CAUSE/EFFECT

This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 3 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.

The Catalyst Project: Supporting Faculty Uses of the Web...with the Web
by Mark Donovan and Scott Macklin

Since 1994 UWired, a collaborative unit at the University of Washington, has worked to develop and improve ways to support faculty teaching with new technologies. In 1998 UWired initiated a series of activities aimed at reinventing its support structure and redefining the role of the university’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. In early 1999 UWired launched the Catalyst project, the most visible manifestation of its new approach. This article details the strategic plan behind the Catalyst project and the redefinition of the center.

Finding ways to effectively support teach- ing with new technologies has been a vex- ing problem for colleges and universities. A variety of strategies have been advocated for engaging faculty and providing faculty support and training, and many articles on the topic published in practitioner journals include laundry lists of strategies to motivate, incentivize, train, and otherwise cajole faculty into integrating technology into their teaching.

It is clear that institutional contexts and culture, not to mention the underlying technological infrastructure, have a profound influence on the effectiveness of faculty support and development strategies. It is also clear that there are real barriers to faculty adoption of instructional technology, including concerns about intellectual property, the disconnect between innovation in teaching and tenure decisions and disciplinary rewards, and the preeminence of research activity at some institutions. In addition, there is a segment of the faculty (a diminishing minority, we will argue) that is uninterested and even hostile to technology.

The difficulties inherent in promoting and supporting good instructional uses of technology can be paralyzing. Yet the risk is not so much that faculty support staff will be paralyzed, but rather that we will become so attuned to our current difficulties that we will fail to understand fully the transformative effect of the technologies we promote and support, and thus will be left trying hard to solve yesterday’s problem.

In the earlier years of the Web, say 12 to 36 months ago, many campuses responded to the challenges of instructional technology support by establishing campus centers for teaching, learning, and technology. These centers typically host workshops and training, organize recurring “show and tell” conferences, provide one-on-one consulting with educational technologists and instructional designers, convene faculty “brown bag” sessions, and often initiate mini-grant competitions designed to provide extended (often expensive) support for particular faculty projects. These centers typically work with a small percentage of highly motivated faculty.

But what about the rest? In conversations with colleagues we have heard those faculty members who don’t participate in such activities labeled “disinterested,” “hard to reach,” “resistant,” and--the put-down of last resort--“luddites.” In a recent article entitled “‘Where Are They?’: Why Technology Education for Teachers Can Be So Difficult,” Claudia Rebaza laments the declining turnout at her institution’s instructional technology conferences.1 She ultimately concludes:

The problem in motivating faculty to learn about new teaching methods is difficult regardless of whether or not technology is involved. . . . No matter how many learning opportunities you offer--lectures, hands-on workshops, handouts, classes, computer tutorials, media guides--what people really will find most helpful is a one-on-one approach, with instruction at the point of need. As demand for “convenience learning” continues to grow, it may be that competitive pressures and a healthy respect for the bottom line will achieve the faculty cooperation no other motivation can bring.

We think she gets this equation half right--and backwards. “Instruction at the point of need” is a crucial concept. Will institutional demands to provide “convenience learning” result in faculty being forced to adopt technology? Perhaps. But it could also be that the increasing ubiquity of networked information technologies will result in faculty themselves seeking out convenient, just-in-time learning to support their efforts to use technology.

This, we think, is a crucial point: While early adopters sought out personal assistance and allies to support them in what have often been contrarian activities, we believe the next wave of faculty adopters will be more interested in finding support and assistance via the Web. UWired has worked over the past year and half to turn this hypothesis into a robust program for faculty support.

UWired

In 1994 the University of Washington established UWired as a collaborative unit designed to find, develop, promote, and support effective uses of teaching and learning with technology. From the outset, UWired has played an important coordinating role, bringing the collective expertise of its five partners--Computing & Communications, University Libraries, the Office of Undergraduate Education, the Office of Educational Partnerships, and Educational Outreach--to bear on common challenges and opportunities posed by the academic uses of information technology.

