Give Us 15 Minutes and We’ll give You the Skills: How to Provide Ongoing Training for Online Adjunct Faculty
Co-Authored by Barbara Lesniak
Originally published on EvoLLLution
When you’re dealing with online adjunct faculty, teaching your teachers is a challenge. Full-time jobs, family members, and other responsibilities clamor for their precious time, so how do you grab a snippet of their attention? At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), we set out to answer that question, and the “3 Tips in 15 Minutes” webinar series was the result.
“3 Tips in 15 Minutes” is a weekly training program for our adjunct instructions in the social sciences and criminal justice programs. It started out as a pilot program in 2017, and steadily rising attendance, coupled with positive feedback from our instructors, led us to make it permanent.
What, exactly, is this program? As the name implies, it provides impactful training that only takes a quarter of an hour each week. We chose that timeframe for five main reasons:
- Working professionals are saturated with meetings. In a survey of 1,900 business leaders discussed in the article The Science and Fiction of Meetings in MIT Sloan Management Review, 72% reported spending more time in meetings than they did five years ago; 49% expected time in meetings to increase in the future.
- We need their undivided attention. Michelle D. Miller says in her book that attention is the “complex and somewhat mysterious process of allocating limited cognitive resources across myriad competing demands.” Simply put, our instructors are very busy people, and we are in direct competition with their obligations, distractions, etc.
- Our primary focus is to offer information that supports their desire to enhance online-instructional performance. As such, we need their dedicated attention to be in concert with their working memory, which is critical to accomplishing one’s goals since it involves the selection of relevant information and keeping it at the ready state for retrieval.
- With the limit of 15 minutes, we avoid contamination from potentially irrelevant information that may rob attention from the focal point(s).
- Allocating time to a variety of obligations is fraught with risk. As noted by Carlos Oyarzun and Rajiv Sarin, we seek to identify and prioritize based upon assessment of risk, and we attend to those activities that offer the best payoff with the least amount of risk. In other words, 15 minutes may be less likely to impose upon the instructor’s allocation and distribution of their time based upon prioritization.
Each week we choose topics that help instructors solve some of their most common problems and provide information they can use immediately in the classroom. Our topic choices are on track, as one instructor’s feedback demonstrates. Shortly after a recent presentation, she told us, “I want to let you know how helpful the Wednesday webinars have been for me. Just last night you covered a situation that I had to address today.”
We don’t try to duplicate the robust faculty training program already in place at SNHU. Instead, we expand on some of the topics they cover, adding a social sciences/criminal justice slant. We also create webinars based on common challenges and repetitive questions, and we educate instructors on services available to their students, like our Online Accessibility Center and Writing Center. Sometimes we run a miniseries that spans multiple weeks. For example, one popular series demystified the student dispute process and educated faculty on how to head off common disputes with detailed grading feedback and strong communication skills.
We make attendance easy by holding the sessions every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET to accommodate instructors who work during the day and live in various time zones. We also record the webinars for those who cannot attend in person. Instructors are happy with the timeframe, making comments like these in our recent survey:
- “I like that they are only 15 minutes or so. It’s an easy amount of time to devote to skill-building.”
- “These are quick and clear presentations that are not overwhelming.”
We present through Adobe Connect and use the same link each week so instructors always know where to find us. Attendance is voluntary, with spikes for the most popular topics, but we have a core group that attends nearly every session. They’ve been known to pop into the online room even when a session is canceled because they’re so habituated to the weekly training. We’ve worked hard to build that loyalty, and we owe it mainly to these three tenets:
1. We respect our instructors’ time
We start on the dot at 8 p.m. and stick to the 15 minute limit for presenting content. Attendees are welcome to stay longer for a more in-depth discussion, but the formal presentation is always done by 8:15 p.m.
2. We choose topics that affect them directly
As associate deans, we base the topics on common issues or points of confusion that come up in our everyday work. We don’t just rely on our own judgment. We survey our faculty regularly for topic ideas and solicit them in every session.
3. We invite guest speakers
Our instructors hear from subject matter experts who work with SNHU policies and can answer their questions accurately. We also use guests to help forge connections between faculty and departments like Advising or the Writing Center. This makes them more comfortable reaching out to advisors or tutors later to partner for student support.
Generally, we both present together each week. Having dual presenters allows one person to monitor the chat while the other is speaking. It also ensures coverage if one person must skip a week.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for “Three Tips in 15 Minutes.” Attendance is consistent, but things like final grading and holiday weeks impact the numbers. We typically cancel sessions on those weeks, but one session earlier this year had only four attendees and we couldn’t figure out why. One instructor finally mentioned that we were competing with the Winter Olympics that night. As compelling as our advice on giving good feedback might be, it was no match for the ski jumping.
We’ve also been unable to recruit adjuncts to present some of the “3 Tips in 15 Minutes” sessions. Instructors are understandably reluctant to volunteer their time to present when they’re already worn thin. We’ve gotten around this by soliciting tips and examples and presenting them ourselves, but that information is more meaningful when it comes directly from the source.
As “3 Tips in 15 Minutes” approaches its one-year anniversary, the next step is to assess its impact on faculty performance. Most attendees are already strong instructors, but we also draw in faculty who might need a little more coaching. They’re receptive during the sessions because a 15-minute presentation among peers is quick and non-threatening. In surveys, they tell us they’ve applied many of the strategies we’ve covered, like providing more robust feedback, adapting their tone for online communication, and engaging students in broader ways.
Does instructor performance bear out the anecdotal evidence of success? We will soon find out, but we see value in the program even if its only achievements are providing some personal contact with our faculty and building connections between them and other departments at SNHU who are working toward the same goal of student support. As one instructor told us, “This connects folks in real time each week and makes you feel more connected to the university. You also gain valuable skills, as it is ongoing training.”
If you think a similar program might benefit your own institute, we recommend the following strategies:
- Use a simple presentation tool. We present via Adobe Connect, which has an easy-to-use interface and runs smoothly for most of our instructors.
- Respect the time limit. Instructors will feel betrayed and stop attending if “15 minutes” regularly extends into half an hour or more.
- Choose topics that address common pain points and give actionable solutions.
- Have at least two speakers so you’ll be able to monitor the chat during the presentation and so you won’t have to cancel if one speaker cannot make a certain date.
- Invite guest speakers with whom your attendees might not engage regularly.
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