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Putting a Faculty Face on Distance Education Programs

Good distance learning programs can range from well-designed and well-written text to streaming video and accompanying media of various types. But media alone d'es not offer guidance and personal engagement. A blended or hybrid approach, using faculty facilitators or mentors, adds a human touch to distance learning. These faculty are not necessarily content experts, but facilitators or mentors who have a degree in the appropriate academic discipline. They participate with a physical presence, or in certain circumstances, a virtual presence.

I am fortunate to be associated with distance education programs that are very successful from the point of view of learning outcomes and that have been academically successful. It is my opinion that much of that success comes from using a hybrid model of distance education that involves the electronic delivery of content coupled with face-to-face contact by a faculty facilitator or mentor.

The Role of the Facilitator
The functions associated with facilitators have been categorized over the years. They include: facilitator, teacher, organizer, grader, mentor, role model, counselor, coach, supervisor, problem solver, and liaison.

In almost every program developed at the University of Florida, potential faculty facilitator/mentors have been identified in geographical regions located relatively close to cohorts of our distance learners. Regional activities occur, normally once a month, in which the facilitators meet face-to-face with students to carry out academic exercises that are designed to enhance the learning of the electronically delivered content. For example, the facilitators may review problem-based case studies or critique student presentations.

The most ideal ratio of distance students to facilitator/mentor faculty is approximately 12:1. If there are 36 students in a particular city or region of the country—defined as a distance that would require no longer than one hour drive time—three part-time facilitators would be recruited for that city or region. These facilitators are identified through recommendations from current or former students, current or former facilitators, university faculty in a particular locale, and through advertisements in professional journals.

The credentials of the faculty facilitators are vetted through the faculty of the home department, and the facilitators are appointed through the University Personnel System. The selection process involves interviews by at least two members of the administrative team of a program. During these interviews, assessment is made of teaching skills and experience, clinical experience (requisite in particular professional areas), time availability (in addition to the full-time employment they may now hold), and compatibility with the "safe learning environment" philosophy we hold for all of our programs. The candidate's curriculum vita is reviewed and references are checked thoroughly.

Once a facilitator/mentor is selected, there is a period of initial training involving several required components:

  • Shadowing of a current facilitator/faculty member
  • On-site (where the facilitator/mentor is located) training by an administrator of the program.
  • Training at the university from which the program evolved
  • Telephone conferences
  • Required attendance at an annual training session held at several regional locations throughout the country (these sessions are often held in conjunction with national professional meetings that the facilitator faculty would be attending as part of their professional development)

The most obvious value of facilitator/mentor faculty is the addition of the human touch to far-flung distance learning programs. It establishes a very valuable connection to the university and gives the learner a greater sense of intimacy with the program. In addition, if facilitators do their jobs properly, they can create a cohort relationship among their regional students or even spawn virtual cohorts of students.

Geographical Distances
In some cases, it is not possible to build a regional cohort due to the geographical distances among students. In those cases, the territory is divided into east and west regions with a single facilitator for each region. The students then meet virtually each week, using PlaceWare collaborative software (see and a 1-800 conference call. (We determined that voice and data would be separated due to the fact that many of the students are located in geographical areas where high-speed Internet connections are not yet possible—we did not want to compromise the connections for either voice or data.) During these virtual sessions, the same types of exercises that would normally be carried out monthly during the regional face-to-face meetings are done once a week in virtual space.

Close facilitator/cohort relationships develop even in the virtual classroom model. In one notable example, a facilitator was having a hospital stay to deliver her baby, but was so engaged with the students in her cohort that she conducted the virtual meeting from her hospital room (see "The Facilitator: Adding the Human Factor to eLearning").

In addition to the weekly synchronous virtual meetings, once a semester these students and their facilitators meet for face-to-face meetings so that they will be sure to have direct human involvement during their academic experience. The meetings are held either in Las Vegas, Nev., or Tampa, Fla., depending on the regional location of the student.

At a Glance: Hybrid Distance Learning

  • Hybrid Distance Learning: A distance learning program using both electronic delivery and local facilitators or mentors to coach, counsel, and support students

  • Ideal Student/Facilitator Ratio: Approximately 12:1

  • Facilitator Traits: Teaching skills, clinical experience, time availability, compatible philosophy

  • Facilitator Training: Training at host university, shadowing current faculty member, telephone conferences, annual training updates

  • Compensation: Level based on current salary for such a professional in the region where they are located

  • Quote: "Traditionally, distance education has been developed as stand-alone Web-based programs with little interaction between faculty and students other than through electronic means. The University of Florida has found that the addition of the facilitator/mentor faculty has brought a new dimension to distance-based programs, one that has improved overall quality. The additional academic experiences available to our distance education students have put a now-familiar face on our distance education programs."—Bill Riffee
  • Quality and Rewards
    One of the first challenges for institutions contemplating the use of facilitator/mentor faculty in distance education programs is concern over the fact that the program has never done this before. It is new to the program and may be considered relatively "out of the box" thinking.

