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Professional Development

Or, Leave Me Alone, I'm Busy

Michael Pearson
Carol Schumacher
Rob Kimball
Francis Su
Chris Swanson
Karen Rhea

The following is a version of the notes I used for a keynote presentation at a conference on professional development for mathematics faculty held at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) in May 2007. The list of authors is long, and deserves some explanation. When I was asked to give the opening talk, I decided that I would seek input from a number of colleagues. To gather their input in a systematic way, I first wrote up some preliminary thoughts, then created a wiki and invited responses from the group you see listed as co-authors. Each of them graciously provided some notes on their own experiences, as well as commenting on my own and each others' thoughts. In some sense, that approach to collaborative work turned out to be the motivating theme for the presentation. I might also add that, in the end, I spent much less time talking about professional development than the motivation for supporting it.

So, we start with some of the forces that are affecting all of us (students, faculty and administrators alike).

A Changing World

Easily accessible technological power
  • Personal computing devices
  • Communications
  • Travel
  • Rapid movement of information and consumer goods: a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services.
Corresponding infrastructure to support the above, including collaborative tools (what is coming to be known as Web 2.0). Note the rapid pace of these developments: computer science as discipline developed in 1960's. First PCs in late '70's. Development of internet (as darpanet) in '80's; gopher, Mosaic, etc.

All of this leads to increased exposure to "the other," driving the need for a better-educated, more sophisticated and tolerant citizenry.

Here are some numbers that help tell this story:

  • Top 25% of population of China is larger than entire population of North America.
  • Top 28% of population of India is larger than entire population of North America.
  • 1 of every 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met online.
  • There are over 2.7 billion searches performed on Google each month.
  • The number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the population of the planet.
  • 47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year.
Source: http://scottmcleod.typepad.com/dangerouslyirrelevant/2007/01/gone_fischin.html (Note: this data was collected in early 2006.)

Tom Friedman, in The World is Flat, lists what he considers some of the driving forces behind globalization:

  1. Collapse of Berlin Wall-11/9: Friedman attributes the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the starting point for leveling the global playing field. The event not only symbolized the end of the Cold war, it allowed people from other side of the wall to join the economic mainstream.
  2. Netscape: Netscape and the Web broadened the audience for the Internet from its roots as a communications medium used primarily by scientists
  3. Workflow software: The ability of machines to talk to other machines with no humans involved. Friedman believes these first three forces have become a "crude foundation of a whole new global platform for collaboration."
  4. Open sourcing: Communities uploading and collaborating on online projects. Examples include open source software, blogs, and Wikipedia. Friedman considers the phenomenon "the most disruptive force of all".
  5. Outsourcing: Friedman argues that outsourcing has allowed companies to split service and manufacturing activities into components, with each component performed in most efficient, cost-effective way.
  6. Offshoring: Offshoring, the manufacturing equivalent of outsourcing.
  7. Supply chaining: Friedman compares the modern retail supply chain to a river, and points to Wal-Mart as the best example of a company using technology to streamline item sales, distribution, and shipping.
  8. Insourcing: Friedman uses UPS as a prime example for insourcing, in which the company's employees perform services--beyond shipping--on behalf of another company. For example, UPS itself repairs Toshiba computers on behalf of Toshiba. The work is done at the UPS hub, by UPS employees.
  9. In-forming: Google and other search engines are the prime example. "Never before in the history of the planet have so many people-on their own-had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people", writes Friedman.
  10. "The Steroids": Personal digital equipment like mobile phones, iPods, personal digital assitants, instant messaging, and voice over IP or VOIP
(Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Is_Flat)

Changing Face of Higher Education

Enrollment in degree-granting institutions
  • increased by 17 percent between 1984 and 1994 (from 12.2 to 14.3 million)
  • increased by 21 percent between 1994 and 2004 (from 14.3 to 17.3 million)
The proportion of American college students who are minorities has been increasing.
  • 1976: approximately 15 percent  
  • 2004: approximately 30 percent n 2004
Much of the change can be attributed to rising numbers of Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander students. The proportion of Asian or Pacific Islander students rose from 1 percent to 6 percent, and the Hispanic proportion rose from 4 percent to 10 percent during that time period. The proportion of Black students fluctuated during most of the early part of the period, before rising to 13 percent in 2004 from 9 percent in 1976.  

Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by sex of student and attendance status: Selected years, 1970 through 2004
[In thousands]

Sex and attendance status

Institutions of higher education

Degree-granting institutions

















































Attendance status

























SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Digest of Education Statistics, 2005 (NCES 2006-005), Chapter 3.

