This pandemic must bring faculty development to the fore

Continuous professional development must become an integral part of the academic career path, not a mere ‘extracurricular’ endeavour, says Alexandra Mihai

February 2, 2021
Professional development graphic
Source: iStock

Somewhat surprisingly given its centrality to everything a university does, the development of faculty often seems rather underappreciated in higher education. While universities had established different types of structures to address the needs of faculty staff, the topic usually did not feature prominently on their agenda.

This has fundamentally changed during the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic challenged many existing assumptions and routines, compelling a reconsideration of the role of educators as well as of how teaching and learning is changing. Over the past months, learning designers and technologists, along with e-learning and distance-learning specialists, have been working tirelessly to support academic staff and ensure that the move to online teaching goes as smoothly as possible.

THE Campus resource: Steps universities should take to support staff with digital teaching

But we must evaluate the effectiveness of these new, often temporary, measures that have been introduced during the pandemic. What have we learned? Which (emergency) strategies worked and which failed? And what should universities do to capitalise on these experiences?

A strategic approach to faculty development
To be effective, faculty development needs to be organically embedded in universities’ medium- to long-term strategies. This is the only way to ensure the appropriate resource allocation, beyond “emergency mode”, both in terms of investment in human resources and in infrastructure, and ultimately a better teaching and learning experience.

Continuous professional development must become an integral part of the academic career path, not a mere “extracurricular” endeavour for those who are interested to take up in their spare time. Staff need to be given time and resources to reflect on and, consequently, develop their teaching practice.

Excellence in teaching should feature highly among career advancement criteria, on par with research output. And while this might require action on a broader scale, each institution can contribute by enforcing a system of incentives and rewards that encourages faculty to focus on their teaching and creating rich learning experiences.

At a structural level, an important next step is to evaluate existing teaching support structures, consolidate them and − most importantly − make efforts to fully integrate them in the fabric of universities’ DNA. While higher education institutions differ widely in the way they are organised, a model where educational development and support structures operate both centrally and at faculty/department level in a complementary way can be an effective way to move forward.

THE Campus: Creating a centralised advice resource to help faculty adapt to new teaching modalities

This is a model we’ve been promoting at UCL, and it has shown its strengths during the pandemic, enabling a discipline-nuanced support strategy for the move to online teaching. Acknowledging the value of faculty development by creating permanent, senior-level positions with career progression prospects can lead to a more inclusive, productive and sustainable learning design process whereby faculty and education specialists work together in partnership.

Faculty development as evidence-based practice
The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is often perceived as second-class research, with faculty habitually discouraged from analysing their teaching practice and urged to focus on their respective discipline-related research instead. This leads to a lot of missed opportunities to advance practice by reflecting on and evaluating existing data.

An evidence-based faculty development approach can help to close the gap between teaching and research by creating sustainable collaboration practices between faculty and educational development staff.

Acknowledging the fact that faculty development goes beyond a mere administrative service can pave the way to a deeper level of engagement with the ultimate success of educational programmes. Research conducted in partnership between faculty and education specialists (operating under different labels depending on the institution) provides substantial insights into the teaching and learning process that can be used to inform and improve future practice.

Towards building a community of practice
Effective faculty development is not a one-way street or a fragmented series of one-off events. It’s all about building and facilitating a community of educators who share their experiences and support and empower each other. It’s a process of building bridges between institutional silos and across disciplines. At its best, faculty development provides a space where educators can exchange, collaborate and feel free to explore and experiment.

While institutional approaches to faculty development are very important, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture. During the pandemic, technology has enabled educators and faculty developers from different contexts and locations to connect and discuss their practices, leading to an ongoing dialogue that transcends geographical, institutional and disciplinary borders. This is facilitated by new and existing professional networks, but it also takes place in a more serendipitous manner via social media. The emergence of this global community of practice can complement but should not replace the efforts at university level.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is, I hope, a renewed appreciation of teaching. Universities need to strengthen faculty development structures in order to keep up the momentum and be in a position to provide a cutting-edge educational experience.

Alexandra Mihai is an education specialist with more than a decade of experience in European higher education. She is currently a learning designer at University College London (UCL).

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