While the promise of technologies to engage students, to enhance their learning experience has gotten plenty of physical and virtual ink, the impact of technology on faculty tends to get less attention. Learning Management Systems, video commenting and conferencing systems, and polling software have made educating easier and more engaging than it has been before. This perception is, in some ways, quite accurate. Nonetheless, these technologies have contributed to strange phenomena for faculty. Universities can hire faculty members to teach at their institutions without requiring physical proximity to those institutions. Indeed, institutions may now hire faculty members who have no relationship to the institution beyond the paycheck and the systems that put students into their classes each semester. These faculty members may have no sense of the institution at which they teach and feel little sense of belonging to that institution or workplace.
"We encourage faculty to leverage computing technology to increase their research productivity and to increase their students’ success in their classes"
In an effort to encourage a sense of belonging, which has documented impacts on motivation, performance, and retention, universities inundate faculty with electronic communications of many sorts announcing opportunities for professional development, changes to processes such as student assessments of instruction, and deadlines for mandatory reports such as mid-semester or end-of-term grades. Faculty developers offer online orientations for new faculty and may design even facilitated online development opportunities or get-togethers. At Syracuse University, our professional development opportunities include online facilitation options so that faculty who cannot physically attend an opportunity are still able to participate and, we hope, benefit. We also leverage online conferencing software to facilitate faculty consultations for faculty who live and work outside the U.S. Predictably, faculty inboxes overflow with email and calendars overflow with possibilities. Easily sent email and development options do not, however, help faculty to develop the sense of belonging that motivates positively, enhances performance, and increases retention.
Irrespective of the place in which faculty work and their teaching modalities, we want them to feel a welcome part of our community for them to succeed in their positions. We encourage faculty to leverage computing technology to increase their research productivity and to increase their students’ success in their classes. Research on the persistence of online students indicates that regular check-ins with faculty or success coaches around persistence in the course enhance student success. These check-ins require time from the faculty member, the coach, or another person on a student success team.
Although we know that students do better with clearly stated outcomes and regular progress reports concerning those goals, we have not yet fully applied that model to faculty. We want to create a community in classrooms for our students, and our faculty want communities outside of the classroom also. Research shows that faculty, particularly faculty from underrepresented groups, are more successful when they belong to a community. Getting those communities together and keeping them moving forward, however, presents something more of a challenge. It’s a point where technology can prove quite useful if we design and tend opportunities carefully.
We know that mentoring circles and faculty learning communities can come together around shared interests and goals, but that someone has to take the lead for planning and organizing gatherings, managing meeting times, maintaining communications, and establishing guidelines. It is an innovation point at which faculty developers must engage themselves and their colleagues in asking new questions around the technologies that they could leverage. The most important queries are not actually about technologies, but about the ethical uses of those technologies in the faculty development space. If we can track how well students achieve outcomes in a particular faculty member’s course by turning on a specific module in the learning management system, how will we use that information? Will we advise students into or out of a class that might challenge them ways necessary to their intellectual growth? Will we demand that the faculty member’s student success rate increase yearly? Will we create a threshold that potentially excludes faculty members who innovate and whose innovations do not at first succeed? If we use technology to measure research productivity as an essential facet of the faculty member’s job, who has access to the system? Do we use this data as a way to benchmark? How might these measurements hinder truly innovative research? Can we construct these modules so as not to reinforce systems of inequity? What about confidentiality? Attending to these questions as we build systems, processes, and programs to bring our faculty members into community shows our faculty that our institutions are worthy of their belonging.