The Role of Faculty Development in Digital Transformation (Dx)

Written by: Christie Forgette

In higher education, conversations about digital transformation, or Dx, are often assumed to be the domain of IT professionals working on systems that improve recruitment, enrollment, scheduling, purchasing, and other operations.

However, for Julin Sharp, Assistant Vice President of Digital Learning Platforms and Technology at Marist College, Dx in higher education is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise that must include faculty development.

“Lack of faculty development can be the single point of failure for Dx,” Sharp explains. “If you don't train faculty to use the systems they're being asked to use, they won't be able to use them effectively.”

Digital transformation in higher education is defined by EDUCAUSE as the set of culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models, and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition. Dx shouldn’t be confused with digital upgrades that improve efficiency. It is a deep and coordinated effort to change how an organization operates, including changes to how it delivers teaching and learning.

Sharp argues that if campus leaders do not keep up with changing technology, they widen the divide between what students need to learn and how they learn. To build a program that is sustainable for the future, colleges need to create capacity for innovation in teaching and learning.

“Digital transformation and change management go hand in hand because you can't have digital transformation if you own outdated things,” Sharp says. “Digital transformation needs a leadership group that's open to hearing differing opinions and embracing change.” 

Supporting faculty through Dx

During ongoing Dx efforts at Marist College, Sharp and her colleagues have recognized that training can be time and labor intensive. They offer faculty development in face-to-face, hybrid, and asynchronous modes. They also tailor training to faculty interests.

“We called one of our training courses ‘hybrid with a twist of lemon’ because the faculty helping the team build the training modules were into food,” Sharp recalls. “Forging a strong connection between academic departments and digital training teams is very important.”  

Academic leadership, in addition to securing funding for faculty development, need to know how digital learning technology contributes to student success.

“At Marist College, we showcase to both administrators and colleagues the faculty who use technology in innovative ways,” Sharp explains. “That’s helpful on two fronts. Presenters gain credentials for tenure and promotion, and the presentation builds interest and enthusiasm in technology within the campus community.”

Related reading: 15 Resources On Equity-Centered Faculty Development To Support Implementing Courseware

Including faculty in Dx

The impact of COVID-19 accelerated many changes in digital learning at Marist, as it did at every other institution. Ideally, digital transformation would happen through careful planning, instead of being imposed by overwhelming events like a global pandemic. Other slow-moving factors — like demographic change — can also make transformation inevitable.

“Many students who are in high school currently have a computer in every class, are expected to use it, and don't know how to learn without it,” Sharp says. “In 10 years, who will be the incoming college students? What's going to change in their use of technology?”

An infographic conveys the cyclical nature of a digital transformation journey, including the three phases of Learn, Plan, and Do.

From the EDUCAUSE Dx Journey Toolkit

To initiate a planned approach to Dx, Sharp recommends convening a group of key constituents: “Whether we call it a task force, focus group, or advisory panel, we need to start by asking each other, ‘What are our institutional goals? How can we improve the student experience?’”

Then the conversation should move to the larger campus community. Campus leaders need to think carefully about how they communicate to the wider group of faculty and staff. Sharp suggests allowing ample time for feedback across campus. She notes that faculty, who may have been using the same tools for a long time, might be reluctant to change.

“On our campus, we did surveys and held listening sessions before we made any decisions,” Sharp says. “We gave everyone across campus a voice. Because stakeholders were aware of our campus goals and able to provide feedback, they saw how this change could improve student outcomes and even how it might help them.”

Related reading: Aligning Your Courseware Selection with a Digital Transformation Strategy

Adjuncts critical to transformation

Community-wide commitment is integral to the success of Dx, and that includes the adjunct or contingent faculty. In 2020, Sharp led a session at the OLC Innovate Virtual Conference specifically addressing how to build capacity for digital transformation among adjunct faculty. The presentation described work with ten faculty to design innovative courses dedicated to increasing student success.

Sharp sees Dx as an opportunity to enhance the student experience through increased support and connection. One example is the access to data about student success that digital learning management systems provide to faculty.

“Suppose a faculty member sees a particular student has done only three percent of the class assignments by week six,” Sharp says. “Fueled by that information, the instructor can connect students to campus resources, such as the academic learning center or office of accessibility for help and support.”  

Related reading: First Time Teaching Online? 13+ Resources to Help Implement Your Course

Transformation to support high-impact practices 

Sharp adds that part of digital transformation is taking non-digital practices and re-envisioning how they can be used in a digital space. “A biology class is a good example,” she says. “Now you can dissect a frog digitally using virtual reality.”

Digital transformation should enhance the possibilities for high-impact practices such as experiential learning.

“We want students to experience all they can, and digital transformation extends our reach beyond the physical campus,” Sharp says. “Students don’t have to be in Poughkeepsie, New York, to be in class. They don’t have to fall a week behind when they are going to a conference or playing a sport.”

For Sharp and her colleagues at Marist College, digital transformation is an ongoing opportunity that requires dedicated planning, shaping, and support: “Technology is ever-changing. We need to leverage that technology in a way that makes sense for our institution and increases student success.”

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