Journal of Nursing Education

Major Article 

Learning the Faculty Role: Using the Evolving Case Story of Professor Able in an Online Master of Nursing Education Program

Sandra B. Lewenson, EdD, RN, FAAN; Marie Truglio-Londrigan, PhD, RN

Abstract

This article presents the use of a case story about a fictitious character, Professor Able, as a strategy to learn about the role of the nurse educator and to assist in the transition from clinical practice into that role. The story evolves over a 13-week semester in an engaging, asynchronous online environment where students explore what it means to be a nurse educator. The story of Professor Able provides insights into faculty issues such as academic freedom, integrity, governance, and diversity. Students’ online discussions highlight the interactive learning experience and outcomes generated by the use of the case story. This teaching strategy offers support for nurses transitioning into the much-needed role of nurse educator.

Dr. Lewenson is Professor of Nursing, and Dr. Truglio-Londrigan is Professor of Nursing, Pace University, College of Health Professions, Lienhard School of Nursing, Pleasantville, New York.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Sandra B. Lewenson, EdD, RN, FAAN, Professor of Nursing, Pace University, College of Health Professions, Lienhard School of Nursing, 861 Bedford Road, Pleasantville, NY 10507; e-mail: Slewenson@pace.edu.

Received: April 17, 2012
Accepted: August 29, 2012
Posted Online: January 22, 2013

Abstract

This article presents the use of a case story about a fictitious character, Professor Able, as a strategy to learn about the role of the nurse educator and to assist in the transition from clinical practice into that role. The story evolves over a 13-week semester in an engaging, asynchronous online environment where students explore what it means to be a nurse educator. The story of Professor Able provides insights into faculty issues such as academic freedom, integrity, governance, and diversity. Students’ online discussions highlight the interactive learning experience and outcomes generated by the use of the case story. This teaching strategy offers support for nurses transitioning into the much-needed role of nurse educator.

Dr. Lewenson is Professor of Nursing, and Dr. Truglio-Londrigan is Professor of Nursing, Pace University, College of Health Professions, Lienhard School of Nursing, Pleasantville, New York.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Sandra B. Lewenson, EdD, RN, FAAN, Professor of Nursing, Pace University, College of Health Professions, Lienhard School of Nursing, 861 Bedford Road, Pleasantville, NY 10507; e-mail: Slewenson@pace.edu.

Received: April 17, 2012
Accepted: August 29, 2012
Posted Online: January 22, 2013

The following reflects the start of the case story of the fictional Professor Able:

Professor Able had worked for 15 years as a clinical educator in the practice setting. Recently, she changed careers to become an educator in an academic institution and was hired as a clinical faculty member in a 4-year baccalaureate nursing program. As a full-time clinical faculty member, she was expected to teach students in the clinical experience and to serve on two faculty committees—the curriculum committee and the faculty association. Because she was not hired on a tenure-track line, she was not expected to do scholarship. Professor Able voiced concern that her teaching required many hours of preparation and that the work in the committees was extremely time consuming. She was interested in performing scholarship related to clinical practice because she had been involved in writing projects in her former workplace, and she wanted to move into a tenure-track line when one became available. However, she understood that any research projects she worked on would not be accounted for in the faculty evaluation of her new position.

Graduate students in the Master of Arts in Nursing Education program at Pace University, College of Health Professions, Lienhard School of Nursing, meet Professor Able in the third online course in the program. The course, Joining the Academic and Practice Setting, prepares students to understand the educator’s role in a variety of academic and practice settings, including those related to the university, college, staff development, and continuing education environments.

