The Teaching Exchange Network (TEN) for Faculty Early Adopters in Educational Innovation

The Teaching Exchange Network is a group of faculty, staff, and graduate students invested in developing and adopting innovative and effective practices in STEM education. TEN is interactive—sharing expertise and resources, developing local communities of practice in departments and colleges, and advancing STEM education at Boston University.

Institutions of higher education are typically characterized by social network theory. Actors and groups of actors interact in different social structures, structures organized around academic programs, around research themes, and around proximity. Faculty are a well-defined group of actors who respond to a generally common set of forces with priority clearly given to advancing individual scholarship. Secondary drivers are teaching and mentoring as well as group scholarship—for example, the reputation of a center, department or college. A third level is reserved for serving the larger institution. Since the prime forces driving faculty are and have always been individual ones, faculty tend to be largely independent actors, ill suited to naturally forming support networks even when necessary. Faculty are strong independent learners, good at self-training but unlikely to seek out group training, especially for lower level priorities like teaching.

Fig. 1 Independent, unconnected  faculty innovating and adopting teaching innovation.

Fig. 1 Independent, unconnected faculty innovating and adopting teaching innovation.

Around the country, research shows that the barriers to institutional change include faculty knowledge, motivation and time, institutional cultures and merit reward systems, and disciplinary traditions. Institutional change and adoption of new approaches are slow and painstaking, requiring innovators to spread their knowledge to early adopters, and the support of early adopters to attract the early majority, before change can be self-sustained and successful.

Traditionally, faculty innovate and adopt in relative isolation. Our central organizations help support faculty in course transformation and educational innovation, but don’t usually focus on the local communities where these faculty work and which are necessary to institutionalize change. DLI and CEIT funding focuses on a few motivated faculty but do not typically engage the more than 25 early adopters who are already putting materials online, building a blended or flipped class, and doing so without being connected to a network of like-minded faculty. This is depicted in Figure 1.

Fig. 2 Early network connecting innovators and early adopters, and supporting and rewarding effort. Active collaborations build network expansion.

Fig. 2 Early network connecting innovators and early adopters, and supporting and rewarding effort. Active collaborations build network expansion.

We seek to build an exchange network through two paths: Connecting people together through in-person meetings, introducing faculty and socializing them, and providing the time and space to explore common challenges and exchanging approaches to overcome them. We plan monthly meetings, either in the morning for coffee or in the evening for beer. Figure 2 illustrates the early exchange network.

At the same time, we will build an online space for information and material exchange, a place faculty can go and sign up to visit each other’s classes, find a group doing similar types of educational innovation, and share materials and best practices—a place where they can provide links to sites and where we consciously organize and update to improve efficiency. The online space will of course be open to all faculty at BU.

The STEM Education Initiative will simultaneously be focusing on building and supporting local communities, often called communities of practice or learning communities. Our belief is that innovation and adoption diffuses through faculty and departments by means of a social network, driven largely by local historical, cultural, and reward structures, thus enabling local groups to grow and connect with their own faculty and students in a more effective way to implement change than traditional models. Together, these will help develop an exchange network shown in Figure 3, a robust network with high density of connections and frequent and valuable communications. Strong nodes of early adopters spawn new local efforts in the departments and colleges. This type of network is a requirement to create institutional change in teaching.

We have already had two meetings: One to explore studio-style teaching and learning in the physics interactive studio classroom. 40 faculty, plus a dozen staff and graduate students, met to link and connect. We also met to explore video creation for flipped classes.

Fig. 3 Mature exchange network. High efficiency plus high density and betweeness. Strong early adopters support new faculty.

Fig. 3 Mature exchange network. High efficiency plus high density and betweeness. Strong early adopters support new faculty.