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Faculty Development on a Budget: Six Ways to Foster Faculty Development When Inter-Disciplinary Demands Are High and Budgets Are Low

Are You Satisfied With Your Work? card with colorful backgroundDoes your faculty feel like they need Ed.Ds in addition to their Ph.Ds in order to teach effectively? Do they have the IT department’s phone number on speed dial? Does thinking about the “flipped classroom” make them want to flip out? Expectations of faculty—from you as administrators, from denominational governing boards, from accrediting agencies like ATS, even from prospective students—are higher than ever. The world is changing. Vocational ministry is changing. Teaching practice is changing. Your continuing education budget, however, probably hasn’t changed in the past decade. You may need faculty development on a budget.

Continuing education for seminary faculty used to be based on keeping up with the professor’s primary area of study by reading, publishing articles, attending guild conferences, and the like. That is no longer enough. Today, faculty must not only be masters of their subject, they must also master instructional design, educational technology, and accreditation standards.

Due to these inter-disciplinary demands on teachers today, you may have heard some of your faculty mutter, “I never learned that at seminary.”

Sound familiar?

What’s a well-intentioned seminary professor and his dean to do? Below, are six practical ways administrators can extend their continuing education efforts without over-extending their faculty.

  1. Encourage faculty to reach outside the ivory tower of their disciplines

Theological disciplines often specialize themselves into a corner, or a silo. And while there’s nothing wrong with being specific, sometimes they need a generalist—someone completely outside their discipline to help them see the forest for the trees. And sometimes they need another specialist—someone outside their field of expertise that that they can call for assistance, such as pedagogy and technology experts.

Here are some examples:

A new faculty in Theology 101 may want to ask an education professor with help designing course objectives.

  • They should get to know the IT support person assigned to their building before something goes wrong.
  • Encourage them to take a local adult education minister or the “teacher of the year” award recipient at your institution out for lunch. Ask them to reflect on what they learned from these conversations, and have them ask for other resources that can be helpful. The teacher of the year may, in turn, ask for your professor’s help in their area of expertise. Collaboration breeds synergy and multiplies knowledge without a lot of time and money spent on individual learning.
  1. Tap the collective knowledge available electronically

Who says your faculty have to attend a conference to receive quality continuing education? The number of Internet-based resources for pedagogy, educational technology, and tracking trends in higher education is growing by the day. Several listservs will even provide summaries of recent news with external links as further resources. Many companies also offer high-quality webinars (see #3).

Christian Academia Magazine is a free online resource where faculty and administrators share their expertise for the benefit of all in Christian Academia.  See the latest issue here.
  1. Tap the collective knowledge in your school

Beyond web resources, some of the best sources for continuing education may be in asking your faculty to hold office hours in a collective environment. Don’t underestimate the power of your faculty’s collective knowledge. They live and work and teach in the same context, so they’re uniquely positioned to understand the challenges that each face and work through solutions together.

I know several schools that host colloquia for faculty to share their academic work. Why not host one and include sessions devoted to practical issues like designing student-focused assessments or making the most of the technology resources your school provides? In-house faculty development can be the most immediately applicable and low-cost continuing education opportunities.

  1. Divide and conquer conferences

When your faculty do attend conferences, choose those that appeal to a broad range of interests. Specialized tracks can help your faculty focus, but it may be more useful for them to pick and choose a variety of sessions across multiple disciplines rather than staying within their comfort zone.

If they’re attending the conference with a group—or if they can identify a common interest group once they arrive—ask them to attend separate sessions and compare notes with everyone at dinner. When they get home, ask them to share what they learned with colleagues who weren’t able to attend. Check to see if a conference provides recordings from the event, or if there’s an “online attendance” option, which will certainly save valuable travel dollars.

A truly modern collaboration technique for those with Twitter accounts is to crowdsource a conference by reading live tweets from conference participants or searching a hashtag for a conference they weren’t able to attend.

  1. Real Faculty Development on a Budget: Free really is—free

Theological education is beginning to offer more open-source materials. Encourage your faculty to take advantage of them and to contribute their own expertise by offering a creative commons license that allows others to freely use resources they publish.

One free and “old school” continuing education source is the library. Why spend your limited budget on buying books or journals that can be found in the library or sent to your faculty via interlibrary loan?

Another low- or no-cost resource is free webinars or white papers produced by companies wanting to advertise the services they provide. These companies often provide excellent research to accompany their sales pitch, which can be worth the shameless plug they include in the webinar. Other times, you get what you paid for.

The lesson here is to make sure that the sources you’re using for continuing education have a proven record of quality and are able to back up their material with solid research. Sometimes the biggest expense in continuing education is your own time and effort.

  1. Spread the good news!

Once you or your faculty have found a great continuing education resource, don’t keep it to yourselves. Tell others about it, whether it be with colleagues within your institution or those working in the same discipline at other schools. Don’t be afraid to ask others to help your faculty find what they’re looking for. And if it really doesn’t exist or the resources they do find aren’t very helpful, encourage them to create their own knowledge base through a listserv conversation, Facebook group, or Google Group. Start an online journal, or begin more modestly with a blog with guest posts by various faculty. Host web meetings with faculty. Schedule lunch once a month with faculty to talk about current issues and their faculty development needs and solutions, and ask them to do the same with each other.

Thankfully, your faculty don’t have to be experts in every aspect of theological education to satisfy the increased technological and pedagogical expectations of teaching today. That’s an unattainable goal, anyway. But with a little digging—and a lot of help from others—you can increase your faculty’s development and stretch your continuing education budget in a way that allows them to never stop learning and producing effective education experiences for your students.

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Dr. Melinda Thompson serves as Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Director of Distance Education for the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University.

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