Sunday, March 24, 2013

Transforming Classes, Transforming Faculty

One of the most interesting facets of the transformation movement in higher ed right now is the way that, in the process of transforming individual courses, the instructors (and members of the teaching team) are also being transformed.  This is even true of MOOC instructors.  I was excited to read about the case of Dr. M. Ronen Plesser, a physics professor at Duke.  Said Dr. Plesser, "I found that producing video lectures spurred me to hone pedagogical presentation to a far higher level than I had in 10 years of teaching the class on campus."  I had exactly the same experience when I recorded the lectures for my Intro to Rome class in Summer 2012. 

So what, exactly, is happening?  At least a couple of things: first, changing the platform and audience of a course encourages the instructor to think hard about how the course actually works, how students learn the content.  Second, whether collecting data from a massive audience or simply getting increased and useful feedback via surveys, these courses and the students in them are being studied.  Instead of the fairly useless end of semester surveys, students are completing surveys and other forms of feedback throughout the semester; and questions are far more targeted to the specific learning objectives and strategies of the individual course. We are getting a far more instructive picture of how, exactly, are students are learning (or not learning); and what they need to improve their learning.  In basic terms, faculty are finally getting an opportunity to learn how to teach and assess, usually with help from learning and assessment specialists; and are getting useful feedback on the efficacy of their pedagogy.

It's not just courses that are improving, in other words, it's the instructors who are teaching them.  The value of this second part is enormous, because it suggests that these "transformed" instructors will apply their newly acquired knowledge of pedagogy and assessment to their other courses.  This is a very strong argument for ensuring that faculty remain deeply involved in any course transformation project--that they are treated as partners and not just content specialists who "perform".  It is also a strong argument for instituting serious incentives for faculty to take part in course transformation projects.  It is an opportunity for colleges and universities to train faculty in the latest pedagogical techniques, get them up to speed, and improve their teaching in a range of courses and over a stretch of time.

The course transformation projects also provide younger academics with important training in the newest pedagogy.  Graduate student teaching assistants have a rare opportunity to be a part of the teaching teams and to see how the process works from the inside.  Just to give a single example: one of my teaching assistants commented to me the other day that, at the start of the semester, he was pretty skeptical about the idea that a 400 person, intro humanities course could ever include useful discussion.  At about week three, though, he started to see the way that i>clicker polls, peer discussion, and other techniques could be used to do just that.  It wasn't just that he saw those tools being used in a large auditorium full of students--it's that he saw them being implemented in a way that worked.  Having had this experience as a teaching assistant, he is much more likely to use them himself, and to know "best practices" for using them.  Over the year, in fact, more and more graduate students have become interested in working with me and learning some of the techniques for  flipping a large lecture course.

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