May/June 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 5

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From the Executive Officer

A Cutting-Edge Tool for Facilitating and Diffusing Innovative Teaching in Sociology

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

This issue of Footnotes features a page-one article detailing ASA’s release of the Association’s high-tech venture to spark innovation in the teaching of sociology. TRAILS (Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology) is an online, modular (by topic and type of teaching tool) and searchable database that reflects a major innovation in the creation and dissemination of peer-reviewed teaching resources in sociology.

Background

Since the mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has recognized the need to "catalyze and sustain educational reform" in undergraduate science teaching.¹ Recognizing the technical, legal, and economic significance of establishing a national digital library for undergraduate science teaching, NSF sought advice from the National Academy of Sciences.²

While NSF sponsored the development of an early "electronic library for validating and disseminating successful educational" approaches, neither NSF nor several science disciplines that have also made attempts have found these products to be fully successful, workable digital libraries that teachers regularly use or find useful.

The ASA’s development of TRAILS has been informed by these early efforts. Funded through ASA’s operating budget and reserves, our digital library development has also had the benefit of accelerated technological enhancements and the growth within our membership of increasingly internet/technology-literate professors guided by the scholarship of teaching and learning in sociology. TRAILS is designed for feedback from the professoriate who will continually provide us with the practical help to improve ASA’s management and enhancement of our digital teaching library.

Shifting a Paradigm

With TRAILS’ launch, ASA also hopes to contribute meaningfully to three important higher education conversations. First, what works for science disciplines (not just sociology) that want high-quality, up-to-date digital pedagogical/teaching materials widely available and routinely used as a means of improving teaching across a wide-range of institutions of higher education? ASA’s research on TRAILS, funded by NSF, will help address this question.

TRAILS is not a panacea for sociology
departments but it does offer the promise
of published, peer-reviewed teaching
content as a recognized part of
faculty vitae, analogous to published
peer-reviewed research scholarship.

Second, can such a resource be relevant to the need for systematic, transparent assessment of teaching? ASA has long provided useful tools (e.g., task forces, Annual Meeting sessions, Academic and Professional Affairs Program products) for serious discussions of how to assess teaching as the third side of the traditional triangle of criteria for hiring, tenure and promotion. The relative weight of research (and service) versus teaching in the recognition of faculty excellence and productivity is partially an issue of valid and transparent assessment criteria. This is a topic of timely importance. Many states are experiencing escalating demands for more accountability, transparency, and predictability in assessment systems, especially faced with growing pressures from the development of national assessment standards. Ever-tightening state budgets, demands from tuition-paying parents, students’ concerns about post-graduation employability, and increasingly anxious taxpayers add to the pressures. TRAILS is not a panacea for sociology departments but it does offer the promise of published, peer-reviewed teaching content as a recognized part of faculty vitae, analogous to published peer-reviewed research scholarship.

Finally, ASA hopes to contribute to the conversation about how to encourage pedagogical innovation in scientific disciplines while at the same time ensuring the scientific content presented in classrooms—at all types of higher education institutions—is at the "cutting edge" of scholarship. This active effort in the "diffusion of innovation" hopefully will be accomplished with TRAILS, which is designed to be at the center of a multi-directional cross-fertilization of sociologists in research universities, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and comprehensive masters schools. Well-resourced as well as under-resourced sociology departments and faculty will have incentives to participate in TRAILS and none will face barriers to participation.

Promoting Teaching, Assessing Objectively

Drawing on the tenets of Ernest Boyer’s 1990 Scholarship Reconsidered, ASA has been resolute in incorporating elements in TRAILS that contribute to: (1) improving faculty reward systems to promote the highest quality teaching; (2) facilitating faculty members’ ability to update teaching materials with new empirical and theoretical advances in the discipline; and (3) providing access to new, tested pedagogical techniques, and providing a platform to test innovations in teaching and learning.

Underlying TRAILS’ development is the assumption that being a content expert does not automatically convey pedagogical expertise in that topical domain. Similarly, good teachers are not born that way; people can learn to be good teachers if they have access to effective teaching techniques and materials. TRAILS provides the traditional mechanism of peer-review for judging effective pedagogy/quality content as reflected in the TRAILS submission acceptance criteria, and user feedback, via a rating system, for judging classroom impact and improving effectiveness.

At the heart of TRAILS is an extensive electronic database accompanied by a user-friendly search-engine interface to assist in submitting teaching materials (of all media types) and finding teaching materials for various venues, topics, and education levels. Sociologists wishing to submit materials for consideration for inclusion in TRAILS will provide information to guide the peer assessment by briefly and specifically answering: "What new knowledge, ability, or attitude will students gain as a result of this resource?" And, "How will students demonstrate this new knowledge, ability, or attitude?" By providing goals for the teaching materials, authors help other users understand the purpose of the teaching resource. By providing assessments related to those goals, authors help other users gather evidence about the effectiveness of that resource within the users’ institutional contexts.

"Online" Does Not Mean "For Free"

After the initial flush of excitement over the wonderful distributive capacity of the internet, more nuanced approaches are beginning to emerge that focus on how to provide new, important and useful content to the widest range of users and potential users, without undermining the capacity of providers to produce the information. Newspapers, for example, are facing the dilemma of laying off reporters—who provide the daily news and investigative content because online advertising does not pay the bills—or, the papers begin charging for access to some online content.

But the flexibility of electronic content and dissemination of knowledge online includes the capacity to tailor information in almost infinite ways. Providers of content can allow search engines to crawl through some or all their content on behalf of potential users. Potential users can access varying amounts of the content and capability of an information database to determine whether to pay to use it. Providers can charge amounts that cover costs or make a profit, that reward membership, or subsidize particular user categories. The experiments balancing all the relevant parameters are growing daily.

ASA charges modestly for using TRAILS and does so to cover the costs of keeping the peer-reviewed content growing and fresh, adding innovations as feedback from users suggest improvements, and keeping TRAILS technologically up-to-date. It is also an experiment in the growing movement to charge for some types of quality information obtained through the internet.

We hope that TRAILS will become a valuable resource for sociologists, as well as a model of a sustainable and up-to-date digital science teaching library for other disciplines.

References

1. National Science Foundation. 1996. Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

2. Steering Committee for Developing a Digital National Library for Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education. 1998. Developing a Digital National Library for Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education: Report of a Workshop. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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