Posted on Monday, May 15, 2017

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT SPOTLIGHT: Peer Conferences: VCCS Nucleus for Faculty Engagement

Submitted by the Office of Professional Development

For more than 15 years, VCCS peer groups have served as a systemwide nexus for disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge sharing, providing an arena for faculty to remain current in their respective fields, as well as connected and informed about systemwide initiatives, program changes, and emerging technological and curricular resources. Three years ago, peer group conferences became a key professional development resource for VCCS staff members, as well as a national dialogue on blended faculty-staff teams driven by student access, retention, and success took precedence over faculty/staff silos.

“The new ecology for student success requires a holistic and multifaceted approach,” said Dr. Abigail Stonerock, director of faculty development. “All hands on deck. We are all immersed in student recruitment, retention, and success, whether grading papers or analyzing financial aid forms. It takes the whole team to shape place-based solutions that will propel our students to completion,” for the VCCS.

Now more than ever, VCCS’s peer group program is providing the organizational scaffolding needed to effectively discuss, share, disseminate, and acculturate proposed solutions to the systemwide changes and challenges that decreasing enrollment, decreasing state-assisted funding, and increasing student needs present.

“Peer group conferences are central to the ongoing engagement and collective currency of faculty and staff members on the front lines of student success. It is a program for, by, and of those at the forefront of effective engagement, both inside and outside the classroom” said Isi Kessel, Thomas Nelson assistant professor of Spanish and World Languages Peer Conference Chair.

The World Languages Peer Conference is one of many peer conferences held in AY17. With more than 800 attendees and 200+ sessions, the conference, co-hosted with the Foreign Language Association of Virginia, is one of the largest of the year.

According to Stonerock, peer conferences serve a vital systemwide need when it comes to intellectually and practically addressing academic and wrap-around services that close the gap between the ideals we envision and the realities we face. Every other year, faculty and staff members from across the system have the opportunity to come together to share best practices and seek new and better methods to meet the ever-evolving challenges of our community colleges.

“Peer group conferences provide a way to address one of our greatest systemwide challenges: clear communication,” according to Kessel. “This is the one place where, as a group of professionals united by our intense passion for both our profession and our students, we can come together for problem-solving, planning, forecasting, learning, and networking in the VCCS.”

In AY15-16, the Office of Professional Development began aligning the more than 30 existing Peer Groups to reflect the ongoing strategic development of meta-majors throughout the VCCS. That translated into seven peer group conferences serving 14 peer groups and 16 disciplines. More than 900 faculty, staff, and administrators attended or presented at these system-wide, multidisciplinary events. This alignment has led to notable increases in attendance, increased cross-disciplinary and intercollegiate collaboration on key academic programs and initiatives, and ease of integration of both national speakers and knowledge sharing on VCCS system initiatives. Six of seven conferences were hosted on college campuses to offset recent budget cuts.

In AY16-17, the Office of Professional Development has hosted four peer conferences serving more than 12 disciplines. This included the Science Peer Group Conference held at Lord Fairfax Community College. This 200-person event included more than 56 concurrent sessions; a highly inspirational keynote by Dr. Carol Hurney of Colby College in Maine on Enhancing Deep Learning Through Course Design; dinner with Dr. Kelly Hogan, director, office of instructional innovation in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, on Inclusive Teaching that Increases Achievement for All Science Students; a geology field trip; tours of the labs, and much more.

More than 200 attended the joint Nursing, Allied Health & Physical Education Peer Group Conference, which included 33+ sessions, a thought-provoking opening keynote, Exercise is Medicine, by Dr. Allison Bowersock of the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, and a closing keynote by Abigail James on Stress and Academic Anxiety: Coping Skills for Students in Nursing, Allied Health and Physical Education.

Most recently, approximately 250 faculty, staff, and administrators converged on Richmond for the Joint Peer Conference for Accounting, Business, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering and Applied Technologies, and Information Systems Technology. Highlights included the Virginia Space Grant Consortium’s keynote address on NASA opportunities for VCCS faculty and staff, more than 52 concurrent and cross-disciplinary sessions on topics such as intentional engagement and student retention; an inclusive access model; instant access to course materials on the first day of class; soft skills; certification and credentialing; and enhancing traditional active learning through contemplative-based teaching practices, in addition to the discipline-specific tracks.

As these peer group conferences prove, there is outstanding work being done throughout the VCCS. Faculty and staff engagement is the cornerstone of Complete 2021, and one way we will accomplish our bold strategic goal of tripling the number of credentials earned. Peer groups remain the primary catalyst for substantive discussions with administrative and faculty leadership on instructional innovation and technological integration.

If you are not currently involved in a peer group, visit today to learn more. Enrollment in your peer group Blackboard site keeps you linked in to announcements and disciplinary dialogue. Held in alternating years, conferences are free and open to all, full- and part-time alike. Conference chairs are selected from within the discipline and work closely with OPD to develop program agendas that include pedagogy, research and current issues in the field, VCCS initiatives, master course file updates, technology use, career advancement, leadership, and more.'

Laura Osberger

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