Evaluating the Effectiveness of Faculty Inquiry Groups as Communities of Practice for Faculty Professional Development

Article

Abstract

Many faculty in higher education have little-to-no formal preparation in the process of instructional design and the use of technology for learning, especially in research-intensive contexts. As such, professional development opportunities that focus on these issues play an important role in supporting best practices in teaching and learning. Communities of practice in the form of faculty inquiry groups (FIGs) may provide an effective avenue for faculty to enhance their awareness and implementation of technology-enhanced instructional strategies. This article describes the design and development of a series of faculty inquiry groups at a Research I institution and provides results of a comprehensive evaluation of those groups.

Keywords

Faculty Professional Development Communities of Practice 

Introduction

Faculty members who lack adequate training with new technologies are more likely to resist integrating technology within the curriculum (Owen and Demb 2004). Traditional short-term professional development offerings, such as workshops, often fall short in supporting the translation of professional development learning outcomes to effective teaching and learning practices. Many faculty who attend technology-focused workshops leave the workshop without a clear plan for integration in the classroom (Wach 2007). Formal descriptions of work such as training manuals or job descriptions are not enough to describe what really happens on the job. Too often the job description or training documentation does not fully address the process in terms of the social aspects required to solve complex problems or dilemmas as they arise (Russ-Eft and Preskill 2009). As adult learners, faculty expect to be empowered to draw upon their expertise, employ collaborative inquiry, and explore actionable strategies in a safe space (Lawler 2003). Communities of practice (CoP) for faculty professional development may provide an opportunity for participants to create shared knowledge and develop skills that are applicable to real world situations. Developing faculty communities of practice in higher education settings may have implications for improving how we provide faculty professional development. This paper will describe the development of a series of CoP in the form of faculty inquiry groups and results from an evaluation of those communities.

Theoretical Foundations

Community of practice theory is rooted in social learning and constructivist theories. Constructivists argue that while there is an important role for behaviorist and cognitivist strategies for learning, knowledge is both individually constructed and socially co-constructed from interactions and experiences with the world (Jonassen et al. 2007). Using constructivist concepts, social learning theorists have argued that the social context in which cognitive activity takes place is integral part of the learning process (Brown et al. 1989; Lave and Wenger 1991; Resnick 1991; Young 1993). Authentic, collaborative learning experiences are found in the workplace and educational settings everywhere. Cognitive apprenticeships, communities of practice, and computer supported collaborative learning environments are used in adult learning and in daily informal learning situations (Sawyer 2006).

A community of practice, as described by cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, consists of a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). A CoP shares not only a common interest and passion, but it also generates its own knowledge and resources through its members’ interactions. It is only through shared experience that learners come to understand common language, slogans, and various artifacts of the culture of a particular situation (Henning 2004). Communities of practice must consist of both participation (conversations, activities, reflections) and reification (artifacts, documents, processes, methods) for meaning making to occur (Wenger 2010). The CoP contributes to and expands both knowledge and resources. Members of a community of practice interact regularly so that this can occur. Communities of practice create opportunities for learning through an evolving process of creating identity within a group and using the group relations to construct meaning (Henning 2004). Learning through group interaction and conversation may lead to higher order thinking skills and the creation of new knowledge or artifacts.

Faculty Inquiry Group as a Community of Practice

Several CoPs were formed at a large Research I institution to enhance professional development efforts for improving instructional practices. Initial support was built from within a smaller group of faculty members who were interested in technology-enhanced teaching and learning and innovative teaching strategies. Participants were recruited through instructional design sessions, professional development workshops, certificate programs, and though targeted marketing efforts through university channels. A variety of face-to-face and virtual opportunities for faculty to interact and create knowledge were provided.

The CoPs were developed in the form of faculty inquiry groups (FIG). These semester-long engagements were formed to explore technologies and strategies to enhance teaching and learning practices. Faculty-led discussion was framed around readings from literature, faculty experiences, and group-identified strategies for practical recommendations. Participants shared insights and classroom best practices, discussed challenges, and designed variety of instructional materials for their respective classes that were shared openly.

Each FIG followed the same format with a basic outline of issues/strategies around a given topic, assigned readings, and six scheduled meetings. Participants engaged with guest speakers and with each other in the face-to-face sessions to better understand the topic and plan for reification efforts. Electronic platforms were provided for outside communication and knowledge sharing. Each FIG ended with recommendations for improving practice, research projects, and/or tangible products to improve classroom instruction.

