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Conquering the Support Service Crisis

Even though the recession has put many technically skilled and knowledgeable professionals back into the job market, most colleges and universities still have trouble finding, hiring, paying, and keeping tech support staff. Now, many colleges and universities are experiencing severe financial pressures—most notably at some state college and university systems, some community colleges, and some smaller liberal arts colleges. We are already seeing staff cuts in professional development and some unprecedented budget cuts for technology support.

Just as more faculty are asked to learn new ways of teaching and supporting their students' learning, their willingness and ability to participate in conventional professional development activities is reduced. Recent additions to faculty responsibilities, budget "adjustments," and staffing reassignments have already increased the typical faculty workload.

Travel and other professional development budgets are often cut or held steady—resulting in declining attendance at non-local workshops and conferences where faculty might learn new teaching approaches. Many faculty development professionals also report declining participation rates for conventional on-campus faculty workshops.

In recent columns I've talked about some different approaches for helping faculty improve teaching and learning under new conditions. I'm urging that in these difficult times, academic administrators in higher education institutions identify and support the best use of their own unique resources—professional staff, faculty, and students. I urge that these institutions develop or continue to support Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) Centers, or Virtual TLT Centers. If that isn't feasible, at least coordinate the work of academic support professionals (librarians, faculty development, technology support, instructional design).

These Centers or teams should:

  • Find and use "low-hanging fruit" or Low-Threshold Applications (LTAs).
  • Develop small "clusters" or highly organized, highly-focused sets of Web links to a modest number of highly selected instructional resources—especially LTAs.
  • Identify and support collections, repositories, and "referatories"—good mechanisms for those who build selective clusters to tell others about them and make them accessible.
  • Use tools and principles of the Open Source software development community to whatever extent appropriate and feasible.
  • Develop Student Technology Assistant programs in which students learn to train and supervise other students who provide technical support and help faculty with instructional uses of technology.

In response to these new conditions and as a means of helping with these solutions, most campuses will benefit from reducing the duration and increasing the frequency and variety of professional development activities available to faculty and other academic professionals. We continue to hear about the increasing success of offering very focused, very short sessions (thirty minutes to one hour). The TLT Group has begun pilot-testing "Online Brown Bag Lunches" in which a Web cast is offered at lunchtime and a Web site is made available in advance. Leaders of the local sessions can download and adapt discussion or activity guides for their own use.

We welcome your help in shaping this new approach or participation in these events.

About the Author

Steven Gilbert is President of the TLT Group and moderates the Internet listserv TLT-SWG.

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