By Cindy Blackwell
As one of three people working at my institution’s faculty development center in March 2020, I appreciated the kudos from Cahn, Stellar and Brooks in their recent Inside Higher Ed article Don’t Blame the Technology. We worked around the clock to develop training webinars and create resources to help faculty who had never or rarely taught online. It was exhausting yet also heartwarming to see what some faculty were doing to ensure their students continued to get the education they planned from the start of the semester.
“Online education departments and teaching and learning centers scrambled to support thousands of instructors in a monumental effort to sustain the continuity of education across the country,” the authors wrote. “Those departments and centers deserve a tremendous amount of credit for enabling faculty members and students to continue their courses during an unprecedented upheaval to the status quo.”
The recognition is nice. But as the authors note, for all of the resilience, hard work, and great stories on display during the pandemic, we know that too many students have not received the education that they deserve. One only needs to look at the spate of class action and individual lawsuits filed by unsatisfied students to see that the quality of instruction is not where it needs to be to deliver high-quality learning experiences.
The issue of students frustrated by ill-equipped and unprepared faculty is not a new or unique problem in higher education. For decades, if not longer, subpar college teaching has been an elephant in the room. The pandemic merely put a bright spotlight on it.
As Cahn, Stellar and Brooks write, “this pandemic-induced emergency was avoidable.” In The Amateur Hour, Jonathan Zimmerman shows that poor teaching is a century-long theme in higher education, in which “most students insisted that they had learned in spite of the instruction they received, not because of it” (p. 24).
One of the questions raised by Cahn, Stellar and Brooks is, what now? What needs to change to ensure faculty are prepared to teach effectively online and in-person? The authors offer worthy recommendations, such as requiring graduate students to study teaching and learning, beefing up onboarding programs, and investing in ongoing high-quality professional development.
In my role as an academic director for the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), our team has the privilege of seeing these recommendations in action through working with our institutional partners.
One of those partners is the Texas A&M University System, which partnered with ACUE after being awarded one of four grants offered by a collaboration between ACUE, the National Association of System Heads and the Charles Koch Foundation. The grant-supported endeavor was so successful across the Texas A&M University System that the System extended and expanded the partnership for three more years through the Instructional Excellence for Student Success Project. This initiative is to encourage excellence in teaching at the eleven Texas A&M University System schools. After just one year the ACUE and Texas A&M University System partnership assisted two nursing faculty at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi in making much needed changes to the Doctor of Nursing Practice program.
Another example is the ACUE Faculty Development Institute at The University of Southern Mississippi, where I was an associate director in the Center for Faculty Development. This professional learning community has created a space for hundreds of faculty to gather, learn from each other, and improve their instructional practice.
Strategy, culture, and approach, are just a few of the domains established in Success & Equity Through Quality Instruction, a toolkit published collaboratively by Strong Start to Finish, ACUE, and SOVA. The toolkit provides core principles, practical resources, and rubrics for how colleges and universities fully engage faculty in the student success movement. It includes dozens of recommendations for policies and strategies for institutions to consider if they are serious about preparing and supporting faculty to be effective in the classroom.
As a faculty member, I was lucky enough to be in a doctorate program that emphasized teacher preparation. As a new faculty member, my dean stressed the importance of quality teaching and provided professional resources for use to develop. And most recently, I was able to earn ACUE’s Certificate in Effective College Instruction.
I am grateful to have had these opportunities in my own teaching career. I was proud to have played a small role in helping faculty at Southern Mississippi successfully transition to online courses at the start of the pandemic. At ACUE, I am inspired every day in the work I do with our institutional partners that are working to ensure every student has access to effective instructors. That is what it’s going to take to move the needle on student success. It won’t be enough until good teaching is systematically developed and rewarded for what it is – the foundation of every institution of higher education.
Dr. Cindy Blackwell is an Academic Director at ACUE.