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Lorelle:

Good morning everybody and welcome to today’s chat with Professor Milton Cox from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio USA. Milton is the Associate Director of the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Miami University in Ohio USA and that’s where he founded and directs the annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching, now in its 30th year. 

He is also founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching and the Learning Communities Journal. He facilitates the Hesburgh Award-winning Teaching Scholars Faculty Learning Community in its 31st year. Milton has been project director of state and federal grants establishing faculty learning community programs at other institutions. He has worked with over 65 institutions to develop faculty learning communities, including for example the US Central Intelligence Agency, the California State University System, and King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia. So welcome Milton to the University of Southern Queensland.

Milton:

Thank you very much. I’m pleased to be here.

Lorelle:

It’s great to have you. And also today ... my name is Associate Professor Lorelle Burton and I’m from the Faculty of Sciences at the USQ, and also with me and Milton today is Associate Professor Jill Lawrence from the Faculty of Arts.

Jill:

Hi everybody.

Lorelle:

So let’s get started and I’d first like to start by asking Milton what is a learning community and how did this concept develop?

Milton:

A faculty learning community is a special type of community of practice. They began back in 1979 thanks to a founding grant from the Lilly endowment and it proceeded then ... we developed it really over three decades. The first decade we were developing a learning community for faculty who were early career, and this went on for ten years and was quite successful.  The next decade involved expansion to another cohort learning community and this was for senior faculty, and then suddenly it burst forth with a lot of topic based faculty learning communities. Then in our third year it was the time for dissemination, so we received several grants to see would this work if we extended it and tried it at other institutions.

All right, now back to what is a faculty learning community. It’s a community of practice that is very structured. They run for about a year, although they can go farther. Membership is voluntary but there is an application form and the department chair for the participant has to sign off. We found that the size that worked best was eight to twelve and the meeting time about two hours and we would meet every three weeks. This gave us a chance to build community which was very easy and usually happened at the first meeting. And then throughout the entire year the development was to propose, design and implement a project that would either enhance teaching and learning in the members’ courses or some institutional policy that the group wanted to work on. This wound up at the end of the year with a presentation to the campus and then off to our Lilly West Conference in Los Angeles where they presented their papers in a peer reviewed situation. So this really ... they became contributors to the scholarship of teaching and learning in just one year. So they came in, they weren’t aware of this particular discipline and over the year they were able to research out the literature and become scholars of teaching and learning.

Jill:

Milton you’ve talked a fair bit about the infrastructure of faculty learning communities, has that infrastructure changed at all over those thirty years?

Milton:

It’s pretty much ... as we got to it in the third decade we were very happy with how it was working and our high watermark was eighteen of these running at the same time in 2008 and 2009. We had seventeen percent of our full-time faculty were engaged in one of those eighteen and at that point over half of our faculty had been in one of these faculty learning communities, and over half of our department chair – partially due to the fact that we had a learning community for department chairs. So this has really done well. We’ve received the awards that you mentioned – the Hesburgh Awards for this. So, we’re really happy with the structure.

Lorelle:

It’s obvious you’ve had a great impact across various faculties of universities, and I recall you saying that it was a structured approach to the community of practice. Can you elaborate on what you mean by the structure that causes people to engage and, I guess at the end be successful in those outputs?

Milton:

Well, Etienne Wenger and his design of a community of practice really left a wide range of possibilities. For example size – communities of practice could be anywhere from four or five members or a hundred members or more. And also the way they formed could be, as he called them ‘organic’ – they could be spontaneous and they could end when ... just at anytime when people were tired of meeting, or they could go on for five years or more. So there was a lot more flexibility and that enabled a wide range of communities of practice. And Wenger’s work was done primarily in business and industry, not in higher education so it’s a new direction with respect to higher education when you look at Wenger’s model.

Lorelle:

That’s great ... and I think ... you know in our community of practice in the Faculty of Sciences for example, at the beginning of each year ... our faculty community of practice has been going for about two or three years now actually, and it’s going from strength to strength which is great because people see a keen interest and they see some outputs that are flowing from that, and at the beginning of each year we establish our goals for the year, if you like, to work out what outputs are we aiming for at the end this year. So that helps us to keep our focus and direction for the year and to move forward that way.

