by Makena Neal
Our mission: create a way for Michigan State University educators to connect, share, and growth in their teaching practice.
Ultimately, we created a platform model that places educators in the designer seat and leads to a product they will use.
At a large, decentralized institution, it can be challenging to recognize and leverage the high impact practices of educators in varying roles working in discipline focused units and departments. Through recent history however, we knew that there was a desire amongst this group to engage in ongoing professional development. We also knew that some really outstanding practices were being implemented by individuals, but our institution lacked a way to connect those educators with others to share ideas. With inspiration and a foundational starting point from a Twitter-based hashtag, we worked with educators across our institution to build the #iteachmsu Commons: a place for educators to share ideas, connect with one another, and grow in their practice. This effort served multiple goals including the delivery of an educator development platform, but also aimed to ignite a culture shift at our institution. We felt the most effective way to have the buyin we’d need to be successful at both of these goals would be to include end users in every phase of the process.
The Problem: Decentralization
Our institution is a big one — and with its size and organization comes a host of challenges. Commonly, across units, there are people dedicated to working areas that serve common core outcomes: research and innovation, teaching and learning, outreach and service. That being said, each unit’s structure and support for the staff charged with working in each of the outcomes vary… decentralization results in institutional difficulties related to idea-sharing and cross-unit collaboration, as well as recognizing and leveraging high impact practices across units.
#iteachMSU Commons uses the community building and user storying functions of a social networking site while combining the resources of a scholarship library.
The Results: Breaking Silos While Building Opportunities
The results of this extended user engagement and representation throughout platform development is a space for educators to share their ideas and reflections, connect with others across our large institution, and engage in ongoing growth in their practice. It uses the community building and user storying functions of a social networking site while combining the resources of a scholarship library and the practice-orientation of a Center for Teaching and Learning into one place where all educators are encouraged to share their expertise and continue learning. This platform has created a centralized digital space at a decentralized institution so employees know where to go for all things “educator development”. With it we’re leveling the playing field, breaking down silos, and opening opportunities for collaboration; all during a time when protecting the health of each other means working remotely.
How we got there:
The Catalyst: A Grassroots Effort
A small, grassroots effort was launched by one group, graduate students, whose work was very important to the day-to-day efforts of the institution’s teaching and learning outcomes, but who were also often undervalued for their contributions. They started a using a hashtag, #iteachmsu, to build a sense of community and opportunity for ongoing, virtual conversations. This grew into a blog written by graduate educators, for graduate educators housed in the institutions graduate school unit. In recognition of a) the need for a community of contributors to teaching and learning across the institution and b) the success of this grassroots effort on a small scale- we decided to amply the work. We started by identifying and bringing together three centralized units with missions that connected back to teaching and learning outcomes; the Graduate School, the Academic Advancement Network, and the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. These three units became the project partners, contributing ideas, human capital, and even some financial support.
The Idea: A Platform For Educators, By Educators
The resulting idea after bringing the partners together was a digital platform meant to function as the place for all conversations related to the practice of teaching and learning at our institution. But some major questions quickly arose from the discussions on this new idea. What should a platform like this actually do? How would it function? What would it look like and how could we ensure it was accessible to all users in our audience? What would the platform’s role be in the context of our greater structure and culture? How would the intended audience of teaching and learning practitioners engage in and with this platform?
With these three partners on board with the idea, we knew there would be some immediate buy-in to the idea, but to achieve the wide-sweeping adoption that would be necessary to sustain a platform as we’d proposed, a critical mass of educators would need to engage in the process. Though the partner-units had some power to request adoption by the educators in their networks, we felt the best way to both build a useful platform and shift our institutional culture to re-center teaching and learning would be to include end-users, staff who contribute teaching and learning outcomes, in every stage of the process. Building a platform that was built “for educators, by educators” was born. We made a commitment that, whenever possible, we would consult, involve, and integrate actual users into the process of discovering, defining, and developing our platform. Spearheading the work, was a team that included (throughout its history) staff, administrators, graduate students, undergraduate students, and postdocs. This project team works directly with the external developers, executes all outreach and onboarding, and provides ongoing support.
Early adopters: the role of allies
In addition to the project team working on the day-to-day, an advisory group was instituted to expand opportunities for input and feedback. This group was completely voluntary and was active throughout the defining phase, and into the start of the developing phase of the project. The advisory group included additional staff, graduate students, and faculty members, not on the project team. They met every other week to provide ongoing feedback, participate in facilitated ideation activities, and helped the team build their strategy for larger campus outreach. This group constituted the platform’s early allies.
End-Users: The Critical Voice in Prototyping
Between the project team and the project advisory group (more on these below), our platform had committed and ongoing access to teaching and learning contributors and their ideas. We realized another important group that we had to involve… actual end users! Multiple prototyping and initial onboarding sessions were held to collect feedback and first impressions from people who we identified as the intended audience of the platform. In tandem to prototype testing, the project team began to engage in more formal scholarship to better understand the impact of the initiative and specifically asked:
How do educators respond to the platform’s orientations around five core educator competencies (pedagogical design, incorporating technologies, assessing learning, disciplinary content, and navigating context) and expanded definition of “educator”? How do these educator responses potentially influence college/department/institution teaching & learning cultures?
What further educator needs emerge as educators and their colleges/departments respond? This helped additional users in our institution have a voice in shaping the project, while a recognition initiative was instituted to help individuals recognize themselves in the platform mission.
Point to Ponder: “How might we help end-users design their own solution?”