Growing Pains (and Opportunities): Launching a Center for Teaching and Learning During a Global Pandemic
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This article provides a summary of the steps that were taken to launch a new center for teaching and learning (CTL) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysis of these steps explain how the inaugural director leveraged the pivot to emergency remote teaching to capitalize on faculty interest for educational development and increase collaboration between non-academic units that support teaching. Discussion also includes how strategic planning guided this process and ultimately garnered new staffing for this small center-of-one.
Keywords: launching or starting a CTL; educational development in times of crisis; CTL collaborations; CTL strategic planning
Much has been written about what it takes to successfully launch a center for teaching and learning (CTL). Educational development scholars have touted the importance of creating relationships with key campus stakeholders (Dickens et al., 2019), defining center and institutional goals (Gray & Shadle, 2009), and outlining a clear pathway and processes to reach those goals (Cruz et al., 2020). Others have underscored the importance of empowering faculty with a sense of ownership in this process and cultivating administrative commitment as necessary steps to ensure widespread buy-in for a new CTL (Sorcinelli, 2002). It has also been emphasized that aligning the CTL’s mission and priorities with institutional values can go a long way in achieving this buy-in and commitment (Schroeder, 2011).
But how do these steps and priorities shift when launching a new CTL amid a global pandemic and move to emergency remote teaching? Better yet, where should precious time and energy be spent when doing this as a center-of-one? These were the problems I faced as inaugural director of a CTL that was only 6 months old at the time our institution announced that all courses would be moved online for the spring 2020 term. The following provides a recounting of steps taken to launch the new center prior to the pandemic, how those plans pivoted quickly with this announcement, an analysis of key decisions I made at the time, and ways that the global pandemic ultimately secured this fledgling center’s prominence within a large research university.
On a Mission: Launching a New CTL Unaware of Impending Crisis
Having worked in one of the larger CTLs in the United States for almost a decade, I felt confident in my ability to take on the role of inaugural director of a new CTL at Drexel University in June 2019. Drexel University is a large private urban research university dedicated to experiential learning through one of the nation’s oldest and largest co-op programs and long-standing commitment to be “the most civically engaged university in the United States” (Rickards et al., 2019). For many years prior to my appointment, the university had a small faculty-run teaching center, but a restructuring within the provost’s office coupled with growing demands for more robust professional development for teaching generated the need for a reimagined and centralized CTL.
As one passionate about both the art and science of teaching, I jumped at the opportunity to put my experience and skills to good use by building a CTL from the ground up. At the same time, the task at hand would not be easy. Drexel University was in need of a CTL that could support the diverse disciplines, teaching contexts, and experiences of almost 2,500 faculty housed within 12 schools and colleges and located on three different campuses. Furthermore, this CTL—like any housed within a research-focused institution—faced the additional challenge of increasing participation in the professional development of teaching and the value placed on this development (Elen et al., 2007). Considering these factors, I knew that it would be critical to develop partnerships with campus leaders who faculty trusted as well as a process that instilled in them a sense of shared ownership (Dickens et al., 2019; Sorcinelli, 2002). Therefore, I started to build the CTL using three essential strategies: learn, engage, and plan.
Learn. From day one, I began what I branded a “university learning tour.” Although meet and greets are a typical starting point when switching institutions, naming this activity elevated the importance of these meetings and my goal to learn about the institution prior to launching CTL activities. As one might suspect, this tour included meetings with every dean, associate dean, faculty senate member, department head, and believer in evidenced-based teaching that would accept my invitation to meet. Needless to say, I drank a lot of coffee, asked a lot of questions, and listened intently. While I’m not sure that the tour ever officially ended, this first step was crucial to cultivate a sense of shared ownership and commitment to a new CTL. It also provided me with valuable insight into the institution’s culture that guided many of my decisions in that first year.
Engage. Although the tour started this process, a more formal structure for faculty to engage with the CTL was needed. To create this mechanism, I established an advisory board. Luckily, the vice provost for faculty affairs had previously formed a faculty-led committee to envision this new CTL (and hire me), so I started with those members who already had a stake in my success. I then invited faculty members from schools or colleges that had not yet been involved and invited staff members from a few key non-academic units that supported some aspect of teaching and learning. A CTL’s advisory board is critical to engaging faculty, but it is just as important to let the greater community know about it. Therefore, communications about the advisory board were created, and I encouraged members to announce their role on the board to colleagues and invite them to provide input.
Plan. To harness excitement for the new CTL and build momentum, the new advisory board and I began to meet bi-monthly in order to draft a strategic plan. Together we made a tactical decision to focus on a 3-year plan, rather than a traditional 5-year plan. This decision allowed us to move quickly and focus our time and energy on the most essential activities for a new CTL. We had a complete draft of our plan by December 2019. As a result, the start of 2020 involved sharing the strategic plan with additional stakeholders, making adjustments based on their feedback, and launching new initiatives outlined in the plan.
