Reflections Newsletter

Teaching as a Scholarly Activity, Fall 2002

(With apologies to Neil Postman)
By Michael Clarke, Microbiology & Immunology
Number 48, December 2002

In 1990, Ernest Boyer, then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate Footnote . According to the critics Footnote , Boyer eloquently and persuasively argued the case for a redefinition of scholarly work as performed in institutions of higher education, based on the results of a US survey of university faculty. Boyer described four areas of productive scholarship: discovery, integration, application and teaching, his primary argument being that the fourth, teaching, is virtually ignored as a bona fide area of scholarly work in light of an overemphasis on research (discovery) as a measure of academic productivity.

Boyer passed away in 1995 and so was spared the disappointment of learning that, seven years later, not much has changed. Teaching is still largely considered and evaluated as a “second class” area of scholarly work in universities. Today, a faculty member cannot readily, and with peer approval, achieve tenure or receive promotion to full professor based primarily on their contributions to teaching.

Boyer’s work was criticised on only one level: although he laid out the problem clearly and provided rigorous data to prove his points, he did not offer a solution. Even if he had, one might suspect that the dilemma would be a continuing one.

This article will not pretend to provide a solution, but it will examine the nature of the problem from a different angle to provide some understanding of the perceived differences in scholarly rigour between research and teaching, and then use that analysis to provide a modest suggestion for moving forward to Boyer’s ideal world.

It is important, essential perhaps, to declare a critical distinction at this point between excellent teaching and the scholarship of teaching. By the scholarship of teaching, I am referring to a public, documented contribution to the practice of teaching that has all the attributes of scholarly work: originality, innovation, experimentation and intellectual rigour. Although it may well be (and likely is) that the teaching scholar is an excellent teacher, this does not necessarily follow.

The Research Model for Teaching

The argument put here is that certain attributes of the research enterprise have elevated it to first-class status for good reasons and that those of us intent on being teaching scholars would do well to apply these attributes to our work. It is not the intention here to argue the actual merits of these attributes, but to merely recognize that they are the de facto measurements of scholarly activity today.

First of all, the results of (most) research activity are public. Placing the results of our intellectual endeavours in the public domain defines the essential nature of the academy. As such, it distinguishes us from those engaged in research in or sponsored by the private sector (and frequently is the basis of conflict between the two). Teaching, on the other hand, is mainly a private affair that occurs between students and teacher in a closed environment, often behind closed doors far from public or peer-level scrutiny or assessment.

Second, the output of research is peer-reviewed – whatever its faults, the peer review process is how quality control is practised in research.

Third, research is easily quantifiably measured. Although there is an intention to apply qualitative standards to research productivity – such as limiting the number of one’s publications in the P&T process, it is still the number of articles and papers published in journals having a high mathematically rigorous (i.e., quantitative) “impact index” that counts.

Teaching scholarship lacks an equivalent quantitative measure of output. Toting up “contact hours” may satisfy one’s teaching requirements in the home department, but it is not likely to factor seriously into P&T deliberations. Attempting to determine the number of hours spent in preparation for a course or lecture is much too vague and imprecise for serious consideration. And reliance on the conventional student course and faculty evaluations is highly controversial and, at the end of the day, not likely to reflect the “scholarly” nature of one’s teaching endeavours.

Finally, research is most often funded by external agencies or internal programs. Although the level of funding does vary dramatically across disciplines, holding a research grant is clear evidence of scholarly competence and weighs heavily in the academic reward system.

Funding of teaching activities is managed through transfers from central administration based on various formulae, including here at UWO the enrolment contingency fund that is based on the numbers of students registered in a department’s courses or programs. Funding of individual initiatives within a department or faculty is usually a matter of informal and unstructured negotiation between the instructor and the budget head. Capital requests for equipment are submitted through the annual budgeting process or competitively through the Provost’s Academic Support Fund. However, there are few opportunities to apply for competitive “operating” funds to support innovation or scholarship that is focussed on our teaching programs.

