Toward a theory and practice of coaching higher ed faculty

Why re-imagine faculty professional learning?

Among the three 2017-2021 strategic priorities of Colorado- and Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit higher education association EDUCAUSE is “reimagined professional learning.” By replacing the term professional development with professional learning in its vocabulary, CEO John O’Brien (2018) indicates the extent to which EDUCAUSE and other higher education associations and collaboratives believe that for higher education institutions to thrive in a world characterized by “automation, cognitive computing, and digital transformation,” higher education faculty members, executives, and information technology (IT) administrators alike must cultivate the very digital age skill sets—“adaptability, creativity, empathy, problem solving and decision making”—that are characteristic of the digital age learning and of the teaching skills defined by ISTE.

Stating this equation in business management terms, O’Brien’s colleague Mike Meyer (2018) notes that community colleges in particular have failed to recognize that if the user experiences of students from specific populations will make or break the success of an institution, then the “purchase and partial integration of” new student pathway systems, tracking systems, and learning management systems into an old organizational infrastructure of divisions and committees, with IT (information technology) or ITC (information and communication technologies) remaining in a peripheral role, is a paradigm unable to support a viable future.

Reconceptualizing the central role that IT—which encompasses long-term strategic organizational approaches to developing digital learning environments; creating an administrative, teaching, and learning culture rich in digital creation, problem-solving, and collaboration abilities, and developing the information, data, media literacy, and ethical capacities that support that culture—involves, for one, a reconceptualization of how faculty professional learning intersects with the work of IT administrators and instructional designers in delivering an educational product that will serve a student population and sustain the educational market that population represents.

This post is about the quest for a professional learning model that a small rural community college can use to focus on how technology integration impacts faculty pedagogical capabilities. ISTE Standard for Coaches 2 calls for coaches to use technology in ways that model and coach faculty in best assessment, differentiation, and learning design practices. But the scope of this investigation has implications for how an institution-wide culture might grapple with its own quest to adapt to the current higher education landscape.

At the conclusion of this post, I’ll propose a model for a faculty-led professional development workshop series that uses assessment, differentiation, collaboration, coaching, communities of practice and their associated technologies to suggest how a faculty-led initiative could assist an institution in conceptualizing the sort of professional learning that might support cultivation of innovation and excellence in education.

To get there, I’ll explore the nature of coaching (a professional learning paradigm indebted to the fields of business and athletics) and the principles of adult learning (which apply to professional development for all higher education stakeholders), the collaborative- and action-based best practices for professional learning that are identical to the best practices used in higher ed classrooms and digital learning spaces, examine the implications of a validated construct of higher education teaching for professional learning, and review several professional learning models based on that construct, including a model developed by one of my institution’s sister colleges.


Andragogy and coaching fundamentals

Professional development is learning. In my conversations with higher ed stakeholders, I too have dropped the term professional development in favor of professional growth or professional learning. One reason I do this is to emphasize that higher education culture aimed at cultivating student learning should prioritize faculty development of the leadership, innovation, and teaching skills needed in digital age higher ed. A second is that I believe an institution’s approach to professional development should use the same principles of learning and teaching we say we expect instructors to enact. Professional development that results in professional learning, according to Zepeda (2015) should involve:

  1. active knowledge construction;
  2. collaborative learning;
  3. application in context, over time, with follow-up feedback that can be incorporated into continual learning; and
  4. differentiation.

The principles of andragogy further reinforce these well-established cognitivist and constructivist learning principles. Professional adult learners are self-directed and need to apply new knowledge immediately; as members of local and disciplinary professional learning communities, they need to collaborate in ways that allow each faculty member to co-learn, co-teach, contribute knowledge and benefit from collective knowledge; as those who are learning skills that were often not part of their graduate programs and may be determined by policymakers rather than by disciplinary best practices, thy need access to coaching, technical support, and follow-up as part of professional development projects and infrastructure; and they need access to differentiated learning that engages their particular disciplinary, technological, and pedagogical proficiencies and teaching assignments (Zepeda, 2015). Indeed, one key feature that distinguishes college instructors from K-12 teachers is their heterogeneity (Bachy, 2014). More on this below.

