November 1998 // Faculty and Staff Development
A Psychosocial Systems Approach to Faculty Development Programs
by Patricia Cravener
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Patricia Cravener "A Psychosocial Systems Approach to Faculty Development Programs" The Technology Source, November 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Institutions of higher learning have been quick to grasp the potential benefits of making educational programs available to remote learners via the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, the faculty are often the weakest link in potentially successful distance learning programs. For example, in September 1998, in the context of an e-mail discussion of distance education, a graduate student wrote that throughout her three years of distance courses from an accredited university, professors made it abundantly clear that they knew little about the technology, did not wish to spend time with the technology, and preferred not to teach via distance if at all possible. Her e-mail messages to them received slow to no response.

Over the past few years, posts to both moderated and unmoderated online conferences have expressed the frustration experienced by educational technology trainers when their hours of preparation and presentation are followed by no change at all in how faculty use the technology in their teaching and research processes. At many colleges and universities, faculty either fail to attend educational technology workshops or fail to implement the technologies after the workshop ends.

The Paradoxical Disjunction Model

Below, I describe a plan for improving faculty development outcomes. The model shows a paradoxical disjunction between the information technology approach to faculty development and the psychosocial concerns that tend to inhibit faculty participation. A psychosocial systems checklist is also provided in Exhibit 1 to serve as a systems-aware guide to faculty development programs.

Resistance Factors

A proposal to a professional educator that he or she needs to adopt new media for teaching is a potential threat: the implicit assumption is that the old way was somehow inadequate, insufficient, or not optimal. Feeling even marginally incompetent is anxiety-provoking; people continually defend themselves against the experience. These affective factors often raise active resistance to distance learning paradigms and the faculty development programs associated with them, predisposing faculty to avoid or reject learning to use new educational technologies.

Persuading faculty to participate in programs designed to teach the use of educational technology to support distance learning is a change process. Distance education brings significant social and political shifts to institutional systems, which typically exhibit massive inertial resistance to change. The culture of every college and university includes behavioral norms and status hierarchies that define the relationships of roles within the system. These norms and hierarchies allow the educational system to regulate itself. Faculty-centered lectures, campus-based classroom teaching, and face-to-face communications are the current norms in most institutions of higher learning.

Many faculty members derive a substantial portion of their sense of worth as an educator from their face-to-face classroom and office experiences with students. Asynchronous models of distance education often seem to be the antithesis of what faculty find most valuable in the college or university. Thus, it is not surprising that many faculty members resist acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to facilitate distance learning.

Some aspects of faculty rejection of Web-based teaching and learning reflect another unfortunate reality: distance education continues to occupy a marginal position at most universities. If the institution does not include participation in distance education and electronic publishing in tenure and post-tenure review criteria, the implied institutional norm—valuing traditional teaching and communications patterns over distance paradigms—will inevitably inhibit faculty involvement in distance education programs.

Change Strategies

Change requires a visible mobilizing impetus. Administrative mandates that distance offerings shall be created, although not always popular or well-received, create openings for launching faculty development initiatives. When faculty gain skills with Web-based teaching, departments gain vital opportunities to enroll new populations of adult students.

Students are major stakeholders in higher education. As awareness of conflicts between traditional institutional cultures and the needs of adult lifelong learners gradually spreads through educational systems, the professional identity of many faculty members may be challenged. As student demographics and needs change, faculty roles must adapt or become obsolete.

Uses of technology to support high-quality teaching and learning can serve as strong selling points during all phases of planning and implementation of faculty development projects. For faculty who are relatively late adopters of technology, participation in faculty development projects that stress the use of educational technology in the context of educational excellence may become an attractive choice.

Decades of research on the undergraduate experience have shown that learning is not a passive process (Sorcinelli, 1995). Communication technologies are important resources for expanding access to education for adult students, and for supporting student engagement with active, deep learning processes. The use of communications technologies has inherent advantages related to efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and excellent instructional practice (Chickering and Ehrmann, 1996). The following seven points summarize direct applications of educational technology to teaching/learning principles:

  1. Asynchronous communication technologies provide opportunities for more frequent and timely interactions between students and faculty.
  2. Both synchronous and asynchronous computer-mediated communication technologies expand options for working in learning groups and encourage reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Well-planned online teaching environments support active learning techniques such as reflective thinking, peer interaction, and collaborative learning activities.
  4. Computer-mediated distance education has the capacity to support immediate instructional feedback; it is easy to send out new information, revisions to the syllabus or schedule, or immediate feedback on student work at any time instead of waiting for weekly class meetings.
  5. Information technology can make studying more efficient by providing immediate online access to important learning resources. Emphasis is placed on meeting instructional goals and performance objectives, rather than spending time in class.
  6. Use of information technology can assist students in improving their cognitive skills by providing examples of excellence and convenient, accessible, flexible forums for self and peer evaluation.
  7. Web-based asynchronous learning programs permit each participant to progress through the program content at his or her own pace, and the wide range of text, graphical imagery, and multimedia available can support a variety of learning styles.

Wide dissemination of these concepts to all members of a target group can foster participation in faculty development programs by reinforcing the fundamental rationale for academic use of Web-based resources: potential advantages for individual faculty, the institution, and students.

The psychosocial systems approach to faculty development programs entails close attention to the professional, social, and affective processes that shape individual and institutional responses to change. An information technology training program can succeed only to the extent that it meets participants' needs, in the context of pertinent institutional systems. The checklist (Exhibit 1) draws attention to critical areas to be addressed during the planning and implementation phases of program development.


Traditionally, institutions of higher learning have been authority- and knowledge-centered: academia is a controlled hierarchical system for delivering knowledge from authorities to students. The provision of distance education foreshadows a fundamental shift to a more lateral structure. Thus, the changes implicit in faculty development programs designed to promote the use of new educational technologies are profound.

Faculty development programs that focus on enhancing faculty skills with the use of information technologies will be most successful if known areas of resistance to change are specifically addressed during the planning and implementation phases of program development. These issues include resistance to change in institutional cultures, affective responses to the challenge of learning new instructional strategies, competing demands on faculty time, and perceived validity of computer-mediated teaching and learning.

Resistance to participation in faculty development programs and adoption of the new educational technologies is based on the anxieties and fears people have when faced with major personal and institutional changes. The move to distance education, for many of our colleagues, is fraught with anxiety. Close attention to affective and systems issues, with active support from high-level administrators, can drastically improve the outcomes of faculty development projects.


Chickering, A. and Ehrmann, S. (1996). Implementing the seven principles: Technology as lever. ACHE Bulletin, 49(2), 3-6.

Sorcinelli, M. D. (1995). Research findings on the seven principles. In J. G. Haworth (Ed.), Revisioning curriculum in higher education (pp. 368-376). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

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