Pivoting Plans Amid a Global Pandemic
A little more than halfway through my first academic year as inaugural director, I was feeling pretty self-assured about my accomplishments. That was right about the time the university’s president announced that due to the growing COVID-19 health crisis, the spring term would be moved fully online, giving instructors 2 weeks to make adjustments to their courses. While no one was surprised by this news, there was very little time to prepare for this transition. It was clear that the institution needed me to focus immediate attention on supporting instructors to teach remotely. As a center-of-one, this was a daunting task to consider, but I knew that if leveraged properly, it could advance the mission of the CTL more rapidly than anything we had conceived of in our 3-year strategic plan. To do this effectively would require making important decisions including what I needed to start doing, which activities would have to stop, and which were vital to continue.
Starting. Before deciding what to do first, I looked to peer centers and colleagues in the field for support. I researched the language they were using, the workshops they were offering, and their priorities at this time of crisis. I also looked specifically for CTLs posting content and resources with Creative Commons licensing that would allow me to reuse and remix content for my specific audience. To this day, I am thankful for those contributions that allowed me to immediately create a remote teaching web page, communicate reassurance to the faculty, and get them started with the transition in a few first steps.
Next, I went back through the last 10 years of workshops and trainings that I had run. I catalogued relevant lesson plans and slides that were ready to go and developed a plan of action. This allowed me to immediately launch a series of workshops on remote teaching topics. I quickly scheduled these workshops to run during those critical 2 weeks prior to the start of our all-remote spring term. Within a few hours of sending an announcement about these workshops, there were over 70 registrants in each, which is more than three times the number of registrants I had seen in previous workshops. I quickly closed registration, and emails began pouring in requesting that I add more dates. In less than 2 hours of announcing several new dates, there were 90 faculty registered in each. With no room left on my calendar, I quickly created asynchronous workshops using VoiceThread. As a result, I was able to provide an interactive experience for faculty (breaking them into smaller groups) as well as offer unlimited enrollment. This sent an important message to faculty that the CTL would be there to support them in a time of need.
Stopping. It was clear that in order to support faculty through an emergency transition to online teaching, work on other strategic initiatives would have to wait. After spending months getting excited about new projects, this was a difficult decision to make. However, building a fabulous new website and robust registration system were not the top priority, nor were they within my capacity to manage during this crisis. Additionally, the plans to develop more time-intensive, multi-part programming were put on hold. It was clear that faculty were extremely stressed about this transition and asking them for additional time was not appropriate or fair.
Continuing. Arguably the most critical decision I made at this time was to move forward with a major initiative: Drexel Teaching Academy. This program was designed as a way to engage mid-career and senior faculty in working with the CTL. The purpose was to dispel the misconception that a CTL is only for inexperienced teachers or those in need of some intervention. However, Drexel Teaching Academy also would expand the programming of a small center-of-one because alumni were expected to support the CTL by facilitating workshops, providing teaching consultations, or serving on teaching-related committees. I had spent the winter term recruiting participants—not an easy task considering the ask was to participate in a 2-hour workshop every week for 10 weeks with additional homework to complete between sessions! However, with a small financial incentive and the promise of recognition, I successfully convinced 14 full-time faculty and five staff members to engage in a deep examination of the literature and together brainstorm ways to advance this knowledge and research among their colleagues.
Although it was not my original vision to facilitate Drexel Teaching Academy online, it was simply too vital to postpone. It turned out that moving forward despite the crisis had added benefits. Not only did every participant make it to each meeting, but I also heard from them how valuable it was to gain firsthand experience taking an online “course” at the same time many were teaching their first online course. More importantly, as a newcomer to a very tight-knit community, through this program I gained credibility among a number of well-respected faculty at the institution—and the experience was reciprocal. This process allowed me to gain trust that these faculty would maintain the CTL’s reputation for modeling best practices when they went on to facilitate or co-facilitate workshops. Indeed, this cohort played a fundamental role in expanding the CTL’s support of remote teaching by developing additional remote teaching workshops and resources on a number of disciplinary-based topics that were outside my own areas of expertise.
Seizing the Moment, Even in Tough Times
One of the greatest challenges that I faced when taking this inaugural director position was bringing together the many stakeholders across campus already engaged in the work of supporting or advancing various aspects of teaching at Drexel University. The vision that was handed to me by institutional leadership was for this new CTL to support all instructors, all disciplines, and all learning environments. However, there were a number of different units on campus supporting specific teaching contexts, such as those supporting instructional technology, online teaching, community-based learning, global classrooms, and even STEM teaching. Although the work of building partnerships across these units was already underway, this unusual situation provided opportunities to fast-track the process, combine efforts, and reimagine some of the CTL’s previously planned initiatives.
Fast-tracking partnerships. In March 2020, I was asked to join a remote teaching task force charged with addressing gaps in teaching and technology needs and developing resources for instructors required to swiftly transition to remote teaching. Of course, I agreed to serve on this team and was happy when I discovered that it was composed of leaders within many of the units I already sought to work with more closely. Joining this task force provided a means to get to know these stakeholders as individuals and to build collegiality among us and a shared sense of responsibility. Similar to my experience with faculty in Drexel Teaching Academy, weekly meetings with this group provided both community and an extended team—one that I still lean on today.
