On Monday, I had the pleasure to visit with faculty at Governors State University in Illinois and share my story about how my participation in digital media, prompted by recovery from open heart surgery, inspired me to innovate my students’ online and face-to-face learning environments.  My presentation is available on Slideshare here.  GSU is another example of a college or university opening the door to a conversation that explores the possibilities of web 2.0 and social media in college classes. 

During the discussion following my presentation, a faculty member asked me if I typically see more innovation at 2-year institutions or at 4-year institutions.  I understood the question to be probing about whether or not institutions that require faculty to regularly publish their work are undercutting the potential of innovation.  In other words, if faculty are required to publish their research, will they also be as willing and motivated to innovate their teaching approaches (great question). 

I don’t have a definitive answer to that.  But I do think the rate and depth of teaching innovation that occurs across a campus hinges upon an institution’s values and priorities and the question has got me thinking about how we all could/should play a role in fostering teaching innovations.

A Smoldering Fire
Here’s what I see.  Each college or university I have visited with (or had conversations with remotely) demonstrates the presence of fascinating innovations in teaching and learning.  I often hear from individual professors about things they are trying in their classes — they reach out for feedback and ideas (they’re thirsty for a community that is not present at their instutition).  I believe classroom innovation is all around us.  The real problem is that colleges aren’t making it a priority to facilitate the spread of this innovation (and that’s really the easy part).

To me, each college or university is like a smoldering fire.  From a distance, we see wafts of smoke and upon a closer look, we observe a collection of separate, glowing embers.  If we leave those embers alone, they will burn for awhile but will eventually extinguish.  But if we “poke” them, their energy will transfer and the heat will grow stronger, ultimately leading to a crackling blaze. 

The key here is the “poking.”  “Poking” is a term Seth Goldin has used in his analysis of innovation.  In higher education, we need more pokers and, fortunately, there are many ways you can become one. 

1. Share
First and foremost, if you represent one of those embers, you are the most vital poker.  If you aren’t already, the educational community needs you to share your work — your ideas, activities, and student feedback.  Your passion and energy are vital to inspiring others to experiment with new approaches in teaching. 

Start a blog and write about what you are doing…even if you have no idea what your next post will be.  And/or use your webcam to start recording short YouTube videos.  Create an account on YouTube and start participating in a weekly Twitter chat (#edchat is a great one).  The opportunities to participate are endless.  But participate and share you must.  It is your duty and we will all be grateful for it. 

If you feel reluctant, keep in mind that you don’t need polished ideas before you share them.  Share your rough ideas, your theories, your questions, your classroom stories — you’ll begin to be more motivated and inspired by the community of learners you attract to your blog.  They will become pokers for you (just as you are for me).  As you share and become part of the online community of teaching innovators, you will find that your ideas will flourish and grow in ways you hadn’t imagined.  Sharing your ideas will make your a stronger and more dynamic teacher.

2. Incentivize
So, what if you aren’t a fiery ember but you see the potential and the need for innovation in teaching and learning?  Maybe you’re a dean, a provost, a college president, a gallery director, an instructional aid, faculty development coordinator, a counselor, a business analyst — no matter what your role is at your institution, we need you to play a role on your campus in incentivizing innovation.  Get involved with your shared governance process and begin a conversation about “innovation.” Incrementally, each incentive (even the smallest) will begin to foster a culture the encourages and values a faculty member’s participation in digital media.

Service for Sharing
Faculty at 4-year institutions are incentivized to publish by tying it to tenure and by recognizing faculty for their published work. What if presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs developed a method or process for recognizing faculty contributions to innovation through digital media?  Cathy Davidson has probed this topic and suggested that blogs should count towards “service” rather than count for absolutely nothing. 

ePortfolio for Faculty Applications & Tenure Advancement
Recently I applied for a faculty position and observed how the very process of hiring faculty devalues participation and sharing of one’s teaching scholarship through digital media.  The application asked for a list of “publications” but nowhere did it offer me an opportunity to share my digital work — my blog, videos, educational guides, guest blog work, LinkedIn profile and professional network, or Twitter community.  The application — which, by the way, was print based, rendering all links and media irrelevant — allowed me to showcase just the tip of the iceberg of my teaching scholarship.

The same holds true for tenure advancement processes that are based on review of print-based portfolios.  They render the value of digital contributions obsolete.

What if, in addition to a list of publications, the employment application and tenure advancement review process required the submission of an ePortfolio?  This may include a space for a blog or website url and number of Twitter followers, LinkedIn recommendations, shared videos and other digital resources shared with a Creative Commons license with embedded hyperlinks to each one.  Would this change foster greater participation and sharing in digital media from instructors who are seeking employment?  Would it, over time, change the demographic of future college professors? 

How do you think these changes would be received at your institution and why?  Has your institution adopted these changes or something similar?  Please share the results with us in a comment.

3. Recognize
If I were a college leader, I would make innovation in teaching an institutional priority and creating a culture that values risk-taking and experimentation in the classroom.  I would spend one hour each term with one faculty who demonstrates a commitment to innovation.  The facuty member would be identified through a collaborative peer-rating process (perhaps facilitated by Faculty Development) that would invite the campus — administrators, faculty, support staff, and students — to vote for the innovator of their choice.  The casual interview would be recorded and shared online (with a Creative Commons license) in my own blog with the entire campus community and beyond. 

Over time, the blog would include a collection of resources, and teaching ideas about innovation alongside posts about other important administrative topics. The point here is that teaching innovations need to central and recognized by leaders, rather than hidden or they will burn out.  Leaders need to be part of the active conversation about teaching innovation in order for it to be understood as an institutional value. 

4. Use the “I” Word
Once I was asked to come up with a new name for a faculty support department.  When I responded with a name that included the phrase “teaching innovations,” the administrator said “no” because it sounded like a program that would be eliminated.  Does your institution use the word innovation in the titles of any committees, positions, journals, summits, conferences, retreats, etc.?  Maybe it should. 

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