This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 4 1999. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.
Training Future Faculty to Create New Learning Environments
by Christina Goodland
Is it possible to train teaching assistants (TAs) at a large university with differing levels of computer experience and disciplinary perspectives to create effective course Web sites in only a few weeks?
Yes, judging by the success of the TA Web Certification Program initiated a year ago at the University of Minnesota. Approximately 40 TAs participate each term; about 175 have completed the training so far. Many have given the program rave reviews, reporting that it has inspired them to rethink their teaching strategies. As one of the first participants recently put it, “I continue recommending the program to friends. It’s well structured and the instructors are knowledgeable and excited about the subject. We all went away sick with the Internet bug.”
Short and long-term strategy
At the beginning of the 1998-99 school year, Academic and Distributed Computing Services (ADCS) asked the Digital Media Center (DMC) team to create a pilot version of the program as one way of providing instructional technology support to faculty members. The DMC, a unit in ADCS, works with other central and collegiate units to support faculty members’ use of technology to enhance learning. The program would strengthen the DMC’s other faculty support services, such as faculty training and one-on-one consultation, because the TAs could serve as “change agents.” Faculty members were already comfortable working with TAs and the TAs knew their disciplines, so they could create a safe environment for faculty to learn to use new technologies and create new learning environments.
ADCS and DMC also felt the program would offer a good long-term institutional strategy. With a minimum investment, the university could deliver more instructional technology products now and in the future. The TAs were already being paid by their departments, so in the short term they could produce course sites at a minimal cost, not only for their faculty sponsors, but for faculty they would work with in the future. In the long term, we would be training future faculty to understand and use technology for teaching and research.
- In addition, the DMC team set several other goals as we developed the program:
- Create a community of course Web site developers from all disciplines, support units, and job classes
- Create modular online training units that can be used by other University of Minnesota colleges and support units
- Provide a training model that can be used by other institutions
- Improve current and future learning environments1
Multi-unit development process
Fourteen instructors2 from ADCS, the DMC, the Center for Teaching and Learning Services (a unit that helps instructors strengthen their teaching skills), and the University Libraries were assigned to create the curriculum in just two months. We already regularly delivered technology training together, but not usually on this scale or with such a short program development time line. Limited face-to-face meetings and technology helped us collaborate:
- We all attended an initial meeting where we agreed to create a modular curriculum, use a Web site (http://www.umn.edu/dmc/create/ta-cert/) and other technology tools to enhance face-to-face learning, and award students a certificate if each successfully completed a technical skills test, an instructional technology lesson plan, a Web site critique, and an online discussion assignment.
- We created subcommittees to develop the course content and Web site, collaborating in person and via a mailing list for the instructors. We also used the site to share content, which helped us make the curriculum more consistent.
- While teaching the course, we informed each other of successes and problems via the mailing list.
- We held debriefing meetings each semester to discuss program evaluations and proposed changes.3
We developed 21 hours of modular training to be delivered over three weeks in hands-on classes and seminars. We designed the curriculum to teach TAs how to develop course Web pages by following the seven-step development process outlined below:
- Plan technology-enhanced learning strategies specific to course objectives
- Comply with intellectual property laws and university Web policies
- Design the presentation and interactive elements of course Web pages
- Produce multimedia elements for course Web pages using a scanner and PhotoShop
- Write course Web pages with hypertext markup language (HTML) and a Web editor
- Interact with students via computer-mediated communication tools
- Evaluate technology-enhanced learning strategies to see if they helped students meet course objectives
We also presented learning objectives, examples, activities, tools, resources, and assignments related to each step in class and on the course site.
Administrators and faculty responded positively to the pilot program, including associate deans. All supported the idea, even those whose colleges do not employ TAs. The associate deans were asked to send e-mail to faculty inviting them to nominate TAs for the program. The first sessions filled quickly. Working with the associate deans to design and promote the program worked well as faculty realized this was a program provided by a central support unit, but with collegiate input. The majority of participating TAs responded favorably as well: 85-86 percent rated the course as “good” or “excellent” on evaluation forms. These and other statistics convinced sponsors to continue the program.
