The Teaching and Learning Transformation Center (TLTC) at the University of Maryland, after four years, is starting to feel like an institution. We have developed our own culture, activities, a reputation on campus, and a permanent home. It is hard to remember that not long ago, none of what now seems normal was obvious to anyone – including me. It was an incremental process, with a vision and continuous adaptation. That change sometimes went a bit sideways, but nevertheless made consistent progress. Now that I am stepping down, it seems like a good time to reflect on how we got here.
It started with a combination of aspiration and fear. Six years ago, in the summer of 2012, online learning had become a fad. New technologies were enabling a quality and efficiency of content delivery that hadn’t been seen at this scale before. The New York Times was about to describe 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC”, many faculty were excited about the possibility of educational technologies, and many were anticipating that they would lead to the demise of the University as we knew it.
In that context, our University created a year long Provost’s Commision on Blended and Online Education which I was lucky enough to be a member of. The commission consisted of over 20 campus members that spent dozens of hours together studying, counting, and debating technology in education. We wrote a report whose first recommendation was to appoint a high-level administrator to provide leadership across campus for technology enhanced education. I ended up filling that role.
Our campus had for decades run a small “Center for Teaching Excellence” (CTE) which was excellent, but focused more on supporting excellent teachers than actively attempting to change campus culture around teaching and learning. Part of my new role was to re-invent the CTE to more broadly engage the campus in the culture of teaching and learning. While our initial charter also included technology enhanced education, and I did take over our campus MOOC program, we ran into our first bit of institutional confusion. The campus instructional designers had originally been slated to move from the Division of Information Technology (DIT) to the TLTC, but in the end that didn’t happen. It also quickly became apparent that the stronger need was for enhancement of pedagogy in general. Given our campus’ historical focus on research, the major challenge was to redirect some of our institutional energy towards teaching and learning – which our new Provost strongly supported. Her support was a significant reason that we have had the success we have, providing the resources and visibility to enable us to pursue a path of culture change to raise our focus on and expectations for the highest quality teaching throughout campus.
One of the things that quickly became apparent was that while many people on campus looked to the TLTC for help with teaching and learning related issues, we did not “own” the space of teaching and learning on campus. In order to be successful, we had to collaborate deeply with many units on campus - and there were many. From Undergraduate Studies and the Graduate School to DIT, the Libraries, the college level teaching centers in the Business School and our school of sciences, and of course the Deans of the 12 academic colleges among others – we did a lot of meetings, introductions, and looked for ways to help.
I read whatever culture change literature I could find, and we built our center around four key elements, as articulated in my colleague’s article1. They are to: 1) set high expectations; 2) provide oversight; 3) strong support; and 4) recognize success.
High Expectations – The challenge with high expectations is that while everyone says that teaching is important, it is very difficult to articulate what we mean by excellent teaching. We decided to tackle this by leaning heavily on the existing scholarship in the learning sciences. I gave the TLTC’s new Director of Research (Alice Donlan) a big first assignment – to digest the literature and create a conceptual model of an effective course based on decades of educational theory and empirical research which resulted in our Fearless Teaching Framework (FTF). The key to this approach was to base this on the literature. There was no committee to study this because it is not based on opinion. Rather, this is our way of communicating the existing literature. The FTF includes four key pillars.
- Classroom climate refers to the sense of warmth and support within a learning context. Inclusive classrooms with open communication, supportive relationships, and a shared emphasis on promoting academic progress are considered to have a positive climate. When students feel that the context is supportive, they are more likely to ask questions, ask for help, support their peers, engage deeply with material, and achieve academically.
- Content refers to what course topics are covered in a class. Research indicates that students are more successful when course content is appropriate for their developmental stage and academic ability. Further, students are more likely to be engaged when they understand that the content prepares them for the next courses in their sequence of study, and is relevant to their lives outside of the classroom. In other words, high quality content meets students where they are, and prepares them for where they need to go.
- Teaching practices can promote learning. For example, providing students with clear expectations and timely feedback has been shown to promote student engagement and learning, because students are better equipped to meet the demands of the course, and adjust their approach over time. Overall, these evidence-based practices are those that rely on supportive, active, responsive pedagogy.
- Assessments are most productive when they are valid, reliable measures of stated learning outcomes. Assessment structures promote learning when they provide time for feedback and growth, and include a number of different methods of understanding student mastery. Transparent, attainable expectations help students believe that success is possible and devote higher levels of effort in the course.
Oversight – To provide motivation to reach those expectations, faculty need to know that the university cares about these issues. The burgeoning TLTC was fortunate that the University Senate was updating the campus promotion and tenure policy as we were getting started, and agreed to increase the requirements for documenting teaching success. The campus already had required student course evaluations, and added required peer observations and teaching portfolios. The TLTC was charged with providing guidelines and support for departments and faculty to develop specific expectations for these – and that gave us a great opportunity to reach out to faculty to help them do something they cared a lot about. We ended up creating guidance for the peer observations and teaching portfolios and run regular workshops helping faculty learn how to manage this. It has always been important to us to that the TLTC is viewed as being faculty advocates and not the “teaching police.” The fact that the campus was increasing oversight of teaching enabled us to jump in to provide that support.
Support – Of course, faculty would be hard pressed to meet these expectations without strong support, and this is where TLTC’s approach has been really appreciated. By taking a strong position of being faculty advocates and tirelessly encouraging teaching excellence, faculty came to see us as being on their side. The fact that my position is at the Associate Provost level shows clearly that we have the Provost’s support. This year, we moved into the amazing new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center (ESJ) - a stunning new central facility with 12 large active learning classrooms. It put us at the physical center of campus and the center of teaching on campus. ESJ combines beautiful open spaces with support for collaborative student learning through the architectural design and modern, working technology. Faculty that teach here naturally come to us for advice about how best design their course to take advantage of the rooms - especially the 6-student round table rooms.