    Can academic programs anticipating using a hybrid approach to distance education accept the concept that adjunct/ part-time faculty can be located at regional sites and that those candidate faculty will meet the academic standards held by those on the home campus? The experience at the University of Florida has shown that there are, indeed, qualified faculty/ facilitator faculty in many regions of the country who are interested in associating with academic institutions as part of distance learning programs. Quality facilitator/mentor faculty can be located who will be able to provide a solid base of personal interaction with distant learners.

    The faculty selected to work on a regional basis embody a valued group of experienced professionals. It is necessary to compensate these professionals so that they feel they are being treated in a way that reflects their contributions to the program.

    Compensation is calculated on the basis of the current salary for such a professional in the region where they are located. Time requirements are estimated based on past experience so that the facilitator faculty are compensated for the estimated time they spend with the program. Additional compensation, such as bonuses, is calculated based on the contribution above and beyond the expectations normally placed on them and is adjusted for the number of students being mentored.

    A Now-Familiar Face
    With appropriate orientation and training, facilitator/ mentor faculty become invaluable assets to distance learning programs. The face-to-face opportunities to meet periodically help create an esprit de corps that adds value to the educational experience. Students in such hybrid programs develop an institutional loyalty and alumni relationships atypical of many distance education programs.

    Those students who return to campus for graduation ceremonies spend hours at the university bookstore stocking up on university-related paraphernalia that reflects this established loyalty. The majority of distance students in University of Florida programs travel to our campus for commencement ceremonies—usually their only visit to the main campus and many times traveling considerable distances with family and friends to participate. In one case, the students and the faculty grew so close that as graduation approached, one of the students leased a Lear jet to transport the entire cohort and the facilitator to Gainesville, Fla., for the commencement ceremonies.

    Traditionally, distance education has been developed as stand-alone Web-based programs with little interaction between faculty and students. The University of Florida has found that the addition of the facilitator/mentor faculty has brought a new dimension to distance-based programs, one that has improved overall quality. The additional academic experiences available to our distance education students have put a now-familiar face on our distance education programs.

    The Facilitator: Adding the Human Factor to eLearning

    Since 1999, Janet Dailey has been a group facilitator in the Working Professional Pharm.D. (WPPD) program at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida. As a facilitator, Dailey operates as a local faculty representative for the Florida-based program.

    From her home in Huntsville, Ala., she fields e-mails and phone calls from area students on subjects ranging from case presentations to syllabus changes to upcoming administrative deadlines. Once a month she meets with students in an en masse face-to-face gathering to discuss the curriculum, hear concerns, and just rub elbows.

    "The facilitator's role is to facilitate discussions to make sure that everyone stays on target with what we need to accomplish, answer questions, and point them to the right people," explains Dailey. "We are not the content experts in the particular type of subject that is being discussed but we certainly are at the forefront between the university and the student body."

    In the role, Dailey works to bridge the learning gap that can sometimes open up between face-to-face programs and their distance learning counterparts. The most obvious of those is the loss of the immediate pedagogic rapport between teachers and students that even in large auditoriums can turn an ordinary lecture into an outlet for inspiration and discovery.

    However, a warm personality and a clear personal commitment by the facilitator are intangibles that can often overcome even the thinnest ties between a student and their distance learning program. Dailey has proven dramatically that she possesses some of these qualities. For instance, she once conducted one of her weekly teleconferences with a group of regional students from her hospital bed after the birth of one of her children.

    Dailey holds a doctor of pharmacy degree from the University of Nebraska and works part-time as a clinical pharmacist in a primary health care practice. Although she was a working pharmacist, she gravitated toward the facilitator role naturally. "I have always enjoyed teaching and I actually knew some of the administrators of the program; they came to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing this."

    Since starting as a facilitator in 1999, "the biggest difference is the use of technology," she says. "That has changed tremendously." The Pharm.D. program is now about to move from using the Blackboard eLearning platform to a software suite from eCollege. Such platforms are a "lifeline" for students, as well as teachers and facilitators, Dailey says.

    Overall, her experience has changed her initial skepticism about distance learning programs. "I think when I first started I always hesitated about distance programs," she explains. "But I have truly been impressed with the WPPD program, the level of material that's being discussed, and the expectations we have from our students. And I think that g'es for them too."

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