With a staff of between five and seven full-time professionals and upwards of 75 students, UWired has functioned as a lean and flexible organization that has primary responsibility for the university’s central student computing labs (325 seats) and faculty technology support. In addition, at any given time UWired is involved in supporting up to a dozen programs or initiatives aimed at promoting technology access, information literacy and fluency with information technology, and technology-based innovation in teaching.

The actual capacity and reach of UWired are dependent on the close working relationship developed among the UWired partners and other campus affiliates (such as the Office of Educational Assessment, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the School of Library and Information Science). This collaborative approach reduces the duplication of effort and resources, speeds the identification of new challenges and opportunities, and improves communication between units at a very large and highly distributed university. The importance of this collaboration was never more evident than when UWired began a fundamental rethinking of its faculty support model a little over 18 months ago.

Rethinking faculty support

In 1996 UWired established the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology to provide front-line support for faculty who wished to experiment with new technologies, not unlike the centers established at other institutions. Workshops, drop-in consulting, and intensive, project-based support were provided free of charge to faculty who sought out assistance. Midway through 1998 we projected 1,700 annual visits to the center, more than double those of the preceding year. Based on that statistic, it seemed that we were doing our job, but a look below the surface suggested that we were not having the impact--or playing the role--that best suited our position.

The majority of the visits to our center were from teaching assistants and “the usual suspects”--faculty with whom UWired had established a relationship, often on the basis of a project we supported under a mini-grant initiative. While the use of our facility was on the increase, we saw no evidence that the reach of our support had likewise been extended. We found ourselves grappling with a question common these days to those in faculty support roles--how to reach beyond the early adopters? By talking with faculty, meeting with college and department heads, and conducting faculty focus groups, we began to understand that, as technology use spread beyond the early adopters to the pragmatists who largely composed the university community, our strategy for supporting faculty would also have to change.

The early adopters who sought out our center were willing to make the trek across campus from their office and often seemed in search of allies as much as they were in search of technical assistance. As faculty use of technology becomes the norm, we find the pragmatists far more interested in finding just-in-time support than in finding like-minded supporters. Furthermore, our vision of the center as a place where faculty could drop in and work required that we configure the center like a drop-in lab with each workstation configured with a standard set of tools. As Web technologies have grown more diverse and complex, this need to provide standard tools conflicted with the need to experiment with hardware and software and the diverse technology solutions that were taking hold in various colleges and departments.

Faculty support in a multi-tiered system

As we rethought our role in supporting faculty uses of instructional technology, we found ourselves pinched between the needs of faculty to make use of the centrally supported university IT infrastructure and the particularities of their college or departmental environment. This tension hinted at the direction of our reinvention--we needed to translate the central infrastructure and find ways to provide common support that did not conflict with the idiosyncrasies of the local computing environment. As we discuss in detail below, providing educationally focused, flexible support via the Web became the cornerstone of our strategy.

The foundation for instructional technology at the University of Washington is the vast, robust network infrastructure developed and maintained by Computing & Communications (C&C). The heavily used network involves ubiquitous Ethernet connectivity and transfers an average of more than 1 million e-mail messages and 700 gigabytes of data each day. C&C hosts more than 70,000 user accounts and nearly 18,000 Web sites for individuals and organizations on campus. C&C’s enterprise computing model is centered on providing a standards-based infrastructure that allows units within the university to build and deploy the kinds of applications that fit their specific needs.

Because of this multi-tiered architecture, the local computing environment of the faculty varies greatly owing to different needs, cultures, and decision-making processes at the college and department level. For example, some colleges and departments have adopted standard Web authoring tools (such as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver or Microsoft’s FrontPage) while others have implemented courseware solutions (such as WebCT or Blackboard’s CourseInfo). Rather than try to promote a campus standard for such tools, we recognized that differences in unit needs and capacity were driving this diversity. Furthermore, we believed that there was a great potential that this diversity of approaches would lead to accelerated experimentation, innovation, and learning about the effective uses of technology in teaching.

