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Support For Online Faculty

Two higher-learning networks find solutions that address the needs of both new and experienced online faculty.

In 2002, Berkeley College, with seven campuses throughout New York and New Jersey and a thriving online enrollment, was in a unique position. How does a college with multiple campuses spread between two states provide effective and efficient standardized training to prospective online faculty? Mary Jane Clerkin, coordinator of online faculty support, describes the challenge: “Most of our faculty are on site, and we have just about all of our department chairs teaching online. Although we sometimes do have daylong or weeklong workshops, it’s very difficult to get everyone together. We decided that the best thing to do was to make all of our training and support materials virtual. Anytime, anywhere, faculty members just need to log in.”

Clerkin and her team of instructional designers created a virtual academy for online faculty designed both to familiarize faculty with best practices for online teaching and to introduce the tools that faculty will use to build their online courses. Called Berkeley College Online Faculty Support, the program helps faculty new to teaching online ramp up quickly to the demands and challenges of the medium.

Essentials for Supporting New Faculty

Before Berkeley faculty are allowed to teach an online course, they must work through “The Road to Success in Online Teaching,” a short online tutorial developed by Clerkin in January 2003, designed to assess whether online teaching will be a good fit. In it, prospective online faculty are exposed to the pedagogy and technology used in online courses; they must also learn to navigate through Berkeley’s online course management system, built in Blackboard 8.

Clerkin says that the tutorial “helps faculty consider the many different aspects of online teaching.” Throughout, they are asked to consider, “Is this the right option for you?” A positive response, as well as a proficiency in completing assigned practical applications, helps determine “whether or not teaching an online course is the right option for them,” Clerkin explains.

From there, prospective faculty members proceed to three workshops, which Clerkin developed in January 2008. The first two online workshops are designed to familiarize the faculty with the basic and intermediate ideas and technology involved in online teaching. They incorporate short videos on best practices from Berkeley’s veteran online faculty, as well as links to information from online instructional resources such as Quality Matters, MERLOT, and Learning Objects. The first two workshops also introduce the faculty to Berkeley’s virtual Online Faculty Resource Center.

The Online Faculty Resource Center, built in Blackboard in 2002 and soon to be updated to Blackboard 9, is a one-stop shop where online faculty can access up-to-date materials and documentation, participate in discussion boards, and interact with Clerkin and her team via faculty meetings. Online tools include:

  • Wimba Voice for lectures, messages, meetings, and discussion boards
  • Camtasia Studio 6 videos for Blackboard documentation
  • Introductory welcome videos and sample course videos created in Adobe Visual Communicator 3

The third workshop, facilitated by Berkeley’s coordinator of instructional design, focuses on instructional design, demonstrating to faculty members how they can take the elements and tools presented in the first two workshops and incorporate them into a cohesive learning experience.

Since the implementation of the virtual workshops, student evaluations of online courses and general surveys among online students at Berkeley College have confirmed the program’s success. “We found the workshops have made a significant difference in how the students see and evaluate the online courses, because all of our faculty is thoroughly trained,” says Clerkin.

Clerkin attributes the success of the training program not only to the workshops and support resources, but also to her department’s 24/7 availability to all online faculty via phone, e-mail, or Wimba Pronto instant messaging. “This is a great accommodation, to make sure that faculty can get training and constant support,” she notes. “Anytime faculty see I’m online, they can click and I can get back to them either through voice or through text. Current. Accessible. Convenient. That’s what’s important in this day and age.”

Ongoing Improvement for Veteran Faculty

The SUNY Learning Network (SLN) is an opt-in service designed to cover the needs of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses, with an emphasis on faculty development and effective online learning. With over 30 SUNY campuses currently participating, SLN has trained more than 3,000 online faculty members throughout its 15- year history and currently provides support to 4,000 online courses and 107 degree programs. With such a large network of online faculty covering such an immense offering of online courses, ongoing faculty support and course development become just as essential, and just as time-consuming, as training new faculty.

To tackle this problem, Alexandra Pickett, associate director of the SUNY Learning Network, and her team created  the SLN Experienced Online Faculty Self-Assessment Survey, a web-based questionnaire designed to help faculty members target their own strengths and weaknesses. Referencing a cadre of 3,000 faculty members, Pickett asks: “How do we support and serve this large group who have been trained, who’ve taught a course a few times—and just because you’ve taught a few courses doesn’t make you an expert at it—when most of our resources go to new faculty development? The genesis of the Online Self- Assessment [Survey] was to target that population of people as part of our continuous-improvement model.”

Pickett chose to create a self-assessment survey because of its convergence with the final step of SLN’s seven-step process of online course design, which requires professors to evolve their courses and “commit to iterate.” She explains: “We think of faculty development and course design as an iterative process, something that needs to evolve over time, something that requires continuous improvement. What we know today about effective practices for teaching and learning online is different from what we knew in 1994. If someone was trained in that year, they will not have the benefit of all the knowledge we’ve gained in the years since. Building programs to support and serve that group of people, with an eye toward continuous improvement, is how the survey came about.”

The survey, created with IBM’s Lotus Notes and Domino platform, consists of a series of questions designed to address teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence—three main components of the “community of inquiry” teaching model that is taught throughout SLN’s online faculty training process. Each question is worded as a statement, such as “My students feel that members of this course depend on each other,” and “Overall, I clearly communicated course goals,” on which the professor assesses himself using a three-point, Likert-like scale. To encourage honesty, only Pickett and the professor have access to the results. “It’s not for the purpose of evaluating faculty members or documenting how they feel about their own courses,” Picket explains. “Its intention is to help faculty self-evaluate on the specific indicators of teaching presence and class community.”

The survey produces a report based on the professor’s self-evaluation. The scores on each of the indicators pinpoint the areas in which the professor may need to revise or modify his course, ranging from a simple change, to a need for collaboration with an instructional designer to revise significant portions of the course. As a companion to the survey, the professor is then sent a PDF document that reviews each of the indicators in the survey and gives suggestions for improving each indicator in his online course.

The flexibility of the self-assessment survey has made it a popular tool for ongoing faculty development. Explains Pickett, “It can be used individually based on a professor’s own initiative, as a mechanism to target improvements in his courses. And we use it as a component of our returning faculty training, so we can tailor professors’ course review and teaching materials to their specific needs. It’s also used by instructional designers who work one-on-one with the faculty at the campus level.” She adds that participation in the process is completely self-selective and self-directed. “We do not mandate anything,” she says.

The self-assessment survey recently won the NUTN (National University Telecommunications Network) Distance Education Innovation Award for 2009. SLN has also made the instrument public—anyone can use it, and a number of institutions outside SLN’s network currently do. Pickett would like to see that number grow. “I’ve seen usage go up after I have presented at a conference, and after we won the award. I would be thrilled if more people knew about it and were interested in using it.”

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