Rethinking Faculty Support    Link to earlier draft with reviews or revised version in response to reviews

Since the advent of the World Wide Web, those involved in academic computing increasingly have struggled with the critical issue of how to effectively support the use of technology in teaching and learning. But what does "support" really mean? Most will agree that the goal of support is to enhance and improve teaching and learning. That's the easy part. How we do this continues to be a $100,000 question.

Centers for Teaching, Learning, and Technology have become commonplace on college and university campuses. Typically, such centers house staff and specialized equipment, and most offer technology workshops for faculty and perhaps even individualized consulting. In addition, many fund mini-grant initiatives designed to provide select, motivated faculty members with intensive assistance they need to transform their courses through the application of networked information technologies. While these certainly are helpful activities, our experience at the University of Washington (UW) and our conversations with colleagues at other institutions make it clear that these efforts are not sufficient.

For the past 18 months, those of us involved in the UWired program and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at UW have worked to rethink our notion of faculty support. Our primary goal is to develop strategies that will lead to the wide-scale adoption of effective uses of technology, not just to the transformation of a few isolated courses. Because of this commitment, we have had to refocus our efforts and fundamentally alter our perspective; we now work toward a systemic, rather than limited, integration of technology into education. [I added this last part because "fundamentally alter" is a strong phrase -- you need some follow-up indication of what your perspective was before. Is this OK by you? If not, please do change it.]

While we are still a long way from finding a definitive answer to the support question, our evolving approach is reflected in the array of services that make up the UWired’s Catalyst initiative. Catalyst is grounded in a set of principles that include:

For more a more detailed description of the development of Catalyst, see Donovan and Macklin (1998): "One Size Doesn't Fit All: Designing Scalable, Client-Centered Support for Teaching with Technology." [I moved this up from a later paragraph. It seems more appropriate here, where you introduce Catalyst.]

Innovative Thinking

How we talk about "teaching with technology" is important. We who work with new technologies and serve as supporting faculty work take pains to frame what we do in terms of bringing technology into the service of teaching. We strongly believe that technologies should not simply be layered atop an existing course; instead, instructional goals should drive the adoption of technology.

Yet speaking in terms of "integrating technology into teaching" or "teaching with technology" is awkward, because the term technology is still on center stage. Certainly new technologies are a key to fostering new approaches to teaching and learning; however, these technologies need to be bundled with dynamic instructional methods and approaches if they are to be truly effective and transformative.

Technology support staff should think of promoting "innovation," rather than technology, in teaching and learning. Thinking in terms of innovation bridges a gap that can exist between instructional technologists and faculty. Rather than frame our task as getting faculty to "buy in" to new technologies, we can instead focus on unleashing the creative energies of the bright, motivated experts that make up the faculty of our colleges and universities. Faculty prize innovation. The creation of new knowledge and techniques is what beckoned most of them to a life in the Academy.

A focus on innovation thus demands that we think beyond the latest gizmo, and it opens up room for faculty who may not see themselves as "techies" but still are deeply interested in the developing as teachers. This rhetorical shift also serves to orient our faculty support efforts, so that we focus on ways to help faculty do new things rather than simply (and at times slavishly) provide software application support.

[It would be helpful if you could provide a concrete example of focusing on innovation rather than technology, then explain how that lead to good results for faculty use of technology.]

Early Adopters and the Rest ["and the Rest" might initially be taken as an unfavorable lumping term. How about "A Double-Edged Sword: The Influence of Early Adopters"?]

The early adopters who rush to embrace new technologies are a different breed than most mainstream faculty. Early adopters are willing to spend more time—and endure considerable frustration—trying new tools and experimenting with new technologies. Most faculty are not so willing, nor should we expect them to be.

While early adopters often have been viewed as ready-made advocates of new technologies, they typically possess a comfort level with technology and a rampant enthusiasm for it that may, in fact, be off-putting to their peers. Sometimes the enthusiasm of early adopters is contagious, but more often it is perceived as techno-zealotry.

We often encounter technically-adept early adopters who use information technology simply to do old things in new ways; we also frequently meet with faculty who are new to technology yet apply it with a fresh, creative approach. Thinking in terms of innovation helps to level the playing field, and it leaves us free to concentrate our attention on new ideas and techniques while de-emphasizing technical mastery.

