‘Faculty champions’ can help to mentor new lecturers – Book

Lack of support for new faculty members – usually PhD holders who lack teaching qualifications and experience – has been cited as one of the factors hampering quality education in institutions of higher education in Africa.

Inexperienced lecturers usually employ teaching methods mimicking their former professors and this may lead to instructor-centred teaching that does not address learners’ needs.

Consequently, universities need orientation programmes tailored towards addressing the unique needs and challenges of new faculty members in the areas of teaching, learning, service and research, and to use faculty champions in development initiatives that take a life-cycle approach to promoting high quality teaching, according to the authors of a new book.

This approach means that each new lecturer’s individual needs are addressed by ensuring that the programmes and interventions implemented are relevant and meaningful to where they are in terms of their professional development or career.

The book, published by Aga Khan University (AKU), called Transforming Teaching & Learning in Higher Education: Stories of impact from the Aga Khan University, was written by Jane Rarieya, the dean of AKU’s Nairobi-based Institute for Educational Development, East Africa; Tashmin Khamis, the vice-provost responsible for quality, teaching and learning at AKU; and Lucy Spowart from the United Kingdom’s University of Plymouth.

AKU is a private university with six campuses based in Pakistan, East Africa and the UK.

Rarieya and colleagues posit in the book that many universities, especially in Africa, are struggling with induction and professional development of new faculty members who have no teaching qualifications.

Faculty champions

Making reference to lessons drawn from two faculty development initiatives, the authors say that the use of ‘faculty champions’ in staff development efforts enhances “buy-in and ownership, resulting in a greater commitment to high quality teaching practices” ...

“We strongly believe that faculty champions are well-positioned to advocate for quality teaching and its impact on student learning outcomes due to their expertise, experience and first-hand knowledge of effective instructional practices,” the authors say.

They reiterate that the role of faculty champions as leaders and mentors puts them in pole position to influence and inspire their colleagues. This approach, they say, “reinforces the value and impact of quality teaching as a key component of the academic mission of the university”.

For AKU, faculty champions are excellent teachers, who continuously participate in activities to improve their teaching and are ready to mentor colleagues in enhancing their teaching practices, while also engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The champions are also advocates of good teaching practices at the university.

Link between teaching and graduate employment

Rarieya said the employability of most graduates has been in sharp focus, with students graduating without the requisite skills for the job market.

“This has largely been attributed to the poor quality of teaching and learning that goes on in a number of universities. Hence, it is imperative to prepare and support faculty to offer quality teaching and learning experiences,” she said.

Speaking to University World News in an interview, Rarieya, who is also a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, United Kingdom, said that the appointment of faculty based on their academic credentials, and not necessarily instructional skills, suggests that only those who belong to schools of education may have teaching know-how.

The academy is a member-led charity that works with partner organisations to improve higher education for staff, students and society globally.

This explains the need to support faculty in understanding what effective teaching and learning looks like and how to engage in it.

New initiative

In 2018, having realised the gaps that exist in general orientation programmes for new faculty members, AKU embarked on a new initiative targeted at creating “inclusive and dynamic spaces that foster ongoing professional development of faculty” at the university and enhancing access to high quality orientation resources and support services that boost the pedagogical competencies and research skills of faculty, while promoting equitable and student-centred teaching and learning across its campuses.

The programme, dubbed Faculty Orientation on Teaching and Learning (FOTL) was designed after a survey on the needs of faculty, and designed as an online and self-paced programme on Moodle for all faculty at the institution.

“We had observed that, when our faculty were recruited, their orientation largely focused on administrative matters such as the university’s organisational structure, mission and welfare issues …

“Yet, it was expected of them to be outstanding teachers and researchers. Nothing was discussed about what was in place to help them achieve the foregoing. Without this important knowledge, faculty can be reduced to the highest levels of inefficiencies,” said Rarieya.

The programme, introduced in 2020, was institutionalised through the university’s Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning (QTL_net) that was established 10 years ago to enhance faculty members’ teaching excellence and scholarship of teaching and learning.

According to the book, FOTL has enhanced faculty reach and satisfaction, with 2023 data showing a 95% completion rate, a figure that, the authors say, shows its growing success and popularity among the faculty at AKU.

Ongoing professional development

The programme is also lauded for cultivating a culture of continuous professional development among faculty members with attendees showing a greater willingness to attend and participate in additional professional development activities.

The authors say: “FOTL has been instrumental in integrating newly appointed faculty members into the academic fabric of the university. It has provided a comprehensive support system that fosters a sense of community and belonging among participants, enabling a smooth transition into their academic roles.

“Moreover, the programme has equipped faculty members with the necessary skill sets and competencies to excel in their teaching roles. By doing so, it has also fostered the one-university model, promoting a cohesive and interdisciplinary approach to education, research and service provision.”

To actualise a university-wide orientation programme, said Rarieya, they mapped out what was expected of an AKU faculty member and worked with critical AKU units such as the research office, the department of educational development, the Centre of Innovation in Medical Education and the HR department to put together a comprehensive package of what faculty needed to know and how to obtain the support of these units in doing their work.

Programmes and services in the university focus on aspects such as designing courses, designing assessments as well as designing, facilitating and assessing online learning.

At this point, the university senate made this orientation programme on teaching and learning compulsory for all newly recruited faculty and so upon joining the university.

However, as the programme is university-wide, they call for more detailed country-specific and comprehensive FOTLs, arguing that academic cultures, expectations and support systems may “vary significantly” between different campuses of the university.

According to Rarieya, faculty learning from their peers has led to benefits such as less resistance to AKU programmes and practices as the faculty see the ‘champions’ employing the same strategies.

Additionally, the champions are able to demonstrate that the advocated practices work; and, as everyone needs a ‘crutch’ when taking a risk, which, in this case, is the adoption of ‘new’ practices, the champions become the ‘crutch’ that faculty need as they try out new ideas.

Rarieya said the use of faculty champions also led to sustainability of practices, as they will be more enduring as there are ‘adopters’ to keep the practice going.

Khamis said the greatest returns and gains for students’ success lie in the investment in professional development of teaching.

“Faculty become faculty due to their PhDs, but a PhD provides training in research not [training in] teaching.

“Therefore, investing in faculty to develop teaching skills is critical and, in the era of artificial intelligence, we have an opportunity to transform our teaching and assessment practices.”