Combining efforts. At a time when I was struggling to respond to the growing demands by faculty and administration alike, members of this task force became a valuable resource and support system for the CTL’s work. To begin, we determined that a top priority was to organize the resources, materials, and information on remote teaching in one unified place. This decision was driven by the desire to make things as simple and easy as possible for faculty, but it also became an important marketing device to let faculty know that these disparate units were indeed working together to support them. Together, the task force members worked to develop resources—an undertaking that I had been unable to put much time into on my own. At the same time, this collaborative process provided me—as the CTL’s new director—with some oversight of these resources to ensure the appropriate tone was used and that evidence-based practices were recommended.
Reimagining initiatives. As previously stated, due to demand for remote teaching support, I had to put aside many of the Year 1 projects that had been identified in the strategic planning process. At the same time, I recognized that this task force could be leveraged to engage in this work if properly aligned with the support of remote teaching. For example, one proposed initiative for the CTL was a Spotlight on Teaching blog where faculty would be invited to share a brief example of an innovative or evidence-based teaching practice. With a minor rebranding and shift in scope to focus on remote teaching, this project came into perfect alignment with the task force’s charge. With the help of this new extended team, we drafted a call for proposals, developed a peer-review process, created the blog, and began to advertise it to faculty. As a center-of-one in the middle of a teaching crisis, I could have never accomplished this alone. At a time when faculty face increased scrutiny of their teaching, the blog posts have been a great way to highlight the thoughtful ways faculty are rising to the challenge.
Growing and Adapting as a Learning Organization
As educational developers, we are in the business of developing lifelong learners and therefore must also commit to do the same ourselves. Simply having a CTL has been identified as one indicator that an institution is a learning organization (Dill, 1999), but in order for this to hold true, CTLs themselves must also commit to not just “creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge” but also “modifying behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (Garvin, 1993, p. 80). Consequently, though the dust hasn’t even settled on this crisis, I’m searching for the lessons underlying these experiences that I can take with me moving forward. Two lessons that I’ve already learned include the importance of promoting institutional values and evaluating the CTL’s institutional impact.
Promoting institutional values. In a recent advisory board meeting, I reminded faculty of the CTL’s 3-year goals along with the projects, initiatives, and activities we outlined prior to the pandemic. Together, we reviewed which initiatives had been launched, which were in progress, and which had been reimagined as a result of the move to emergency remote teaching. At that point, I highlighted a number of other projects that I planned to put on long-term hold as a result of continued support for teaching in this time of crisis, which now evolved to teaching in a wide variety of hybrid course models and teaching with social distancing guidelines in place.
To my surprise, while the advisory board celebrated the great work that had been done—especially considering the unprecedented situation and limited resources—they also judiciously questioned the projects I had deemed as low priority. They pointed out that my lowest priorities were those that most aligned with Drexel University’s institutional values for experiential learning. During this crisis, I had clearly lost sight of the forest for the trees. This was an important reminder that crises do not last forever, and even in their midst, our common values can motivate us to pull through together. As a result of this feedback, I’ve recommitted to experiential learning in a number of ways, including simply rewording communications, resuming workshops on experiential learning pedagogies, and highlighting how to facilitate these learning experiences online.
Evaluating the CLT’s impact. Throughout the strategic planning process, the CTL’s advisory board and I outlined a number of metrics and measures to use in order to evaluate how and whether we were reaching our goals. Additionally, I planned to use instruments such as the center for teaching and learning matrix (Collins-Brown et al., 2018) and Defining What Matters: Guidelines for Comprehensive Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) Evaluation (POD, 2018) to provide a guide for larger benchmarks and reflection. At the same time, many of the CTL’s activities in the last year were developed rapidly out of a sense of urgency or altered to support remote teaching—really good reasons to formally assess them. This ongoing crisis also offers an important new lens with which to learn about what has changed in the needs and practices of our instructors and their perception of the CTL’s response. As I was reminded by my advisory board, a large part of this CTL’s work should be driven by institutional values; therefore, robust evaluation requires gathering specific information not found in existing frameworks—making it a great time for my second learning tour to begin.
In the case that I have outlined here, proactive planning alongside a little flexibility and creativity allowed Drexel University’s CTL—barely in its infancy—to survive (dare I say thrive?) in the face of a teaching crisis while continuing to take steps toward longer-term goals. I am happy to report that within the first year of operations, just over 30% of faculty at Drexel University have participated in at least one CTL program. Moreover, resources the CTL created or collaborated on have been accessed by the community close to 10,000 times. Consequently, institutional leadership recently announced continued investment in the CTL through the appointment of an interim associate director and an administrative staff member. In the end, perhaps the greatest outcome of this teaching crisis and this CTL’s response is that the value of advancing teaching at this research university is now undeniable.
Johanna Inman has been working in the field of educational development since 2008. She has presented extensively at both regional and national conferences on teaching in higher education and is an active member of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network. In addition to her work in educational development, Inman has 20 years of teaching experience. Inman earned an MFA from Tyler School of Art and an EdD in Higher Education at Temple University.
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