Institutions that seek to respond strategically to the changing higher education paradigms and markets of the 21st century need to overcome the obstacle for many of inspiring collective commitment among the highly diverse individuals who make up an institution (Gentle, 2014).

Characteristics of higher education institutions that are able to create such mutually committed, emotionally intelligent cultures include:

  • embracing collaboration between faculty and administration that promotes the sharing of best practices;
  • sufficient professional staff support for administrators and faculty in their primary roles (as in the current discussion of supporting faculty technological-pedagogical knowledge and practice);
  • a focus on student needs and expectations that also protects faculty from unrealistic demands;
  • and a balance between expecting accountability from staff and respecting and developing academic autonomy. (Gentle, 2014)

One of the keys to developing such an institutional characteristics is to establish a culture of feedback. Creating such a culture is much more stating a “open door policy,” providing places for various stakeholders on committees, or conducting annual faculty reviews based on models that may not include clear quantitative measures of technology-supported teaching competencies (Dana, Havens, Hochanadel, & Phillips, 2010).

What can make these practices effective and develop these characteristics are relationships based on coaching principles (Gentle, 2014). While these principles will be related to both faculty peer coaching models and to professional learning models below, coaching principles can also be adopted as consistent practices in the informal relationships that make up an organizational culture to keep the institutional focus on collaboration and growth.

If coaching allows facilitates the reflection and practice that allow faculty to grow in their application of specific disciplinary and technology-related 21st century teaching skills, and to approach challenges through problem-posing and problem-solving, coaching must be differentiated to address individual faculty members’ needs and also embedded in the real work of teaching (Zepeda, 2015). While much of the work of coaching involves positive conversations and questions that help a faculty member clarify and discern where she needs growth and respond strategically, coaching also involves modelling and progress monitoring. A higher education institution’s professional learning program or a single professional learning project can employ coaching effectively at the peer level as well as at the program level. Peer coaching as a form of professional development was introduced by Joyce and Showers (2002) in the 1970s. The hallmark of its effectiveness is not verbal feedback but rather the unexpected growth that happens through collaboration.

Zepeda (2015) compares peer coaching to “clinical” supervisory models, which also mirror constructivist learning approaches. In this cycle, an instructor is presented with a theory or technological pedagogical tool, observes and discusses modeling of the theory or tool in practice, creates and practices an application of the theory or tool, and receives feedback on that practice. Significantly, the model progresses to coaching, which involves more than observation and feedback, but for the faculty member to then step into the coaching role. Joyce and Showers (2002) found that including of the integral component of coaching led to 95% mastery and transfer by instructors. Indeed, this model parallels Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) Understanding by Design model (also known as UbD or “backwards design”) for development of curricula or any other learning experiences, such as professional development. In this conceptual framework, learning (or “understanding”) results are first identified, then evidence of learning is established, flowed by development of instructional materials. A key concept in UbD is the nature of feedback; true feedback is formative and summative feedback defined through specific criteria that enables the learner to improve and meet goals (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).


Using TDPK to understand faculty diversity and provide differentiated coaching

A fundamental consideration for either peer or supervisory/program coaching of postsecondary faculty is the heterogeneity of faculty, not only in terms of individual faculty members’ existing competencies with technology in general, but with knowledge of teaching technologies and of pedagogy/andragogy (which may or may not have been a focus of their graduate study). In addition, the nature and types of knowledge in each discipline vary widely. Individual faculty epistemologies—their individual beliefs about the nature of knowledge and how it can be constructed—also affect their teaching practices.  The complex interaction between these different components of teaching has been studied over time through the development of a series of models for understanding what is involved in postsecondary teaching, and hence in faculty professional learning.

Bachy (2014) summarizes the development of this evolving model, provides validation for it, and begins to suggest how this model relates to constructivist faculty development approaches (such as UbD). She also suggests how this model can provide diagnostic assessments to differentiate professional learning opportunities for faculty.