Jill:

And at USQ ... I think Lorelle and I belong to quite a number of communities of practice. I was the second one after Jacquie and Cassandra Star started theirs in Business, so there was one in Arts and now we have a research learning and teaching one in Arts. But some of our communities of practice here at USQ have a very strategic edge. Like we have ... in each faculty there is an Associate Dean Academic and Research and the Associate Deans Academic and Learning and Teaching have their own community of practice starting, I think in about 2008, and we’ve tried to change university culture as far as university teaching and learning is concerned and develop a consistent and strategic edge to our purposes and goals. We’ve developed a moderation process, we’ve had an assessment week, we do peer review of teaching and we actively try to influence the leadership as far as teaching and learning is concerned. So I think ... the purposes from what I understand of yours at Miami university are to help faculty staff get involved in learning and teaching scholarship and to develop their own research projects. So ours here have a different edge ... maybe look more like Etienne Wenger.

Lorelle:

Although some of them are certainly focused on the scholarship of learning and teaching and there are separate community of practices across the various faculties and units to actually drive that forward, but within our faculties ... really it’s ... the main focus is on enhancing learning and teaching, sharing of good practices, key lessons learned and really feeling a sense of community where you can come together in a safe environment, discuss what’s happening and learn from each other; and feel that you’re not alone. And really ... that’s the driver behind our faculty Helping Hand Calendar which we’re about to have a sneak peek at in today’s community of practice meeting and we’re going to launch more broadly within the faculty and university. And what it’s about is just trying to be a time saver and help people ... all academics are time poor and so what we thought was – how can we help people be more efficient with their time; to be able to locate and identify key things that are relevant to their day-to-day practice in learning and teaching in the one-stop shop, if you like? And that’s our Helping Hand Calendar, so that was the driver and it has united quite a lot of people. In our faculty we have four different departments, so for us it was building those relationships across the different discipline areas and seeing the common underlying goals regardless of the discipline, if you, like in terms of good practice in learning and teaching. So it’s been quite powerful in that way.

Milton:

You know one of the things that really helped us sustain the whole program which is run by our Centre for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and University Assessment and that is the fact that, from the very beginning we set up rather a rigorous way to assess the effectiveness of these communities. So that we could then collect the data and have this to show to the central administration to prove how effective that they were, and then to apply for grants – so this has been a really important aspect. Do you all do an assessment of outcomes and effectiveness here at the USQ?

Jill:

Jacquie McDonald has done this really well and she’s led the CoP movement, as we call it, throughout USQ and beyond, and she’s had an ALTC, an Australian Learning and Teaching Council grant and fellowship about communities of practice. And I’ve seen her at work in for example the Higher Education Research and Development organisation and how doable the community of practice is in changing ... in improving and enhancing the learning and teaching culture at universities. And I’ve seen other universities, quite a number of them ... I know she’s been very successful in disseminating her ideas, so that many other institutions right across Australia are taking up those ideas. In a more personal sense at USQ a number have produced papers, for example we’ve had two papers from our CoPs which involve research, and we’ve just delivered a paper – the Associate Deans – to the DEHUB which is  Digital ...

Lorelle:

Distance Education Higher Education ...

Jill:

Something ... it was all very digital ... last week in Sydney, and that was very favourably received. And we’ve had interest from other institutions about how we developed that and produced the whole of institution approach, because our institution is a little smaller than most, but they see it as a really doable way of enhancing institution success – particularly as they move from a print to a digital paradigm in their production of materials, and delivery of materials here.

Lorelle:

If I could just add to that? Evidence-based practice really underpins our approach to learning and teaching here at USQ, so wherever possible we are trying to reflect on what are the benefits that we’ve gained? Certainly at the end ... maybe halfway through we look at what were the goals we set, how far are we towards achieving those and then at the end of the year we do reflect and look at ... well do we want to re-evaluate these goals, what have we achieved, what are the outcomes in terms of publications and the like, or other outcomes in terms of the sheer willingness and motivation of members to actually continue and drive this forward, and to actually spread the word of the good benefits that flow from actually working together as a team through the community of practice.  And that’s been really prominent in our faculty for example – that enthusiasm.

Milton:

Well I think that’s excellent, and I really think it’s wise, the dissemination engagement that you have. We decided since it took us twenty, twenty-five years to really build our model that we would do ... we received a federal grant in which we could find out ... could other universities build these communities of practice or faculty learning communities in a fast track. So the challenge for the six universities involved and different types: they had to build two the first year, four the second year and six in the third year. And they were all successful, except for one. And our external evaluator then sent out a lengthy evaluation and survey to six hundred and ninety-five faculty members who had participated in these communities at these institutions. And the results were really amazing. When they reported about the impact on the participants, the participants ... their number one impact, was that they got out of their silos and their disciplines and they understood much more about higher education outside their disciplines. Their interest in teaching was the second one, and then we also looked at impact on student learning as they saw it as a result of their participation. And the top ten changes in student learning as they saw were very high on the Blooms taxonomy. So we were really pleased with the dissemination process and now they are all over the place – community colleges, four year level Arts colleges in the States, so I think in Australia you have that to look forward to ... so I commend you on your dissemination efforts.  

