September/October 1999 // Faculty and Staff Development
Rethinking Faculty Support
by Mark Donovan
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mark Donovan "Rethinking Faculty Support" The Technology Source, September/October 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Since the advent of the World Wide Web, those involved in academic computing increasingly have struggled with the critical issue of how to effectively support the use of technology in teaching and learning. But what does "support" really mean? Most agree that the goal of support is to enhance and improve teaching and learning. That's the easy part. How to do this continues to be a $100,000 question.

For the past 18 months, I and others involved in the UWired program and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at the University of Washington (UW) have worked to rethink our notion of faculty support. Our primary goal is to develop strategies that will lead to the wide-scale adoption of effective uses of technology, not just to the transformation of a few isolated courses. Because of this commitment, we have had to refocus our efforts and fundamentally alter our perspective; we now work toward a systemic, rather than a limited, integration of technology into education.

Although we are still a long way from finding a definitive answer to the support question, our evolving approach is reflected in the array of services that make up the UWired's Catalyst initiative. Catalyst is grounded in a set of principles that include:

  • Thinking in terms of introducing innovation, rather than just technology, into teaching and learning;
  • Focusing on the concerns and expectations of faculty who are not early adopters; and
  • Using Web resources and Web-based services to diffuse innovations and provide technical support to faculty.

For more a more detailed description of the development of Catalyst, see Donovan and Macklin (1998).

Thinking in Terms of Innovation

How we talk about teaching with technology is important. For years, those of us involved in UWired have taken pains to frame what we do in terms of bringing technology into the service of teaching. We strongly believe that technologies should not simply be layered atop an existing course; instead, instructional goals should drive the adoption of technology.

Speaking in terms of "integrating technology into teaching" or "teaching with technology" is awkward because the term technology is still on center stage. Certainly new technologies help to foster new approaches to teaching and learning. However, in order to be truly effective and transformative, these technologies must be bundled with dynamic instructional methods and approaches.

Instructional technologists should think of promoting "innovation" in teaching and learning. Rather than frame their task as getting faculty to buy into new technologies, they should focus on unleashing the creative energies of the bright, motivated experts that make up the faculty of colleges and universities. Faculty members prize innovation. The creation of new knowledge and techniques is what beckoned most of them to life in the Academy.

At UW, a professor once contacted the staff of UWired because he believed that his Web editor was not working properly. Actually, the editor worked fine; the professor, however, did not have all the technical skills he needed to use the editor to manage a complicated task. We could have responded to this situation by focusing on technology—in other words, by teaching the professor the complex skills that he lacked or by suggesting that he switch software applications. Instead, we focused on innovation and asked the instructor what he was trying to accomplish.

The professor wanted to create an online site where students could prepare for upcoming exams. We therefore engaged him in a brief, but intense, discussion about various test preparation strategies. Soon after, the professor himself thought of a simplified way (that required no expansion of his technical skills) to create an online self-testing site for his students. He reports that his students used and appreciated these self-tests and we, in turn, still pass on his Web tips to other interested faculty.

Bridging the Gap

Thinking in terms of innovation bridges a gap that often exists between instructional technologists and faculty. This gap is due, at least in part, to differences in the characteristics of two groups of faculty: (1) the early adopters who seek out assistance with new technologies, and (2) the majority of faculty, who, in comparison, are not as motivated.

The early adopters are willing to spend more time—and endure considerable frustration—trying new tools and experimenting with new technologies. Early adopters often are lauded as ready-made advocates for technology, but their rampant enthusiasm is a double-edged sword: sometimes it is contagious, but more often, it is perceived as techno-zealotry. This is off-putting to the majority of faculty, who may resist the adoption of technology by saying,"I can't do that because I'm not like him/her [an early adopter]."

My UW colleagues and I often encounter technically-adept early adopters who use information technology simply to do old things in new ways. We also frequently meet with faculty who are new to technology yet apply it with a fresh, creative approach. Thinking in terms of innovation (rather than technology) helps to level the playing field between different types of faculty members; leaves us free to concentrate our attention on new ideas and techniques while de-emphasizing technical skills; and opens up learning opportunities for faculty who may not see themselves as "techies," but who are deeply interested in the developing as teachers. This rhetorical shift also serves to orient our faculty support efforts: though we still provide software application support, our main focus is helping faculty develop dynamic approaches to teaching and learning.

The Diffusion of Innovation

In the seminal book The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers (1995) summarizes a rich body of literature on how and why innovations do—or do not—move beyond inventors and early adopters. Rogers identifies five determinants of the diffusion of innovation that can be useful to those planning and implementing faculty support services:

  • Advantage. Does the innovation convey an advantage over existing ways of doing things?
  • Compatibility. Is the innovation compatible with existing needs and expectations?
  • Simplification. Does the innovation make life simpler or at least not more complex?
  • Trialability. Can the innovation be tried without a commitment to overhaul one's way of doing things?
  • Observability. Is the innovation observable and visible to would-be adopters?