And we developed a broad set of activities, programs and information resources to support faculty wherever they are. On or off campus, deeply engaged in teaching, or just dipping their toe in the water of new pedagogical techniques. We offer a wide range of events, including weekly workshops with a renewed focus on “news you can use” - giving specific guidance that faculty can apply immediately. We have seminars, reading groups, consultations, peer observations, department visits, orientations and more.
We are really excited about the growing number of more substantive programs that engage faculty more deeply. Our signature program is the Elevate Fellows program where faculty commit to working with us for a whole year to learn some foundational pedagogical skills and then work together to redesign their course. This is especially relevant for those teaching in the active learning classrooms of ESJ and also for more and more faculty that are teaching online, often for the first time. That led to the development of our Academic Peer Mentor Program (AMP) which brings back undergraduate students that previously took a course to help faculty manage a course during big active learning sessions. We also created the Launch program to engage new faculty in a structured set of activities distributed over time so they get used to working with us and aren’t surprised when it is time for them to create their teaching portfolios for tenure. We also have faculty learning communities, research seed funding support, and a range of programs specially designed for graduate teaching assistants led Marissa Stewart (such as UTLP and the Graduate Teaching Fellowship.)
Recognition – Instructors need to know that their efforts are being appreciated, so we have been developing a range of ways to more visibly recognize their efforts. Last year Scott Roberts saw the opportunity to recognize our instructors in a much bigger way and he developed Thank a Teacher Week (TaTW). We all know how much students often appreciate their teachers but never quite manage to express it. So TaTW is a week long celebration where we express our appreciation - with free ice cream, prizes, movie night, social media campaigns (e.g., take a selfie with your teacher), and more. But most importantly, we give students the opportunity to express their appreciation with Thank-a-Grams. We set up tables around campus collecting notes that students write on postcards that we deliver to instructors through campus mail. And we let students and alumni send virtual thanks as well through a page on our website - resulting in over 2,400 Thank-a-Grams for the year.
Our campus has for over 20 years had an Innovation in Teaching and Learning conference (ITL). We have done this for years in partnership with DIT, and have continued to invest in that – growing and redesigning it to suit the growing interest from campus. We end the ITL with a reception to re-recognize all the winners of teaching awards from colleges and departments around campus – because that it really helps to know that campus really does care about these things. We feel like these activities collectively truly advance the campus’ culture for teaching and learning by enhancing the recognition of excellence in teaching from both the administration that supports it and the students that we all serve.
Coupled with developing our Fearless Teaching Framework and thinking internally about the need for campus culture change, we grew and developed the TLTC. Now with 9 full-time staff, 5 half-time graduate students, and a number of hourly undergrads, we developed our mission statement which is much more practical. We fully embrace the fact that our faculty have tremendous obligations on their time and focus, and so restructured much of what we offer to meet faculty where they are to help them enjoy their teaching more and be more successful at it.
We pitch this as aiming for two primary goals of helping faculty to be more effective and equitable, and doing that through engagement and efficiency. We are tireless faculty advocates. While some instructors with poor student reviews or other problems are sometimes sent our way by well-meaning department chairs, we never assess faculty for those purposes, and as already mentioned, stay far away from being perceived as the “teaching police.”
Part of our approach has been to focus on broadening our reach. By trying to understand the needs of all faculty, we hope to get past supporting only those faculty that already are excited about focusing their efforts on pedagogy. We have fun – producing magazine parodies, and are very careful about respecting the time commitments of faculty participants. We really invested in a high level of professionalism in our communications. We redesigned our website with easy-to-remember URLs and produced a number of pages of particular interest to faculty, including a slide archive from our workshops, guidance for performing peer observations, creating teaching portfolios, leading discussions on sensitive topics, and many more. We also produce a weekly newsletter that has over 4,000 subscribers.
The TLTC has been in such a period of growth and innovation that I think we are all a bit relieved to settle down a bit and focus on polishing our operations. That said, there is always more to do. We have been carefully tracking who participates in our activities, and now that we have that data, we need to more clearly understand exactly who we are reaching - by discipline, rank and type of instruction - and then reach out more directly to those that we are missing. I know we are not doing a good enough job at supporting our adjunct faculty, and I suspect there are other big gaps as well that we just aren’t aware of yet.
And the next area of new work needs to be in better supporting online courses and programs. We are right in the middle of hiring our first two “Learning Experience Designers”, and we look forward to applying the Fearless Teaching Framework to online instruction and developing the right set of services to support our growing online teaching activities.
In the end, this experience has given me confidence that big institutions can change. But it has to be done deliberately, over time, with support and resources from the top, and commitment to work collaboratively through myriad details. And while this article describes many approaches we took, I fully expect that all would have to be adapted to the context of any other campus. It takes a strong “user-centered” mindset to build things that work for stakeholders across campus. And that approach, of balancing the institution’s strategic desire with the interests and needs of stakeholders, has simultaneously been the hardest and most fun part of building the TLTC.
1. Lyon, Julie S.; Gettman, Hilary J.; Roberts, Scott P.; Shaw, Cynthia E. 2015. Measuring and Improving the Climate for Teaching: A Multi-Year Study. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, v26, n1, p. 111-138.