New Credential Aims to Make Professors Into Better Teachers

February 16, 2016

Even though he has taught in college classrooms for years, Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes, an assistant teaching professor in biological sciences at Rutgers University at Newark, recently went back to the classroom himself to learn how to teach.

He participated in a pilot project of a new credentialing program for college teaching designed by the Association of College and University Educators, a for-profit company that argues that college teaching needs help.

Rutgers was one of 12 colleges in the pilot program, which took place in the fall of 2015. To earn the teaching credential, Mr. Cervantes-Cervantes said, he watched videos about effective teaching strategies, took quizzes, and participated in a message group with fellow classmates. The company, known as ACUE, hopes to roll out the program nationwide soon, on a model where the course is purchased at the institutional level and offered to the faculty. In the future, faculty members may be able to sign up for training individually.

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Jonathan S. Gyurko, chief executive and founder of the company, said he hoped to deepen relationships with the universities in the pilot so that in the future they would purchase the training courses and offer them to professors free as a teaching resource. When asked about the cost to colleges, Mr. Gyurko said pricing was still in development.

"We’ve seen over the past decade a robust discussion around the value of a college degree and the value of a college degree compared to cost and compared to student success rates," Mr. Gyurko said. "And as part of that robust discussion, I believe there has been much greater recognition in the importance of effective instruction."

He added that he does not intend for the credential, called a Certificate in Effective College Instruction, to replace centers for teaching and learning that are already in place at many institutions.

But Mr. Cervantes-Cervantes said that such centers, like those at Rutgers, are not enough, and that they could use the help. "We see the same old techniques repeated, so that’s where ACUE comes in handy — sure, it’s external, but it’s something contemporary," he said.

The online modules for the course were filmed on campuses, including Butler University, where Jay R. Howard, dean of liberal arts and sciences, and six other Butler faculty members simulated classrooms and taught in front of the camera.

'Too often, teaching is done behind closed doors.'
"Too often, teaching is done behind closed doors," said Mr. Howard, who added that all faculty members, not just new educators, could benefit from professional development. Butler has formed a partnership with the company to produce the modules, but administrators at the university have not yet approved the program for its faculty to use, he said.

The company has gathered 10 advisers to make up a board that will guide the structure of the courses and the future of ACUE. Those on the board are well-known names in higher education, including Matthew Goldstein, chancellor emeritus of the City University of New York, and Andy Stern, president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union.

A Skeptical Eye

Skeptics of the credential are quick to point out that master’s or Ph.D. degrees already stand as indicators that someone is qualified to teach at the college level.

Maria C. Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for contingent academic workers, said the new credential poses a bigger question regarding the quality of a professional degree.

"Why are we not putting more energy and resources into improving graduate education rather than creating this whole new credential?" she asked. Ms. Maisto added that she worried that the company was dealing with the symptoms of the degradation of teaching quality and not the root causes, which she sees as the prevalence of the contingent teaching model and poor working conditions.

She suspects that many professors would feel insulted if such a "top-down" credential were to be required by colleges and universities, or to become the new norm. "It’s a basic disrespect for the experience the faculty brings," she said.

However, Mr. Goldstein, chairman of the ACUE Board of Advisers, argued that the assumption that professional degrees signify high teaching ability has only encouraged inefficient teaching methods.

'It's very important for a university to have the confidence that their adjuncts and their new faculty really have spent time and have taken seriously the issue of teaching.'
"It’s very important for a university to have the confidence that their adjuncts and their new faculty really have spent time and have taken seriously the issue of teaching," he said, adding that his own experience with being thrown into teaching as a Ph.D. candidate pushed him to study how to better prepare new educators.

"That experience led me to research dropout rates, noncompletion rates, the strenuous research that says teaching really matters," he said.

In meetings with ACUE representatives, Kevin Barry, president-elect of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, voiced initial concern that adjunct faculty members would be the target audience for the credential program.

"One concern is if it ends up the program gains a level of desirability, people now feel like they have to have a certification," he said, "and this becomes yet another burden to a group of people in a not-ideal work situation."

Mr. Barry said that despite his concerns, he hoped the company would be an additional resource for teaching centers, not a replacement. He added that the professional-development network is even considering a future partnership with ACUE.

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