Our appreciation for the diversity of college and departmental needs also led to encounters with those staff members responsible for supporting faculty uses of technology within academic departments. We discovered a general ambivalence to the existence of UWired and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology that was seen as a place where some faculty went to receive help. For the most part, our activities did nothing to add value to the work of these departmental staffers since we typically worked with the eager early adopters and the department staff were often left working with those pragmatic faculty who, while interested in using technology, were not interested in straying too far from their office to learn.

Departmental technology staff are a diverse lot, running the gamut from trained technologists to graduate students working for a stipend. Many are staff members hired for another role who, by virtue of their technical skills and ability to work with faculty, end up supporting technology at the desktop, replacing hard drives, and assisting faculty with course Web pages. Many of these departmental support staff spend considerable energies developing materials to tutor faculty on instructional uses of technology. In rare cases they were also assisting faculty in the creation of Web-based instructional software. It was clear to us that there was an excellent opportunity for UWired to invent an effort which would bridge the gap between a world-class network infrastructure and the academic departments where the bulk of the instructional work was being done.

Our strategy was also based on a belief that the penetration of information technology is changing faculty work habits and expectations in ways that are not yet being fully appreciated. It is common for those of us supporting academic computing to argue at once that networked technologies drive individual and social change, yet faculty are somehow inoculated from these changes and will not get up to speed with technology without our intervention and assistance and a healthy (though rarely forthcoming) set of rewards and incentives. This argument for “academic exceptionalism”--one we have at times promoted--ignores the ways that network technologies pervade the lives of faculty in their roles as citizen, researcher, and hobbyist. While it is true that there is much work to be done to couple innovation in teaching with the rewards of the tenure system, we believe that this articulation will follow, not precede, the diffusion of technology in teaching. In Washington, a state in which the software industry holds the largest payroll and which boasts the third largest percentage of home computer ownership and households online, our intuition was that information technologies, specifically e-mail and the Web, were already becoming deeply ingrained in the life of our faculty.

Through our partnership with the University Libraries, UWired included measures of faculty technology use in the Libraries’ 1998 triennial user survey.2 What we found confirmed our intuition and helped to clarify our strategy. Of the faculty surveyed (N=1,503), 84 percent responded that the Web was very important for their work, 91 percent reported using e-mail to communicate with students, and 31 percent reported putting course material (beyond a simple syllabus) on the Web. The picture that emerged from this survey was of a faculty already deeply committed to using the technologies we were working to support. As we thought about how to reposition UWired’s faculty support efforts to fulfill the role of translator and coordinator of information about technology in teaching and learning, it became clear to us that the challenge was that of supporting instructional uses of technology through these same technologies.

The Catalyst project

The Catalyst project, which emerged from this period of examination and reflection, is based on the following assumptions:

While distributing FAQs and how-to materials via the Web is a standard practice of academic computing groups, there is a significant difference between simply posting information and creating a comfortable, useful Web-based environment that meets the needs of a diverse set of faculty. We sought to create an easily navigable clearinghouse for information on the use of the Web in teaching and learning and also hoped that the site would become a catch basin for the many scattered but impressive technology efforts on campus. By creating a site that would meet faculty needs and draw repeat visits, we hoped to create a center of gravity for innovation in teaching with technology that would far exceed the reach of our physical Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.

We have previously described in detail the development of the Catalyst site.3 The site consists of four basic types of content:

1. Profiles of educators and programs that provide a vehicle to share ideas and experience, humanize the use of technology, and hopefully diffuse innovations.

2. Guides to instructional methods and technology tasks that present material in a familiar framework and provide a map to a wide range of individual documents.

3. Dynamic content providing frequently updated information on news and events relevant to teaching with technology.

4. Instructional tools that provide a standard mechanism for faculty to create interactive, Web-based instructional modules using only a Web browser. Because we do not distribute software, our model is actually that of providing a Web-based service.

