July 7th, 2008

Faculty Learning Community Brings Together Diverse Group to Discuss Asynchronous Learning and Trends

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No matter how long you’ve taught, there is always something you can learn from colleagues. This is the concept behind Kent State University’s faculty learning communities (FLCs). Currently, KSU offers 13 FLCs, one of which focuses solely on asynchronous communication.

This online learning-and-teaching FLC uses a combination of face-to-face meetings and Web-based activities to create an environment in which members can consult with each other to improve their online or Web-supported courses. Another goal is to develop a set of procedures and materials that will help faculty new to online learning implement it in their courses, using existing research, members’ experience, and studies conducted within the learning community.

Because the optimal size of this FLC is between eight and 12, those interested in participating need to submit a proposal. “We want everybody to either have an online course or have one that they want to put online and explain why they think the community would help them do that,” says Albert Ingram, associate professor of instructional design at Kent State.

The concept of the FLC is rather loosely defined and can include members with a wide range of experience, Ingram says. “We see a community as a long-term structure for getting people together who are interested in the same set of issues, usually teaching-and-learning issues. Unlike a committee, nobody’s required to serve. It doesn’t have a particular thing that they’re supposed to do every month. The committee defines what it wants to accomplish. We’re pretty loose about that.”

The group meets weekly for about an hour-and-a-half to talk about problems and progress in group members’ courses. The FLC also has a course space in WebCT Vista in which all members have designer and instructor access and can post materials for the group to try out and critique. Eventually the materials in this course will be made available to a wider audience.

Ideally, faculty will get some background in online pedagogy before learning how to use the course-management system. “Learning to use the software is the least important part of the whole process. Learning to use the software should come after you figure out how you want to use this to teach and how you want students to learn in your course. The idea of this FLC is to talk about online discussions and then get the WebCT Vista people in to show us everything they know about how we can set it up,” Ingram says.

FLC members contribute to the group by sharing their experiences, research, and resources. Participating in this FLC has given Ingram a new group of colleagues from other disciplines that he might not have worked with otherwise and has made him more deliberate in his approach to developing and teaching online courses. “I think the first thing to come out of it is this sense of community, this sense of being in a group of people interested in the same thing. I’m not sure that we have had any earth-shattering revelations come out of it, but from a faculty development perspective it’s been extremely successful in getting people together and talking about problems of teaching and learning. I talk with people completely outside my area. I’ve worked with people from all different sorts of disciplines who I probably wouldn’t have known was interested in online learning,” Ingram says.

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Based on his FLC experience, Ingram asks the following questions when considering asynchronous online discussion in his courses:

  • Why am I asking the questions?
  • What’s the best way to ask them?
  • How do I set things up to ensure that everybody participates?
  • How do I make sure the participation is actually facilitating learning?

One of the challenges of FLC is maintaining progress and momentum given that participation is optional and members are doing this above and beyond their normal roles. Two grants have helped keep the FLC productive. “The grants have allowed us to do things like have retreats with food, which always brings people together. And they’ve allowed us to offer travel money for active members,” Ingram says.

The grants have been secondary to the FLC’s success. The most important factors to success have been having a leader and a focus on a specific issue. “The leader needs to do a lot of the administrative things like scheduling meetings, but the leader also has to try to get everybody involved in setting and maintaining the direction of it. It’s not a matter of saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ It’s a matter of asking, ‘What are we going to do, and who’s going to take responsibility for that part of it?'” Ingram says.

Contact Albert Ingram at aingram@kent.edu.