On Top of Their Game

On Top of Their Game

Colleges and universities find innovative ways to deliver meaningful staff training

At some point in nearly everyone's professional career, there comes a time when we must update a skill or be trained in a new process. It's often a costly exercise, and can be an unwelcome inter-ruption in our usual schedule. And the training? We could have made better use of our time elsewhere. But that's all changing as colleges and universities learn how to rethink professional development and incorporate new technologies to make learning not only easier, but more meaningful to faculty and administrative staff.

When it comes to the subject of training, faculty and administrative staff are really on two sides of the same coin, but often with different visions. "Faculty are allergic to the term training. There is a lot of vocabulary that they see as corporate, and we try to stay away from that," says Leora Baron, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Teaching and Learning Center. "In the academic world there is the faculty, the staff, and administrative faculty. Each of these groups sees themselves as unique and distinct from the other groups in terms of their professional development needs."

One of the chief challenges with training is to create a broad institutional vision, so that everyone can see the need to develop professionally, she says. "It may take different paths with the various groups, but ultimately the goal is to do what we do as best we can professionally."

Articulating a vision that all the stakeholders can buy into isn't an easy task. "It doesn't happen very often, frankly," says Baron. "In a small university, it may be the president who articulates what the vision is, and the next week it happens, but in a larger university that's a big challenge."

Instead, a school ends up creating a training program to fill an immediate need, but that doesn't seem to tie into a broader picture. The result? "People resist that," says Baron. "It's natural."

Ellen Wagner, director of higher education at Macromedia, agrees: "There's so much new technology arriving on the scene every day that, let's face it, it's a lot easier to dive right into 'here's how you do it,' than to figure out the broader picture."

Wagner likens the situation to leaving a box of bicycle parts on someone's doorstep. "Then you ring the bell and run away, yelling 'Have a great ride!'" she says. "If you never tell them how to put it together, or even why they would want to put it together, it's just a bunch of parts."

Macromedia spends a lot of time trying to help academic practitioners understand the value proposition of training. "They ask, understandably, 'Why should I take the time?' You have to make a fairly good case in general for why an already established expert in one field should take the time to learn things or use new tools that may or may not be directly relevant to his or her profession. Clearly we are concerned with how to, but we spend a lot of time working on why to."

For Baron, it means bringing the "why" down to a personal level. "You have to articulate a very personal vision of how the training fits into their concept of what they are supposed to be doing, and how they could be doing it better. I've been in their position--I have been a staff person and a faculty person. I can articulate some of the reasons that they might want to participate," she says. "And the secret is that once you can do that, you've got them. If your programming is good and they trust you, they will know that you aren't wasting their time and they will come to other programs."

Wagner, too, has a faculty background, and recalls many times when a new technology was introduced to the campus and she was told she had to learn and use it. "If I was told I must learn to use it, that's one thing, but I needed to understand why. I wasn't going to wildly embrace the new innovation until I knew what it was going to mean to me. How would it change what I did, and how much effort would I have to expend to get good at it? And it's only after those questions were answered that I could say, 'Oh, now I see why it works. Now that I've looked at the big landscape and I see where I want to travel in the landscape, I know where I need to begin my journey.'"

Shahron Williams van Rooij, director of product marketing for Datatel, says the economy has made a big change in how training is conducted, so schools must find new ways to keep faculty and administrative staff on top of the latest technologies.

"In the old days the only option was to get on an airplane, or drive somewhere far away, where you took a class in whatever the system or the piece of functionality happened to be," she says. "Some people still like to do it that way, but the effectiveness is limited. Now there are other options."

"Faculty are allergic to the term training.
There is a lot of vocabulary that they see as
corporate, and we try to stay away from that."
-Leora Baron, U of Nevada, Las Vegas Teaching and Learning Center

Datatel conducts a number of regional workshops for its enterprise systems in centralized, easily accessible locations throughout the country. "For example, there's a consortium of community colleges in Iowa that we use for our workshops there. One of the schools will serve as host, providing the venue and the infrastructure. Datatel provides the knowledge, the learning and all the guides that are required," says van Rooij. "Our clients in that area can jump in their cars for that day, drive to the venue, and take care of their learning opportunities. There are no excessive travel expenses incurred such as airfare or overnight hotel stays. That's important these days when schools have limited training budgets."