We were determined at the outset to create a Web property that would be immediately useful and intuitive to navigate. We understood that attempts to provide “good information” would fall flat if end users were unable to find the information they needed or otherwise experienced frustration with the site. Key to achieving this goal was the work of our information designer who created a clean, intuitive look and feel for the site, an aspect of Catalyst that has been widely praised by faculty.

The site is built on a simple, tested architecture that relies on a limited number of icons, a clear color scheme to categorize content, and a standard page layout that makes it easy for users to navigate and quickly scan for useful information. The site relies on small graphical elements that speed viewing over a slow connection, and the pages of the site have been designed to easily print out for those who prefer reading from paper rather than the screen. Our how-to guides (Quick Guides) are each centered on a particular task and map each task on a standard four-part framework:

Plan › Create › Connect › Reflect.

In addition to creating a helpful resource, we wanted to create something that would in a sense become “public property,” by encouraging others outside of UWired to contribute to its development. To facilitate this, we consciously attempted to create a new brand identity for the university’s educational technology efforts. We deemed this important for three reasons. First, a new, identifiable brand focuses educators on a single, stable source of information and resources, providing new opportunities to coordinate information and resources and creating the critical mass for ideas that might otherwise be overlooked. Second, the new identity creates a sense of newness and opportunity, “wiping the slate clean” of previous, perhaps negative, associations of technology and technology support. Finally, the new brand creates opportunities for partnerships and collaboration by emphasizing UWired’s coordinating role while de-emphasizing any (false) sense that UWired controlled these activities.

Our desire to use Catalyst to leverage the work of others is just picking up steam, but our initial experience has been encouraging. Departments and college support personnel who have developed materials specific to their local computing environments--for instance, how-to documents on a particular Web editor--have been eager to see their work repackaged and made available to a much larger audience. While we generally favor off-the-shelf solutions over homegrown ones, our Web service model allows us to make specialized Web-based instructional tools widely available. When we identify promising “one off” efforts developed by faculty, we are able to work with these faculty to redesign their tools so that they are secure, scalable, and available to the campus community as a Web-based service.

A new role for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology

To develop and launch Catalyst on a shoestring, we had to commit our staff resources at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology to the development of Web content. As we did this, we began to understand that the continued evolution and improvement of Catalyst would require a reorganization of our staff and the activities of the center to support this effort. This realization necessitated some hard choices. It meant de-emphasizing the primacy of our self-perceived role of providing in-person support to the faculty while having faith that our greatest impact lay in providing timely and accurate information to the faculty we never saw, those who used Catalyst at their desktop. We also curtailed our workshop schedule and focused on preparing workshop materials that, like the other components of Catalyst, could be distributed and used by others.

Figure 1 documents the changes in the organization and operation of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology that were initiated to support the Catalyst project. In many cases the changes have been invisible to our clients--they still receive the one-to-one assistance many request, but our orientation has shifted away from viewing this as the activity with the largest impact. In fact, as we transitioned into becoming “an RD&D space” (research, development, and demonstration), the energy of our operations increased markedly, and our clients have responded positively. Though a few have complained about the increased noise and activity in our relatively small space (a medium-sized common room with 14 computers, scanners, and printers and two connected offices for developers and consultants), others have clearly enjoyed working in a frenetic, often exciting, environment. Our clients understand that our work is oriented completely around serving faculty, and the fact that this work is visible and not hidden in a back room seems to stimulate their interest and support. On more than one occasion faculty clients have been brought in and contributed to the “whiteboard sessions” that are a frequent part of our operations. While we initially had concerns about how our existing clients would view this reorientation, these were largely unfounded.

