Web-Based Training for New Faculty

Canadian universities are anticipated to be hiring new faculty at a pace that has not been seen in a decade, thanks to increased student enrolment and the looming retirements of more than half of the nation's faculty members this decade. Yet these new faculty, like new faculty everywhere, do not necessarily come prepared with the full set of tools they'll need to succeed. This deficit that can have profound consequences for their individual professional development as well as the success of the institution as whole. So Canada's universities are increasingly in the business of providing professional development for their new faculty. In addition, academic centres that offer pedagogical training, usually in the form of workshops and tutorials, are springing up at campuses across the country.

One ambitious new project--released in its beta version last week--seeks to build on those scattered initiatives by creating a pan-Canadian portal for new faculty. The innovative Web site, facultydevelopment.ca, offers everything from comprehensive learning modules on topics such as connecting with students and encouraging discussion in large classes to a resource library that contains taped interviews with more experienced faculty. The site also features a virtual community of educators that seeks to foster peer support and learning through an "Ask the Expert" Web forum discussion.

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The target audience for facultydevelopment.ca includes new faculty but also teaching assistants and postdocs who want to improve their teaching skills, explains one of the principal creators of the project, Tim Pychyl, a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and the Centre for Initiatives in Education at Carleton University. And the site is designed to complement, not replace, existing centres for teaching and learning around the country, says his colleague and co-developer, Aline Germain-Rutherford, director of the Centre for University Teaching at the University of Ottawa. In addition to being an online interactive learning resource, "facultydevelopment.ca provides a way for these centres to share their own resources and expertise," she says.

The most obvious benefits of this resource are the flexibility that it offers the user and the fact that it removes the most common barriers faced by new faculty: access and time. "Smaller universities don't have extensive teaching and learning support," says Pychyl, "but even in larger universities, the faculty can't always make the time to attend every workshop." The Web site, he explains, shifts the emphasis from one-off workshops to something that can be more systemic, involving participation in a virtual community and completion of online activities. "The whole focus of our site is the reflective-practitioner model, in which a person can work through and acquire new ides and then learn how to put them into practice in their own context."

Pychyl and Germain-Rutherford's vision for the project is supported by a group of educators involved in the 3M Teaching Fellowship Program and by key Canadian higher education organisations, including the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education ( STLHE), instructional development offices from across Canada, and publisher McGraw-Hill Ryerson. STLHE and 3M Canada Inc. have been working together since 1986 to recognise and reward exceptional contributions to teaching and learning at Canadian universities through the 3M Teaching Fellowship Program, so their involvement in the new project is not a surprise. Indeed, several of the 3M Teaching Fellows are helping new faculty through facultydevelopment.ca in return. "The 3M Teaching Fellows are present not only in the videotaped interviews and the design of learning modules, but also have a real presence" through the site's "Ask the Expert" feature, says Germain-Rutherford.

Providing access to award-winning teachers via your desktop computer is exactly what makes the project unique, says Pychyl. This is not an issue "if you're in a university that has, say, 20 award-winning teachers. But what about those universities that don't? We want to be able to share a fairly limited resource more widely."

The idea for facultydevelopment.ca first came up in October 2001 during discussions between Pychyl, Germain-Rutherford, Richard Pinet, manager of the Centre for e-Learning at the University of Ottawa, Jeanette Macdonald, manager of Distance Education and Instructional Development at the University of Wilfred Laurier, Christian Blanchette, director of the Teaching and Learning Support Services at the University of Ottawa, and Arshad Ahmad, 3M teaching Fellow and coordinator of the 3M teaching Fellow. The project has expanded beyond what Pychyl jokingly describes as the "group of seven" original members brought into the project that fall: It now involves more than 80 people and 25 different participating institutions. He admits that the large distances separating members plus their busy schedules have made it no easy feat to turn the original vision into a reality: "From the outset, it's been a community-driven idea, but building a communal vision takes time."

The scope of the project and its ongoing nature mean that facultydevelopment.ca is likely to remain a work in progress--much "like a journal," says Pychyl. By early next year, visitors to the site will be able to access more teaching units, as well as activities that deal with teaching large classes and using technology in a hybrid learning environment. And because this is a Canadian project, the site will also eventually have French content, says Germain-Rutherford. But it won't just be a matter of translating existing English content. "We really do believe that teaching strategies are specific to culture--institutional and other--so we are going to work with francophone teachers and faculty developers to develop the French aspect of the Web site," she says.

Sustaining the funding for such a huge collaborative project is proving to be a challenge. Pychyl, Germain-Rutherford, and their team each contributed their own funding to create the pilot project for facultydevelopment.ca, as well as securing financial contributions from McGraw Hill-Ryerson and in-kind contributions from the University of Ottawa. The site then became part of a larger, joint project with the University of Ottawa called the "Universities Collaborative Communities for E-Learning Adoption" ( UCCELA). The UCCELA project was recently awarded $1.2 million--of which $500,000 will be used to develop the faculty development site--from CANARIE Inc., a non-profit funding organisation started by the Government of Canada that encourages development and use of next-generation research networks and the applications and services that run on them

Before the existing funds dry up next February, Pychyl and Germain-Rutherford will be looking to secure ongoing support through a newly created not-for-profit institute, the Institute for Advancement of Teaching and Higher Education. The new institute will support the further development and maintenance of the portal by requiring universities to pay a membership fee in exchange for their faculty having free and unlimited access to facultydevelopment.ca. This is where the site's exposure will become important. "Most libraries won't invest in a journal until the faculty say they want it," comments Pychyl. "So if we get people out there seeing the vision and saying, 'Yeah, I would like to have access to a resource like this,' then it is more likely that their vice president of academics and faculty development office will say that they want to join."

Pychyl and Germain-Rutherford say their efforts would likely have been for nought were it not for the support of STLHE. "Each of us in the facdev project has been and continues to be an active member in the STLHE," Pychyl says, and the two groups share the same vision for further collaboration to develop a virtual environment on the Web.

Gary Poole, STLHE's president, is travelling with them to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with the American Association of Higher Education. "We want to present this project to our American colleagues in its early days and say, 'This is a vision we have. How can we do this together?' " Pychyl explains, "rather than come to them later and say, 'This is done and would you like to be a consumer of it?' We are creating an infrastructure for collaboration."

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