Difficulties estabilishing systemic change at work

I am currently serving on a task force at my university which was formed by the provost. The charge of this task force includes, among other things, establishing, communicating, and supporting the implementation of quality standards for web and web-enhanced course design and mandatory training or demonstration of proficiency for all faculty teaching web or web-enhanced courses. The first of these two proposed systemic changes has been on the table for several years in the past and has been shot down in the name of academic freedom each time it has surfaced.

Both these proposed changes are met with mixed emotion from the faculty. Some members of the faculty are strong supporters of the measures, recognizing that although such changes are uncomfortable, they are necessary to ensure consistent quality across the board for our online programs and to protect our brand. Others meet the measures with apathy. They may not see the immediate need for these measures, but are willing to go along with them if required to by their superiors (albeit not without a bit of grumbling along the way). The third, most vocal, group is adamantly against anything that resembles any form of control by the administration or the staff. They do not see the need and believe such measures to be not only unnecessary, but attempts to stifle faculty creativity and place undo demands on faculty performance. They are not even willing to learn more about the proposed changes and of what the standards or the training would consist.

I’ve served on the committee for several years now. The first year I served, the committee refused to offer any other standards than the ones that had been approved by faculty the prior year. These standards included such simple steps as posting a welcome message to students within the first 24 hours of the start date for the course and providing students with contact information and expectations for when to expect feedback from the instructor. Unfortunately, in our quick analysis of existing courses, many of the courses did not even meet these menial standards. We set about creating a self-assessment for faculty to check their own course to see if it was up to standards, and provided a checklist faculty could use to report their compliance with standards to their dean as a means of holding them accountable to the standards. These items were made available to the faculty but even that much was never required or even really communicated to faculty because there was really no way to enforce it.

What we’ve learned in the process is that any effort we hope to have success with needs to be a faculty-driven initiative, and we need to start and move slowly and win faculty over from the bottom up. The hope is that the more faculty we win over to the quality-standards effort, the harder it will be for those who are opposed to make themselves heard and the more unpopular their dissention will become. Eventually they will either go along with the crowd or leave and find a less uncomfortable environment.

Armed with this knowledge one of the faculty members on the committee drafted the latest proposal, a several year effort which begins with incentives for faculty to go through the Applying the Quality Matters(QM) Rubric training course as an introduction to the quality standards we hope to implement university-wide for online courses. We hope that once faculty have a better understanding of the QM program and rubric, they will lose many of the misconceptions about the standards and what we are attempting to do. For example, one common misconception is that if we do a QM course review, faculty members who do not like the course designer will fail the course just to be spiteful, and it will be political war or ego showdown. In actuality they will discover that the QM program is set up to be a very collegial process in which all courses eventually pass QM review, and not passing a course is actually a lot more work for the reviewer as it requires the reviewer to write helpful recommendations for each standard the course does not meet describing how the course can be improved. Another common misconception is that the review will require every instructor to include discussion boards. In fact, the use of discussion boards is one of many methods used to encourage student interaction within a course, but certainly not the only method, and if the instructor feels that student-student interaction is not warranted in the course for some particular reason, there is a place for the instructor to state his or her reasons.

This plan has the best possibility of working of any we’ve had so far but we’ve got two things standing in our way. For some reason, our committee chair asked one of the loudest dissenters to quality standards to serve on the committee this year. Apparently the guy is a great actor, because the day we received our charge, with the provost in the room, he sat there quietly and agreed that he was up to the task of taking on this charge, but now he wants to shoot down the plan before it ever leaves the room. The second problem is that not all members of the committee are certain that QM is the standard we want to embrace as a university, even though we have a subscription to the program and have invested a year and a half and several thousand dollars toward training faculty in the program already.

I am going to keep at it for a while, but if the committee continues to go as it has, I am going to send the provost an email with my resignation from the committee and let her know my reasons for leaving. I do not feel it necessary to work at a task which is doomed to failure from the start, and if we can’t even get eight members of the task force to commit to and agree to a plan, there is no way we can start a grassroots initiative lasting several years which inspires faculty to come over to our side.

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