Figure 1: Reorganizing the UWired Center

Old New
Drop-in center where faculty could work and receive one-to-one assistance Research, development, and demonstration center where Catalyst tools and content are developed and where faculty can drop in and experiment with a range of technology solutions
Standard software and hardware to provide a uniform and familiar environment for frequent clients Highly variegated computing environment where faculty can find a configuration that matches their office environment or test new tools
Custom solutions tailored to faculty needs, often requiring significant staff time and creating the expectation of continued, intensive support Common solutions that address the most frequently expressed needs, customizable by faculty themselves
Intensive support for the relatively few physical clients Baseline support for many virtual clients
Frequent drop-in workshops Fewer general access workshops, more department-specific workshops
People-centered service aimed at making clients comfortable using the center People-centered service aimed at empowering clients to use technology wherever they are most comfortable

The ongoing development of Catalyst has been made possible by organizing our staff into content teams that work on different components of the site. These teams, comprised of graduate assistants and undergraduate student staff, work within an established development process and make use of a project-tracking database to facilitate the coordination and handoff of projects among staff who work almost exclusively part-time. The Catalyst team uses the technologies we support to do their work, using for example, off-the-shelf Web products to develop new content and using our Web-based peer review tool to critique and edit proposed content and design changes. The result is that the staff quickly become fluent with the technologies we need to support, and as a result of their daily work they often suggest improvements that are ultimately incorporated into technologies made available to our clients.

Our development activity has shifted from a focus on highly customized, boutique solutions that met the need of particular educators--but did not scale--to the development of a modular Web-based suite of services that meet common needs identified through discussions with a wide range of educators. For example, the peer review tool mentioned above was developed in close coordination with campus writing labs. Because it addressed a widely shared need and could be tailored to a specific instructional practice, we thought it warranted the expense of creating a tool (again, really a service) that would be available to the campus at large with accompanying how-to documentation and suggestions for its instructional use. Fundamentally, our goal has shifted from trying to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the individual educator to that of attempting to meet enterprise-wide educational needs.

Feedback loops and ongoing development

The Catalyst site was launched in February 1999, and the reception both on campus and off has been better than we hoped.4 Hundreds of educators have made use of the site and in the first six months of operation--which was purposely marked by little more publicity than a flyer sent to all faculty--our Web tools have been implemented nearly 1,400 times by faculty creating materials for their students.5 The site has been used by faculty from Anesthesiology to Urban Horticulture (we need to work on the folks in Zoology) at each of three campuses of the University of Washington.

We well understand, though, that many a Web site has made an initial splash only to be quickly relegated to memory or an unused browser bookmark. Working from the standpoint that people use the Web with tasks and goals in mind, we have paid considerable attention to user feedback and usability testing and are continually working to improve the design of the site and its offerings. Through a partnership with the Department of Technical Communications, we initiated usability testing immediately after the site launched.6 We found several areas in need of improvement and immediately went to work to address them. The Catalyst Web site you will find today is thus significantly different from the one that existed just a few months ago. This first round of changes--we anticipate that the site will continually change--included:

The formal usability test was not our only means of soliciting feedback. We placed feedback forms throughout the Web site and conducted impromptu needs assessment with educators as they utilized the resources of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. In addition, we implemented Web cookies and mechanisms to compile site statistics to help us gather more information about our users and their usage patterns of Catalyst. We intended to use these data to improve the site navigation and the placement and promotion of information that is popular and information that we know to be useful but that users may have a difficult time noticing.

Our goal was not just to create a helpful set of resources, but also to create a site that would draw repeat visits and over time would be viewed as the first place campus educators would look for information about teaching with technology. In the parlance of e-commerce, we wanted to make the site “sticky.” Our original design was so focused on making the site useful that we neglected to make the site timely. The current, redesigned site includes four categories of dynamic content which change often and are intended to make Catalyst a site that educators visit frequently:

1. News & Reviews contains announcements and reports from conferences, software reviews, and articles about technology on the horizon.

2. Tips & Tricks contains technical short-cuts, mini how-to documents, resources for hands-on work, e.g., printing frames, pointer to Adobe’s free online tutorials, changing image size for printing in PhotoShop, or creating a table of contents in Microsoft Word.