Jill:

Thank you. One of the key topics I was thinking when I was listening to you just then was moving teachers from a transmission model of teaching, expert to novice, to a much more engaged and active model of teaching. Is that one of the more important topics?

Milton:

It is ... in fact one of our learning communities was called the Learning Paradigm Community in which they wanted to move, as in John Tag’s work, from the instruction paradigm to the learning paradigm. So that particular community inquired what was going on on-campus, they found out that still in most of the introductory courses lectures were being done. So they got very passionate about this, and so what they did was they went to the President of the University and said, “Would you give us funds to get a hundred copies of Tag’s book? And then what we’re going to do is use them for focus groups in our departments and elsewhere on-campus.” They did that, then for the next year they went to our Academic VP and said, “Could we have funds to bring Tag in to do some seminars?” Which he did. So this idea then moved to the President of the university initiating what he called the Top 25 Project. That was taking the top twenty-five enrolled courses in the university, for example in my discipline calculus; we have twenty-four sections of that. And so the idea was to move them from lecture based to inquiry based and to use communities of practice within departments and with the team leaders to make this happen. This is now in its fourth year, we’re making progress, and we have to struggle with students who are on Perry or Women’s Way of Knowing Belenky scheme are dualists and they want to have the lectures, because then they can just sit back and write their notes. So it’s really been a learning experience for the entire campus, so that’s an important goal of faculty learning communities. 

Lorelle:

Yes, it’s that shifting culture isn’t it? ... in terms of getting people to re-think their approach to learning and teaching.

Milton:

Yes right, right ... big challenge.

Jill:

And also being careful to bring the students along with you, so you’re all in a learning curve together, as it might be.

Milton:

That’s right.

Jill: Milton, how is the scholarship of learning and teaching developed in communities of practice?

Milton:

First of all, they spend the first part of their term becoming acquainted with the literature. For example, they select certain articles that they want to read and they take responsibility for reading about those, and then discussing those in sessions that they lead. Then they design their project: how do they want to change student learning? For example, suppose the topic for the learning community is problem-based learning, and the members really haven’t engaged that so they wanted to actually introduce a module or go the complete PBL approach in a course they’re going to be teaching in the second term. So during that first term, after reading the literature then they design this, and they work together in this design – people sharing ... well have you thought about this ... or in my discipline we do it this way ... you might consider that. So, they share this and then the second term is the implementation. This is a crucial time to keep meeting because as you engage challenges or students are having trouble it’s good to have that support of the community as you go through the process of actually teaching using problem-based learning. So that’s basically how it’s developed and then they share it with the campus at the end of the year: how did it work, did student learning change? They actually have some assessment processes in their class that they use to determine its effect.

Lorelle:

So just on that ... in terms of the group of people who are working in that community of practice about the scholarship, are they teaching across the year levels or are they within year levels as well? So are they predominately first year teachers or are they subsequent levels?

Milton:

It’s usually across all levels, from first year class, and in the States we have four years in the under-graduate program, so even the capstone course might involve perhaps the design of that course, the re-design of that course, so all years are important. And in some cases graduate courses as well.

Lorelle:

That’s what we’ve actually found in our faculty community of practice as well, is that all the year levels come together in the one community of practice even though there is still a major focus on first year teaching issues. We did previously have beyond first year teaching community of practice as well, but what we found was that the same people were teaching across the year levels anyway who were engaging in this process. And so we were sort of doubling up instead of just focusing on the same one issue in the one community of practice. So we felt we were getting better value by actually coming together with a focus on first year issues, but identifying those issues that were also relevant to second and third year teaching as well, in that one community of practice.

Milton:

Indeed.

Jill:

Can I ask you something? Something that concerns me a bit is the ... how do you ... do you have a set time for your communities of practice? For example, does a particular community have a set time? How do you negotiate that with the teaching timetables and those sorts of problems? The very practical problem of timetabling which I find really difficult.

Milton:

Well there are several strategies and this is usually up to the facilitator. For example, probably the most extreme strategy is that when the facilitator proposes the faculty learning community and our centre vets that and approves it, when the call goes out – our centre puts out the advertisement for people to apply – when that call goes out there’s an actual schedule all ready – here’s when we’re going to meet. Now that’s the most severe.  A second one is when the call goes out part of the application form is ‘turn in your schedule for the upcoming term,’ so what we do then is we look at the schedules and we select the people who have an open two hour time frame. The third, which is the one I usually use, is to collect the schedules once the people have been selected. Now that’s the most risky, but our faculty are willing to meet in the evening – particularly if it involves a dinner that’s included. And so we can usually find that two hour block, and if we have to we’ll go to the evening to find that.

