Building Better Teachers

Add the Association of College and University Educators to the list of for-profit consulting firms that have arrived on the scene to save the day and help those of us in higher ed get it—in this case teaching—right.  Their consultants offer hour-long modules on a particular topic—increasing class participation in discussion, for example.  The website is slick and professional.  The modules seem (you can only access samples of their content without paying) to have a well-conceived structure that provides feedback, includes videotaped classroom presentations, and well-defined objectives.  The faculty that are listed on the site as experts represent a range of disciplines and come from all different kinds of institutions (public and private, community colleges and 4-year institutions, etc).  The materials on the website rightly incorporate some of the latest research and evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  But despite what seems to be a well-executed product, the model proposed by ACUE and its clients is deeply troubling for several reasons.


The first reason is a fundamental question about the structure and process of teacher training.  ACUE is seeking to remedy ineffective teaching, which, it rightly notes “costs” institutions in terms of poor retention and graduation rates.  In its comments on its mission, ACUE has specifically stated that a PhD in a particular field is not necessarily evidence that the candidate is an effective teacher and that many graduate programs do not provide adequate training in teaching and pedagogy.  There is evidence, albeit not universal, for both of these assertions.  However, addressing this after faculty have already been hired and arrived on campus is wrongheaded.  Our efforts to create effective teachers should begin in graduate school.  And several disciplinary associations are working on exactly this.  The Executive Director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, has issued apersuasive call for PhD programs in History to address this issue: “Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.”   The American Society for Microbiology has a Teaching Fellows Program.  And I’m certain there are other examples.  Who better than the disciplines to tackle this gap in preparation?

As a corollary to this, teacher training of this sort—a certification offered by a non-discipline-specific-for-profit company—risks divorcing research and scholarship from the practice of teaching.  While many graduate programs probably still need to work on strengthening the connection between the two as they train future faculty, this alternative model of credentialing could potentially devalue the PhD.

The second reason that this model is objectionable is because it ignores the resident knowledge and wisdom present on all campuses.  Most campuses have a teaching center.  These centers provide workshops, resources, and are run by individuals who are experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  All campuses have great teachers.  Further, a group like ACUE assumes a smoothing out of institutional differences and risks proposing a one size fits all approach.  I can already here the pushback from faculty who have to participate in these modules: “what you’re proposing won’t work with my students because they work long hours/they don’t have ready access to technology/our classrooms aren’t set up for what you’re proposing, etc”  And these centers and these faculty are already familiar with the institution and its students.  They know the local culture and are ready to jump in with ideas and solutions that will immediately suit the situation.  The ACUE model devalues existing faculty expertise and experience on every college and university campus.  Why would a college or university spend precious funds to hire an outside firm to provide something they already have at their fingertips?

The third reason to be troubled is the burden that this model puts on faculty.  ACUE places most of the onus for weak retention and graduation rates (and their website makes painfully clear to administrators what the financial cost of low rates is) on faculty teaching.  Adopting the remedy of improved teaching as the solution to low retention and graduation rates implicitly suggests that other factors—high school preparation, income disparities, other campus support systems, etc—are less important or relevant.  Effective teaching is absolutely essential to student success, but if faculty can be blamed for poor retention and graduation rates because bodies like ACUE have not credentialed their teaching, we are definitely in trouble.  Could retention and graduation rates become a metric for faculty performance?  And what is the impact of this on contingent faculty?  Will the absence of such credentials (presumably harder to attain if they do not have stable, long-term relationships with the institutions where they teach) risk further compromising their status within the profession?

The ACUE rightly identifies the importance of effective teaching.  The model it proposes, however, is one that faculty should push back against since it devalues their knowledge and experience and threatens to place undue burdens on them.  Administrators should also avoid this model because it is a bad investment.  They should invest instead in building up teaching and learning centers and leveraging the existing expertise of the successful teachers already on their campuses.



