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Building the Ship while Sailing: Faculty Learning Communities and Technology

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:

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:

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 »