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Faculty Success Means Student Success: Supporting Online Faculty

A Q&A with Michael Cottam

Faculty Success Means Student Success: Supporting Online Faculty

The push for "student success" is all around us. Today, new campus IT implementations, software development efforts, and academic program redesigns all seem conceived in the popular context of student success, or they are in some significant way connected to it. But what about the notion of "faculty success"?

Michael E. Cottam is Webster University's Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Director of its Online Learning Center. He has moved innovative support programs for online faculty forward there and in his previous posts with very large online programs at higher education institutions including Rio Salado College and Mount St. Mary's University Online. CT talked recently with Cottam, who believes that supporting his institution's online faculty is the most important element of creating student success.

Mary Grush: What does it mean to support online faculty as they work for student success?

Michael Cottam: It really is about helping the faculty member to be the first, the most effective, and the most important contact for the student. I think faculty are the most important piece in achieving student success. In spite of all the supports we might provide (advisors, success coaches, counselors, tutors, and so forth) I do not believe that student success will happen without really effective faculty.

Grush: Effective in what particular way?

Cottam: In the way that they create courses, in the way they interact with the student, and in the way they use the technologies available to them.

Grush: So would you support faculty in how they use the technologies for online course delivery?

Cottam: Sure, but support for online faculty isn't just during the course. It starts long before the first class, in the course design process — in how you set up the learning management system for them, and how you train them in tools and give them ongoing support. We support faculty fully in designing courses, rather than just handing them a course shell in the learning management system for them to develop from scratch.

We need to start with individual attention to the faculty member, so we assign them an instructional designer — someone who knows the technology and the best practices for online instruction. For faculty, designing an online course is often dramatically different from designing an in-person class; you're including more multimedia, more video, more games, and more simulations. You're blending technologies from a publisher, maybe some open education resources, and maybe your own lecture notes or learning activities that you'll need to adapt to an online environment.

Grush: Within the institution, is there some coordination, if not standardization, among these course designs?

Cottam: At Webster, we use a master course model, where we have a faculty member work with a designer to create a master course according to school or program-established design guidelines. Then we copy that master course over to many sections — so other faculty can work with this master, and customize and personalize their own section to match their needs. Finally, we monitor and improve the master course regularly, based on faculty and student feedback.

Grush: And the student feedback gives you insight into what students need in order to succeed?

Cottam: Of course.

Grush: What else is key to building these master courses with faculty — and student — success in mind?

Cottam: Thinking ahead! Scheduling courses well in advance so that faculty have a good idea of when they will be teaching online and can prepare for that. We allow time for faculty to customize their course to best serve their students by using their own personality and style — things they know work for them.

And we provide faculty a sandbox during training, a safe place for them to play with the technology and become familiar and comfortable with running discussion boards, embedding media, setting up announcements and alerts, as well as learning how to use the analytics. New faculty may also "shadow" a current online course, with the guidance of a mentor. All this preparation, given appropriate lead time, helps faculty to succeed online. And students recognize that the faculty member is ready to help them, starting right on Day One, to succeed in the class.

Grush: What about ongoing support, once the faculty member is established in teaching online?

Cottam: We can't simply stop at the beginning of the course and say, "Okay, you’re trained… just go ahead." It's a matter of providing, on an ongoing basis, access to experienced faculty and staff who can answer any questions and help solve problems online faculty might have. And this goes far beyond questions about the technology, to include policy and procedures as well as instructional issues.

Beyond these reactive services, we have a faculty knowledge base and a series of proactive communications — short, actionable tips and reminders to help online faculty stay on track and solve the challenges that come with teaching online.

Grush: Do you evaluate these ongoing services?

Cottam: We do provide opportunities for feedback and for collaborative efforts to improve. We don't rely on one-way communication and assume we know what's needed. We listen to what the faculty see as barriers to success, and we provide opportunities for students to give us observations at any time during the course.

Grush: Do you have any type of community for, or communication among, online faculty?

Cottam: At Webster, each of the schools has at least one person who assists online faculty. For larger enrollment courses we also have a system of course leads, who act in consort with the school and with the Online Learning Center to improve materials and instructional strategies.

Still, an important reason we need to consider the concept of community is the normally distributed nature of online faculty. In our case, with Webster University, for example, we have about 70 locations in the U.S., including our main campus in St. Louis, some satellite campuses in St. Louis, and other campuses across the country. Those who teach online may be working in multiple faculty communities, both in-person and online, with individual faculty residing in many different locations. I think our responsibility at the Online Learning Center is to help these faculty connect at the levels most appropriate for them — at the course, program, and/or school levels. Ways to do that could include anything from supporting a webinar to establishing a virtual faculty commons.

Faculty do support each other in the effective use of technology for teaching and learning. So faculty-to-faculty connections are very powerful in moving teaching and learning forward in the online environment.

Grush: Is there a role for analytics in terms of faculty success?

Cottam: Yes, actually analytics and dashboards are emerging to support faculty as well as student success. As you know, most learning management systems embed some type of analytics. You can see student login, student activity, student engagement… Toolsets are different everywhere, but just as an example, we are investigating a plug-in for our LMS that uses statistical models to indicate student performance based on data the LMS already collects. And with that, there's an opportunity for us to look at faculty performance in terms of student engagement, and in terms of student success. What faculty actions contribute to student success? I think that's an important area of investigation, given the availability of data now. The analysis of that data can help the faculty member better respond to student needs, and of course, identify how the institution might better support faculty.

I think this technology is something that can improve teaching and learning online in a way that you cannot do face-to-face. There's a great opportunity to leverage big data to make faculty more effective at teaching online.

Grush: Do you have production studios at Webster for instructors to create their own videos?

Cottam: Yes, we do have a full studio where we record and transcribe videos, create interactive presentations or game-like learning activities, build simulations — all to augment other materials that instructors are using.

Grush: Is support for online faculty a campus-wide effort?

Cottam: Supporting faculty and helping them be successful is something that requires collaboration on campus. When we talk about faculty success, we need to consider the entire university system and how its diverse constituents can work together, towards supporting the improvement of perhaps the most important contact that a student has: the faculty member.

Insofar as we can use the technology and purposefully take action throughout the institution to help faculty succeed, I think our students are going to succeed.

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