Student and instructor modifications
However, both the students and instructors identified some problems with the initial delivery. We proposed 60 changes to address them; we have implemented 56 of these as well as other improvements. The most significant include the following:
- Requiring each TA to have a faculty sponsor
- Assigning an administrative coordinator to attend to computer, registration, scheduling, and certification issues
- Assigning an instructional coordinator to provide transitions between sections taught by different instructors
- Inviting program alumni to discuss instructional technology issues with visiting speakers
- Asking the TAs to videotape each other during the last session while they discuss the program as a group
The last change has been particularly valuable as it provided the impetus to reshape the program based on students’ suggestions. Now instructors focus more on the learning outcomes and making sure students understand unfamiliar processes.
After making these modifications, we have been able to meet most of our short-term goals:
Faculty are being supported. Faculty members have continued to respond favorably to program invitations from the associate deans. Almost all of the classes have filled to capacity; many had waiting lists. Moreover, many of the TAs have since developed course Web sites with their faculty sponsors. For example, a TA in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has helped two faculty members win separate grants to develop a Latin American poetry site and a technology-enhanced Spanish language course. She recently presented the latter at the first conference she has attended as a graduate student. A professor in the audience told her that it was rare to see such a sophisticated project created by a student at her level.
TAs are being trained. The TAs themselves have also been enthusiastic supporters of the program. They have been introduced to new Web development techniques, encouraged to think more about instructional design and aesthetics, and put in touch with other developers for the first time. Many TAs are also recommending the program to and mentoring colleagues. One reported, “I have been helping another student set up course pages. She has been able with a little help from me and by following your handouts to start creating some nice course pages.” Others have also been inspired to try new teaching methods. One recent graduate wrote that the course “fired up” the participants to create their own course pages, and a current participant is now even considering devoting her thesis to Web-based learning for nurses.
The development community has been strengthened. Another successful outcome has been increased cooperation among technology support staff. The modular curriculum has facilitated this cooperation. We have been able to honor requests for customized training by modifying relevant modules for use in colleges that support different course-authoring tools. Before we started this program, the colleges were developing separate instructional technology training programs. With our modular training, there is now some consistency in curriculum and more of a community of developers. As a result, staff from other technology support units have asked to register for the program their graduate and undergraduate student employees who help faculty develop course Web sites.
The model has been implemented by other institutions. Other institutions also have expressed interest in the program. For example, Stanford University is now implementing a program based on our model.
Learning environments have improved. We think the program may have a positive impact on the learning environments created by the participants as well, based on program assignments. For example, near the end of each six-week session, we ask the TAs to discuss their teaching philosophies. Many report that the program has caused them to alter their views significantly. We think the most successful aspect of this program is the integration of smart pedagogy and technological expertise. It forces TAs to think about learning styles, site usability, and other instructional and technological issues they otherwise might not have considered.
Of course, we won’t know if the program positively influences the TAs’ actual teaching strategies without conducting a formal evaluation. Plans include hosting focus groups with the TAs and faculty sponsors next semester to learn more. We also plan to offer advanced one-afternoon seminars to help alumni continue learning instructional technology skills. We hope these efforts will help us improve the program as well as meet our long-term goal of improving the learning environments created by our students now and in the future.
The author wishes to thank A. Kashif Asdi, the program’s administrative coordinator; Paul Baepler, the program’s instructional coordinator; A. Sarah Hreha, a TA in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Linda Jorn, director of the DMC; and Shih-Pau Yen, director of ADCS, for providing information for and/or suggestions about this article. The DMC team would also like to thank the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost for providing funding for this program.
1 A. Kashif Asdi, Stacey Clawson, and Linda Jorn, “Training Teaching Assistants as Faculty Mentors,” a paper presented at the Syllabus 99 conference, Santa Clara, California, 25 July 1999. Available online at http://www.syllabus.com/syll99_proceedings/TRAINING.HTM.
2 A. Kashif Asdi, Paul Baepler, Stacey Clawson, Dan Donnelly, Michael Dunham, Cate Gandrud, Chris Goodland, Linda Jorn, Kathy Olson, Chris Scruton, Curt Squires, Karin Teder, Ellen Thayer, and Nicky Torkzadeh developed the original curriculum. Cindi Knouft, J. D. Walker, and Scott Wilson-Barnard have joined the teaching staff in the past year.
3 Asdi, Clawson, and Jorn.
Christina Goodland (email@example.com) is an instructional multimedia consultant at the Digital Media Center (DMC) at the University of Minnesota.
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