Initiating innovation at Community Colleges

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) defines a set of standards for educational coaches.  Part of the coaching standard addresses how coaches can help teachers incorporate research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences.  I have started to engage education leaders on this very topic at the community college where I teach computer science courses as a member of the adjunct faculty.  I have noticed that several of my courses are in need of curriculum updates as well as new approaches to improve the learning experience.

I knew that this topic would not be easy one to initiate.  I spent some time researching how best to begin the discussion, as my proposal would be a departure from the way things are currently done.  I found evidence in literature that this topic can be very difficult to initiate.  In particular, many sources emphasize the importance of collaboration and trust in these discussions.

People collaborating on a document
Scaling Innovation at Community Colleges (Soricone et. al., 2016)

Collaboration requires that coaches and their peers are learning with and from each other as they coplan learning activities, model, team-teach, observe, and reflect. This is a collaborative relationship that requires meaningful discussions about ways to improve teaching and learning, and these discussions are likely to challenge current practices and long-held beliefs. (Foltos, 2013)

All of my courses are taught by other members of the adjunct faculty at my institution.  In order to make progress on any changes, I must collaborate with my adjunct colleagues and agree on how best to make curriculum changes.  Initially, I thought this would be a straightforward task – one that my adjunct colleagues would willfully engage in and contribute – as this must happen all the time.  However, I soon discovered that this may be the most difficult stage of the process.

More than half of courses in community colleges are taught by adjunct faculty, and institutions’ reliance on part-time instructors is growing. Despite efforts in individual departments and colleges, the field has not devised scalable strategies for engaging adjuncts.  […] Community colleges often lack the capacity, ecosystems, or roadmaps of activities that improve the working environment and support the engagement of adjunct faculty in their student success agenda. (ATD, 2018)

I started my discussion by suggesting multiple changes to a programming course that is being taught this fall quarter.  I realized that I had to do much more ground work and rethink my approach in order to make any of these changes.  The first step is to build a trust relationship with my fellow adjunct faculty.  Although we know each other’s names, many of us have not met face-to-face – and could not recognize each other if we passed in the hallway.  This sounds pretty outrageous, but adjunct faculty at my institution have no offices, no phones, and teach evening courses from 6pm to 9pm.  I was able to make a connection and meet face-to-face for an initial meeting with three of my fellow faculty.  Being able to discuss our interests and goals in a face-to-face meeting had a huge impact on building trust in our relationship.

Trusting teachers communicates that you value them and believe in them. Teachers who are trusted take risks and collaborate with their colleagues. They work longer hours. They are committed to maintaining a healthy culture—a place where everyone looks forward to coming to work. Most important, they build on this foundation of trust and collaboration to create engaging, rigorous learning opportunities for their students. (Modoono, 2017)

The next step I have to make is to scale back my ambitions.  Asking a teacher to make even small changes in a current quarter of teaching is not really practical.  I realized that my changes would have to wait for a future quarter.  I also realized that while I may be comfortable with several changes, my colleagues were more comfortable with making a single change.  Originally, I was disappointed by the longer timeframe to implement such small changes.  However, I got encouragement in my research (and my peer coach Melissa) that the ‘slow and steady’ approach is often the best approach.

Successful peer coaches don’t push for one big, dramatic change, instead relying on an incremental process of continuous improvement. (Foltos, 2013)

With my revised plan, I now feel much more confident about that changes can be made to improve the lesson plans of the courses I teach – albeit on a different schedule than I originally planned.  My research has also paid other dividends, introducing me to a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on scaling innovation at community colleges (Soricone et. al, 2016).  In particular, the study has great advice on how to plan, initiate, expand, and sustain the innovation process.  The same study also introduced me to other resources that have recommendations on how to avoid ‘educational stagnation‘ (Wright, 2014).

How to plan, initiate, expand, and sustain innovation.
Scaling Innovation at Community Colleges (Soricone et. al., 2016)


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