3. Events contains an ongoing calendar of events about teaching with technology.

4. What’s New on Catalyst provides an opportunity to highlight recent additions to the Catalyst Web site.

The addition of this dynamic content makes Catalyst more than a (seemingly) static collection of information and provides a vehicle for UWired and others to disseminate information and opinions quickly to the community of educators that we serve. In addition to these changes, our development queue contains several new Web services that meet commonly expressed demands and instructional challenges, including a small-group learning environment tool based on a successful “virtual clinic” experiment in the School of Medicine with broad applications for problem-based learning. Like our other development projects, this tool is being developed in conjunction with educators and assessment experts and upon release will be accompanied by a suite of instructional and technical documentation.

Concluding thoughts

Like all of UWired’s activities, we view Catalyst as an evolving experiment. Our overarching goal is to create a useful and positive user experience that will translate into innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning.7 The rapidity of technological (and social) change being wrought by new information technologies has prompted us to look outside the university for insight on how best to organize our operations and develop a Web property that provides leading edge services and support for educators. We have tried to mirror the best practices of Web companies by moving quickly and remaining flexible and responsive in the face of changing needs and opportunities.

Our belief that faculty will increasingly look to the Web for the support they need prompted a fundamental reorganization of our operations that so far appears to be paying off. In just over six months we have completed both the initial launch of the site and significant redesign and have found the reach and impact of this virtual center for teaching, learning, and technology to have exceeded that of our three-year-old physical center. We are connecting with the pragmatists who represent the majority of faculty and not just the early adopters in search of allies.

We recognize that this strategy may not be universally applicable. Catalyst makes sense as a support strategy at our university largely because of the very high penetration of networked technologies, the robust networking infrastructure, and distributed support systems that were already in place, though not yet well connected with each other. Institutions considering a similar strategy would do well to consider these factors in light of their own context and might consider a Catalyst-like set of resources and services to be a second-generation strategy. Having said that, the speed at which the Web and other networked technologies have entered our lives suggests that institutions should think hard about how best to allocate central support resources. The risk in focusing too much on existing support models is that institutions may not be well positioned to address coming challenges.

Endnotes

1 Claudia Rebaza, “‘Where Are They?’: Why Technology Education for Teachers Can Be So Difficult,” Technology Source, June 1998 [http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/vision/1998-06.asp].

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2 See http://www.lib.washington.edu/surveys/ for the 1998 survey data and for presentations on this project presented by Lizabeth Wilson, associate director of UW Libraries, and Steve Hiller, head of Science Libraries, for the April 1999 ACRL pre-conference seminar, “Assessing the Academic Networked Environment.”

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3 See our CAUSE98 paper, “One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Designing Scaleable, Client-Centered Support for Technology in Teaching” at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/html/cnc9846/cnc9846.html, or the condensed version presented as “Supporting Technology in Teaching and Learning: One Size Doesn’t Fit All,” in Planning for Higher Education, Fall 1999.

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4 The site is viewable to the world at http://depts.washington.edu/catalyst/home.html. Currently the Web services are restricted to members of the University of Washington community.

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5 Taking a cue from the restaurant industry, we planned for a “soft launch” of the site in order to ensure that our organizational capacity could keep up with what we hoped would be interest in the site. It did, but just barely, and much of the past summer was taken up with improving operations and making arrangements to ensure that we can handle the feedback and support demands that we expect with the publicity blitz planned for the next academic year.

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6 While we had done extensive informal testing of the site architecture, design, and content prior to the public launch that had a dramatic influence on the site, we were unable to complete formal usability testing and meet our launch deadline. When working “on Internet time,” there is a very real tension been “good enough” and “just right.”

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7 We think and talk in terms of promoting “innovation in teaching and learning” rather than “integrating technology in teaching.” The usefulness of this perspective is discussed in Mark Donovan, “Rethinking Faculty Support,“ Technology Source, September/October 1999 [http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/development/1999-09.asp].

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Mark Donovan (mdonovan@u.washington.edu) is the director of UWired at the University of Washington. Scott Macklin (smacklin@u.washington.edu) is associate director of UWired.

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