“Colleges and universities are supposed to be learning organizations,” wrote Brandon Busteed for Gallup earlier this year. “But, apparently, they aren’t doing enough learning themselves – at least not among their staff and faculty.”

Busteed was reporting on Gallup research that found that college and university employees ranked in the bottom quartile among U.S. employees in learning and development measures. “If higher education’s mission focuses on providing learning and growth for students,” Busteed concluded, “then we ought to care deeply and reflect seriously on the fact that staff and faculty are suffering on these dimensions.” Here are some tips to help learning leaders in higher education do just that.

The Challenges of Training in a Higher Education Environment

In higher education, there’s a wide range of skills, from entry-level positions to people with multiple doctorate degrees, says Steve Couchman, CPTM, training and communication manager at Iowa State University. Ken Chapman, vice president of market research for D2L, echoes this challenge, saying, “There are some higher ed instructors and faculty members that are just lightyears ahead on teaching and learning and applications of technology, and there are others” who are still at a very basic level.

In addition, you might be training subject matter experts (SMEs) in the area of that training, so they might “be a little more critical of what you’re doing,” according to Couchman. Chapman agrees, saying that in that case, training managers should “tread lightly and work through influence rather than mandate.”

There are also more severe time and budget constraints in higher education. For faculty especially, there is not much time available for training. They are teaching, advising and doing research, and “something’s going to give,” says Couchman. Unfortunately, that “something” is often their own professional development.

Finally, because there is typically not a clear hierarchical structure in a higher education institute, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to mandate training. It also means “you don’t have employees as vested in the ultimate success of the business as you do in corporations,” Chapman points out. Colleges and universities are “just getting into their awkward teenage years of measuring themselves as a business and knowing how changing their behaviors improves or doesn’t improve” the organization as a whole.

Making an Impact

Marketing training effectively can increase engagement and completion rates. Couchman finds that word of mouth is the best marketing tool for professional development at Iowa State University, especially more than email, since university employees are so “bombarded” with emails. He also pays close attention to the language that he uses, pointing out the positive impact that training will have on a faculty member’s day-to-day work and demonstrating how little time a certain course will take. “It’s very much a sales job,” he says. Similarly, Chapman says, make “the benefits of the learning or development opportunity … really clear,” and ensure it’s available anytime, anywhere. And “if you can show them how to get more time back in their day … they may want to invest more time in the future.”

Because employees are in a learning environment already, Couchman recommends looking at training in the same way academic course developers and professors do: “We spend a lot of time evaluating what reading level they’re at, do our quiz questions line up with our course objectives, all those things that a faculty member would do.”

“Educators care deeply about their students, about making their students successful,” says Chapman. “That’s a gigantic motivator.” If you can show how participating in the training will benefit their students, “it’s sold.” Additionally, faculty members “want to have a voice in what type of professional learning they take on. They want it to be relevant to their students, and they want to be able to try it right away … They want to make sure it makes them a better teacher and not just a technologist or a theorist.”

Like in corporate training, technology can also support more engaging and effective programs. And universities may have an advantage here. Couchman says faculty members are increasingly engaged in online learning, since they are also teaching more courses in that format. Completion rates for e-learning at Iowa State University has increased by about five percent over the last three years, while classroom training has stayed consistent.

D2L recently expanded its Brightspace learning platform to professional development in the higher education industry because, Chapman says, its customers were already familiar with the platform from using it with students. Additionally, “the appetite from our customers in higher education is much higher now for professional learning and professional development, because they’re seeing huge demands on their teachers’ time, and they’re seeing, of course, greater and greater requests for accountability and metrics … They want to invest” in a platform that will help them manage that learning effectively.

Because that platform is the same one faculty members are using with their students, Chapman says, empathy is key. “They have a better, more authentic feel for what their students want of them when they’re teaching online and they’re using the same tools and communication methods.”

Chapman also says he’s seeing more and more of a team-based mindset, both with how students are expected to learn and how faculty and advisors are working together. That mindset is translating into more collaborative professional learning, as well, and that’s why it’s important that the platform you use offers the ability to communicate easily with peers and share examples of success.

“ROI is very important” in public education, Couchman points out, and one way his organization proves that ROI is in compliance training – for example, if a safety training course prevented a certain number of injuries, they can calculate that it saved the university a specific dollar amount. Connecting professional development to student outcomes will also demonstrate success to both faculty members and administrators, says Chapman. For administrators, that means showing data; that’s what really “tells a story for them.” For faculty, on the other hand, provide a story of how a similar educator in a similar situation succeeded.

Focus on extending the learning culture that already exists at the university in its work with students. “Training is incredibly important with what we do,” says Couchman, so “I have that seat at the table.” University employees, Chapman says, “love to see people learn.” Translate that passion into their professional development, and you’ll have a successful program.

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