Motivating Faculty to Teach Online

In the second part of a series on the influence of MOOCs on faculty behavior, Marie Norman offers suggestions for how administrators can use the courses to encourage professors to teach online.

March 2, 2015

Online education continues to grow (though the breakneck pace seems to have slowed a bit of late) and an increasing number of college and university students want to take online courses. At the same time, faculty members seem reluctant to teach these courses.  

This poses a conundrum for universities, and raises an important question: What, if anything, would make the prospect of teaching online more appealing to faculty? (In the first part in this series, I explored how MOOCs can encourage good -- and bad -- habits for professors.)

While pondering this question, I had the opportunity to work with a faculty member who is developing a MOOC. (MOOCs, for the uninitiated, are massive open online courses. They are created by faculty from various institutions and offered, usually for free, through outfits like Coursera, Udacity and EdX.) The faculty member’s enthusiasm for this project highlighted to me several advantages MOOCs have when it comes to motivating faculty interest in online teaching. It’s worth looking at what these advantages are and considering what they can teach us about faculty motivation to teach online.

Faculty WIFM

The WIFM (What’s in It for Me?) factor for faculty who develop a MOOC is clear. The creation of a successful MOOC has the potential to enhance an instructor’s professional reputation through global visibility. The instructor, therefore, has a personal and professional incentive to undertake the task, finish it and do it well.

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that online courses are more time-consuming to develop and teach than face-to-face courses. Can we blame busy faculty (who juggle research, committee and teaching responsibilities) for questioning why it’s in their interest to get involved?

Universities that want to develop online programs would be wise to consider incentives, whether material or symbolic, for faculty participation.

If extra compensation or course release aren’t feasible, what about reduced committee responsibilities, extra teaching credit, summer funding and/or public recognition from university leadership?

In addition to providing incentives, universities would do well to remove disincentives. Faculty shouldn’t be penalized, for instance, if their research productivity or teaching evaluations take a temporary hit while they’re learning to manage the increased workload and adjusting to teaching in a new medium.

Institutional Support

MOOCs project the institution’s brand into the larger world. If the MOOC looks good, the university looks good. This provides a strong institutional incentive to support course development -- to provide, for example, high-quality instructional design and video production resources that help to ensure that the final product is polished and professional.

If universities want to offer high-quality online programs, they have to be ready to provide robust support for course development, including professional development for faculty and individualized help with instructional design, video production and IT. There’s a tendency within academia to think that online courses should be cheap to develop and deliver. They aren’t. Increasingly, higher levels of institutional investment are the price of admission for developing online courses and programs. It isn’t just MOOCs that carry your brand out into the world, after all.


The original mission of MOOCs was to provide high-quality education to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it. Whether MOOCs have delivered on this promise is debatable, but the altruistic goal is worth noting. Indeed, research shows that people are more motivated to engage in challenging tasks (and online course development certainly counts) if they believe the project solves a social problem or helps others.

Altruistic goals are likely to be more compelling to faculty than, well, revenue generation for the department or university. Universities might want to consider ways their online courses and programs can achieve “prosocial” objectives so as to more effectively enlist faculty interest and passion. Perhaps this could be through projects that explicitly seek to reach more diverse student audiences, broaden educational access or improve educational quality. After all, what faculty may be reluctant to do for administrators they may be happy to do for students.

Models of successful courses

There are hundreds of inventively produced and effective MOOCs available for viewing. Being able to see these courses helps faculty understand both what the task of producing a MOOC involves and what the final product can look like. This visibility into MOOCs helps to get faculty thinking creatively about what’s possible and generates excitement about the task.

Faculty teaching tuition-bearing courses need visibility into similar kinds of courses taught online. Many faculty have never taken an online course. Without models, they have difficulty imagining what their own courses would look like online, which makes taking on the task of online course development more mysterious and intimidating than it need be. In my experience, one of the best ways to get faculty excited about teaching online is to show them effective online courses in their own or related disciplines.

What can universities do? Find ways to model online teaching, perhaps by offering professional development workshops that are themselves online. Or increase visibility into your own online offerings by showcasing the work of some of your most successful and creative online faculty.

A Smaller Task

MOOCs tend to be shorter than full-length courses (often 6 to 8 weeks instead of 14 to 15 weeks). The condensed format makes creating a MOOC a somewhat more manageable (though still significant) task than creating a full-length course. MOOCs also allow faculty to focus a bit more narrowly on the development of video assets without the full component of course materials (e.g., classroom activities, assessments) a credit-bearing course would require.  

Developing a fully online, full-semester course is a big job, especially if it involves creating a lot of original content -- videos in particular. If universities are unable to give faculty course releases for developing online classes, they might try to spread the work over several semesters to make it more manageable, or encourage faculty to start with a flipped or partially flipped course before going fully online. Departments might also think about a collaborative approach, enlisting small group of faculty to work together on a single course so there’s less work for any one of them.  

Why Faculty Motivation Matters

Faculty engagement in online course development is necessary if universities are to meet market demand. But more importantly, faculty engagement is a requirement for academic quality. Not only is the energy, creativity and expertise of faculty a prerequisite for developing dynamic, rigorous courses, but abundant research also shows that continued faculty involvement and a strong sense of instructor presence is critical for student learning, motivation and persistence in online programs.

We need to think hard about faculty motivations online, in other words. And thinking about the factors that make faculty want to make MOOCs isn’t a bad place to start.


Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company, and coauthor of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010).


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