Teaching Teachers to Teach Online

Colleges use a variety of strategies to train subject-matter experts in effective online instruction. One surprise: in-person training is huge.

October 11, 2017
 
Arizona State University

At Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, Robert Zotti and his team give professors who teach online countless formal and informal training opportunities.

“We make the rounds, pop into offices, ask how everything is going,” said Zotti, assistant dean of Stevens’s WebCampus, noting he and his staff make a lot of “house calls.” “We’ll have a webinar or a lunch and learn. If they need one-on-one training, we’ll do it. Whatever it takes.”

For years colleges and universities have employed a wide array of programs and strategies to prepare instructors to teach online courses, or to elevate the skills of online veterans. Administrators told “Inside Digital Learning” that during the past five years the types of training have greatly expanded in order to deal with the growing limitations on educators’ time.

Institutions don’t require, although they strongly encourage, full- and part-time instructors to participate, and they attempt to make the training relatively painless. “We try not to rock their world entirely,” said Edward Bailey, online media production lead in professional education at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Online Training

Many institutions offer a combination of formal and informal training for online instructors. Not surprisingly, most provide self-paced online courses and modules on a plethora of topics, including how to effectively engage students, keep discussion board conversations on topic and proctor online exams.

Some also provide instructors answers to an abundance of frequently asked questions. Babson College's business school, for instance, maintains a robust Q&A section in its learning management system, said Phillip H. Kim, associate professor of entrepreneurship and faculty director of the blended learning M.B.A. program.

Since 2000, Arizona State University has offered a two-week, eight-hour-per-week master class. Marc Van Horn, ASU’s chief online learning officer and assistant vice president for ASU EdPlus, said that the most important aspect of the master class is that instructors experience what it’s like to be an online student.

“It’s a real eye-opening experience,” he said. “They have to participate in discussion boards, take quizzes and submit a paper, all online.”

Arizona State, which has one of the nation’s largest online efforts in terms of number of courses and learners, also offers a fully online workshop four times per year in which a total of 400 instructors view on-demand tutorials and 30-minute live webcasts, as well as exchanging ideas and information on forums, said Vicki Harmon, instructional designer and manager of professional development.

In-Person Events

More surprising is the number of face-to-face training events institutions sponsor for online instructors. Fanshawe College, in Ontario, for example, offers a one-week residential workshop for all new instructors at the main campus in London as well as those at satellite campuses. The program provides tips for effectively using the college’s LMS and for teaching online courses, said Jason J. Kerr, Fanshawe’s technology training coordinator for organizational development and learning.

Likewise, Babson’s business school arranges a biannual refresher workshop so full- and part-time online M.B.A. faculty members can learn new skills and ask questions about difficult situations they’re facing, Kim said.

At Florida International University, a “really big” all-day, once-a-year conference attracts 250 online instructors who partake in hands-on training, said Gus Roque, educational technology manager at FIU Online. FIU Online also runs a structured professional development course for instructors who teach hybrid courses. The university’s strategic goal is to better utilize space, so it’s converting all first-year courses to a hybrid format, Roque said.

Arizona State offers 65 to 75 in-person workshops annually on topics including effective online pedagogy, Van Horn said.

Instructor Gatherings

Most officials interviewed for this article said that some of the best training takes place when online instructors come together to discuss challenges and share best practices. Some of these gatherings take place at scheduled workshops, and others informally in department meetings and campus cafeterias.

“We have a smaller college with 3,000 students, so faculty know each other,” Kim, of Babson, said. “We run into each other because we eat in the student dining hall a couple of times a week … or we simply pick up the phone and talk.”

Zotti said the same about Stevens. “We have the benefit of being a small school,” he said. “We know the faculty very well. Having rapport with the faculty for a long time pays off in tangible and intangible ways.”

Asking professors to share experiences one on one or in groups is common at all the institutions contacted by “Inside Digital Learning.” For example, Georgia Tech offers a new-instructor orientation course three to four times per year, and invites faculty members who are the “rock stars of online” to provide advice to their colleagues, Bailey said.

“Our best asset is our faculty advocates,” he added. “Faculty tend to listen to other faculty rather than us. Professors can share what’s worked.”

At ASU, online instructors are encouraged to attend a once-a-year showcase to share their successes. The two-hour session attracts 60 to 80 people. “We are trying to promote a sense of community,” Harmon said. Those who participate also are asked to produce a video of their presentation and post it on the online instructors’ webpage.

Instructional Designer Assistance

Besides online and in-person activities, instructional designers play a key role in training faculty members. At Florida International, every online instructor is assigned to work with a designer.

“We try to do the heavy lifting for the faculty so they don’t have to be the Blackboard expert” in addition to being the content-matter expert, Roque said. “The instructional designer takes ownership of the course. They want to offer solutions to the faculty.”

And the contact doesn’t end once the course is created. “The phone calls and emails with instructional designers are constant,” he said.

But, Roque noted, while some instructors work closely with designers, others never tap into their expertise. Florida International isn’t alone here: this was a common remark from those interviewed for this article.

Constant Challenges

Despite voluminous online and face-to-face training opportunities, colleges and universities still struggle to get significant numbers of full- and part-time instructors to participate. “Instructors have plenty of stories about how much research they are doing, how many classes they are teaching,” Zotti said.

“The biggest challenge is time, especially when dealing with adjunct faculty,” said Kerr, of Fanshawe College. “If they are teaching online, they are not around” on campus.

Kerr said some of Fanshawe’s part-time online instructors live in Canadian cities that aren’t near campus -- and they hail from as far away as Florida and overseas. He noted that his team conducts one-on-one training with those instructors via screen-sharing platforms.

Because of instructors’ time restraints, Fanshawe is considering converting workshops at its main and satellite campuses to customized sessions and lunch-and-learn events, Kerr said.

Stevens once had a “near compulsory” training program for online instructors, but now it’s more informal, Zotti said, adding that he’s hopeful for more requirements. “We expect to see it come back in baby steps,” he said.

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