Building the Ship while Sailing: Faculty Learning Communities and Technology

faculty learning community - FLC

Dana Schutz has a visually cacophonous, 13-foot-long painting titled Building the Boat While Sailing. In reviewing the work for the New Yorker, Andrea Scott referred to it as, “an allegory for the process of making a painting.” We think this painting might also serve as an allegory for teaching, which is very much its own creative process. Even in courses with clearly stated objectives and fastidious alignment, the learning environment changes shape frequently as a given term unfolds.

Moreover, with each new section and group of learners the process begins anew. Diligent instructional design is an ongoing and iterative process, and it presents time and knowledge demands that can be difficult for faculty to resource on their own. The challenges presented by such a dynamic situation are particularly evident when one attempts to incorporate new digital technologies into the teaching and learning process. Consider the following:

  • Missing the Forest for the Trees: New technologies and digital tools have a tendency to become ends in themselves, superseding the desired goal of improved learning. In these instances, the technologies become distractions rather than tools, and they often lead us to mistake entertainment for learning.
  • Disorientation: Integrating new technologies into the classroom can be disorienting and disheartening for those unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable in the presence of, these tools. Learning content that an instructor was previously comfortable teaching can seem unusual or unknown in the presence of new technologies.
  • Tool Support: Does your institution have a mechanism for supporting faculty use of technology? What about student use? It is not essential for instructors to be experts in every technology they ask their students to use. However, it is important that instructors are comfortable using the tools themselves, and that they are able to direct students to support resources.
  • Constant Change: Sometimes the pace at which new technologies develop can be exciting…and disheartening. Faculty might spend weeks effectively integrating a new tool into their teaching, only to find out the next semester that the updated version requires a new redesign, the tool has been sold to a private entity and is no longer available, or the license has changed without notice.
  • Cost: Is a desired tool institutionally funded? If not, how much would it cost? Is there an office or department to fund it? Lacking that, is it worth buying individual licenses? This final roadblock is often the most difficult to avoid and varies widely from institution to institution.

While there are many ways faculty might address these challenges, Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) are uniquely well suited to equip faculty to integrate new learning technologies into their instruction. Marked by their multidisciplinary and communal nature (Cox & Richlin, 2011), FLCs are extended gatherings (typically a semester or more) in which participants organize around a clear objective but in an informal structure. Perhaps most importantly, the FLC itself is a process that develops as the group proceeds. The community members work together to direct the shape of the experience. This design engenders ownership (Cox & Richlin, 2011; Moore & Hicks 2014) in the project without requiring the faculty to become technical experts—ownership that promotes sustainable success.

Many faculty development opportunities (i.e. one-hour workshops, colloquia, self-directed support resources) expect faculty members to embark on their development journey independently. Unfortunately, this isolation often exacerbates the challenges listed above. However, an FLC with an extended timeframe that includes professional staff in support roles provides participating faculty with the time, resources, and partners necessary to successfully engage in the iterative design process. Here are a few recommendations for designing a Faculty Learning Community centered around new technologies:

  • Evolving Outcomes: Begin with clear outcomes for the community, and ask faculty to articulate their own project objectives in their applications for participation. However, keep in mind that there is an inherent openness to this process. Rework project outcomes as needed and provide progress updates at the beginning of each meeting.
  • Multi-channel Communication: Include multiple types of interactions throughout the term to meet the many needs of participating faculty. Allow the participants to design the format of their face-to-face group meetings. Then supplement these scheduled sessions with one-on-one design meetings, online communications, self-help resources, and triage sessions.
  • Campus Partners: Use the participant applications to imagine what types of support the faculty might need, and identify the people on campus best able to offer this support. Reach out to these campus partners in advance of the FLC, gauging their interest and availability to offer demonstrations, create online learning tools, purchase technologies, or meet with faculty one-on-one.
  • Community Building: Remember that this is a community, and build it as such: work to develop a good rapport among participants; listen deeply to each participants’ goals; learn about disciplines outside of one’s own; require a certain level of participation; and bring drinks and food. Good learning environments tend to blend the formal and informal, supplementing expectations and plans with the free flowing nature of discussion and discovery.

Have an idea of where you want to go, but remember that the ship is not yet built.


Building Faculty Learning Communities: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 97, edited by Milton D. Cox, and Laurie Richlin, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011.

Moore, Julie A., and Joya Carter-Hicks. “Let’s talk! Facilitating a faculty learning community using a critical friends group approach.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 8, no. 2 (2014): 9

Allen S. Brown is an instructional designer at Wake Forest University. Qiaona Yu is an assistant professor of Chinese at Wake Forest University.

This article is featured in the Best of the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference, a collection of articles from some of the top-rated sessions at the 2017 conference. Download the report »