Therefore, research is said to be public, peer reviewed, quantifiable and funded. Is it possible to apply these features to the teaching enterprise and, in so doing, legitimize it as a true act of scholarship?

The Agenda, Exposed

If teaching is to be a public activity, then the doors to the classroom must be opened for all to see. But how are we to do this practically and, more importantly, in a useful way? Again, we are not concerned here with the quality of teaching but rather the scholarship of teaching. So let us apply a strategy from the world of research and suggest that situations may arise in our teaching experience that lead us to ask ourselves questions about doing different things or doing things differently. Although most of us ask these questions frequently (some of us after each class!), the essential point here is that if we do introduce change into a class/course/program, we need some way to determine the effect of that change – that is, establish a measurable outcome based on some initial supposition.

Scholarship by accepted definition assumes that the work is original – a creative product of the individual(s) authoring it and, therefore, filling a void. This void that we fill takes the form of questions – in the sciences, the testable hypothesis, for example. The classroom presents us with if not a laboratory then at least an opportunity to experiment – something we all do since few of us are actually trained educators; we enter the classroom as a supreme experiment. The classroom allows us to ask innumerable questions about the subject matter, about the students, about the method of delivery, about evaluation and, indeed, about ourselves as teachers. The reference here is not to formal or theoretical educational research as would be found in conventional educational research journals. Perhaps the scholarship of applied teaching is an appropriate concept. But, it is definitely beyond informal, anecdotal Grad Club stories of our classroom adventures or a “Tips and Tricks” approach to better teaching.

The creation of digital technology-based learning and teaching materials and their introduction into our courses gives us an opportunity (one of many) to place our teaching into the public domain. Again, two immediate disclaimers: excellent teaching and effective learning will and do occur in the complete absence of any technology and technology is often applied inappropriately to overcome faulty pedagogy. However, I would modestly claim that digital technology can be used to teach effectively and enhance learning if it serves the vision of the instructor and the needs of the students.

The application of digital technology to education results in the creation of “objects” – that is, hard-coded, encapsulated bits of information that can be distributed and shared, modified, evaluated – and made public, not unlike a manuscript submitted for publication.

Such objects ultimately have their origins in a question, usually in the form of “Students always seem to have difficulty understanding X. How can I better teach the concept of X?” Or “What if I taught X using a different strategy?” Here are some examples:

Question: How can I more effectively teach the meaning and interpretation of an electrocardiogram (ECG) as it relates to the normal function of the heart?

Question: How can I more effectively teach fundamental singing methods while relating them to the music score?

Question: How can I teach to students who are physically resident across Canada but who wish to study with me?

In each case, there was a defined “problem”, or instructional obstacle, that the instructor had identified and a hypothesized “solution” to the problem, the solution being a digital “object”: in the first two cases, multimedia objects, in the third case, an entire course. The definition of a learning object can indeed extend from a stand-alone animation representing some phenomenon to an entire course built on a theme. It can also include a digital representation of, for example, a teaching strategy or the philosophy of a new program of study or curriculum – as long as the entity is in digital format and is “encapsulated” (that is, independent and self-contained).

The three examples above happen to come from UWO – and there are many more available and many more currently under development. All three “objects” are for all intents and purposes, found in the public domain. But many issues are raised by this simple fact; i.e., who “owns” these objects? Can I use them in my own course(s)? If so, how are these objects accessed? And, most importantly, have they been evaluated - are they useful, effective and accurate?

On the question of ownership, it may be useful to refer again to the research process as a template. When a manuscript has been accepted for publication, the copyright (i.e., “ownership”) is automatically assigned to the publisher of the journal/book (although newer on-line publications have taken a different tack and assign the copyright back to the author.) The resulting publication is available for public consumption and we can review the work at our leisure and, if we disagree with its conclusions, publish a letter or follow-up paper refuting the previous claims. In addition, we can extract contents of these publications according to the “fair use” policies of Cancopy to use in our teaching.

