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Untangling Academic Transformation through Untethered, Equitable Professional Development

min read

Faculty development in the digital, connected age needs to evolve. Flexible, untethered professional development models are emerging that offer all educators (not just teaching staff) opportunities to experiment, reflect, and grow at their own pace.

Untangling Academic Transformation through Untethered, Equitable Professional Development
Credit: Michelle Pacansky-Brock 2019, photo by Kodomut, Flickr, CC-BY

Reimagining the traditional face-to-face, lecture-based instructional model is at the heart of academic transformation in higher education, and faculty development is central to this change. Getting faculty to want to modify how they teach will enable grassroots experimentations to gain traction and inspire systemic change. Yet this process first requires faculty developers to recognize and support the affective dimension of teaching and learning and, in turn, experiment with more human-centered approaches. Expect it to be messy.

Recognizing Faculty Culture

Creativity and risk-taking in the classroom begin with innovations in faculty development. The work of Lauren Herckis, an anthropologist at Carnegie Mellon University, unveils the messy, human side of teaching. In a study comprised of faculty at research universities, Herckis found that faculty members are reluctant to try new teaching approaches that utilize technology even when research shows the practices are effective. That might not come as much of a surprise to many of us, but here's where her work is vital to academic transformation. Herckis noted that faculty members aren't resisting change because they don't care about teaching; in fact, they resist change because they do care about teaching. Changing what you care deeply about is a struggle, as it requires one to let go of long-held beliefs.

Faculty members are human beings with busy lives navigating a complex academic culture that now expects them to be experts and innovators at the same time. This is a paradox riddled with emotion. They are just as susceptible to imposter syndrome—the psychological fear that they are less knowledgeable than their peers—as any other person. They're expected to possess all the answers, experiment with new teaching approaches, and integrate technologies with pedagogy. If you haven't previously walked in these shoes, it isn't easy. Experimenting with educational technologies requires faculty to remove their emotional armor and be vulnerable.

Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, has conducted research that points to vulnerability as "the birthplace of innovation and change," but it's also the thing that faculty have been enculturated to avoid like the plague. In our quest for academic transformation, vulnerability must become an organizational value that is modeled regularly. If we want faculty to alter their approaches and mind-sets, leaders and faculty development must do so as well. If you organize faculty development efforts, consider your reaction the next time the same handful of faculty members show up to one of your workshops. Pause before you shake your head and proclaim, "That's it. Things will never change." Examine your reaction and reflect upon how you might design different learning pathways that empower more academics to grow in tune with their own rhythm.

Relying on the workshop model to transform teaching and learning poses many barriers to change:

  • First, it affirms the hierarchy between face-to-face and virtual learning, a bias held by most faculty members, as face-to-face lecture is the traditional model through which they likely learned and succeeded in college.
  • Second, most college-level faculty are adjunct or non-tenure-track employees and are not on campus all the time. As such, they are often inadvertently left out of onsite workshops.
  • Further, attending an in-person workshop is a greater psychological risk for faculty who are straddling the chasm—that is, they see the opportunities that new technological approaches hold, but they also feel guilty for abandoning their traditional ways and may be skeptical about what their attendance might symbolize to their peers.
  • Finally, face-to-face events don't foster digital literacy as effectively as learning in an online environment.

Moving Toward Connected Learning with Untethered Faculty Development Models

Faculty development in the age of digital, connected learning needs to evolve. Flexible, untethered professional development (PD) models are emerging that offer all educators (not just teaching staff) opportunities to experiment, reflect, and grow at their own pace. Maha Bali, an associate professor at American University of Cairo, and Autumm Caines, an instructional designer at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, have called for more use of connected learning to foster ownership, equity, and agency in what they refer to as "educator development," a more inclusive term acknowledging the important roles of instructional designers, support staff, and administrators in the process of facilitating academic transformation.

Existing connected learning models like #DigPins, Virtually Connecting, Twitter Journal Club, and Marginal Syllabus—all highlighted by Bali and Caines—represent collaborations among connected educators with a dedication to open pedagogy. That may feel like a big leap for some faculty developers to make. There is also a need for models of untethered PD to support early adopters of technology and scaffold the development of digital literacies that are required for participation in connected learning.

  • CSU Channel Islands untethers face-to-face workshops by inviting faculty to attend in person or via video conferencing software called Zoom. Workshop summaries and slides are shared openly on the Teaching & Learning Innovations blog, increasing access to more educators at CI and beyond. This model ensures that time and place are not barriers for professional growth.
  • Building on this idea, the California Community College system offers free, online conferences delivered through Zoom that can be attended online, from anywhere, or from one of dozens of group viewing rooms across the state. In October 2018, more than 1,100 educators attended Can•Innovate, coordinated by the California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative/@ONE. Sessions showcased teaching and learning innovations from faculty and staff across 114 colleges and included a student keynote speaker, Natalie Miller, and Laura Gibbs, an innovative online teacher and thought leader in connected learning. Participants sent out more than 700 tweets with the conference hashtag, and all sessions were archived and publicly distributed with a CC-BY license to encourage sharing and reuse in ongoing PD efforts.

These replicable models for untethered professional development may serve as stepping stones for other institutions seeking to improve the digital literacy of faculty and staff and encourage educators to recognize that meaningful learning can take place off-campus. Designing faculty development offerings with choices constitutes a more human-centered model that will support the affective and cognitive dimensions of teaching and learning and diminish the privileged position of place-based learning.


Michelle Pacansky-Brock is faculty mentor in digital innovation for the California Community Colleges' California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative/@ONE.

© 2019 Michelle Pacansky-Brock. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.