Presented asynchronously and completely online in a 13-week semester, students participate in six 2-week seminars and one 1-week seminar to address Professor Able’s transition into an educator’s role in an academic setting. Objectives for each seminar focus on students’ expectations for that seminar. In each seminar, students read a case story that explores topics of interest to educators, such as academic freedom, workload, tenure, academic integrity, interprofessional and intraprofessional collaborations, and collegiality. Students compare the roles of the clinical educator in service settings with those of the educator in academic settings, observing the differences in pay scale, expectations, and organizational culture. On the course’s online Blackboard discussion board, students post their responses exploring how Professor Able manages the topics that confront faculty in their daily work. Rubrics used to evaluate students’ learning at the end of each seminar measure the quality and frequency of participation. By the end of the semester, the imitable Professor Able becomes an iconic figure for students as they transition into the new role of an educator.

Becoming An Educator

According to Anderson (1991), “If the teacher is to direct the process of education, it becomes at once obvious that she must receive special preparation for her work” (p. 27). Early nursing leaders understood that the education nurses received in the hospital-based apprenticeship programs of the day did not prepare them to teach. Transitioning into that role required additional study, and for many years the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City led this effort (Christy, 1969). As graduate nursing education programs developed throughout the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of 21st century, they tended to focus more on the clinician’s role rather than that of the educator (Zsohar & Smith, 2010). Recognizing the need to attract and retain new faculty as a result of the more recent faculty shortage, Zsohar and Smith (2010) saw a growing interest in the preparation of nurses for the educator role. Graduate programs “increasingly emphasize the preparation of nurse educators who need the opportunity to practice the crafts of an educator as students” (Zsohar & Smith, 2010, p. 161). Giving students an opportunity to practice the role of an educator helps them to successfully transition into the culture of academia (Anderson, 2009; Duphily, 2011; McDonald, 2010; Sila & Kleiner, 2001).

Duphily (2011) identified the cultural dissonance that occurs when new faculty move from a clinical role into academia, which affects the ability to retain these new educators. The inability to produce sufficient numbers of nurse educators has negatively affected the growth of nursing schools in the United States (American Association of Colleges of Nursing [AACN], 2011). In addition, the lack of doctorally prepared faculty, as well as the lack of competitive faculty salaries, further compound the problem.

With too few doctorally prepared nursing research faculty, schools hire faculty with master’s preparation in clinical areas or those prepared with the newer Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to fill the void (Anderson, 2009; Chase & Pruitt, 2006). Both master’s-prepared and DNP-prepared clinicians can serve as support in the educational setting, but they often do not have the knowledge, competencies, skills, or the understanding required of an academic to acclimate easily into their new role as educator (Duphily, 2011). In addition, having a research doctorate does not ensure an easy transition into an academic role nor does it ensure that one understands educational theories and the varied teaching and learning strategies that can be used or the cultural shift when entering the academy. It also does not ensure the knowledge base that is required for curriculum and course development and evaluation strategies. This may relate to the fact that many doctorally prepared faculty graduated from programs that did not include course work, degrees, or certification in teaching, and they may find the transition into the educator role to be challenging.

The shortage of nursing faculty requires educational leaders to consider innovative ways of educating faculty about expectations in their new roles and to develop the skills to work through the dissonance they may encounter. Although the authors of this article fully support the need for doctorally prepared faculty, online master of education programs and certificate of advanced graduate studies (CAGS) programs, such as where Professor Able resides, create a place to prepare new educators in nursing to meet the challenges they will face as they transition into academic settings. The online learning format of the course allows faculty to create an environment that promotes real-world applications to meet the essentials of master’s nursing education (AACN, 2011). Both the master’s degree and CAGS program provide opportunities to nurses who want to learn how to teach and transition into the educator role—whether in a service or an academic setting. They also prepare those who want to “assume the full faculty role” in baccalaureate and master’s programs or a research degree to shift into doctoral education (Bartels, 2007, p. 155). Taking our online course as part of a CAGS program can help new faculty who have research or practice doctorates adapt to and become familiar with the life of an educator.