NOTE: Institutions of higher education were accredited by an agency or association that was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, or recognized directly by the Secretary of Education. The new degree-granting classification is very similar to the earlier higher education classification, except that it includes some additional institutions, primarily 2-year colleges, and excludes a few higher education institutions that did not award associate's or higher degrees. These degree-granting institutions participated in Title IV federal financial aid programs. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.

Assessment and Accountability

  • Higher education is increasingly seen as the gateway to full participation in our society (especially as Homo economicus)
  • Diverse social and educational backgrounds of students; varied expectations
  • Higher-education reauthorization
  • Regional accreditation agencies
Peter Ewell and Lynn Steen provide a nice overview of some of the issues facing all of us, but with a particular focus on mathematics, in their article The Four A's: Accountability, Accreditation, Assessment, and Articulation.
There are pressures from a variety of sources, including Congress and other federal agencies. Here are some excerpts from the Spellings' Commision Report:

  • We want a world-class higher-education system that creates new knowledge, contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and empowers citizens;
  • We want a system that is accessible to all Americans, throughout their lives;
  • We want postsecondary institutions to provide high-quality instruction while improving their efficiency in order to be more affordable to the students, taxpayers, and donors who sustain them;
  • We want a higher-education system that gives Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy;
  • We want postsecondary institutions to adapt to a world altered by technology, changing demographics and globalization, in which the higher-education landscape includes new providers and new paradigms, from for-profit universities to distance learning.

We believe that improved accountability is vital to ensuring the success of all the other reforms we propose. Colleges and universities must become more transparent about cost, price, and student success outcomes, and must willingly share this information with students and families. Student achievement, which is inextricably connected to institutional success, must be measured by institutions on a "value-added" basis that takes into account students' academic baseline when assessing their results. This information should be made available to students, and reported publicly in aggregate form to provide consumers and policymakers an accessible, understandable way to measure the relative effectiveness of different colleges and universities.

We recommend that America's colleges and universities embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement. We urge these institutions to develop new pedagogies, curricula and technologies to improve learning, particularly in the areas of science and mathematics. At the same time, we recommend the development of a national strategy for lifelong learning designed to keep our citizens and our nation at the forefront of the knowledge revolution.

Regional and disciplinary accreditation agencies have already made significant changes, in particular including assessment of student learning as a key aspect of maintaining accreditation. I would argue that those of us in higher education should make every effort to avoid having additional requirements and constraints imposed "from above," and thus that we must make good-faith efforts to incorporate effective evaluation processes, but that we must also be sure that such processes help us do our job without requiring significant additional effort on the part of individual faculty, who are already stretched thin by the varied demands of their careers.

There are some efforts to share resources/tools, such as the Internet Resources for Higher Education Outcomes Assessment.

The National Survey of Student Engagement is one tool that illustrates the kind of approach that may be useful in this direction.

Professional Development

So now we get to the purported reason for this talk. Why do we, as faculty, need professional development, and what is it anyway? Continuing education for people who already know everything?

Of course, we don't know everything, and given the pace and scope of change in the higher education landscape that I hope I have suggested, I hope we can all agree that we all have lots to learn. Moreover, institutions should be intentional in their support of ongoing professional development that will support faculty and student performance. (And, in case my own biases are not clear, this work should not simply be viewed as additional requirements on overworked faculty.)

But, faculty must also be alert to our own prejudices, and avoid falling prey to Conquest's First Law: "Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about." (Robert Conquest, as quoted by Kingsley Amis.)

Now that  I hope we are all agreed that professional development is important, just what is it? Here are some of the activities that we came up with that can serve to improve our abilities as faculty, as long as we are open to the possibility of change:
  • Sharing your ideas of what works with your colleagues
  • Hearing your colleagues ideas of what works
  • Getting together with colleagues to kvetch about the poor quality of your students
  • Seminar series on mathematical topic
  • "Brown bag lunch" with colleagues from other disciplines
  • Engaging in "scholarship of teaching and learning"
  • Mentoring
  • Writing exams and grading papers
  • Research and writing papers
  • Writing grant proposals
  • Attending meetings and conferences
  • Advising and other student mentoring activities
  • Volunteering in local schools
  • Writing your annual review
  • Informal dinners with colleagues
  • Reading newspapers/magazines/books
I hope that, having read this far, you don't find this simple list to be anti-climactic. But I think that, in fact, professional development is what we do when we approach our jobs (and for that matter our lives) in the expectation that our experiences do change us, for better or worse, and that it is up to us to make concious decisions to evaluate how we are changing in a variety of ways (including evaluations from our colleagues) so that those inevitable changes will represent an improvement in the way we carry out our work.