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Forget faculty buy-in. Here's what you really need to scale digital innovation in 2020.

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Forget faculty buy-in. Here's what you really need to scale digital innovation in 2020.

It’s a common lament across higher education institutions: “We know expanding our digital learning initiatives could help more students succeed, but getting faculty on board with new approaches is a real challenge.”

Undoubtedly, faculty are essential to grow and scale digital learning innovation on campus. Yet when we sat down for a conversation with two leading academic innovators to learn the best ways to get faculty to buy into digital initiatives, we discovered something unexpected: buy-in is not the hurdle. In fact, focusing on faculty acceptance and approval oversimplifies what actually needs to happen – and places the onus for change disproportionately on faculty alone.

So what does it really take to expand digital learning initiatives that support student and faculty success?

In their recent discussion with Realizeit CEO Manoj Kulkarni, Dr. Tom Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF), and Dr. J. Garvey Pyke, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, shared the top lessons they’ve learned that are having the most impact on growing and scaling digital learning at their institutions. Below, they break down the specific ways their teams are successfully bringing these strategies to life.

  1. Don’t sell an idea – first understand the problem, then offer a solution.

There’s no better incentive for digital innovation than demonstrating how a digital tool or system can make faculty’s lives easier. “You don't get buy-in by just bringing in a tool and saying, ‘Here you go, faculty.’ It has to actually solve a problem or accomplish some goal for them,” Cavanagh said.

The role the institution can play, Pyke said, is finding out what those challenges or opportunities are and being ready with relevant options. “Buy-in is almost a misnomer,” he said. “We're really not talking anyone into anything – we’re matching needs or desires with solutions. So if there's a faculty need to do something, then we're helping them solve that problem. And that's really where [innovation] has to stem from.”

Both agreed that viewing faculty as a customer to be served – rather than sold to – helps create the right mindset. “Within my department, we view the faculty as our primary customer,” said Cavanagh, whose team is focused on using digital learning to impact student success, engagement and time to graduation. “All the services we provide are centered around the faculty. At the center of the bullseye would be our instructional design team, who are assigned on a one-to-one basis with faculty to work side-by-side as a consultant to help them construct their course and mediate all the other services that are available.”

  1. Give faculty the time and space they need to innovate.

“[Faculty] all want to see better student success. … But if I came to faculty with a solution that helped students succeed yet made their lives twice as hard, it's probably not going to get adopted because you need to satisfy both dimensions,” Cavanagh said.

What does this idea of “satisfying both dimensions” look like in practice? Start by giving faculty the time and space to innovate. “When you talk about barriers to innovation and getting faculty to come on board, time is the biggest one,” Cavanagh continued. “So, even more than just giving faculty a stipend, it’s giving them the time – the course release to do the redesign, the innovation, and then giving them the wrap-around support: instructional design, media production, and assessment writing.”

Pyke agreed, noting that institutions can further save faculty time by managing related operational tasks, such as working with the student advising team to make sure the right students know about the course or coordinating with the registrar. “We want to use [faculty’s] expertise and their time for the things that only they could do, which is about their course and learning outcomes,” he said. “We have to take [the rest] off the faculty’s plates.” 

To accomplish all of this, there is one area where buy-in is required, Cavanagh noted: “Part of the buy-in process is getting senior administration to recognize that you have to invest in this. If you want to have the return, there has to be an investment.” At UCF, for example, the support Cavanagh’s team provides faculty through the Center for Distributed Learning bears no cost to their departments. All work is funded through students’ distance learning fee, an approach that is sanctioned by the university.

  1. Saying you value innovation isn’t enough – make it official.

“We also have to think long term: what are the structural barriers keeping this from happening?” Pyke asked. “Because teaching and teaching innovation aren't always formally valued consistently across the university.”

Recent data underscores the perceived lack of institutional support for this kind of work among faculty. Only 2 in 10 faculty say their institution appropriately rewards contributions made to digital pedagogy and rewards teaching with technology in tenure and promotion decisions, according to Inside Higher Ed’s 2019 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology.  

These insights bear out Pyke’s perspective: institutions may list educational innovation as a goal, he noted, but “are they really promoting that, and reappointing faculty and giving tenure based on these things? … We have to find ways to elevate this work to campus leadership, whether it's submitting projects for awards for external validation for faculty, getting provost recognition, presenting together at conferences – all those things are hugely important.”

For Cavanagh’s team, another way to provide this type of tangible value for faculty involved in digital learning initiatives is to offer related training and development. They also partner with faculty to publish research related to their initiatives.

  1. Be a tireless promoter of digital teaching and learning.

If matching faculty problems with digital solutions is a key driver of digital innovation, then making sure faculty know their options is a core component as well. “There are people out there that want to do things, and sometimes they didn't realize there was a solution or a way that they could do something differently,” Pyke said.

UNC-Charlotte takes proactive steps to get the word out. “There's internal marketing we do to show off all the great things faculty are doing. And that's the key. It's not just, ‘here's what we're doing,’ but ‘here's what your colleagues are doing,’” Pyke said.

Instructional designers play an important role as well, helping not only with course design but guiding faculty to other resources. “We've had cases where a faculty member comes and says, ‘I want a video for my course,’” Cavanagh said. “And when they talk to the instructional designer, they realize, well, maybe that interactive crossword puzzle is a better solution. They didn't even know that was an option. So our role is to add value to the process and help faculty exceed their own vision for their course.”

Instructional designers also can promote digital learning opportunities through one-to-one outreach. “Personal messaging from the faculty member’s assigned instructional designer – like, ‘I think you would be a great fit for this tool that we want to pilot, for these reasons’ … That sort of personal connection, which can be a little bit more time consuming to do, is the most effective,” Cavanagh said.


At the end of the day, even with all of the above in place, there’s one more critical ingredient to grow and scale digital learning innovation, Pyke said: “As long as everyone on the team has that student-first mindset, that’s the biggest driver for this. … We used to talk a lot about student-centered learning, but it's really more than that. I mean, it's a whole mindset around this. And if you have the wrong mindset, it's really going to be difficult to make a project like this work.”

Of course, different institutions have varying resources to bring to bear. Putting these strategies in place doesn’t have to happen overnight, but for those committed to growing and scaling digital learning, the process starts with building these foundational elements. To make this happen, as Cavanagh noted, investing sufficient resources where and when they’re needed is a requirement. “If you don't give faculty the time and space to do the kind of innovation that you want that will have an impact, then in many cases it probably just won't happen,” he said.

Beyond that, Pyke said, academic departments need to actively demonstrate their commitment to digital innovation in teaching and learning. “There has to be a leadership commitment that's vocal, participatory and actively leading faculty to these [opportunities],” he said.

Get more great insights on digital learning innovation from Dr. Cavanagh and Dr. Pyke – watch their full conversation with Manoj here.

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