The Role of Educational Developers in Teaching and Learning Excellence
Educational developers (EDs) are change agents. They play a crucial role in helping colleges and universities adapt and respond to change. As technology advances and attention to student success, retention, and completion grows, EDs play an essential role in supporting faculty in creating the best possible student experience. The role of an ED may multifaceted depending on an institution’s need: researcher, instructional designer, instructional developer, assessment professional, instructional coach, multimedia specialist, faculty developer, trainer, and the like. As subject matter experts in curriculum design and professional learning, it is important that EDs recognize their value and contributions to the institution—the skills, talents, and knowledge needed to support the design and delivery of a quality student learning experience. Based on my experience of nearly 10 years as an ED in higher education, doctoral and postdoc research on faculty professional development, and considerable discussions with colleagues about the discipline, the following summarizes my framing of an ED: who we are, the importance of our role, and how we are continuously being established as a staple within the landscape of higher education.
ED talent, characteristics, and attributes
As sources of expertise in teaching, student learning, user experience design, and change management, EDs play an instrumental role in higher education, working alongside faculty, librarians, support staff, academic administrators, technology professionals, and others to support the student experience. As colleges and universities generate and curate ideas for change and innovation, EDs can support the institution with implementation processes and practices. EDs should “bring about shifts in values, boundaries, and paradigms required for broad based changes in teaching and learning” (Schroeder, 2011, p. 1).
According to McDonald et al (2016), EDs (1) create and facilitate development opportunities (e.g., instructional, curricular, and technological); (2) design and produce educational resources (e.g., print and audiovisual); (3) collaborate and consult on special projects and policy development initiatives; (4) advocate for, lead, or facilitate institutional change; (5) broker relationships and opportunities for partnership—both on and off campus; and (6) contribute directly or indirectly to the scholarship of teaching and learning and educational development (p. 8). To support this diverse workload, EDs must have a special skill set. Aside from practical competencies associated with the discipline (curriculum design, technology, leadership, project management), EDs should also be highly skilled in effective communication, efficient time management, collaborative teamwork, problem-solving, and adaptability.
Hart Research Associates (2015) found that nine in 10 higher education faculty members believe that professional development is important to their careers and would help improve student outcomes. Because of this, EDs should guide faculty in the teaching and learning process, including “helping faculty pursue their goals of promoting students’ higher-order thinking skills” (Condon et al., p. 26). Staying abreast of evolving scholarship in the field is also important; EDs should be well-versed in emerging technologies and continuously trying new tools and concepts to share with faculty. EDs should realize there is no way to know everything or be everything to everyone, but balancing this key skill of problem solving is having the drive and curiosity to be willing to find the answers.
Partners in teaching and learning excellence
As partners in the teaching and learning process, EDs work closely with faculty in course design, user-experience design, assessment strategies, exploration of teaching practice, consultation, and professional learning opportunities. EDs bring their subject matter expertise, knowledge, and skills to student learning outcomes, but also serve as partners in the decision-making process; from individual classrooms and instruction to the institution at large. Elliott and Oliver (2016) conducted an assessment to explore the relationship between community college faculty professional development and the academic achievement of diverse students. Findings suggested “faculty involvement in professional development activities has important effects on student academic achievement in terms of student perceptions of faculty effectiveness” (p. 93). As educational development is defined as “intentional planned actions and activities—often professional development opportunities, instructional programs, or other educational initiatives—that faculty members and institutions undertake to enhance teaching and learning” (Amundsen & Wilson, 2012, p. 90), developers should be preparing for faculty effectiveness and striving to build intentional partnerships across the institution to advance student learning and success.
Effective EDs demonstrate emotional intelligence and hold strong communication skills. They have the ability to understand, use, and manage emotions in positive ways, perceiving the needs of faculty and other partners. They use emotional intelligence to communicate effectively, empathize, overcome challenges and barriers, and defuse conflict. Too, emotional intelligence builds strong communication skills required to be active listeners with faculty partners—understanding their particular needs, challenges, and opportunities. As active listening is said to improve productivity as well as shape the ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate, EDs should be intentional in this practice to incite confidence in the eyes of faculty.
The discipline of educational development is fairly new compared to teaching; it was first noted in the “‘Age of the Scholar’ (1950s through early 1960s),” primarily referring to practices for improving and advancing scholarly competence (Beach et al., 2016, p. 4). Today’s EDs may find themselves frequently explaining their role to faculty and other academic stakeholders. Faculty have likely participated in professional learning opportunities focused on tools and practices to support teaching, but may not be familiar with other key contributions of EDs in the teaching and learning process, such as collaborative course design and renewal, change management, technology integration, and the development of creative evidence-based, student-centered learning opportunities. Though push backs are normal (not all creativity is admired initially), EDs should be prepared to share their expertise with faculty while instilling patience and tact for prioritizing their needs. In a successful partnership, faculty should feel confident their ED is listening, providing advice and recommendations based on their needs, their students’ needs, and who they are as individuals (versus a one-size-fits-all approach). In the many choices faculty have for professional learning and support, EDs should be well equipped to explain how they bring value to the student experience.
EDs are perfectly positioned in helping administrators and supporting faculty with teaching and learning excellence. As change agents, faculty developers, technology experts, course designers, project managers, coaches, and assessment experts, EDs are critical to the teaching and learning process. Chism (1998) reminds us that EDs play a role in shaping the larger learning environment. As leaders, EDs do not have to be “highly visible or associated with power . . . but [their leadership] does have to affect more directly the fundamental ways in which our institutions respond and act” (p. 151). From my personal experience, I have engaged with several positions within the discipline. The work can be difficult and challenging, but it is fulfilling to know the impact on faculty and student success. As we look to the future of expanding and refining the field, there is opportunity to continue being valued contributors and transforming higher education.
Amundsen, C., & Wilson, M. (2012). Are we asking the right questions? Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 90–126. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654312438409
Beach, A. L., Sorcinelli, M. D., Austin, A. E., & Rivard, J. K. (2016). Faculty development in the age of evidence: Current practices, future imperatives. Stylus.
Chism, N. V. N. (1998). The role of educational developers in institutional change: From the basement office to the front office. In. M. Kaplan (Ed.), To Improve the Academy (vol. 17, pp. 141–154). New Forums Press and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/podimproveacad/401
Condon, W., Iverson, E. R., Manduca, C. A., Rutz, C., & Willett, G. (2016). Faculty development and student learning: Assessing the connections. Indiana University Press.
Elliott, R. W., & Oliver, D. E. (2016). Linking faculty development to community college student achievement: A mixed methods approach. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 40(2), 85–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668926.2014.961590
Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. https://new.utc.edu/sites/default/files/2020-10/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf
McDonald, J., Kenny, N., Kustra, E., Dawson, D., Iqbal, I., Borin, P., & Chan, J. (2016). Educational development guide series: No. 1. The educational developer’s portfolio. Educational Developers Caucus. https://www.stlhe.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ED-Guide-No1_The-Educational-Developers-Portfolio_Final.pdf
Schroeder, C. M. (2011). Coming in from the margins: Faculty development’s emerging organizational development role in institutional change. Stylus.
Shantell Strickland-Davis, PhD, is the executive director at the Parr Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Central Piedmont Community College. Her work focuses on program design, curriculum development, and integration of proven, student-centered strategies for teaching and learning excellence.