12 thoughts on “Building Better Teachers

  1. First, hi there. Central Presbyterian representing in academics.

    Second, we did a “pilot” with these people last fall. The videos aren’t bad, but everything you say about them is true. The disconnect between the passive online watching of how to do active teaching makes my head hurt. Their sales pitch on DFW classes is deeply flawed but convincing on first blush.

    Most disturbingly, their sales team is unbelievably aggressive. They keep trying to make us their poster-campus when we’re trying to distance ourselves. For anyone reading, my rec is to stay far away.


  2. Full disclosure: I’ve recently agreed to serve as a content expert for one of ACUE’s modules, one focusing on concept maps and visual thinking. Also, I’m co-teaching two online courses on undergraduate STEM teaching that are offered through Coursera and as open educational resources. Also, I’m a teaching center director at a research university. All of that seems relevant to my remarks. Here’s my thesis:

    I don’t find ACUE’s efforts to be problematic. Instead, I see them as filling one particular niche in an ecosystem of professional development efforts aimed at current and future faculty.

    I agree with you that PhD programs should incorporate preparation for teaching, particularly in fields where the majority of PhDs go on to academic positions (faculty or otherwise). That’s why we’re targeting our STEM teaching courses at grad students and postdocs, and doing so in ways that support local future faculty preparation programs. I don’t see how ACUE’s efforts prevent grad programs from engaging in this work. Are universities going to look at ACUE’s offerings and say, “Well, we don’t need to prepare our grad students to teach; they’ll get that training on the job after they graduate”? Perhaps, but given the academic job market, it’s in grad programs’ best interests to prepare their students well for future teaching roles.

    I also agree with you that institutional and disciplinary contexts matter when it comes to teaching effectively. A general “teaching foundations” course like ACUE’s can gesture at that, but applying what we know about teaching and learning to particular contexts will still benefit from local and sometimes discipline-specific efforts. A “foundations” course doesn’t say that these contexts don’t matter, any more than a book like What the Best College Teachers Do or How Learning Works says those contexts don’t matter. Just as teaching centers organize book clubs and reading circles around books like those, they can supplement ACUE’s modules with local learning communities to help faculty apply teaching principles and practices in their own classrooms.

    That’s one of the ways we’re using our STEM teaching courses. When we ran the intro course last fall, there were almost 70 colleges and universities that hosted local learning communities. Each community consisted of a dozen or so participants (grad students, postdocs, and/or faculty) who met weekly to discuss what they were learning in the course and explore applications to their own teaching. For some of those institutions, our course combined with the local learning community allowed them to expand the scope of their professional development activities. My university was one of them! We have more demand for our teaching certificate program (for grad students and post-docs) than capacity. By running a local learning community of this sort, we were able to move another ten people through our certificate program this year.

    The ACUE modules are well designed, but, like the modules in our STEM teaching course, they only go so far in preparing faculty to teach effectively. Faculty will need to discuss module content with peers, try out new teaching practices in their classrooms, and reflect critically on their teaching practice with others. Teaching centers can and should help with all of these activities. The ACUE modules (and our STEM teaching course) should serve as foundations for more meaningful professional development around teaching, not replacements for such professional development. Indeed, I know of one new teaching center that is considering ways to jump start its campus programming through the use of the ACUE modules.

    I can’t really speak to your third concern. I agree that the factors contributing to poor retention and graduation rates are many. If the availability of some form of credentialing like ACUE’s leads an institution to ignore most of those factors and blame faculty for poor retention and graduation rates, well, shame on that institution.

    That points to the real problem, I think, and that’s the potential for colleges and universities to enact bad policy because they’ve signed up with ACUE. I’m skeptical that terrible policies will ensure, and I’m hesitant to blame ACUE if they do. Back in 2012, there was much worry about Coursera and edX and their brand of MOOCs — worry that those MOOCs would replace traditional credit-bearing courses and thus replace faculty. That didn’t happen, in part because institutions eventually realized that you can’t replace an instructor with a series of videos and quizzes and expect good results.

