8 best practices for providing the help online faculty need-- when they need it.
WE ARE RAPIDLY APPROACHING-- if we have not already passed-- the 15th anniversary of online higher education courses. While the history of online courses is still being written, it is likely that the first occurrence happened in the years between 1993 and 1995. My personal "aha" moment about online courses occurred in 1994, when I heard about an internet course on the classic philosopher Boethius being taught by James O'Donnell at the University of Pennsylvania, and using only asynchronous text messages.
An ongoing challenge for campus leaders throughout these last 15 years has been how to support faculty in this new online learning environment. With 3.5 million students taking online courses in fall 2006 (according to the Sloan Consortium), a large cadre of faculty must be online as well, teaching and mentoring these students.
The good news is that after 15 years, we have become smarter about what it takes to support faculty in their online teaching roles. Thanks to insights from research studies, ongoing experience teaching online, and time spent utilizing evolving technology tools, the online learning community has developed a set of best practices for teaching and learning online (one example). We know that faculty support requires a robust digital and administrative infrastructure, as well as people managing that infrastructure who also are knowledgeable about teaching and learning.
Questions about whether or not students can learn effectively totally online have shifted to questions about how to deliver online learning well. Spontaneous collaboration tools and environments such as online classrooms, blogs, wikis, and text messaging have redefined synchronicity, asynchronous communication, and distance. No one is out of touch for very long unless he chooses to be!
Yet, when we recruit faculty for today's online environment, the challenge continues to evolve. Jim Ulrich, associate professor in the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement at Duquesne University (PA), has observed, "The train is moving much faster now and a faculty member just starting out in online teaching needs more help more quickly than ever before." The even greater challenge we face today? How to get new faculty quickly acquainted with the richness of the online practices.
All of this leads us to the questions, "What are some of the 'essentials' of faculty support today?" and "What should we be planning for in the next three to five years?"
The Essentials of Faculty Support
Most institutions have these essentials in place, but the following best practices are useful reminders to keep an online learning program on track.
1) Institutionalize the basics! Support for online faculty will not simply happen as a result of existing IT support services. The best support for online faculty is explicitly defined as part of the overall set of academic and IT services. What does it mean to "institutionalize" the basics? It means utilizing a robust course management system of some type, and having the staff to provide orientations, FAQs, and support for getting courses online. Basic resources also include college and campus policies regarding online teaching and learning requirements and behaviors. These resources should include a set of expectations for online teaching and a "first set" of basic best practices for faculty, in effect exhorting, "If you do nothing else this first teaching term, do this!" These best practices also provide answers to questions such as, "Should I be online in my course site every day?" (The answer: Yes.)
In addition, the set of basic resources should include a contact list or website with people to call for various needs, particularly for emergencies and particularly in hours and days outside the "normal" 8-5, Monday-Friday time frame. Online learning is a 24/7 enterprise, and the definition of an emergency can be a lost password!
2) Provide preloaded course templates as a starting point for new faculty. These course templates have all the basic information and content for a "college syllabus" that is generic across courses or within a college. For example, information about library access, and technical support questions and resources can be part of a preloaded course template. Any generic information that can be "simply there" and updated as needed is a time-saver for everyone.
3) Ensure that faculty are not the first responders for non-content-related questions. Faculty members are experts in their content fields and experts at mentoring and guiding students in developing skills and knowledge. Finding and solving textbook challenges, ensuring access to course sites, and other financial and schedule questions should be handled by other members of the instructional team. The philosophy that faculty are not "lone rangers" out there on the net, but are members of an entire instructional team from the institution, creates the perception that the institution cares about its faculty and about its students.
4) Provide 'just-in-time' support. That's when faculty need it! Workshops and training programs combining instructional design and development support are the best long-term support and are integral in developing expertise, but timing often is a problem. For instance, an instructor may be assigned to teach an online course only a few weeks or days before the class begins. For most faculty, the practical approach is "just-in-time" support.
Just-in-time support can mean assisting with developing a course, syllabus, and online assessment plan as soon as a faculty member signs a contract.
Just-in-time support can mean assisting with developing a course, syllabus, and online assessment plan as soon as a faculty member signs a contract. It can mean e-mail or phone support clarifying similarities and differences between online and campus classrooms (for instance, explaining how online discussion areas are teaching and learning forums similar to live class discussions). Just-intime support also can mean providing a contact person for answering questions-- as they come up-- such as how to deal with students who are dropping out, being argumentative, or are simply "lost." Readily accessible resources for utilizing remote library content, podcasts, virtual classrooms, and other technology tools also are key.
Rita-Marie Conrad, an online instructor and consultant for Florida State University, stresses, "Have information ready for faculty when they are ready for it. For faculty, there will always be new things to learn, and questions always pop up at a time when instructors have the least amount of time to search for the answers." Leone Snyder, faculty chair in the School of Education at Capella University (online), adds that one of the most important elements in supporting online faculty is providing "a support or key contact person who the faculty member feels comfortable contacting. Teaching online can be isolating; faculty need non-judgmental advice."
Beyond the Essentials
Once the basics are in place, institutions can focus on the following "beyond the essentials" approaches for supporting online faculty:
1) Find faculty with online experience, or else provide online experience. No matter how much training and orientation faculty receive, those new to online teaching will generally instruct others as they have been taught by peers and in the manner they have learned as students themselves. So a good faculty recruiting criterion is some experience in the online environment. Other strategies for augmenting online teaching experience include having a new faculty member team-teach a course with a master online teacher, or teach a course developed by another master teacher. By teaching an already-developed course, new online faculty can devote time to honing the critical elements of online courses: discussions, dialog, assessment, and community-building.
2) Continue long-term pedagogical support for faculty. Increasingly, research is clarifying not only which practices are effective in teaching online, but why. At the same time, the choices of tools available in online environments keep expanding. For faculty to use technologies wisely, they need to think through the why, how, and when of these technologies, mapped to learning goals. Important questions abound, such as, "What is the pedagogy behind blogs, wikis, and the virtual classroom?" "What is going on in students' heads as they use these tools?" "Which tools really support the development of a learner's performance skills?" Providing long-term professional development resources and support people who can counsel faculty about such questions creates confidence and competency in design and teaching choices.
3) Develop systems that support the entire instructional team. Successful online programs depend not only on effective faculty, but also on the presence and professionalism of the entire instructional team. This team includes librarians, program administrators, technical support, and pedagogical support. Growing a comprehensive instructional team often means developing staffers who combine focuses on pedagogy and technology. It is not easy to build this team, but simple reminder questions (e.g., "What does this decision mean for student learning and faculty teaching?") can work wonders creating campus professionals who are partners in teaching and learning.
4) Nurture a culture of collegiality among online faculty. Much of the current literature on online learning has focused on the power of a learning community. It may now be time to focus some of our energies on building a community of practice among an institution's online faculty, so that faculty can seriously discuss teaching and learning, and develop a deeper allegiance to the institution's values. Part of supporting online faculty means creating space and time for instructors to think about, discuss, and reflect on the processes of teaching and learning within the context of an institution's core mission and values.
Our current knowledge about faculty support is the result of researchers, practitioners, and innovators who have really focused on teaching and learning processes. Dedicating energy and resources to supporting online faculty can build on that foundation and create the knowledge needed for the continuing set of technologies that promise to be even more revolutionary in their impacts.