A Story

Brown, Kirkpatrick, Mangum, and Avery (2008) stated that “one of the most effective modes to transfer information is story telling” (p. 283). Our article shows how an online course uses an evolving case story to facilitate student learning about the role of a nurse educator. The story evolves, using issues that new faculty typically may face, such as workload adjustments, lower salaries than those in clinical practice, requirements of tenure and promotion, and learning to fit into the culture of a new organizational setting (Duphily, 2011). Additional topics of interest to both new and seasoned faculty that are addressed in the case story are cultural diversity, academic freedom, academic integrity, resource allocation, collegiality, and teamwork.

Online learning provides an interactive experience where students respond to each other and successfully demonstrate the learning objectives for the course. As adult learners, they construct meaning out of each seminar’s story line and learn from each other through active participation on the discussion board (Magnussen, 2008). Course objectives include the expectation that students reflect on their transition into the educator role and understand the cultural dimension of transitioning into that role. The students debate the legal and ethical issues related to the educator role and apply the value of cultural competence in nursing education. In addition, they are expected to be able to analyze the trends and challenges that affect the educator role and how this affects nursing in general.

The semester-long case story of Professor Able facilitates discussions about the educator role that demystify the stereotypical ideas that faculty work few hours, have summers and holidays off, make good money, and work autonomously. For example, through the narrative, students learn that faculty work in teams; that collegial relationships support the role; that faculty struggle to find balance between scholarship, teaching, and service; and that economic rewards for educators vary depending on the organizational settings. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that doctoral degrees are necessary, depending on one’s final goals and aspirations and where one works (Bartels, 2007). Use of the narrative offers ways in which students can creatively embrace a new topic and explore the meaning of the topic in relation to their own lives while still in the student role. Crawley (2009) explained:

[The narrative] can also be a good starting point for new ways of thinking, for exploring differing values and beliefs, for introducing narrative techniques, as a reminiscence stimulator to remind students of stories they have forgotten they were part of, and as a reflective learning tool, which can be used by students as a common base from which to collectively pool knowledge and experiences and problem solve toward future scenarios.

Stories provide a context for learning. During the course’s seven seminars, students learn by responding to questions about the story on the discussion board. In these discussions, students deconstruct the various factors in the scenario and respond to the questions raised by faculty (initially) and colleagues (subsequently) by supporting their ideas with what is found in the literature and reflectively thinking about the issues the story engenders. Students relate to Professor Able and understand that they, too, may experience the lived experiences read about in each episode of the case story. They identify with Professor Able as she transitions into this new role (Chinen, 1990). Using this strategy, students learn about and understand the transitional process from clinical practice to the educator role in academic or practice settings in the safety of an online environment. Learning becomes a classwide activity, engaging both students and faculty in this highly interactive format (Diekelmann, 2005).

Course Description

The Joining the Academic and Practice Setting course is divided into six 2-week online seminars and one 1-week seminar. During each seminar, students review four sections labeled seminar objectives, instructions, faculty thoughts, and case story. The objectives, typically two for each seminar, present what is to be expected and serve as a model of how to write objectives (a skill that students learn in one of the earlier courses in the master’s sequence). Instructions include reading assignments, which can range from text books used in the program to journal articles, historical articles, research related to the specific topic, YouTube videos, and organizational newsletters. Students must read assigned materials, as well as seek out additional materials to support their ideas; students are made aware of this requirement in the instruction section and on the rubric used for grading the seminar.

The faculty thoughts section contains a written discussion about the topic prepared by the faculty. For example, in the case story when Professor Able comes face-to-face with an integrity issue, the faculty thoughts section refers students to the course faculty’s own experience in addressing academic integrity in previous years. The faculty thoughts section may also include a PowerPoint® presentation that outlines issues related to the topic or videos posted by faculty directly to the Blackboard shell that express faculty ideas. Under the case story section, students read another episode from the evolving case story about Professor Able.

To determine whether students meet the objectives for the seminar, faculty evaluates student responses on the discussion board, including the quality of their participation and the frequency of their interactions. Students receive a grade and feedback every 2 weeks, which cumulatively represent the final grade. Each 2-week seminar is worth 15% of the grade, and the final week is worth 10% of the grade.