Lorelle:

That’s probably one of the major challenges that we face here at the university, is working out a time, a two hour block that people can commit to and come to. Unlike your approach we haven’t had that application process. The people have been coming and going, but what we find is that we have a core of fifteen to twenty, or more. Today we’ve got twenty-five to thirty coming for the sneak peek ...

Jill:

Oh, you must be a drawcard Milton.

LAUGHS

Milton:

What can I say?

Lorelle:

Maybe a sneak peak at the calendar or a sneak peak at Milton. But I think people don’t ... I guess I like the approach where people formalize that commitment to the process through the application, but ours is left more open and you know, people can come and go as they can. And it’s unfortunate that sometimes timetable clashes, teaching clashes do make it impossible for people to make it. So we try to have a set time each month where we run ours on a two hour block around lunchtime, because people normally would break for lunch anyway and we alternate every two or three months with between a Tuesday and a Thursday, for example so that people who are teaching on the Thursdays have the opportunity to come and vice versa. So that’s our approach to trying to balance it so that all people can attend if possible, because that’s been one of the challenges I think that we’re still up against.

Jill:

Is there an optimal time? Lorelle mentioned once a month. Do you have any suggestions?

Milton:

We find that every three weeks. When we do it every two weeks it’s usually too much, when we do it every four weeks people get a little cold that they haven’t met, and so three seems to be ideal for our particular culture.

Jill:

Are there other incentives, apart from the inherent, implicit ones about becoming better learners and teachers, for example is it documented as a professional development activity, for example ... as well as the food.

Milton:

Ah yes.

Lorelle:

Well the food is always the drawcard, however.

LAUGHS

Milton:

Well actually it can fall into all three of our categories, for example most of our departments indicate that this should be put definitely in the teaching part and our Academic VP actually has said, “The strongest credential that you can put forth with respect to teaching and learning is participation in one of these faculty learning communities.” Then depending upon where the person is with respect to the scholarship development of the project, whether they definitely have done a presentation and they can put that down under their scholarship, or perhaps a publication if they’ve gotten that far. However and unfortunately what we’ve found is that one’s disciplinary discovery scholarship is number one in each department and so the scholarship of teaching and learning is not counted at that same level, although it does count. Now under service, some communities, for example our faculty learning community on service learning: since that involves getting connected to the community and engaging parts of that in one’s courses, that can go under service. In other cases service to the profession, if that’s what’s involved with the community.

Jill:

Are there any other sorts of helpful advice about the tension between the discovery learning or your discipline research and the learning and teaching research or scholarship.

Milton:

I think that a community member needs to consult with his or her department chair because that’s where recommendations for promotion and tenure and merit begin. And so we encourage ... and the department chair has to sign off on the application, so if the chair for example for an early career faculty member thinks that that faculty member really needs to spend the time building the research agenda then the chair will say, you know “I’m not going to support your participation because it’s more important that you get tenure.” So we really appreciate that protective role of the chair because we don’t want to mislead any of our community members in that this is going to be more important than the discovery scholarship.

Jill:

So it needs a long-term career plan.

Milton:

Yes, yes that’s important.

Lorelle:

And I think Milton’s given some excellent advice there about, you know the scholarship outputs would still count as scholarship of learning and teaching and would be recognised for promotion opportunities of staff who do engage in this process, regardless of which discipline they’re in. I think it would be recognised under that scholarship of learning and teaching, and I know that has been the case here at the university as well, so you know, there is incentive for staff to engage in this as part of their normal academic progression.

Milton:

And we did a tenure study of our pre-tenured faculty who participated over fifteen years and we compared their getting tenure that were in these communities compared to faculty who were tenure eligible but who weren’t. And we found that those in the faculty learning communities were tenured at a significantly higher rate. Now we couldn’t claim that it was because they were in the communities, but our chairs kind of heaved a sigh of relief and said, “So we can really encourage our early career faculty to be involved with teaching and learning efforts and know that they’re still going to make it ... they’re still going to have the time to do their discovery scholarship and publishing as well.”

Lorelle:

That’s excellent. I think that’s a wonderful note to perhaps finish on today. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today Professor Milton. You’re such an esteemed leader and scholar in the field of learning communities and we’ve learnt so much just from talking to you today, and it’s a delight to have you and its going to be our privilege and honour to host you today in our faculty community of practice today.

Milton:

Well thank you very much. It’s been my pleasure to come to USQ which as I look across Australia is really the centre for communities of practice. And I think you’re doing excellent work, wonderful work, so I encourage you to keep this up and become the all star community of practice area in Australia.

Lorelle & Jill

Thank you so much.