Going the Distance: Developing a Model Distance Education Faculty Training Program

There seems to be no correlation between quality teaching in the classroom and teaching effectiveness online. Even the best instructors in a face-to-face setting can falter in the distance learning arena if they are not comfortable with the technology. Yet, even as scores of faculty in U.S. postsecondary institutions now offer courses online, few have been trained in the proper development and execution of distance learning courses. As reported in the June 2001 issue of Syllabus, dropout rates run 20 to 50 percent in distance learning courses (see "The e-Learning Taboo: High Dropout Rates in Online Courses"). One of the most common reasons e-learners give for dropping out is an inexperienced instructor.

Understanding this problem, distance education researchers and practitioners in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at the University of Florida began to develop a new training program. For more than a decade, CALS has delivered distance education courses, beginning with satellite broadcasts, but in recent years has moved to distribution by a closed video conferencing network, videotape, CD-ROM, and the Web. As at many institutions, training programs on general technology-related topics and skills, such as how to use office productivity software or create Web pages, are readily available to faculty across the UF campus. But training on distance education–specific topics, such as course management techniques, use of multimedia, and interactive instructional design, is not available. Also, distance education instructional materials developed specifically for CALS faculty several years ago were in desperate need of updating.

As part of the effort to develop a new training and development program, we recently conducted a two-part study. Part one surveyed distance education developers and practitioners in colleges of agriculture at fourteen institutions across the country to determine how they conduct faculty development training in distance education. Part two surveyed CALS faculty to determine what they wanted to know more about—in terms of distance education theory, practice, and technology—and what training they wanted to receive. Reflecting a nationwide trend, only 7 percent considered themselves to be advanced in the primary technology they planned to use. A low 28 percent thought they had intermediate expertise, and a full 65 percent considered themselves beginners.

Where the Institution and Faculty Meet

The major objective of the first part of the survey was to obtain a snapshot of faculty training and development efforts at institutions with substantial distance education academic programs. For this reason, distance education developers at agricultural institutions—which serve large geographical areas and have traditionally focused on adult education efforts, including distance education—were the target group for the study, and included development specialists from Colorado State, Purdue, University of Idaho, University of California at Davis, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Virginia Tech.

Length and Pace

The primary form of distance education training in the surveyed institutions is a formal, regularly scheduled, prescribed course or set of training materials. Most programs consist of two- to four-hour workshops; short, multiple sessions held once a week over many weeks; or personal sessions at the faculty member's discretion. Other forms of training are informal, "brown-bag" meetings and a combination of formal, informal, and self-paced (CD-ROM-, Web-, or video-based) programs. No training programs run full days or are entirely self-directed or self-paced.

The survey of CALS faculty indicated that they would like occasional training sessions that are held over several weeks or are self-directed. Few professors wanted day-long or full-week sessions. Faculty members not on the main university campus overwhelmingly preferred a self-paced training program using CD-ROM, the Web, or videotape. Interestingly, faculty were almost evenly split when asked if the training should be mandatory or voluntary.

Content

Most institutions offer faculty training at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels. Content in most training programs involves instructional design methods, the use of particular technologies (such as video conferencing), and the use of specific software. Technology training emphasizes computer multimedia, digital photography, and video conferencing. Software training focuses on presentation software (such as PowerPoint) and Internet-related functions: Web page development/editing (for example, FrontPage and Netscape Composer), Web course tools (like WebCT and Blackboard), and interactive online elements (such as chat rooms and electronic bulletin boards). More than half of the respondents noted that the most important technologies for faculty to master are Web course tools.

According to surveyed faculty at CALS, training content should include instructional design, technology use, and software use. They also indicated that Web-related software was most important to master.

Incentives

None of the institutions surveyed requires faculty to receive training prior to teaching a distance education course; training is completely voluntary. Institutions do, however, provide incentives for completing training and for teaching distance education courses: monetary compensation, graduate assistant support, release time to develop a distance education course, software, and hardware. Participants felt that universities should focus on making the technology more user-friendly, getting faculty to buy in to distance education's importance, providing financial incentives for faculty and their departments for producing distance education courses, and recognizing faculty's efforts by granting tenure and promotion.

