To successfully launch and sustain a new digital learning initiative to address equity gaps, colleges and universities need to make time and space for faculty to prepare new teaching practices. Effective faculty development for adaptive learning is an essential part of implementing a pilot or new project.
Dr. Ruanda Garth-McCullough, Associate Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream, works with colleges to build those structures, including providing technical assistance to Every Learner Everywhere’s pilot project. She has also been a contributor to several of the in-depth guidebooks and other resources on equity-centered digital learning developed by the Every Learner network partners.
If an adaptive learning implementation plan doesn’t account for how faculty will learn a new technology, the project won’t have the desired impact, says Garth-McCullough. “If you look at the faculty work week and their responsibilities, there’s often no time or support for professional development,” she explains.
“Without a strong support system, faculty may try the new courseware, struggle through it, then leave it on the shelf,” she says. “But even more important than the tool is this opportunity to support effective instruction.”
Garth-McCullough says effective faculty development for adaptive learning implementations have these essential characteristics:
- It’s team based. Everyone works together to share strategies, troubleshoot issues, and brainstorm ideas.
- It’s “just-in-time”learning. Faculty can get training when they implement it in their courses, rather than being expected to just take big chunks of time before the semester starts.
- It’s contextualized. The training is highly relevant to the unique needs of the institution, its faculty, and the student body it serves.
- It’s non-threatening. Faculty feel comfortable enough to be open and vulnerable about their teaching practice.
Those characteristics are all woven into the three models for effective faculty professional development that Garth-McCullough recommends.
1. Expert faculty model
One faculty development model for colleges and universities implementing digital learning technology is to identify “rock star” expert faculty members who are already using a courseware or other product and establish them as a resource to help peers.
At one community college Garth-McCullough’s team worked with, a faculty member in the statistics department had been using adaptive courseware for years. (In a previous article, she called examples like this “random acts of adaptive” that she frequently finds already underway on many campuses.) That faculty member became the main resource for her peers, developing training modules on how to teach the course with adaptive learning software and tracking its effectiveness.
The expert faculty model can be very effective for a department-wide implementation, but it can be difficult to scale throughout the institution, Garth-McCullough notes. “You’re not going to have that faculty member in every course who you want to work with,” she says. “But it is a way to start.”
2. Centralized faculty development model
Another model to help faculty implement adaptive learning is to create a centralized team of instructional designers and technologists.
This was an impactful approach for one college Garth-McCullough’s team worked with that has multiple campuses operating independently. Instructional designers from each campus’s Center for Teaching and Learning met to vet adaptive courseware vendors. They immersed themselves in the functionalities of the software, then guided their respective faculties through selecting the courseware, onboarding students, and aligning it to their courses.
“The team of faculty developers, instructional designers, and technologists was one step ahead of the faculty,” says Garth-McCullough. “They could address their questions and help them find ways to do what they wanted to do.”
This model is effective for a campus-wide or system-wide implementation. Instructional designers can be assigned to different academic disciplines, making it easier to troubleshoot problems that may come up in a writing-intensive course compared to a lab course.
3. Faculty learning community model
A third model for faculty development is to establish a faculty learning community where colleagues can share insight, advice, and inspiration. Faculty can either work across departments or work in their disciplines and then come together regularly to share ideas.
When faculty have a place to go talk about their struggles implementing adaptive learning and get suggestions from peers, says Garth-McCullough, colleges and universities have more success sustaining use of the courseware.
A faculty learning community also helps create an environment that supports just-in-time learning that’s contextualized to the specific problems a faculty member is coming up against. This gives it an advantage over models relying exclusively on point-in-time training from outside consultants.
“When you’re learning something new,” says Garth-McCullough, “you don’t have the time and space to listen to someone from another college that has totally different types of students, different requirements, and a different teaching load.”
Effective faculty development for adaptive learning prioritizes students
“To me, it always comes back to the student experience,” says Garth-McCullough. “You can throw different educational technologies at faculty, but if they’re not supported in learning, it will probably cause students a lot of frustration.”
In the end, a successful adaptive learning implementation is one that identifies and confronts the barriers to equity that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students face. Building effective models for faculty development is an essential step toward that goal.
Originally published August 2020. Updated August 2021 with additional information and references.