May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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ASA Set to Launch
First-of-Its-Kind Teaching Tool

Innovative new technology-based system could spark paradigm-shifting teaching changes across science disciplines

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It is no secret that for college and university professors, often the greatest pressures come from outside the classroom—thanks to the paradoxical nature of academia.

While students pay top dollar for what they hope will be an opportunity to learn from great teachers, frequently what makes or breaks professors is not whether they develop powerful lectures or syllabi that lead students to significant intellectual growth. Instead, success in the academic world is commonly predicated on receipt of research grants and the publication of research articles.

"Unfortunately, many colleges and universities don’t put enough emphasis on teaching and, consequently, learning," said Sally Hillsman, American Sociological Association Executive Officer. "It’s difficult to quantify something like a great lesson plan or an incredible lecture when determining whether to give a professor tenure or a raise."

But, ASA is trying to change that. This month, ASA launches the Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology (TRAILS), a first-of-its-kind interactive website that combines qualities of a digital library and an online journal (see the March 2010 and December 2008 Footnotes).

Aimed at promoting scholarly teaching and learning, TRAILS offers a wide range of sociologist-submitted teaching resources including syllabi, class activities, assignments, tests, essays, lectures, PowerPoint presentations, film lists, video clips, bibliographies, and website lists—all of which can be downloaded in an easy-to-edit format, making it simple for users to adapt materials for their own needs.

Peer Review

All of the teaching materials included on TRAILS goes through an editorial review process, similar to the procedure scholarly journals use for research articles. Thirty-three ASA members have been recruited to serve as editors for subject areas ranging from public policy and social change to racial and ethnic relations and family.

"Our hope is that TRAILS will enable college and university professors to start receiving a greater degree of respect and legitimacy for their teaching," said Margaret Weigers Vitullo, Director of ASA’s Academic and Professional Affairs Program and the creator of TRAILS. "Having materials included on TRAILS will become a new way for professors to bolster their promotion and tenure files, and we believe that TRAILS could serve as a model for academic disciplines across the board."

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The expectation is that TRAILS will provide a new form of evidence, which can be coupled with systematic peer review of teaching in the classroom, to help schools more objectively measure excellence in teaching when considering professors for promotion and tenure.

Once the TRAILS editorial board approves a submission, TRAILS will automatically generate a cover page with a citation for subscribers who use the material. Subscribers to TRAILS will electronically sign an agreement stating that any resource they use, either in its original or modified form, will contain a clear citation detailing from whom the material came. Professors who modify materials have the option of submitting their adaptations to the TRAILS editorial board for approval and inclusion in the digital library alongside the original resources.

Upon its launch, TRAILS already has more than 2,700 teaching resources, including much of the ASA Teaching Resources Center’s (TRC) collection, which ASA scanned and "modulized" so that each resource is individually indexed and searchable. Established more than 30 years ago, TRC was a clearinghouse for sociology syllabi and other teaching materials that ASA originally sorted by subject, bound, and printed in paper volumes.

"With TRC, professors had to purchase a whole volume to get a single teaching resource and even then they might not find what they were looking for," Vitullo said. "But, TRAILS enables professors to do a targeted search for whatever they need. Once they find what they want, professors can then download and print the material for no cost beyond the original TRAILS subscription fee."

The ASA member price for a year’s subscription to TRAILS is $25, making it affordable while also supporting ongoing site maintenance and eventually off-setting some of the development costs. The fee for non-members is $100.

Innovation Evaluation

In an effort to gauge the effectiveness of TRAILS, ASA will conduct a multi-year National Science Foundation-funded study. Among other things, the study will compare past usage of TRC’s print collection with utilization of TRAILS.

More specifically, it will consider issues such as: What are the institutional and demographic characteristics of TRAILS subscribers? Does the interactive nature of TRAILS increase the size and scope of teaching and learning networks compared to the paper volumes that ASA sold in the past? And, are there interventions that will increase the usage of TRAILS materials by schools that emphasize research rather than teaching?

NSF awarded ASA nearly $265,000 for the study, which Roberta Spalter-Roth, ASA’s Research and Development Director, is leading. Baseline data from the purchase of the paper volumes will be available shortly.

"It’s not enough to simply develop a new teaching tool," Spalter-Roth said. "We need to know whether usage increases among a wider cross-section of sociologists compared to the paper volumes. Our study will examine the effects of TRAILS to determine what, if anything, it achieves. But, we are hopeful that TRAILS will prove beneficial to the sociological community and beyond."

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