Following on this structure, what is needed for the practice of teaching scholarship that creates “learning objects” is a place where such objects can be submitted for peer-review, published in the public domain and made accessible for all to use and review.

Such places are now appearing and are referred to as “Learning Object Repositories” Footnote , Footnote , Footnote - in effect, libraries of digital content that has been peer-reviewed (through expert panels, often discipline-specific), made public (on-line) and is essentially quantifiable -this last being true if – and only if – such work is viewed by the academic establishment as equivalent in every way to a published research paper. The ingrained culture of the academy suggests that this final point will be a major obstacle to the acceptance of such work as true scholarship. The likelihood of this model being acceptable to many might lie in the creation of a national funding agency with a mandate to support the scholarship of teaching, including the development of “learning objects”, in a competitive process as with the major current agencies (see below).

Learning objects are “published” in these repositories along with associated “metadata” – that is information about the object itself. Such metadata would include, for example, contact information about the author, a description of the instructional obstacle that the object was meant to overcome, the technical information about the creation of the object (software, any specific tools, perhaps hardware requirements for its use), a description of the discipline or subject matter reflected in the object (allowing for keyword searches of the repositories), how the object was employed in teaching and, most importantly, how the effectiveness of the object was evaluated (from both the instructor’s and students’ perspectives) along with descriptive indications of whether it solved the initial problem or not. It is also possible for those who have obtained and used the object to contribute reviewer’s comments to the metadata.

Standards for educational metadata are under development Footnote and will lead to universal semantics, taxonomies, methods and technical specifications for user-friendly location and retrieval of learning objects.

On the question of funding scholarship in this area, the major research-intensive funding agencies (SSHRC, CIHR and NSERC) do not express clear intentions to fund such work. Although SSHRC does accept proposals in the area of educational research, these are more likely to be theoretical studies as opposed to the actual applied research referred to here.

Indeed, in 2001 a report was published Footnote by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education entitled, “The E-Learning E-volution in Colleges and Universities: a Pan-Canadian Challenge”. Submitted to then Minister of Industry Brian Tobin, the report is a comprehensive examination of the myriad issues surrounding the rapid rise in the use of information and communications technologies in higher education, including those listed above.

Recognizing the lack of an identifiable funding agency supporting the development, publication and dissemination of digital learning objects, the Council’s report recommended the creation of a fourth granting council with a specific mandate in this area. Although the report was criticized by university faculty groups as being heavily biased towards the interests of the private sector and lacking in faculty and student input, the notion of a competitive, rigorous, peer-reviewed funding process for digital scholarship has been relatively well received.

Certainly, there are currently a number of public funding programs that do support such work – notably through the Office of Learning Technologies of Human Resources Development Canada Footnote , the Inukshuk fund Footnote and CANARIE Footnote . However, these agencies generally do not direct their funding programs to individual practicing university-level faculty members but rather to inter-institutional collaborative projects – indeed, funding for the various repositories currently under development mentioned above has been provided by these agencies.

What is needed now is an agency with clearly defined goals and objectives to which faculty members from all disciplines, as individuals or groups, can apply for funds to design, develop, create, distribute and evaluate digital learning objects. Now that we have the repositories, we need the resources to build the content that will populate these digital libraries. It would be reasonable to build on the recent model of supporting health services research, a multidisciplinary field that did not readily find a home in any of the three main agencies. A clearly articulated identification of that gap resulted in the creation of the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF) Footnote . A similar organization with a mandate to competitively fund investigator-driven multidisciplinary teaching scholarship in all its forms, including the creation of learning objects, is urgently needed.

However, it is not necessary to wait for the creation of such an agency in order to begin building an environment where the scholarship of teaching is embedded and celebrated in our academic culture.

For this to succeed, universities must recognize and loudly proclaim this work as true scholarship that advances knowledge, makes a contribution to the field of post-secondary education and is the product of critical, reflective consideration of effective teaching. In other words, excellence in teaching scholarship must be understood to be a clear path to academic success for faculty in all universities, including those defined as “research intensive” Footnote .


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