    I would hope that institutions wouldn’t look at ACUE’s offerings and decide they could replace local efforts to promote effective teaching. Such a decision would represent a rather naive understanding of teaching and how teaching is developed over time and in community with others. But I can certainly see institutions deciding to adopt ACUE’s course as part of an array of local professional development activities.

    I teach my writing seminar students to consider potential objections to their arguments, so I’ll do the same. I can foresee some institutions making bad decisions when it comes to resource allocation. If a university had to choose between hiring another assistant director for their teaching center and signing up with ACUE, I would want the university to carefully consider what’s best for their faculty and students.

    Institutions spend their limited resources in different ways. Some teaching centers, like mine, invest in personnel. Others spend money on outside speakers or offer robust teaching grant programs for faculty. Others use course releases to facilitate peer-to-peer faculty development. All of those can be good options, depending on the institutional context. ACUE adds another option. Institutions that taking teaching seriously will weigh their options and find the right approach (or mix of approaches) for their campuses. But not all institutions weigh their options very carefully.


    1. I respectfully disagree with the argument that these ACUE offerings are somehow parallel to your STEM Undergrad Ed MOOC (for which I was a learning community facilitator in 2014), primarily because they are interested in profits and you are not charging a dime. As the comment above yours indicates, and I’m not really surprised by this, the company seems much more concerned about profit margins than about really making an impact on faculty professional development and teaching in higher education writ large.

      Also, I tend to be of the opinion that if a university has a strong center, then center staff should be designing and conducting the programming themselves (in collaboration with faculty when faculty time allows) rather than relying on these outside resources. We know our campuses well, and we have the training to develop meaningful programming.

      Although I can see instances where it might be relevant, I think it might be a bit of a red herring to suggest that this is an issue of resources. I think it’s more a question of value. If faculty and CTLs are valued by the institutions of which they are a part, then there is not really a need to turn to for-profit options.

      I’m eager to hear your thoughts, though.


      1. Thanks for joining the conversation here, Josh. I’m still working through what I think about ACUE and its efforts, and I really value your perspective.

        I haven’t experienced the hard sell from ACUE, so it’s hard for me to judge just how profit-motivated they are. My interactions with them (one member of their leadership team and a few members of their content team) have been largely positive, in the sense that they seem genuinely interested in developing learning materials that will improve teaching.

        What if ACUE was a non-profit? Would that change things, Josh? My argument, and Elizabeth’s argument in the original post, don’t seem to be predicated on ACUE’s status as for-profit. Our arguments would apply to any discipline-independent, third-party, online faculty development course, as far as I can tell. The *cost* of such a course seems relevant, as I noted in my comments about resources devoted to teaching effectiveness.

        I’m having trouble seeing how ACUE’s for-profit status changes things. Perhaps that’s because I’m involved in two RFPs that are about to launch at my institution, each involving third-party, for-profit technology vendors. If we can contract with an Instructure or Turning Technologies, why not contract with a vendor like ACUE? We need to be savvy about such contracts (see Michael Feldstein’s Chronicle post from today for some reasons why), but we don’t avoid them simply because the vendor is a for-profit.

        Again, thanks for the conversation. I’m still trying to figure out this landscape.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Derek,

      For some reason I’m having trouble responding to your most recent comment directly underneath of it, so I’ll post my comment up here. If ACUE were non-profit, it might change things for me just a bit. I’m willing to admit that this might be my own hobby horse, but my perception of for-profit companies is that they often have more loyalty to their bottom line than to ensuring that they are putting out content that might sometimes be difficult to hear but is grounded in the latest research on teaching. I see this as being somewhat different from contracting with an LMS company, for instance, because an LMS is a platform not modular content intended for development purposes.

      Ultimately, though, the central part of my argument (and where I align completely with Liz’s views) is on the question of value. Regardless of whether the company is for-profit or nonprofit, if our universities elect to purchase their wares as opposed to turning to our centers for this programming, then that is a problem in my mind. It communicates a devaluing of the work that we do. Even if we see it as a supplement, I still think centers and faculty should be working together to create analogous programming designed for their home institution. If, as Doug explains below, a campus does not have a center and faculty are already maxed out, then (and, really, only then) I could potentially see a move toward external resources, but I would advocate for open source or nonprofit ventures at that stage.

