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Monday, June 16, 2008

What does it take to get faculty to redesign their courses?

Any professors who are truly interested in thinking more deeply about their teaching really should check out Steve Greenlaw's blog, if you haven't already. I always find that his posts make me think hard about my own teaching. In a recent post, Steve ponders why some faculty are more willing than others to make big changes to their courses. He observes that most faculty seem to see previous choices as constraints; that is, once we have chosen to go down a particular path, it becomes difficult (or perceived as difficult) to switch to a different path. So, for example, once we have prepped a course, most of us keep teaching that course in the same way semester after semester. This leads to a certain resistance to major changes, like adopting new technologies. And yet, there are some faculty who embrace these changes - what makes them different?

The typical economist answer is that anytime someone chooses to do something, it must be that they believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Steve points out that the decision to redesign a course can be difficult because it takes a huge amount of time and effort (i.e., the costs are high) and old courses are working just fine (i.e, the benefits are low). I'd add that most universities give faculty depressingly little incentive to make that investment. Thus, the primary benefit is 'just' the intrinsic value I personally place on being as good a teacher as I can be, and as I've mentioned before, I tend to believe a person either has that desire or they don't.

On the other hand, I think that many professors DO make at least marginal changes to their courses over time - we all tinker between semesters, tweaking things we know did not work. I know that most of my colleagues in economics at least try to keep their examples updated, to tie material to relevant current events. Of course, that is not quite the same thing as thinking deeply about pedagogy and redesigning courses, but it seems like a good place to start with faculty who may otherwise be resistant to the idea of making larger changes to their courses. If they can be shown ways to incorporate new methods incrementally (for example, having students create current event examples for you via blogs or wikis), and can be convinced that technology can actually make their life easier in the long run, I would assume more faculty would be more willing to at least give Web 2.0 a try. That is, it seems to me that rather than asking why some faculty are more willing than others to innovate with their teaching, we should be asking how we can convince our colleagues that the costs of innovation are smaller than they think, and that the benefits are larger?


  1. I think faculty perceive the costs as large and immediate, while the benefits are more amorphous and spread out over time. That may even be accurate. The costs of a fundamental rethinking of one's course *are* large, though like anything else, the more often you do it, the easier it gets. It's the uncertainty of the benefits that is the kicker.

    As you observe though, the way to incorporate any substantive change is to do it incrementally (if that's not an oxymoron). If you want to incorporate social software, it makes more sense to start with one small thing, like a blog or a wiki. That's less daunting for students and the instructor, and it makes it easier to see the marginal benefits of the innovation. And you should always start with some idea of what you're trying to accomplish pedagogically. So maybe that helps to explain the apparent oxymoron above. Think big about how you want to revision your course. But then make changes incrementally.

  2. We've begun a new track for MBA students, with compressed, on-line only courses and hybrib on-line and face-to-face courses. The faculty teaching in this program were given no--zero, none--assistance (released time, staff support, etc.) in doing the course redesigns. No one suggested best-practices. No one even talked about the differences. We just had to do it.

    This is absolutely the wrong way to get meaningful change in instructional practice.

  3. @Steve - I've definitely jumped off the deep end and am trying to completely overhaul my course in one shot but the IT folks at my institution typically suggest that if faculty want to explore new technology, they should adopt one tool at a time and assess as they go. But it does still beg the question of how to get faculty to think big about revising their course in the first place...
    @Doc - that is my worst fear! When my Dean, and even my Chair, start talking about doing more online education, it's clear they have no clue what is required to do that well - they seem to think it means being able to serve more students with fewer resources. I just have to hope that as move in that direction, the IT people will make enough noise to prevent things from falling apart.

  4. I agree that the cost/benefit analysis is probably what prevents most faculty from engaging in thorough revision of courses, but I'm not sure about convincing colleagues of the low cost of incorporating new technologies. A more convincing argument, to my mind, would be efficiency relative to course goals. Assuming a general interest in accomplishing course goals, if reluctant colleagues were persuaded that pedagogical revisions (like new technologies) would lead to more efficient attainment of course goals, then there might be greater willingness to engage in course redesign.

  5. @dispersemos - I think that's similar to Steve's point about the benefits seeming amorphous and uncertain. I don't disagree - in fact, I'm planning to talk to some of my colleagues to try to convince them that having their students do blogs or a wiki will actually reduce their own workload because students can critique each other's work - but I have to say I find it a little disheartening to think that the most effective argument with many of my colleagues is "it will make your life easier" rather than "it will be better for the students"!

  6. I disagree that blogs/wikis will make life easier for faculty. In order to ensure they are being used and used appropriately, we have to monitor all those posts, replies, etc. This takes a tremendous amount of time, although the benefits are significant -- getting students to engage each other and take ownership of participation and learning goals.

    Another case in point: My school is moving to the most recent version of Moodle this summer, and the grade book function by itself requires a good 2-3 days of training. It's very powerful, and our students love faculty who use it, but the learning curve is steep and it requires a significant time investment during the semester.

    I stopped using the "make your life easier" argument with colleagues, because I just don't think it holds water with regard to most new technologies. I do think that "good for students" is still a worthy position, though.

  7. OK, but then I don't understand what you meant in your previous comment about innovation leading to more 'efficient' attainment of course goals - what do you mean by efficiency?

  8. Yes, that does seem contradictory now that I think about it. I suppose I meant 'efficacy' with respect to learners. Learners may achieve course goals more effectively (maybe even efficiently) with the aid of technology, but tech. tools do not make instructors' lives easier IMHO (but perhaps more fun).

    Personally, I'm willing to invest time and energy to test one or two tools at a time to see what difference they make for student learning, but after having done this several times now I don't see any significant efficiencies created in my work.


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