Returning To The First Episode In The Case Story Of Professor Able

Returning to the opening case story in the seminar as presented earlier, students meet Professor Able. The objectives for this first seminar require students to (a) describe the faculty role in an academic setting, including the roles of teaching, scholarship, and service and (b) discuss the educator’s role in a practice setting. Readings include topics on role transition, the faculty role, and “returning to the novice” role. Students respond to the reflective questions on the discussion board that ask them to describe the differences and similarities between the educator in the practice setting and the educator in an academic setting and to talk about the role they hope to transition into (and from). In addition, to acclimate students to the culture of academia, they are asked to debate whether all academic faculty members, whether on a clinical line or tenure-track line, should be involved with teaching, scholarship, and service. Their answers reflect their ideas about academia and the educator role, as well as what they research in the literature. Professor Able’s experience serves as an exemplar and a starting pointing in their discussion about academia, transition, and their own exploration into the practice of a nurse educator.

In the first episode’s discussion board, students responded to the plight of Professor Able in a variety of ways. Many suggested the need to mentor new faculty and they explored the literature about mentorship and role transition to support their ideas. Some students related to Professor Able by identifying their own work experiences when a similar lack of understanding arose about the expectations of a new role. This sharing created a give-and-take environment where other students offered suggestions and shared similar events and possible solutions.

One student wrote about the challenges nurses experienced when leaving the clinical role to join the academic community. The student identified that the literature discussed issues of knowledge deficit, culture and support, and salary and workload, which comprised the bulk of the challenges these nurses faced, and supported her ideas with references to readings. After writing about these challenges, the student reflected, “I must admit, after completing the assigned readings, I have definitely come away with a better awareness of the role of the nurse educator.”

Case Story: Episode About Academic Freedom

In another seminar, the case story explores issues related to academic freedom, which is an important aspect of faculty’s role in academia, as well as the meaning of tenure and promotion. Objectives for this seminar included asking students to be able to analyze the rationale for tenure and promotion in academia versus in the practice setting and to discuss the meaning of academic freedom in academia.

The case story is:

Professor Able decides she wants students to write papers for her class instead of taking the multiple choice examinations that the other faculty, many of whom have tenure, are using in their courses. She feels that as a teaching–learning strategy, students’ writing will support their critical thinking skills better and also will be a better match for their learning styles than multiple choice examinations. Professor Able presented her work at the Curriculum Committee meeting, of which all faculty are members. A motion was made by another faculty member mandating the use of multiple choice examinations in all nursing courses to evaluate student work. Following a heated faculty discussion, the motion passed by one vote (8 to 7). The Chair of the Department of Undergraduate Studies later called Professor Able into her office and told her she could not assign papers for students to write. Professor Able felt that she had been singled out, and her academic freedom was being violated. She also felt that any chance of tenure would be jeopardized if she spoke out.

On the discussion board, students were asked to discuss whether Professor Able’s academic freedom was violated. To answer this question, students explored the meaning of academic freedom by using the American Association of University Professor’s definition. In addition, students were asked to consider whether Professor Able’s chance at tenure would be jeopardized if she spoke out. To answer this part of the question, students examined the difference between tenure and nontenure-track positions and were expected to explore the history of tenure in academia and its effect on faculty today. Students debated the meaning of academic freedom and felt that Professor Able’s freedom was not violated.

In response to whether Professor Able’s chances for tenure were jeopardized, students discussed collegiality among faculty and emphasized the need for Professor Able to respond professionally to her colleagues. Some noted that because Professor Able was not on a tenure-track line, tenure was not an issue. Yet, some students argued that if she were to move to a tenure-track line she would need to be more careful. One student wrote: “If she demonstrates that she will carry out her responsibilities even though she does not agree with the decision and she does this without complaining about how she feels, this attitude will go a long way toward building and forming relationships with others that will be invaluable in the future.”

