Caption: Edward Price working with students in an active learning physics class. Online faculty communities can help support instructors using approaches like these.
How can online faculty communities drive change in the STEM classroom?
In the late 2000s-2010s, I was fortunate to be part of a curriculum development team that produced physical science curricula for university courses for future elementary teachers. But like many curriculum developers, we faced a question… who would use these materials? And how would they use them?
If you are hoping to improve STEM student outcomes by developing new research-based instructional strategies (RBIS), or by promoting the use of existing RBIS, you realize that your impact is limited by how widely faculty take up materials or approaches in their classrooms. Indeed, despite evidence of effectiveness, the adoption and use of RBIS is far from universal.1-2
As my colleagues and I realized, we need to support faculty so that they persist with RBIS, learn new techniques, and engage in reflective practice.
While calls for fostering faculty’s pedagogical growth and development are not new, there remains a need for more and better models for accomplishing this, especially in discipline-specific contexts and regarding the uptake of RBIS.3
Workshops, presentations, and websites are common ways to disseminate RBIS. While helpful, these have some drawbacks. Websites present information but often lack a way to ask questions. Workshops can be interactive, but if you encounter challenges afterwards, you may be on your own. Faculty communities can overcome these shortcomings, but faculty learning communities (FLCs) are typically composed of faculty in one location. That wouldn’t work for us; our potential adopters were spread around the country, with one or two at any given institution. Our solution was to create a faculty online learning community (FOLC): a group of faculty who interact online to learn together.4-5 Because a FOLC is a virtual community, it can achieve critical mass even if it is composed of faculty who share a specialized characteristic, such as teaching a particular curriculum. As we hoped, the FOLC was a collaborative and safe environment that supported faculty in their implementation. In fact, the FOLC exceeded our expectations, as participants experienced deeper reflective practice, increased pedagogical sophistication, and professional growth.
What Does a FOLC Look Like?
Faculty participating in a FOLC meet regularly by videoconference in small groups to discuss practical issues, facilitation strategies, and student learning (or whatever topics are of interest). FOLC meetings allow rich, complex social interactions centered on teaching and learning. One or two facilitators lead the meetings. Ideally, facilitators are faculty members who have experience working with faculty groups and are knowledgeable about the FOLC’s topical focus.
What Can a FOLC Do for Faculty?
In FOLC meetings, participants can discuss problems of practice and gather feedback from the group. This allows faculty to:
- Troubleshoot classroom challenges collectively,
- Share Information, experience, and resources,
- Have a sounding board for decision making,
- Explore pedagogical concepts, and
- Offer and receive affective support (e.g. moral support and encouragement).
The discussions may provide encouragement to stick with new teaching strategies one has tried, and/or ideas on concrete techniques for solving an implementation challenge. In our FOLC, meetings were geared towards being responsive to the faculty needs at that moment. One common structure was, “Everyone provide an update and a current challenge you are facing” or “Share an issue you’d like to discuss and get feedback on.” After a round robin, the facilitators would invite deeper discussion on whatever topic they felt would be most useful or substantive to most people. While we focused on issues of teaching and learning, faculty also discussed other professional issues, including tenure and promotion. Participants reported that they learned how other institutions/departments compared to their own.
FOLC meetings occur throughout the academic year. For a teaching-focused FOLC, faculty can bring concerns to the group and receive timely feedback or solutions. This timeliness and the long-term nature of a FOLC distinguish it from workshops or other brief, one-time support activities. We find every two weeks to be a good compromise frequency. This is often enough to maintain momentum, build relationships, and allow significant progress over the 6-8 meetings in a term; but infrequent enough to avoid being burdensome. FOLCs can be any size, though having at least 6-8 people ensures a critical mass for lively discussion with multiple points of view. Additional online communication and file sharing tools (Slack, Google Docs) support collaboration between meetings. These platforms offer an easy way to share curricular resources and act as a venue for soliciting timely feedback.
Faculty in our FOLC reported more confidence in using the curriculum, familiarity with the curriculum structure and content, increased knowledge of pedagogical techniques, reflection on teaching practices in the curriculum, and expanded use of pedagogical techniques aligned with the curriculum’s core principles.5 In a survey, 95% of FOLC participants reported “incorporating ideas from the FOLC into my teaching,” over 80% “developed my skills as a teacher more efficiently than I would have without the FOLC,” and nearly 80% agreed that they had “become more reflective about my teaching,” and “gained a deeper appreciation for the complex aspects to consider in diagnosing teaching challenges.”5 We asked faculty to describe the most valuable aspect of their participation. One person responded,
“Participating in a community that supports my teaching practices, as well as being more reflective in my practices as I work with my colleagues and others in the FOLC.”
Another wrote that,
“I enjoy the camaraderie. I especially enjoy the support and encouragement from my FOLC group. The meetings really motivate me to do better and to be accountable for my teaching and students.”
The FOLC model can be useful in many situations. In our case, we wanted to support faculty using a particular curriculum. In addition, FOLCs could focus on:
- Faculty at a particular career stage (e.g, the AAPT New Faculty FOLCs),
- Equity, diversity, and inclusion (e.g., FOLCs for Gender Equity)
- A specific topic (for instance, a colleague recently ran FOLCs on quantum information science), and/or
- Ongoing follow-up to a workshop
While a FOLC could focus on any issue of interest to faculty, the ability to bring together people who share a common interest or context is powerful. As one member of the NGP FOLC put it,
“Sometimes it is just nice to talk with other people about how your class is going and it is really helpful when the other people understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why you are teaching in a certain way.”
What Can You Do to Establish a FOLC?
If you are considering starting a FOLC, check out the FOLC implementation guide and resources that our project team has developed at: http://ngpfolc.com/folc-implementation-resources/
The implementation guide includes sections on planning, establishing, and running a FOLC, working with facilitators, and evaluation and assessment. Additional resources include examples of recruiting materials, application forms, surveys, planning materials, and facilitation guidelines.
How can we better support faculty in the classroom? More attention is needed on how instructors learn about, take up, and implement RBIS. More broadly, there is a need for more and better models for supporting faculty’s pedagogical growth and development. This need is acute when faculty are attempting to use approaches that are substantially different from how they themselves were taught.
There is a further need for models of support for contingent faculty (lecturers or adjuncts) and isolated faculty (in small departments or lacking local colleagues with shared interests), both of whom may lack access to relevant professional development.
The FOLC model can help address these needs. It provides ongoing support and professional development through participation in a community. By being virtual, a FOLC can attract a critical mass of faculty around topics even when focusing on specialized characteristics. A FOLC can provide participants with opportunities for troubleshooting, sharing ideas, and receiving encouragement through challenges. FOLCs should be considered by faculty, curriculum developers, administrators, or other higher education stakeholders interested in promoting faculty development or the implementation of RBIS.
The Next Gen PET FOLC project benefited from the involvement of many people, including co-PIs Fred Goldberg, Steve Robinson, and Chandra Turpen. Special thanks to the faculty who led and participated in the FOLC. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation IUSE program, award DUE-1626496. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.