Bachy’s (2014) model of teacher effectiveness, TPDK, includes the four dimensions of an “individual teacher’s discipline (D), personal epistemology (E), pedagogical knowledge (P), and knowledge of technology (T). Each of these dimensions, as well as their effects on one another, contributes to a unique profile of how a faculty member teachers in terms of disciplinary knowledge, beliefs about learning, knowledge of pedagogies, and knowledge of technologies for communication, learning, and disciplinary knowledge-construction. For example, “when a teacher feels competent in the technology associated with their discipline (TD dimension), it influences their educational choices… and, to a lesser extend (we observe a lower, significant, correlation), their epistemological choices” (Bachy, 2014, p. 33). Thus by identifying four validated aspects of teaching as well as six validated dimensions (such as TD) or relationships between those aspects, faculty members and their reviewers and coaches alike can define and conceptualize an instructor’s teaching strategies and define and conceptualize how to chart professional growth.


tdpk model
The TDPK model, showing four knowledge dimensions and the relationships between them. Retrieved from
elationships between tdpk dimensions
Relationships between the TDPK dimensions each define a specific type of teaching knowledge. Retrieved from

In addition to presenting the historical underpinnings of the TPDK model, Bachy presents the study that provided initial validation of the tool. The survey used in this study, along with the resulting profiles of individual faculty members’ educational strategies, can provide a diagnostic tool and a graphically represented profile that can help faculty members and their coaches plan and measure professional learning. I tried out the survey and used the same radar data charts used in the study to create my TDPK teaching profile. The value of the radar chart that is used to represent the profile is that it shows the influences that each teaching dimension may exert on the others and which of the four dimensions influence an instructor’s practices most. (For more explanation of the profiles and a comparison of the initial experimental profiles of four faculty members to qualitative descriptions of their teaching profiles, see Bachy’s article.)


faculty tdpk profile
Radar charts based on my completion of Bachy’s survey. To compare with four other faculty profiles and written descriptions of those faculty members, see Bachy’s article at

Bachy’s presentation of the TPDK profile as a diagnostic and assessment tool for faculty coaching suggests a number of applications to guide effective professional development and coaching based on better understanding of instructors’ actual educational strategies. One valuable potential use of the TDPK profile in a small college with limited professional learning resources would be for trainers to develop training tracks (with tailored training focuses and materials) based on the most frequently occurring TDPK profiles at the institution. The survey and resulting profile could also be used for a training pre-assessment.

Another compelling aspect of the TPDK model is its affinity for constructivist views of teaching and learning, including its understanding of disciplinary knowledge as constructed by the “Communities of Practice” who make up disciplines, support of the trend toward student-centered learning that forms the basis for the “pedagogical knowledge” dimension of teacher, move teacher training beyond mere focus on tools and into application, and merge technology training with pedagogical training.

Thus TDPK provides a validated theoretical model upon which to build approaches to professional learning that use assessment, differentiation, learning by design, coaching, and communities of practice linked with technology. These are the principles that are established in professional development literature (Zepeda, 2015).


Models for faculty professional development integrating technology

Institutional support for faculty development of technological pedagogical knowledge should encompass three dimensions. First, faculty need immediate, navigable access to knowledge supports such as tutorials, videos and a repository of curricular approaches adopted by the institution. Second, faculty need defined, sustained pathways to development of TPCK knowledge, such as through trainings or articulated levels of development. Third, faculty need always-accessible support, such as coaching and troubleshooting. The institutions that form the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) have met these needs in a variety of ways. At Front Range Community College (FRCC), defined levels of technological pedagogical training can be earned, and result in pay increases. This model allows for both standardization and differentiation. For example while all teachers who teach online must take a 3 credit hour course in online teaching, professional development levels of certification can be earned from a menu of webinars and other options that can be customized by faculty. FRCC has provided the third dimension of a professional development program, ongoing support, through coaching. In 2010, FRCC began creation of an instructional coaching program embedded in its professional development approach. Although coaches were hired for each of the college’s campuses and its eLearning program, integral parts of the program included collaborative peer coaching through Reflective Practice Groups, workshops with follow-up, and networking (Patterson, 2013).