The Diffusion of Innovation

In his seminal book The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers (1995) summarizes a rich body of analytical literature on how and why innovations do—or do not—move beyond inventors and early adopters. Rogers identifies five determinants of the diffusion of innovation that can be useful  to those planning and implementing faculty support services:

The likelihood than an innovation will be adopted improves each time that one answers "yes" to an above question. At UWired, we use these determinants to evaluate and guide faculty support efforts collected under our Catalyst initiative.

The centerpiece of this initiative is a Web site designed to deliver resources, support, and ideas for faculty. We have, for example, created a small (but growing) suite of modular, Web-based tools that allow faculty to experiment with the creation of instructional components such as Web-based surveys or quizzes and online peer review forums. These tools satisfy three determinants: faculty use only a Web browser to create these tools (simplification); they may use this service as much or as little as they want with no other commitments (trialability); and they can access a series of brief profiles on faculty who are using technology to enable new instructional practices (observability).

Through there are a variety of proprietary tools (often called "courseware") that purportedly are easy to use, we firmly believe that the open standards of the Web and custom or off-the-shelf tools that support these standards are critical to ensuring that innovative uses of technology can be widely observed and diffused [You're meaning isn't clear in this sentence. What is it about the Web and your tools that makes it easier for faculty to adapt technology?] This approach seems to be successful, as thousands of visitors each month are drawn to the content provided by the Catalyst site.

Getting to Know Faculty

To orient faculty support so that it promulgates innovation in teaching and learning, support staff must understand the needs and expectations of faculty. This requires some effort, because mainstream faculty typically are not the same individuals who make their way [do you mean voluntarily go?] to campus teaching, learning, and technology centers.

Two tried and true methods of social research can be useful here: surveys and focus groups. At the UW, the University Libraries conduct a biennial user survey. As a result of a UWired collaboration with the library system, the most recent survey included questions about student and faculty uses of technology. Survey responses give us a useful profile of the faculty as a whole, rather than our usual peek at those who self-select to access our services.

We found, for example, that over 90% of faculty use email to communicate with students. While many faculty do not think of themselves as technology users, this statistic helps us emphasize that they likely are already taking advantage of technology. Such context helps to demystify technology and allows faculty see that innovation does not require the use of exotic or complicated technologies. 

Survey data is undeniably useful; it cannot by itself, however, convey the detailed understanding of faculty needs, expectations, and past experiences that are crucial for developing an effective system of support. Few tactics beat simply asking faculty what they want. As part of the Catalyst development process, UWired representatives conducted a series of focus groups to get a better sense of what faculty in different contexts, and with varying levels of technological expertise, want. We asked two primary questions: (1) What are your biggest teaching challenges?, and (2) What concerns do you have about using technology? The ensuing discussion was rich, and the observations of the participants often ran counter to our assumptions. We found, for instance, that faculty do not like our practice of combining "how to" help with pedagogical suggestions in our printed material. Faculty sometimes want to know "how" and at other times want to know "why," but they find the conflation of this information confusing.

Summing Up

There is no magic solution for supporting faculty uses of technology in teaching and learning. Those of us technology support roles at research universities typically find ourselves working in a highly decentralized environment with heterogeneous faculty members and rapidly changing technologies. At smaller colleges and universities, the environment may be slightly less hectic, but most of the same challenges remain.

Getting to know our faculty—and not just the early adopters who seek us out—allows us to develop a deeper understanding of how they do their work as teachers and scholars. Viewing faculty support in this context requires us to look at more than just the technical challenges that faculty face. These technical issues are not trivial, but it is at the intersection of technology and faculty social practices that our support work needs to be done. Focusing on identifying and promoting innovation is one strategy that can help us navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities that networked information technology presents for teaching and learning in higher education.


Donovan, M., & Macklin, S. (1998, December). One size doesn't fit all: Designing scaleable, client-centered support for technology in teaching. Paper presented at the CAUSE98 conference, Seattle, Washington. Retrieved 25 June 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Rogers, E. (1995). The diffusion of innovations. (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.