Building Trust and Synergy in Faculty Support
"Why do you think the faculty would trust you?" my SCORE mentor asked as we sat down to discuss promoting our signature faculty support services. "You are threatening their livelihood."
I was stunned at the directness of her statement. But, given her background as a retired faculty member (and my own experience as an instructional designer), I knew exactly what she was talking about - the well-known tensions between faculty and administrators in higher education.
"I am a faculty whisperer," I replied with a smile. "I come from a place of respect for their expertise. There are many ways to earn that trust and to show value."
In 2019, after many years working in higher education, I started my own business - ATTECS, LLC. The mission of ATTECS was to provide instructional design, faculty support, and technology consulting services to higher education institutions. Institutions that either did not have their own staff in these areas, or needed to supplement their staffing for a variety of reasons.
In 2020, as higher education institutions were forced en masse to embrace online education due to COVID-19, and as many other projects were put on the back burner, faculty training and support became our most requested services - without the need for much advertisement. We quickly gained several institutional clients. All of our faculty support engagements were renewed multiple times in some capacity, and lasted from 6 months to well over a year. By the end of 2021, however, most of our work with faculty at client institutions had concluded.
As higher education returned to a new normal, we (ATTECS) needed to look at our priorities and come up with a new strategy and marketing plan. As we talked about priorities and promotional wording, the big question loomed - was there still a demand for faculty support services? If so, my SCORE mentor questioned, what made us unique? Even if there were a need, why would faculty choose to work with us - especially now that there was no longer a burning need and pressure to teach online?
What does "faculty whispering" look like?
I have to admit that for me, working with faculty is the best part of being an instructional designer. To be honest, the greater the initial resistance, the more gratifying the "aha!" moments and lasting relationships that follow. Here are just some of the strategies I have found helpful for connecting and building relationships with the faculty I support:
Reaching out to each faculty on my support list at the beginning of the new semester
I ask for a 15-30 minute phone call or video meeting to "get to know each other and talk about how I could best support" them in the upcoming semester. Ideally, I would already know something about them. It is extremely helpful when the university culture allows for the support personnel to have access to all courses. We can often glean the pain points by previewing the course, and carefully offer solutions during this first meeting. If that isn't possible, I have a list of "did you know you can..." tips and tricks that address common pain points. Here are a few examples that proved my worth time and time again in these early meetings:
"Oh, you are using a [publisher] textbook! Did you know that many have test banks that you can import into LMS and tweak as needed? Want to take a look together?"
"Did you know that you can schedule weekly Announcements all at once?"
"Did you know that [Canvas] Course Summary automatically sorts and displays all pages and assignments with the due/to-do dates?"
Creating semester-long mailing lists
This is not going to work with every institutional culture, and some institutions do not allow instructional designers to mass email faculty. However, where possible, I have found this highly beneficial. The emails I send are also commonly in the form of tips and tricks, and align with what faculty might be doing at the time. For example, in the beginning of the semester, I may include tips and how-tos around messaging and communication with students, or organizing and sharing content. As the semester progresses, the tips will shift to information around assessments and feedback. Every email reiterates that I am available to help with any such work. The frequency of our emails will depend on the goals and needs. I don't want to be too repetitive, forceful or annoying, and I have not had many requests from the faculty to opt out.
Respecting their expertise and recognizing their accomplishments
I have met some amazing faculty members who could probably teach their courses via text if needed, and still engage students and achieve exemplary evaluations. Yet, as instructional designers, we often have strong opinions about what constitutes a well-designed course. A cursory review of the course in the learning management system is often enough for instructional designers and administrators to form an opinion about the quality of instruction. Subsequent communication with the faculty may come across as judgemental and negative, and reinforce hesitation to utilize instructional design and support services.
Instead of bringing out the criticism first thing, I choose to focus on and highlight the course's strengths. For example, I may compliment how thorough the syllabus is, how amazing the subject matter, or the content of the course. I may then recommend incremental changes to the course structure.
Offering a "buddy" system
This approach has been especially helpful for faculty with no prior experience teaching online, as it allows us to convert courses previously taught face-to-face into quality hybrid instruction while the courses are underway. We typically schedule weekly or biweekly hands-on working sessions during which we set up and open modules 2-3 weeks in advance. During these sessions, faculty receive relevant just-in-time training on the use of the learning management system (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc), video creation tools (e.g. Panopto or Kaltura), annotation tools (e.g. Hypothes.is or Perusall), and more.
Working with faculty - especially those new to online education, is an exciting and rewarding part of my career that has resulted in many long-term professional relationships. What can possibly compare to the thrill of the "aha!" moment, and a faculty member saying they would never go back to teaching the same way as before?
What are some of your strategies for faculty support? Leave us a comment below.
To engage our teams of "faculty whisperers," see our instructional design/faculty support packages or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.