Starting in 2012, faculty inquiry groups were used to explore a variety of topics including how instructional design strategies can be used to enhance teaching and learning practices, universal design and online classroom accessibility, online assessment, authentic problem solving, game-based learning, pedagogy of 3D printing, and adaptive learning strategies. A formative evaluation of seven FIGs was conducted to determine the efficacy of the FIG community of practice model, as well as gain insights about how this approach may influence teaching practices.

Formative Research Questions

  1. 1.

    Can an evaluation tool be designed to measure the effectiveness of a FIG community of practice model for professional development?

     
  2. 2.

    Do faculty members find value in communities of practice in the form of faculty inquiry groups for professional development?

     
  3. 3.

    Have faculty changed their instructional practice based on participation in a FIG?

     
  4. 4.

    How might we improve the community of practice in the form of a FIG based on a holistic evaluation of our FIGs?

     

Evaluation Methods

Wenger et al. (2002) identified three elements that guide community development efforts for focusing efforts to the various areas for fostering a well-rounded community: domain, community, and practice. Domain refers to the shared repertoire of the community; community addresses the interaction and role definition of members, and practice is the knowledge building and sharing efforts required for a community of practice to thrive. When evaluating a community of practice, all three domains should be evaluated. To ensure validity, we designed our evaluation to garner feedback from a variety of sources and to consider different areas of effectiveness.

Formative Evaluation of the Domain

When formatively evaluating the domain of the community of practice, it is important to understand how the goals of the community fit within the context of the larger institution (Bond and Lockee 2014). Institutional goals are generally wrapped around the improvement of instructional practices, student engagement, and other student centered areas. To evaluate the domain of the community of practice created by the FIG, selected faculty participants were asked to describe how the FIG contributed to the overall mission of their respective colleges or departments and the strategic plan of the larger institution. Faculty who indicated that they were willing to discuss larger strategic issues were asked “Did your participation in the faculty inquiry group contribute to the overall mission of your respective college or department and/or the strategic plan of the larger institution? If so how?”

Formative Evaluation of the Community

Community of practice leaders can learn a great deal about the health of a community of practice by formatively evaluating the quality and quantity of interactions (Ke and Hoadley 2009; Wenger et al. 2002). Verburg and Andriessen (2006) used community of practice member perceptions to evaluate the effectiveness of seven communities of practice. Wenger et al. (2011) argued that value of a community of practice may be measured by collecting participant perceptions of learning or improved performance. Though participant perceptions of learning or improvement may not always translate into real learning or improvement, it may reveal areas of concern. Such insights can be utilized to address such concerns and enhance the benefits of community participation for faculty participants.

Quality and Quantity of Interactions

Most of the interactions in the FIGs were in face-to-face environments with limited interactions in electronic environments. While attendance, participation levels, and number of individual sessions were used to evaluate the face-to-face interactions, online communications were captured and categorized to evaluate the electronic interactions. For this study, we chose to focus on faculty perceptions for evaluating the community.

Faculty Perceptions

To better understand whether faculty found value in attending FIGs for faculty professional development and electronic survey was administered. Ninety-three faculty participants were asked to complete the survey. Twenty-three faculty completed the survey. Participants were asked to rate nine statements using a seven-point Likert Scale (strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, neither agree or disagree, somewhat disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree). The nine statements specifically sought to gather faculty perception of immediate value:
  • Participation was encouraged in the faculty inquiry group.

  • The activity/interactions were relevant to my teaching style.

  • Participation in the FIG allowed me to interact or make connections with my colleagues.

  • The connections I made in the FIG were influential on my own development?

  • Participation in the faculty inquiry group of met my professional development needs.

  • Faculty inquiry groups are an effective form of professional development.

  • As a participant in the FIG, I felt like a part of a community of practice.

  • The FIG facilitators were helpful.

  • FIG facilitators made an effort to build trust among FIG participants.

Additionally, faculty were asked to respond to open-ended questions to help determine the potential value of participation:
  • What do you like/dislike about the FIG?

  • What skills, knowledge, attitude has changed as a result of your participation?

  • Can you describe how you will incorporate what you have learned in your courses?