The developers mentioned that their institutions need a strategic plan for distance education training, with such elements as providing resources to faculty, freeing them to plan their courses, funding adequate training staff, and identifying faculty members' specific training needs.

Faculty at CALS recognized the professional benefits of training in their ability to reach more students, reduce their teaching load, increase personal satisfaction, and enhance professional development. However, they also perceived two critical obstacles to distance education training: lack of both time and resources. Incentives and motivation were big concerns. Given an option, professors preferred graduate assistant support to other types of incentives, such as release time or financial support.

Institutional Support

Most universities have a facility on campus where faculty can take advantage of one-on-one help concerning distance education training. At most universities, the facility d'es not charge for its assistance. Training is shared across the institution; seldom is it done solely in one unit or college. Although most universities have a specified distance education coordinator or center for the entire institution, that person or center d'es not coordinate training. Various colleges and departments offer diverse training programs without coordination from a central location. The majority of training is done by instructional designers who have no faculty appointment.

A Faculty Training and Development Model

Although this study is exploratory in nature, the results do point to some indicators of a model distance education faculty training and development program. In the proposed model, institutional support (program and institutional coordination, centralization/decentralization, and autonomy of the training effort) represents the foundational structure upon which the distance education training and development program is built.

Content refers to the specific components of the program, including technical "tools" training, customization of training, integration of technology training, and training in instructional design. Training deals with the structure of the program, including whether the format is formal, informal, or self-paced; the degree of flexibility of training options (short classes/programs over many weeks); and the level of input from faculty (the balance of prescribed and faculty-selected content topics). Content and training serve as the twin pillars of a faculty training and development program—only to the degree that these outlying components are in place will such a program be effective.

The top level of the model, faculty motivation, includes motivational factors that are both intrinsic (individual desire to experiment, learn technology, improve instruction) and extrinsic (release time, funding, student support). From the model, it can be assumed that faculty motivation is dependent on the level and quality of support available at the institutional, content, and training structure levels, and that all four factors—institutional support, content, training, and faculty motivation—are essential to achieving program effectiveness.

One of the most interesting findings of the study is that both developers and faculty prefer the combination of formal, informal, and self-paced programs and short classes at various times over many weeks to the traditional approach of a daily, week-long program. Participants in both studies feel that since faculty members cannot devote a one- or two-week period to training, they would prefer small installments over several weeks, and to work at their own pace. But, as distance education technology continues to increase in sophistication, can such an "à la carte" approach be as effective?

Even though most surveyed universities have a centralized distance education coordinator and/or training center, coordination d'es not necessarily occur across the campus. The benefit to the individual college approach is that instructional designers can tailor programs specifically to faculty members' needs. The drawbacks are that resources may be squandered because of duplication of effort in different colleges. Distance education developers at these universities sound a familiar (and still important) note, calling upon their institutions to develop a "strategic plan for distance education" by increasing production staff, improving training facilities, and providing faculty with more assistance and incentives. They also believe training should include more exposure to distance education teaching methods. If distance education is to succeed at universities, in the words of one respondent, "distance education training must become a priority of top university administrators and be integrated into the institution's infrastructure and operating procedures more fully."

What's Ahead at UF?

This last spring, the college's administration gave CALS distance education researchers and practitioners approval to develop and update distance education training materials for college faculty and to develop a training plan. Specific components of the plan include an interactive Web site and CD-ROM detailing the instructional design and technological elements necessary to develop an effective distance education course and providing video segments from instructors who have taught distance education classes, an updated handbook for video conferencing site facilitators, and a training plan for suggested courses/workshops so that faculty can learn more about distance education topics.

The new training plan is being implemented in steps. The CD-ROM and Web versions of the instructional materials are being completed (http://training.ifas.ufl.edu). Faculty expressing an interest in teaching a course at a distance will receive the CD-ROM version of the materials, which will provide them with instant access to the video clips. All CALS faculty will be able to access the Web version as well, but video downloading may take more time.

The complete training plan should be implemented by fall 2001. Most of the technology-related courses already exist; workshops on distance education topics will be developed over time. Faculty members will be encouraged to take the listed courses.

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