      I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and maybe I’m being too persnickety. I’m glad we’re all having this conversation, though, because I think it’s an important one.



      1. To your point about value, Josh, just today my institution announced it has joined the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, “an independent organization dedicated to professional development, training and mentoring, helping faculty make successful transitions throughout their careers.”

        Poking around the NCFDD’s website, it doesn’t appear that they provide any form of faculty development around teaching, so the fact that my university is looking to this particular external organization doesn’t make me question my center’s perceived value to my university. But if the NCFDD provided courses on teaching (like ACUE does) and I found out that my institution had contracted with them without consulting me, yeah, that would have been a problem for me.

        To my point, I can’t figure out if the NCFDD is a for-profit or non-profit, but that doesn’t affect how I view your value question, at least in this case.


      2. You’re right, Derek. They are two separate issues for me, with value being the biggest. I hadn’t head for the NCFDD. Let me know if you see benefits for Vanderbilt or the CFT from membership. I’m intrigued.


  3. By chance would you and others be interested in perhaps doing a panel discussion or roundtable about this issue at POD?
    I don’t know if by chance you’d want someone from ACUE, too,
    but I’m interested in offering faculty development and other related academic resources online that are openly licensed – particularly for colleges that have no center or that have an understaffed or untrained staff.
    So I buy into some of the argument and premised I hear you saying about ACUE, but like Josh mentioned, not so much the for profit aspect, and as you mentioned, not so much the aspect that takes away control from colleges.
    My email is or I’m on twitter at @edtechdev if you’re interested (deadline is Friday though).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. POD is the national organization for CTLs and faculty development. It stands for the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education.


  4. I think my first reaction (I wonder whether they’re hiring, and, if so, what they pay?) only supports the point of the post: as a longtime full-time but non-tenure-track faculty member (one of the army of instructors who have replaced the traditional model of primarily tenure-track faculty who do professional development/teacher training in part by talking to each other during committee meetings, other service associated with their jobs, informal meetings in the halls, etc.), I’m looking not only for additional sources of income, but also for a chance to share the expertise (including some very local expertise) developed over 20+ years in the classroom. Unfortunately, my university (which does have a teaching and learning center) and my position (4/4 writing-intensive load, 2 more sections in the summer to make ends meet, no required service or research) don’t offer many obvious avenues for doing that. There are informal opportunities, and I and my colleagues are trying to make some more (though the sort of open-access sharing of resources Doug mentions), but I still find myself feeling pretty frustrated at this point in my not-quite-a-career precisely because I’m at the point where I have expertise to share, but few obvious, built-in avenues for doing so.

    My second reaction is that, at least in the humanities, it’s tricky to call for more teacher training during graduate school at a point when we’re also looking at options for shortening (or at least not lengthening) the path to the Ph.D., and incorporating some alt-ac apprenticeship opportunities, because we realize that many (most?) humanities Ph.D.s won’t be able to get full-time academic jobs on the tenure (or really any career — see above) track. One solution, of course, is to cut back drastically on the size and/or number of Ph.D. programs, and re-focus those programs on producing future professors, but that would be a difficult option to choose, and to implement, for a number of reasons. The other possible option, I suppose, would be to re-focus Ph.D. programs almost exclusively on research (with perhaps some very minor internship opportunities in alt-ac, teaching, or both), make them much shorter, and then offer post-docs in both alt-ac and teaching “flavors.” That would be complicated, too (research and writing take time; you’d be talking about getting rid of graduate TAs and the whole funding system that goes with them in favor of a new structure postdoc teaching-apprenticeship system, etc.), but it might be a better way to structure teacher training given present realities. (It might, of course, also begin to dry up the adjunct pool, which would represent a short-term crisis but probably a long-term benefit for the humanities).


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