The likelihood than an innovation will be adopted improves each time that one answers "yes" to an above question. At UWired, we use these determinants to evaluate and guide faculty support efforts collected under our Catalyst initiative. The centerpiece of this initiative is a Web site designed to deliver resources, support, and ideas for faculty.

We have, for example, created a small (but growing) suite of modular, Web-based tools that allow faculty to experiment with the creation of instructional components such as Web-based surveys, quizzes, and peer review forums. The structure and delivery of these tools satisfies the five determinants sketched above. Faculty are able to create instructional components and permit students to interact with them— as well as with each other—in new and, depending on the instructional context, better ways (advantage). Faculty may use the Catalyst service as much or as little as they want with no long-term commitment (trialability), and they need only a Web browser to create instructional tools (simplification). Moreover, brief profiles of faculty who are using technology to enable new instructional practices are available at the Catalyst site; would-be adopters therefore can see how technology is being used in real classrooms (observability) and verify that Web-based tools do meet real needs (compatibility).

The ability to exchange information across the Web, regardless of one's operating system or physical location, makes Web-based innovations more likely to be observed and adopted than other technologies that are not as accessible and transportable. For this reason, the UWired staff actively promotes the Web as the platform of choice for delivering instructional material. We try to steer faculty away from using idiosyncratic software or uncommon plug-ins as they craft a strategy to employ technology in their teaching.

Furthermore, we look somewhat skeptically at proprietary tools (often called "courseware") that purportedly make it easy to create and manage Web-based material. Because faculty are continually pressed for time, the skills that we help them learn must be transferable, somewhat enduring, and—particularly when it comes to authoring Web sites—not limited to one particular software application. We want faculty to understand how the Web works and to see it as space in which they can work, teach, and, above all, innovate. This approach seems to be successful, as thousands of visitors each month are drawn to the content provided by the Catalyst site.

Getting to Know Faculty

To orient faculty support so that it promulgates innovation in teaching and learning, support staff must understand the needs and expectations of faculty. This requires some effort, because the majority of faculty typically do not seek out campus teaching, learning, and technology centers.

Two tried and true methods of social research—surveys and focus groups—can be useful means for learning about faculty. At the UW, the University Libraries conduct a triennial user survey. As a result of a UWired collaboration with the library system, the most recent survey included questions about student and faculty uses of technology. These survey responses gave the UWired staff a useful profile of the faculty as a whole, rather than our usual peek at those who choose to access our services.

We found, for example, that more than 90% of faculty use email to communicate with students. While many faculty do not think of themselves as technology users, this statistic helps us emphasize that they likely are already taking advantage of technology. Such context helps to demystify technology and allows faculty see that innovation does not require the use of exotic or complicated technologies.

Survey data are undeniably useful; however, such information cannot by itself convey the detailed understanding of faculty needs, expectations, and past experiences that are crucial for developing an effective system of support. Few tactics beat simply asking faculty what they want. As part of the Catalyst development process, UWired representatives conducted a series of focus groups to get a better sense of what faculty in different contexts, and with varying levels of technological expertise, wanted.

We asked two primary questions: (1) What are your biggest teaching challenges?, and (2) What concerns do you have about using technology? The ensuing discussion was rich, and the observations of the participants often ran counter to our assumptions. We found, for instance, that faculty did not like our practice of combining "how to" help with pedagogical suggestions in our printed material. Faculty sometimes want to know "how" and at other times want to know "why," but they find the conflation of this information confusing.

Summing Up

There is no magic solution for supporting faculty uses of technology in teaching and learning. Those of us in technology support roles at research universities typically find ourselves working in a highly decentralized environment with rapidly changing technologies and a heterogeneous faculty focused primarily on research rather than teaching. At smaller colleges and universities, the environment may be slightly less complex, but most of the same challenges remain.

Getting to know our faculty—and not just the early adopters who seek us out—allows us to develop a deeper understanding of how they do their work as teachers and scholars. Viewing faculty support in this context requires us to look at more than just the technical challenges that faculty face. These technical issues are not trivial, but it is at the intersection of technology and faculty social practices that our support work needs to be done. Identifying and promoting innovation is one strategy that can help us navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities that networked information technology presents for teaching and learning in higher education.


Donovan, M., & Macklin, S. (1998, December). One size doesn't fit all: Designing scaleable, client-centered support for technology in teaching. Paper presented at the CAUSE98 conference, Seattle, Washington. Retrieved 25 June 1999 from the World Wide Web: html/cnc9846/cnc9846.html.

Rogers, E. (1995). The diffusion of innovations. (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.

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