke? At Kenyon College, the only thing funny about faculty interaction across disciplines, perhaps, is how swiftly it’s taken hold. (Academia doesn’t exactly have a reputation for rapid movement.)

There’s no punchline in this case, however. It’s the opening to an actual story about how faculty members are swapping ideas, best practices, and helping one another to solve an array of teaching challenges in fields they’ve perhaps never studied.

Joe Murphy serves as Director of the Center for Innovative Pedagogy at Kenyon College, and can attest to the efficacy of their programming in bridging disciplines. “My job is to buy lunch and get faculty talking,” Murphy told me, deadpan. Jests aside, his efforts are making a very real impact on the liberal arts college’s campus.

“Honestly, how do we avoid silos on campus?” Murphy asks. “How can we raise awareness of other faculty members’ pedagogical choices? How do we talk about which types of technology students are accepting and why, and what they’re resistant to? Organizations like mine need to force the question and have these conversations.”

Exchanging Ideas & Challenges

At the Center, which was established in 2011, an array of professional development programs await Kenyon faculty and academic staff. From book clubs to brown bag lunches and guest speakers to panel discussions, people are actively contributing according to their schedules and bandwidth, Murphy says.

Murphy describes it as a center for acculturation — a place to create cross-departmental dialogues and even bring up interdisciplinary opportunities. At the core of conversations are questions of instructional design and course design. “We needed a structure to keep conversations about teaching and learning occurring regularly, not just once in a while,” Murphy explained.

Representation of academic and staff divisions and faculty seniority is quite diverse, and is an important component to programs’ efficacy. “Having our faculty members meet some of their colleagues in Student Affairs, for example, gives them broader insight into the issues that are being dealt with by these folks, who are in many ways their professional allies,” Murphy said.

Strategically Embracing Technology

Murphy, who is himself trained as a librarian, has been working as an instructional technologist. But he hesitates to emphasize that last word too strongly.

“Our faculty and instructional technologists recognize that any classroom tech tools are limited by the intended goals of their use,” he explained. “If you’re just looking at more efficient ways to accomplish things you would’ve done anyhow, you’re not going to see other opportunities for improvement. Focusing on fewer lost papers and missed deadlines, for instance, versus interesting interactions in the LMS that would deepen student engagement, are going to lead to two very different scenarios.”

“More efficiency is better, of course, but what we’re most interested in is how can we holistically change the nature of the class in a way that spurs more critical thinking, boosting student engagement and learning outcomes,” Murphy said.

He’s not surprised by the proliferation of edtech, nor by an overall diminishing reluctance toward technology. “Once you’re Skyping with your own kid who’s away at college, it doesn’t seem so odd to invite a guest speaker to your class with VoIP technology, or to conduct a Google Hangout with your students.”

One unexpected trend, Murphy added, was the forward movement of instructional technologies. As faculty explore more commercial-level technologies, edtech companies also have shifted their business models and onboarding methods in ways which change support expectations and institutional costs.

“It’s neat to have people show up with ideas that are more fully baked; it means that sometimes, for example, you engage in a conversation about specific pedagogical goals, and ultimately can run farther faster. We’re positioning our faculty and staff for success in their roles, which positively affects our overarching commitment to our students at Kenyon.”

Making Virtual Connections

The Center isn’t the only place Murphy is facilitating important conversations. He also volunteers with Virtually Connecting, an organization that connects those who cannot be physically present at various academic conferences with onsite speakers and attendees for informal conversations. The emphasis on openness and increasing accessibility for academicians independent of geography or availability of travel funds appeals to Murphy.

“We have wonderful participants here in the US and globally who have incredibly valuable discussions,” he said. “We begin in a lightly structured group discussion mode and move to completely informal conversation; it’s really special, when you think about it, to have a zone where people are building friendships as well as professional networks, and engaging speakers in robust Q&A and ‘conference break’ conversation.”

He’ll be conducting between two to four meetings with session speakers when he attends the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting next month in Houston, Texas. Murphy believes that opening up dialogues beyond those on the conference floor offers greater breadth, depth and longevity to discussions that would otherwise be limited to onsite attendees.

Groups of under 10 participants will talk on Google Hangouts with Kelvin Bentley, Vice President for Academic Affairs at TCC Connect Campus of Tarrant County College District, and Lois Brooks, Oregon State University Vice Provost and CIO, about their pre-conference session on ‘Hacking Higher Ed: No Code Required’. There will also be a session with the organizers of a post-conference workshop on Digital Citizenship in the Liberal Arts. Other sessions are still being planned.

Interested in participating? Stay tuned to Virtually Connecting on Twitter to sign up for one of the Hangouts.

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.