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Online Professional Development: 3 Ways to Keep Faculty Coming Back for More

For students to succeed in online learning, faculty must be encouraged to go back to class themselves.

professor working on laptop

Students are back in class, but colleges and universities face another challenge: how to get faculty to come back to class – as students.

The faculty development unit of Penn State World Campus was created in 2008 with the goal of getting faculty members to take the one and only course we offered at the time: Essentials of Online Teaching, or OL 2000.

But as Penn State's online offerings have expanded over the years, our faculty development goals have also evolved – from a "one-and-done" approach to a new mission of career-long professional development.

World Campus Faculty Development now offers 17 different courses free of charge to Penn State faculty, staff and graduate students, as well as six certificates, including a Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate and our newest offering, a certificate in Course Authoring.

Constant technological advances mean that the online teaching and learning environment is always changing, and faculty who teach online need stay up-to-date. But technology isn't the only reason that ongoing professional development matters for online instructors. Online education attracts a different student demographic than on-campus learning. Students range from 18 years old to senior citizens and represent many cultures and subgroups. Courses we offer such as "Serving the Military and Veteran Student," "Teaching the Adult Learner" and "Teaching the International Student" help our faculty be as prepared as possible to meet the needs of the students they will be facing. We believe that creates a better student experience, which leads to greater student success and retention.

Incentives that Work

Penn State first started offering online courses in 1998 and now has 20,000-plus students from 85 countries enrolled in more than 150 degree and certificate programs. The university leads the way in faculty development for online educators. But faculty members work for their individual departments, not for World Campus, so we can't mandate that anyone take our courses. How do we convince faculty to take professional development courses – and come back for more? Interest in that dilemma is high across many higher ed institutions – a presentation I made on online professional development at last year's OLC Accelerate conference drew a standing-room-only crowd. Here are some incentives Penn State uses to encourage faculty to take time out of their busy lives to improve the online teaching and learning environment:

1) Certificates

More than 1,300 faculty members and graduate students, including more than 200 faculty members, have earned at least one certificate through World Campus Faculty Development. A few dozen have earned two certificates, and some have even earned three. More than 500 other faculty and grad students have taken classes but not yet earned a certificate.

More than 1,250 graduate students have enrolled in the free class OL 2050: Essentials of Online Teaching for Graduate Students, which many students see as an important CV builder in the 21st century job market.

2) Advising

An advising program for online instructors – set up to mimic the advising program for World Campus students – helps faculty decide which courses to take and certificates to pursue. Last year, I made almost 4,000 individual contacts in an effort to build relationships and create personal connections with faculty members.

A course snapshot, similar to the one students see, tells faculty which courses they have registered for and completed, as well as which certificates the completed courses fit into and what they need to do to finish those certificates.

3) Financial Incentives

While World Campus can't require faculty to complete professional development courses, individual departments can and do. Penn State's colleges of Liberal Arts and Earth and Mineral Sciences, for example, require faculty who want to teach online to take OL 2000: Essentials of Online Teaching. The College of Health and Human Development offers faculty members a $500 incentive for completing an OL certificate program.

Another financial incentive is the opportunity for faculty who complete the four-course Foundations for Online Teaching Certificate to become paid OL instructors, teaching other faculty.

With the help of these incentives, World Campus Faculty Development had more than 1,000 course enrollments in both 2018 and 2017, and we are on track to exceed that number in 2019. Hundreds of faculty and graduate students are going back to class — endorsing our belief that ongoing professional development can make a valuable contribution to their careers.

About the Author

Shawna Cassick, Senior Program Associate & Faculty Adviser, Penn State World Campus Faculty Development, is responsible for managing new and ongoing projects and programs, coordinating unit projects, goals, and timelines, overseeing data management, and consulting with faculty on professional development training for career-long success.

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