Communities of Transformation: Future Considerations for STEM Reform Communities of Transformation

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Section 11:Future Considerations for STEM Reform Communities of Transformation


The communities of transformation (CoTs) in our study have had an important impact on STEM reform, and they have increased their impact by expanding into multiple areas, such as disciplinary societies, curricular efforts, institutional change efforts, sector discussions, international efforts, and powerful constituent groups. This section is about additional areas that we identified that such communities might expand into in the future to increase their impact. The items identified below are largely drawn from our interviews with leaders across these four CoTs. They represent future directions for such communities to continue to evolve their work.

Capitalize More on Disciplinary Work

Two of the networks we studied had strong connections to a set of disciplinary societies, but many of the faculty and administrators we spoke with believed that more could be done to broaden and deepen the impact in this area. There was recognition that disciplinary societies are beginning to support teaching, not just research. With large-scale initiatives, such as the Association of American Universities’ efforts to gain greater recognition for teaching, there may be greater opportunity than in the past to garner the attention of disciplinary leaders in order to support STEM reform. CoTs can work to change the dialogue and professional standards within disciplines to include evidence-based teaching practices. These CoTs are well positioned to push for change in the conversations about teaching in the disciplines. Our data suggest that one of the main avenues for faculty members to become involved with CoTs is through attending presentations at disciplinary conferences. Given that this is already a major way that CoTs are involving and engaging members, leaders within these communities might better coordinate and strategize ways to create synergy within such presentations in order to have greater impact over time. In addition, leaders within these STEM reform communities could help to establish committees or task forces focused on evidence-based teaching practices within various disciplinary societies. It is important to recognize that STEM reform is more likely to happen when multiple stakeholder groups within the overall enterprise are aligned with a similar message, such as “use more evidence-based teaching practices.”

Explore Complementary Online/Virtual Ways to Foster Community

Each of these communities has experimented with various forms of technology to connect their members, particularly through social media. However, they reported that they had only mixed success with engaging faculty members. The demographic data from our survey showed that the faculties involved in these communities skew towards higher seniority. Over time, we imagine that efforts to get more junior faculty involved will result in increasing demand for technological ways to connect. As technology continues to evolve in ways that become more personal, it will become easier to ensure that the philosophical aspects of these communities—which members find so engaging—are maintained and communicated through technological means. An example to consider is the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network’s online café course. Other technological platforms can be helpful in this area, including Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, and Blackboard Collaborate (all virtual, video-based meeting technologies).

Focus More on Network Development

The CoTs in our study focus on community and relationship development to provide mentorship and advice for members. They do some work to connect faculty across institutions, but they do not have intentional plans or structures for network development. When these communities tried to use regional networks for this purpose, they all struggled to get those networks off the ground. Although the regional networks were only partially successful, it is important to foster networking among members by setting up interest groups within the communities or by actively connecting faculty within similar institutions or disciplines. Although we think these communities were successful overall because of their intentional nurturing, as opposed to the more informal structure of networks, we do think that fostering informal networks within these communities could enhance and complement their work. Such networks could increase the potential for innovation to spread through the communities’ membership (Rogers, 2003; Valente, 1995). More attention to the networking potential within these groups might yield additional outcomes and even greater impact and spread of ideas.

Work with Graduate Students/Align with Graduate Initiatives

None of these communities do substantial work with graduate students. While they continue to connect with faculty, it would likely benefit these communities to connect with graduate-focused efforts aimed at using evidence-based teaching, such as the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL). CIRTL aims to work with graduate students to help them approach their teaching as a scholarly endeavor. The same graduate students who participate in such programs will be looking for communities to support their work once they become faculty. CIRTL has now expanded to include 26 universities, reaching the institutions that train most of the doctoral students nationally. As things currently stand, graduate students lack an introduction to the communities of transformation that can continue to support their work once they have received their degrees and begin their faculty careers. We recommend that there be greater communication between STEM reform communities and graduate student initiatives aimed at using evidence-based teaching. Graduate students may also be easier to work with on such reform effort, since they do not have deeply ingrained habits or allegiances to the status quo.

Work with Centers for Teaching and Learning on Campus

Most campuses have a center for teaching and learning (CTL) that is aimed at helping faculty to improve their practice. However, most of the STEM reform CoTs in our study do not have connections to the directors of these centers. Furthermore, they do not work with these units to recruit members or to help CoT participants to become aware of resources for support once they return to their home institutions after events. There are several advantages to working more directly with CTLs. First, they can help alleviate the isolation that many faculty feel when they go back to campus; directors of CTLs can help connect faculty with other innovators on campus. Second, by connecting many individuals who are interested in STEM reform, there are possibilities for CTLs to be a part of broader change efforts across a department or college. Some CTLs have also been successful setting up learning communities related to STEM reform. If CTL directors knew about the cadres of faculty members receiving training in these issues from CoTs, they would be more likely to set up such groups and garner institutional support for such efforts.

Work with Postdoctoral Organizations

There is a growing number of postdoctoral fellows across the country, particularly in the sciences. As more individuals move into these positions, they become another group of potential new faculty that should be mentored and trained in evidence-based teaching practices. Thus, they should become familiar with the work of the STEM reform communities. The National Postdoctoral Association would be an important group for communities to connect with in the future.