Datatel has also created a blended learning distance education center to train in the use of its systems. It combines asynchronous, self-paced learning with live, instructor-led learning done remotely. "Our clients can participate in the synchronous part of the training, from the comfort of their own desks," says van Rooij. "Then, on their own time, they take care of the asynchronous portions, whether that includes homework, producing a deliverable, or a hands-on exercise using their own systems."

To demonstrate the training program in action, van Rooij points to Clackamas Community College (Ore.), a large community college system that, by virtue of its geographically distributed constituency, conducts a lot of distance learning programs. "They were experiencing some turnover in their administrative staff, like many other institutions, but they couldn't afford to put people on a plane to even the nearest Datatel office, which is in San Francisco. At the same time, they were in the process of doing a lot of web development, and they wanted to deliver better web services to their constituents."

Datatel offers its own web products, but Clackamas wanted to enhance those and do more things on its own, so the IT staff first needed to become proficient in web tools. As before, it was important to understand the "why" of what they wanted to do, as well as the "how." "They not only reviewed the tools and what they could do, but they also had to determine just what Clackamas wanted to offer its students in terms of web services. Their project in this learning opportunity was to actually build what they wanted the site to look like," van Rooij says. "The result of this workshop of asynchronous and synchronous pieces was the full delivery of online web services for students, beyond the basic system they got from us. They added application and screening features, and they built web service capabilities for some community education programs. They even started to generate some revenue--one of the very clear benefits as a result of that training."

At UNLV, Baron describes the training process as eclectic. "We have traditional open enrollment workshops where faculty and staff can interact with people from other areas and disciplines, as well as customized workshops for a particular department or unit."

The Center, she says, is unusual because it focuses on the pedagogy as well as the integration of technology. "We believe pedagogy leads and technology is just a tool. We spend the first part of the session just talking about how to become a critical thinker in the integration of technology," says Baron. "It's not our role to teach you how to use a mouse, for example--that's the job of the technology department--but once you know how to do that, we'll teach you how to use that tool more effectively in your teaching."

The downside of not training? Institutions
have to remember that they ultimately
must satisfy their core constituency.

Baron says there is an underlying assumption that just because a faculty member might be an expert in a particular field, that doesn't mean he will somehow also know how to teach it. "That's the way we were taught from our own professors, and, of course, we didn't know any better, so we are now perpetuating practices that we observed as students," she says. "We have a challenge here of breaking that cycle and showing faculty that their lives can be better, their time can be saved, their students' learning can improve, and so on, if they look at their teaching more critically by going for professional development."

That approach reinforces the idea that just because a technology exists, it may not always be the best choice for a particular application. Why go to the trouble of creating colorful, animated PowerPoint presentations when the same information might be more easily and directly dispensed with a simple overhead projector? "Finally, they see that if they are going to use a tool, they can use it in a way that it does something for their students that nothing else can," says Baron.

One of the realities of technology is that once a training session is over, the technology continues to evolve. How do faculty and staff stay current with these changes? The Clackamas group, for example, subscribes to periodic refresher courses. "Their programmers stay current on any technology changes, as well as any changes we make to our tools," says van Rooij. "That way they can continue to offer their constituents out in the middle of nowhere a very good set of web services to meet their needs."

Beyond refresher courses, Datatel, Macromedia, and other organizations offer professional communities for their users to stay current on technology as well as the particular business processes of their fields. "We offer professional communities to each of our constituent groups, such as financial aid, human resources, registrars, and so on," says van Rooij. "They have their own web pages to watch trends in the industry, as well as best-practice libraries, so they can stay current with what's going on in their field."

The downside of not training? Well, besides a decline in basic efficiency of services, institutions have to remember that they ultimately must satisfy their core constituency.

"Nowadays students have a choice. With distance learning, they don't have to go to their local school; they can select courses at another institution. They can shop around more than ever," notes van Rooij. "As an institution, it is in your best interest to maintain loyalty to your brand, and make sure your faculty and administrative staff is trained to the maximum to deliver to their clients. For them, the ultimate measure is lost business."


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