Two weeks ago I wrote a post about faculty members' perspective on student-centered pacing within a course. What about the changing role of faculty members - how do their lives change with some of the personalized learning approaches?
In the video below, I spoke with Sue McClure, who teaches a redesigned remedial math course at Arizona State University (ASU) that is based on the use of Khan Academy videos. There are plenty of questions about whether this approach works and is sustainable, but for now let's just get a first-hand view of how Sue's role changed in this specific course. You'll see that it took some prodding to get her to talk about her personal experience, and I did have to reflect back what I was hearing. Note that the "coaches" she described are teaching assistants.
Phil Hill: Let’s get more of a first-hand experience as the instructor for the course. What is a typical week for you as the course is running? What do you do? Who do you interact with?
Sue McClure:I interact by e-mail, and sometimes Google Hangouts, with the coaches and with some of the students. Now, not all of the students are going to contact me about a problem they might have because many of them don’t have any problems, and that’s wonderful. But quite a few of them do have problems either with understanding what they’re supposed to be doing or how to do what they’re supposed to be doing or how to contact somebody about something, and then they’ll send me an e-mail.
Phil Hill: So, as you go through this, it sounds like there’s quite a change in the role of the faculty member from a traditional course, and since you just got involved several months ago in the design and in instructing it, describe for me the difference in that role. What’s changed, and how does it affect you as a professor?
Sue McClure: Before I did this course, the way it’s being done now, I had taught [Math 110] online a few other semesters, and the main difference between those experiences and this experience is that with this experience our students have far more help, far more assistance, far more people willing to step up when they need help with anything to try to make them be successful. The main difference ... is that with this experience our students have far more help.
Phil Hill: What about the changes for you personally?
Sue McClure: Partly because I think ASU is growing so much, my class sizes are getting bigger and bigger. That probably would have happened even if we were teaching these the way that we taught them before. That’s one big change—more and more students. So, having these coaches that we have working with us and for us has just been priceless. We couldn’t do it without them.
Phil Hill: It seems your role comes into more of an overseeing the coaches for their direct support of the students. Plus it sounds like you step in to directly talk to students where needed as well. Your role comes into more of an overseeing the coaches for their direct support of the students.
Sue McClure: Right. I think that explains it very well.
From what Michael and I have seen in the e-Literate TV case studies as well as other on-campus consulting experiences, the debate over adaptive software or personalized learning being used to replace faculty members is a red herring. Faculty replacement does happen in some cases, but that debate masks a more profound issue - how faculty members have to change roles to adapt to a
student-centered personalized learning course design. [updated to clarify language]
For this remedial math course, the faculty member changes from one of content delivery to one of oversight, intervention, and coaching. This change is not the same for all disciplines, as we'll see in upcoming case studies, but it is quite consistent with the experience at Essex County College.
As mentioned by Sue, however, these instructional changes do not just impact faculty members - they also affect teaching assistants. Below is a discussion with some TAs from the same course.
Phil Hill:Beyond the changes to the role of faculty, there are also changes to the role of teaching assistants.
Namitha Ganapa:Basically, in a traditional course there’s one instructor, maybe two TAs, and a class of maybe 175 students. So, it’s pretty hard for the instructor to go to each and every student. Now, we are 11 coaches for Session C. Each coach is having a particular set of students, so it’s much easier to focus on the set of students, and that helps for the progress.
We should stop here and note the investment being made by ASU - moving from 2 TAs to 11 for this course. There are two sides to this coin, however. On one side, not all schools can afford this investment in a new course design and teaching style. On the other side, it is notable that instructor roles are increasing (same number of faculty members, more TAs).
Jacob Cluff: I think, as a coach, it’s a little more involved with the students on a day-to-day basis. Every day I keep track of all the students, their progress, and if they’re struggling on a skill I make a video, send it to them, ask them if they need help understanding it—that sort of thing.
Phil Hill: So, Jacob, it sounds like this is almost an intervention model—that your role is looking at where students are and figuring out where to intervene and prompt them. Is that an accurate statement?
Jacob Cluff: I think that’s a pretty fair statement because most of the students (a lot of students)—they’re fine on their own and don’t really need help at all. They kind of just get off and run. So, I spend most of my time helping the students that actually need help, and I also spend time and encourage students that are doing well at the same time.
I spend most of my time helping the students that actually need help.
Phil Hill: So, Namitha, describe what is the typical week for you, and is it different? Any differences in how you approach the coaching role than from what we’ve heard from Jacob?
Namitha Ganapa: It’s pretty much the same, but my style of teaching is I make notes. I use different colors to highlight the concept, the formula, and how does the matter go. Many of my students prefer notes, so that is how I do it.
Phil Hill: So, there’s sort of a personal style to coaches that’s involved.
This aspect of the changing role of both faculty members and TAs is too often overlooked, and it's helpful to hear from them first-hand.