Case Story: Episode About Academic Integrity

The following case story emerged, reflecting the course faculty’s experience related to an academic integrity issue during a previous semester. By the end of the seminar, students were expected to be able to describe how faculty governance affects academic integrity and leadership and to debate the tension between and among faculty decisions, university policies, and clinical practice. In this way, academic integrity was placed within a broader context and was linked to issues within the organization.

Professor Able observed in one of her online courses that some of the students’ posts seemed to be plagiarized. One student, when questioned, acknowledged plagiarizing and, in fact, acknowledged that she purchased the paper online. Another student had misrepresented the direct quotes, attributing them to an incorrect author, as well as not including block or quotation marks around the quoted words. Professor Able brought this issue to the attention of the Chair of the program but was told to follow the policy found in the Student Handbook. Professor Able felt that students had violated trust with her and the other students in the class and wanted to give a significant consequence. Professor Able was concerned about the implications of plagiarism in an academic setting and on the work of nurses in the clinical setting. She also wanted to know that she had the other faculty’s support on this issue.

Students responded to questions on the discussion board that asked: “How should Professor Able address the issues of plagiarism with the students, the faculty, and the administrators?” “What kind of leadership is needed and by whom?” “How does the educator’s role in the academic or practice setting relate to faculty governance and leadership?” These questions prompted students to explore the meaning of plagiarism from a variety of perspectives that took into account faculty’s role, faculty’s governance, and the quality and safety in health care settings. One student wrote:

On the very first day of class, when the syllabus and the course is discussed by Professor Able, plagiarism should also be addressed to the students. Professor Able should present them with a clear definition of plagiarism and the consequences based on the university’s policy in the student handbook. Faculty must create an environment that supports values of trust and integrity rather than an environment of punishment and blame.

Case Story: Episode About Cultural Diversity

In the next case story, Professor Able faces issues related to diversity that promote conversation about race, gender, and class. By the end of this seminar, students were expected to be able to discuss the contextual factors of race, gender, and class in the implementation of the faculty role in academia and the educator in the health care setting, and they were to be able to describe ways in which to recruit and retain a diverse faculty in the academic and health care setting.

Professor Able was approached by another faculty member who complained that one of the students in his class was failing. This faculty member said, “Why doesn’t the student quit her full-time job and study more like the rest of the students?” Professor Able felt uncomfortable about this exchange, as [she knew] the student in question had emigrated from Nigeria, was a single mother of two children under the age of 10 [years], and worked evenings as a nurses’ aide in a nearby nursing home. In addition, the faculty member who addressed her about this student was an African American male who received his doctoral degree from an Ivy League school with a noted school of nursing. Professor Able was uncomfortable with the seemingly unfeeling tone in which he spoke about this student and really was at a loss for words. She did not know how he felt as the only male on the faculty, as well as being an African American, yet she also knew that he may have expressed his own bias in his response about the student.

This seminar is placed at the end of the semester when trust and comfort levels have been established among the class members. Students were asked to explore how contextual factors such as race, class, and gender affect faculty and students and to consider what they would have said to the other professor in this case story. Students were asked how other faculty at the school should address the concerns expressed by Professor Able and were asked to suggest a plan of action.

On the discussion board, students reflected on their own experiences, with some recalling growing up in a rural, mostly White setting, whereas others represented the Hispanic or African American community. One student wrote how she would integrate these discussions in her work:

When I am finally ready to teach, I want to take into consideration race, gender, and class and put it front and center on the discussion table. In my experience, many people who divulge their feelings on immigrants and immigration admit being upset about our country’s position on immigration, with feelings comparable to being overrun by this population. This xenophobia more than likely can be found in the classroom, too. The challenge for the nurse educator is how to uncover these feelings in their students and find way to bridge the gap between perceived notions and acceptance of the changing fabric of our society.

In addition, the discussion about this difficult area created the context for self-reflection, as noted by another student: “This module has forced me to examine an area of myself that makes me very uncomfortable and is definitely an area of needed growth for me as a nurse educator.”