For the community college seeking to begin an embedded, centralized and sustainable approach faculty in effectively teaching with technology, a key consideration is moving beyond providing mere resources or mere conference-style, one-shot “training” focused on speakers (whether external or in-house), into practice-based learning similar to the “clinicals” approach developed by Joyce and Showers (2002).

peer coaching cycle
Joyce and Showers’ peer coaching model

Dysart and Weckerle (2015) propose a workshop model similar to one that I proposed at my institution that incorporates the principles of learning and professional learning that form a common thread through the literature reviewed in this post. Both proposals contain in seed form the three larger institutional professional development program dimensions of accessible resources, specific but differentiated training opportunities, and coaching with feedback, but on a small scale version. Both suggest that the TDPK (or TPACK, a prior conceptual iteration of TDPK) provides a way to differentiate professional learning for the broad diversity of faculty needs with regard to incorporating technology into discipline-specific pedagogy, and stress the importance of providing technological and pedagogical training to give content knowledge experts the self-efficacy they need to teach effectively and ultimately to become members of an innovative and collaborative institutional culture. Both incorporate the active learning principles, and the three research- and theory-based approaches of Learning by Design, Peer Coaching, and Communities of Practice.

dysart and weckerle model
Dysart and Weckerle’s (2015) professional development model. Retrieved from

In Dysart and Weckerle’s (2015) model, a practice-based professional development opportunity would follow Joyce and Showers’ active learning-through-coaching loop in three phases: during training, during teaching, and beyond training. During training, faculty would create a situated lesson or unit incorporating new technology. During the teaching phase, faculty would be supported by peer coaching that here would involve resource-sharing as peer coaches begin the transition to becoming future trainers. After implementation, faculty with similar interests in terms of any dimension of technology, discipline, or pedagogy would continue to share understanding and a repertoire of ideas. In the model I proposed, this repertoire would be housed in a digital repository, and would be housed and extended through technology-based repositories (such as LMS-based curriculum banks of pedagogies developed by faculty at the institution) and through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) through which faculty could develop and receive ongoing real-time support through shared networking via blogs, twitter accounts that would support the limited centralized instructional design support that is currently available.

While in the short term, higher education teaching can be complicated by the policy changes—or failure to change—that may produce growing points in which faculty may indeed feel hindered from connecting disciplinary best practices to institutional technology decisions; overwhelmed by a focus on student success that unwittingly makes unrealistic demands on instructors along with insufficient support for developing the related competencies, it is the faculty leaders themselves who possess balanced technology, pedagogical, epistemological and disciplinary knowledge who may be best equipped to find professional learning solutions that will enable higher education institutions to cultivate cultures of collaboration, innovation, and teaching and learning excellence.



Bachy, S. (2014). TPDK, A new definition of the TPACK model for a university setting. European journal of open, distance, and e-learning, 17(2), 15-39. Retrieved from

Dana, H., Havens, B., Hochanadel, C., & Phillips, J. (2010, November). An innovative approach to faculty coaching. Contemporary issues in education research, 3(11), 29-34. Retrieved from

Dysart, S., & Weckerle, C. (2015). Professional development in higher education: A model for meaningful technology integration. Journal of information technology education: Innovations in practice, 14, 255-265 Retrieved from

Gentle, P., & Forman, D. (2014). Engaging leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities. New York, NY: Routledge.

Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Meyer, M. (2018, May 7). How change has changed: The community college as an IT enterprise. Retrieved from the EDUCAUSE website at

Obrien, J. (2018, May 7). The Future of EDUCAUSE, Part 3: Reimagined Professional Learning. Retrieved from the EDUCAUSE website at

Patterson, B. (2013). A model for instructional coaching at the community college. Innovation showcase, 8(12). Retrieved from the League for Innovation in the Community College website at

Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zepeda, S.J. (2015). Job-embedded professional development: Support, collaboration, and learning in schools. New York, NY: Routledge.

Comments are closed.