  • Would you recommend a FIG as a methodology for professional development for your colleagues? Why or why not?

Formative Evaluation of Practice

A community of practice can also be evaluated by analyzing the quality and quantity of knowledge that is created (Derry and DuRussel 1999). Wenger et al. (2002) suggests that the knowledge or artifacts created by the community is itself a tool for evaluation. Formative evaluation efforts should examine intensity of discussions, challenges of assumptions, length of threads, the bringing of experiences of practice into the space, debates on important issues, feedback on quality of responses to queries, new knowledge construction, and any reification efforts (Wenger et al. 2011). This study focused on formative evaluation of the artifacts created by the faculty inquiry group communities, in order to inform future iterations of knowledge creation activities.

Results

Domain

A strong professional development program should seek to integrate the goals, values, and expectations of the larger institution (Neal and Peed-Neal 2010). Faculty who agreed to be contacted for a follow-up conversation after completing the survey were asked to respond to “Did your participation in the faculty inquiry group contribute to the overall mission of your respective college or department and/or the strategic plan of the larger institution? If so how?” The responses to the question were coded and categorized. Though there are many institutional goals and strategic initiatives at the university, only one theme emerged from the responses. Faculty indicate that even though they were not thinking of the larger institutional goals while participating in the FIGs, improved teaching and learning practices learned in the FIG do contribute to larger university goals. Examples of responses that epitomize the theme are the following:
  • Faculty 1: I would say yes in the sense that it contributed to my learning about teaching approaches in other disciplines, and interdisciplinary learning is a broad goal for the university. But I didn’t participate in the group with a specific strategic objective in mind.

  • Faculty 2: I would say yes, in that it should make me a better and more effective teacher.

  • Faculty 3: Yes. Improving my practice will ultimately make the university better.

The responses seem to show a lack of depth and understanding of how professional development may align with larger institutional goals.

Community

Faculty Perceptions

To gauge faculty perceptions of the benefits of FIGs as communities of practice, faculty were asked to respond to Likert scale and open answer survey questions. Ninety-three faculty members who attended FIGs were asked to complete the survey, 23 (approximately 25%) completed the survey.

Likert Scale Results

The Likert scale statements were designed to get faculty perceptions of the facilitators, the value of FIGs as communities of practice for professional development, and the interactions within the FIG. Table 1 describes outlines of the faculty perception responses with the actual number and percentage for each Likert scale response. Results indicate that facilitators for the FIGs were helpful and that the facilitators encouraged participation with 93% of participants and almost 96% participants strongly agreeing or agreeing that participation was encouraged. Only 78% or 18 respondents strongly agreed or agreed that the facilitators made an effort to build trust. Those not in full agreement that the facilitators built trust seem to still be on the fence with the remaining 22% responding somewhat agree or neither agree or disagree. Overall, participants agreed that the facilitators of the FIGs were effective.
Table 1

Faculty perception Likert Scale Responses (n = 23)

Statement

Strongly agree % (n)

Agree % (n)

Somewhat agree

Neither agree or disagree % (n)

Somewhat disagree % (n)

Disagree % (n)

Strongly disagree % (n)

Participation was encouraged in the faculty inquiry group.

69.57

(16)

26.09

(6)

0

(0)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

0

(0)

0

(0)

The activity interactions were relevant to my teaching style.

47.83

(11)

26.09

(6)

13.04

(3)

13.04

(3)

0

(0)

0

(0)

0

(0)

Participation in the FIG allowed me to interact or make connections with my colleagues.

65.22

(15)

17.39

(4)

8.7

(2)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

The connections I made in the FIG were influential on my own development.

52.17

(12)

4.35

(1)

30.43

(7)

8.7

(2)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

0

(0)

Participation in the faculty inquiry group of met my professional development needs.

47.83

(11)

30.43

(7)

17.39

(4)

0

(0)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

0

(0)

Faculty inquiry groups are an effective form of professional development.

65.22

(15)

21.74

(5)

8.70

(2)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

0

(0)

0

(0)

As a participant in the FIG, I felt like a part of a community of practice.

56.52

(13)

21.74

(5)

0

(0)

4.35

(1)

4.35

(1)

4.35

(1)

4.35

(1)

The FIG facilitators were helpful.

69.57

(16)

21.74

(5)

4.35

(1)

4.35

(1)

0

(0)

0

(0)

0

(0)

FIG facilitators made an effort to build trust among FIG participants.