Evolving Case Story

The evolving case story has changed in the 5 years the course has been offered. Changes to the story reflect faculty’s experience, student evaluations, and the changing landscape of academia and nursing. The use of personal narratives and stories, as suggested by Brown et al. (2008), creates “the capacity for developing ethical knowledge in nursing, as well as an understanding of caring and culture” (p. 284). Many of the case stories emanate from the personal experiences of the course’s faculty that facilitate active student exploration into the meaning of these experiences in the context of what is known in the literature and from their own experience. Students’ evaluation of the course also provides ideas for new episodes in the case story, such as the suggestion to add an additional character, who was an educator in clinical practice, to the story. The student who suggested this addition wanted to call the new character Professor Ready, and she is in the process of writing a new episode for this character. Because the new AACN (2011) master’s essentials calls for interprofessional and intraprofessional collaborative relationships, the narrative will need to include a case story about how educators work and communicate with other disciplines.

It’s About The Story

The faculty’s role in an online course has been likened to a dinner party where the faculty acts as a host in an online course, welcoming students and making sure they are comfortable (Hayek, 2012). Faculty participates by setting the stage for facilitating student interactions. Faculty creates the story, identifies readings, promotes independent and interdependent learning activities, and evaluates learning outcomes. Because most online learning occurs through interactions among students, faculty can stay in the background (O’Neil & Fisher, 2008), and students can discover the role of the educator through their discussion about Professor Able.

Anecdotal outcomes from the use of Professor Able’s story appear in the “aha moments” that students post on the discussion boards and in subsequent communication with the faculty after completing the program. During the last week of the semester, students reflect on their learning and Professor Able’s story. Students’ comments included:

  • I liked that the Professor Able case stories were realistic of what a new nurse educator might go through in the academic setting. All the case story questions were able to help me make the connections with what Professor Able was going through but also in finding solutions to the problems. Answering the case stories required self-reflection and asking the question—would I have done things differently from Professor Able or not? We focused on the trials and tribulations of Professor Able in her new role in academia, but being able to follow her throughout the semester also showed endurance on her part, as well as progress. I see her grow into her role in each seminar; I liked that she was able to convert a hybrid course to fully online, [and] I also like that she has been able to bring her former colleagues from the practice and her colleagues in academia [together] for a project, which is successful.
  • When Professor Able (P.A.) was first introduced, I thought it was a case story for that one assignment but instead we shared with P.A. her experiences transitioning from practice to the academic setting throughout the semester. At times, I felt like each case story was like tuning in to watch your favorite weekly TV episode. P.A. became a friend that you either wanted to give sound advice to or a hug because of the obstacles she was facing. Using the case stories to teach us important aspects of nursing education was an excellent teaching method because I was able to envision each situation P.A. went through while understanding the relevance of the topics and [to] learn how I’ll apply this information in my role as a nurse educator.
  • As we come to the end of the semester, I contemplate the discussions we have had, and oh! [sic] the problems of Professor Able; I also think about the future of nursing and the role we will play as educators. We have covered a range of topics that will best prepare us to meet our roles as future educators; and it has been a rather exciting learning experience with a really valuable example in the form of Professor Able.

Conclusion

The course continues to evolve as faculty further develops the story, refines the discussion board questions, and reflects on the outcomes. As historian Barbara Brodie (2011) wrote:

The power of the story to entice and capture an individual’s interest and imagination has been amply demonstrated over the centuries by the popularity of story tellers, novels, plays, and movies in society. From such stories, nurses have the opportunity to learn more about the range of human experiences and information they might incorporate into their care of patients.

The application of the case story about Professor Able in this online nursing education course serves as a strategy for students to learn about what it means to be an educator and successfully transition into the nursing educator’s role. The story evolves, creating an opportunity for active learning between students and faculty—both learn in the process.

Our article ends with one final thought from a student who wrote on the discussion board: “Thank you all for sharing your experiences, thoughts, and most personal feelings. It has been great learning from all of you.”

References

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