Expand Consultation Work

Three of the STEM reform communities have been involved in some form of consultation with campuses interested in more broadly institutionalizing STEM reform. While this approach was used for a short period of time, few of the STEM reform communities maintained a consulting corps to help spread and support change. None of them stopped using this approach because it lacked merit; we recommend that it be reconsidered by these STEM reform communities and adopted by future communities. This model is sustainable because individual campuses pay for the consultations, and there is money in administrative budgets to support such work. None of these STEM reform communities set up a formalized consulting corps and publicized it nationally. This could be an important resource for broader reform.

Create On-Campus Learning Communities/Communities of Transformation

Once faculty return to their campuses, they are often alone or a part of a small circle of innovators. One of the ways that the national CoTs could support local efforts is by educating individuals at their workshops and events on how to establish learning communities/CoTs back on their home campuses. Learning communities are becoming better known nationally, as there is research to support their efficacy in helping faculty to adopt new teaching practices. Learning communities can be a type of community of transformation, but they are typically aimed at meeting for a narrower, circumscribed period of time (12 to 18 months) and around a particular topic (e.g., service learning). The nationally based CoTs in our study could create workshops aimed at helping local campus leaders to develop learning communities, thus supporting faculty members as they return home to their campuses. Such workshops could draw upon the growing body of literature about learning communities and how they can best support faculty learning (see Cox, 2003; 2004).

Supporting Innovators on their Home Campuses

Another way for leaders in these CoTs to help support innovators at home is to write letters to academic leaders informing them of faculty members’ involvement in evidence-based teaching practices. Communities can also create awards and fellowships to honor individuals, and they can make sure that campus leaders at participants’ home institutions are aware of these recognitions. While this sometimes occurred in the CoTs we studied, it was an underutilized strategy for change. A more systemic way for these STEM reform communities to foster legitimation back on the individual home campuses will also help to seed further reform. Over time, it is important that public perceptions of the work shift; what is currently seen as innovative activity should simply become viewed as normatively strong teaching practices. Influencing the views of academic leaders on college and university campuses is an important part of this strategy.

Consider Approaches that Deeply Embed STEM Reform

It is advantageous to embed changes deeply, so that they do not fluctuate with shifts in leadership. One of the most intriguing strategies for doing this is exemplified by PKAL’s work with facilities, which structurally embeds new teaching practices into the institution by reshaping the architecture of the setting in which learning takes place. Such efforts aim to change the underlying structures that prevent evidence-based teaching practices; this work is not only supportive of engaged pedagogy, but it builds reform into the institution in a way that has strong potential for persistent impact and expanded scale.

Capitalize on Other Reform Initiatives

Much of the work of STEM reform is isolated from the many other institutional learning reform efforts. Most campuses have some form of pedagogical or curricular reform efforts that are ongoing. STEM reform efforts tend to happen in isolation of these other initiatives. The reform efforts of the CoTs can be more successful when they align with the broader educational reform efforts unfolding within an institution, whether those efforts are located in general education, student support, or curricular redesign. CoTs can help faculty to identify these other reform efforts on their campuses and help them to connect in order to support their own work.

Consider Becoming a Membership Organization

Our study was able to identify several ways that the CoTs were able to sustain themselves over time (see section 10). One model that we think holds particular promise for future consideration is to become a membership organization. The Council for Undergraduate Research is an example of a community that evolved into a membership organization, now sustained by thousands of members. The size and scale of the reform CoTs in our study puts them in a position to consider this strategy to ensure long-term success and viability.

Consider a Networked Improvement Community

The Carnegie Foundation has supported reform work using a networked improvement community model in higher education. In this model, faculty and administrators work in a network of institutions aimed at similar goals. They collect and share data about improved STEM practices, create professional development activities to embed practices, and try to benefit from the power of multiple institutions working together for change. The Bayview Alliance—another STEM reform effort—uses the networked improvement community model, as well. CoTs might create similar networks among the faculty with whom they work, capitalizing on the fact that their membership spans literally hundreds of institutions, many of which have already prioritized efforts aimed at change. By leveraging their wide reach and trying to create more depth through network improvement communities, they might expand their goals of institutional change. Networked improvement communities are aimed specifically at changes at the organizational or institutional level, offering a unique possibility to expand the reach of CoTs at that level of impact.

Additional Mechanisms to Support Systemic Change

The strength of these CoTs is their ability to create buy-in and motivation for faculty to improve practices in support of STEM student success. They also help to provide individuals with a community of support in the face of departmental and even institutional opposition. We found that, as faculty move into formal roles as department chairs and deans, they also can help create change to the broader system. Particular change efforts typically do not work at all levels of the system at once; the mechanisms present in CoTs work particularly well on the ground to create individual consciousness change. However, we believe that CoTs could do more to effect systemic change at the level of incentives, promotion and tenure, and disciplinary norms. Such efforts would greatly enhance the success CoTs have already had in helping faculty members to see their potential and to become empowered to influence their institutions from the ground up. Certainly we have evidence that these CoTs have already had impact on this broader system, but we believe that they can be designed to do even more. This is the motivation behind the recommendations above, and we hope that increased work establishing on-campus learning communities, connecting with centers for teaching and learning, and training academic leaders will help to alter incentive systems and create new institutional priorities and culture.

We now turn to future considerations for research in order to expand our knowledge of CoTs and their work for STEM reform.