60.87

(14)

17.39

(4)

13.04

(3)

8.70

(2)

0

(0)

0

(0)

0

(0)

Results suggest that faculty participants value FIGs as communities of practice for professional development. Eighty-nine percent of participants recognize FIGs as an effective form of professional development, and 78% of respondents indicate that the faculty inquiry group met their individual professional development needs. Whether the participants felt like part of a community of practice is a little more mixed with 78% of respondents strongly agreeing or agreeing with the statement. The remaining 22% (four participants) ended on the disagree end of the scale. Overall, the data suggests faculty finding value in FIGs.

The final category on the scale measured faculty perceptions of the FIG interactions. While it is clear that faculty valued the interactions with colleagues and the content with 83% of respondents reporting that the FIG allowed faculty to make connections with colleagues, some faculty struggled with the activity interactions and whether the connections made were influential on their individual development. Seventy-three percent of respondents strongly agree or agree that the interactions were relevant to their teaching styles, and the remaining 27% was unsure, with half somewhat agreeing and the other half neither agreeing or disagreeing with the statement. Surprisingly, only 57% of faculty participants strongly agreed or agreed that the connections made in the FIG were influential on their individual development. Though faculty valued the interaction with other faculty, some were uncomfortable with the format, and 43% were unsure of the influence on their personal development from the interaction with many somewhat agreeing or neither agreeing or disagreeing with the statement. The Likert scale responses are complimented by the open-ended survey questions.

Open-Ended Response Themes

Several themes emerged from the data collected from the open-ended response section of the survey: faculty-faculty interaction, instructional strategy and tool fluency, and the value of a FIG as a community of practice for professional development.

The value of faculty to faculty interaction was an overarching theme that emerged from the survey open-ended questions. Faculty participants overwhelmingly reported that they liked the ability to connect with one another. Here is a sampling of participant responses:
  • “I loved taking time out of my day to connect with others on a common theme”

  • “Spending time with other faculty and learning different strategies for assessing my students. I especially like the opportunity to learn from mistakes that others have made.”

  • “I LOVED that the participants were engaged; sharing their classroom experiences with the material at hand.”

  • “I liked having dedicated time to interact with other faculty.”

  • “I appreciate the opportunity to meet and work with other faculty, especially across different disciplines. It is great to hear from others about how they face challenges or solve problems, or simply what kinds of things interest them.”

  • “I am constantly coming across people that I met through the group, so to me I would say the primary benefit was the capacity building for future collaborative work.”

A theme emerged from the survey responses around increased fluency with instructional strategies and tools. Faculty reported feeling more comfortable with implementing strategies and using technology in their courses as a result of participation in a FIG. One faculty reported “I enjoyed the resources and expertise provided as well as the opportunity to interact with others and develop my own expertise in this area.” A sampling of other comments is listed below:
  • “My class includes more ways to assess students. I no longer rely just on tests to see student progress.”

  • “I am more aware of how students learn and interventions that I can use in my course.”

  • “I have a much better understanding of how some different tools are used in education. I already had a lot of respect for the creativity of my colleagues, but it has grown even more.”

  • “My knowledge of pedagogies within learning systems and use of different technologies increased.”

  • “I already have! I think much more about how students perceive and utilize technology. I’ve moved beyond the basic PowerPoint to incorporate other strategies.”

Not everyone reported an increase in digital fluency. One faculty reported “developed a basic understanding of 3D printing but would have like more hands-on help. Not sure I could do it myself yet but know people to now approach- but I am not self sufficient and ready to go- which is what I hoped for.” Another faculty reported not being quite comfortable enough to implement tools in his class: “I would like to use 3D printing in my course with students and may risk it, but will need support from some of the facilitators.”

The value of a FIG as a community of practice for professional development emerged as well. Faculty participants find FIGs valuable for their professional development needs. The community that developed in the FIG was valuable for several faculty. One faculty reported “I love the community development that occurs as part of these groups”. Faculty also reported FIGs as a catalyst for professional development among faculty at different levels. One faculty responded “For junior faculty as I think it exposes them to cross campus faculty rather than have them stay in their departmental “hole”. I also think for more senior faculty it provides a place to reinvigorate a course and/or gather ideas from younger or braver colleagues.” Another faculty added “Having different levels of expertise in the room was very beneficial. Even though I was new to the university, the ease with which others welcomed me in was just as important as the content I learned.” More sampling in this thematic category is provided below:
  • “From my experience they more valuable than most other workshops I have attended.”

  • “For all of the reasons already mentioned. I think it would be great to have a few programs that would invite departmental teams, as a way to rethink curriculum.”

  • “This fits very much within my teaching and learning philosophy related to engagement and active learning.”

  • “It keeps faculty engaged in a variety of knowledge activities they may not ordinarily engage.”

  • “It is a great way to interact with others interested in the same community of practice. I think if other participants increased their online capabilities in terms of discussion it could have a greater impact.”

Practice

Communities of practice must consist of both participation (conversations, activities, reflections) and reification (artifacts, documents, processes, methods) for meaning making to occur (Wenger 2010). Reification is the distinguishing factor that separates communities of practice from learning communities. The American Productivity and Quality Center (2000) identified the following four different intentions for the formation of communities of practice for professionals: (1) problem solving for everyday discipline-related issues, (2) best practice development and sharing, (3) tool and job aid creation, and (4) innovation. As communities of practice must have interaction and reification in order to be effective (Bond and Lockee 2014; Wenger 1998), the FIGs were intentionally designed to have elements of all the intentions listed above.

An evaluation of the reification efforts of the FIGs revealed a variety of artifacts. The FIG exploring student assessment in online environments formed smaller research groups which led to several conference presentations and a peer reviewed article assessing student interaction and changes in views of the nature of science using asynchronous discussion forums. Faculty participating in the FIG exploring accessibility in course design created a graphic to share with colleagues in their home departments. Participants in the FIG exploring digital-based game instruction created games with a pedagogical purpose for their courses and presented their work to other faculty at the university in a course design showcase. Participants exploring pedagogical approaches for 3D printing created instructional interventions for their courses and also shared their work with other faculty in a showcase.

There were lower threshold reification efforts as well. Participants in the FIG exploring the basics of sound instructional design created and shared course design templates. Faculty exploring gaming, simulations, and virtual worlds shared over 30 outside resources and articles. While every FIG was different, the reification efforts led to a deeper understanding of the topics being explored and allowed faculty to contribute to the larger field while pursuing their own professional development.

Discussion

This formative evaluation is limited by the number of faculty participants. It is clear that future evaluations should be conducted immediately following the concluding session to improve participation rates. The faculty members that did participate provided valuable insights into the effectiveness of FIGs as communities of practice for professional development. The low participation rate may indicate that a subset of faculty find this form of professional development beneficial. FIGs may not be a valuable form of professional development for all faculty. The formative evaluation data will be utilized to develop strategies to engage faculty and to meet their individual faculty development needs within the CoP. Faculty who do find FIGs valuable find the ability to interact and learn from other faculty to be a major benefit. Likewise, participants in this evaluation report an increase in fluency with digital and instructional strategies—a reflection of targeted learning outcomes for the CoP initiative.

The formative evaluation effort revealed some important gaps as well. It revealed the importance of competent facilitators who build trust and engage faculty. In order for faculty to understand how professional development fits within the larger institution, there should be an explicit attempt to connect institutional goals and strategic planning with faculty development, and faculty should be exposed to that alignment. Additionally, faculty should be provided explicit examples of how the FIG can help them meet their individual goals.

Conclusion

Faculty development is an important part of institutional planning. Communities of practice are emerging as one way for enhancing faculty professional development. Faculty Inquiry Groups are one way to design and grow communities of practice for professional development. There is much still to learn about what motivates faculty to participate in professional development and effective ways to meet the individual needs for faculty engaging in professional development. Building CoPs in the form of FIGs may have implications for new directions in professional development efforts for faculty. The formative evaluation described in this article has revealed some areas for determining the effectiveness of communities of practice and has direct implications for how communities of practice are designed, implemented, and evaluated. As other faculty professional development, professionals explore the use of FIGs as a sustainable approach to improving teaching and learning; the sharing of formative evaluation outcomes such as those described herein will not only enhance our local implementation of CoPs for faculty, but will hopefully advance our collective educational practice.

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Association for Educational Communications & Technology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Networked Learning Initiatives (NLI)Virginia TechBlacksburgUSA
  2. 2.School of EducationVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA

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