Should Online Instructors Be Online Students?

Two-thirds of faculty members responding to an annual Inside Higher Ed survey say they’ve never taken an online course. Do they need that experience to be capable online instructors?

November 1, 2017
 
Michael Goldberg
Michael Goldberg, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University who also teaches online, leads an in-person workshop.

One in three instructors who responded to Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology said they have taken online courses for credit -- but 67 percent of the respondents said they had not.

Those numbers, which haven’t fluctuated much in the last few years of the annual survey, conducted in conjunction with Gallup, point to an ongoing debate in online education circles about the value of instructors taking online courses.

“Ideally it would be great for an online instructor to have taken an online class,” said Susan Yochum, provost at Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania. But, she added, “the biggest issue is our faculty have a lot of responsibilities, a heavy teaching load. It’s really a time issue.”

“Inside Digital Learning” spoke to several instructors about the paths they took to teaching online, including some who have taken online courses for credit and others who have not. Those who had studied online said in large part they benefited from the experience and gained more empathy for the student perspective. Those who hadn’t, though, said they found other ways to garner that experience.

Even some who had taken online courses were reluctant to argue that doing so should be mandatory. The instructors and other experts agreed, however, that learning how to teach online doesn’t end once teaching begins.

“There’s a constant need for teachers, no matter the modality, to be upskilling all the time so they can provide the best student learning experience,” said Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium.

Firsthand Experience

Instructors who have taken online courses said they applied lessons they learned from their own experiences to their online pedagogy.

Jenna Lenhardt, assistant director of student services and outreach at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has been teaching online courses in the institution’s business college since 2015. This past March, she acquired her doctoral degree at Capella University -- entirely online. She used her recent experience in the online classroom as a selling point in job interviews with her current employer. She emphasized vibrant discussions and clearly elucidated expectations in her own teaching, modeled after what she experienced at Capella.

“If you’re asking questions and getting excited about things and going above and beyond, it’s likely your students will do the same thing,” Lenhardt said.

She also took an online course a decade ago while pursuing her master’s degree in higher education administration from Appalachian State University. That course focused, fittingly, on how to teach effectively online, and laid a strong foundation for her later online teaching, she said.

Setting her own pace and schedule in an asynchronous format was “awkward” at times in the first online course she took, Lenhardt said. She hadn’t had much exposure to active learning, which meant the instructor’s expectations departed from what she was accustomed to.

“Instead of somebody just lecturing at me and me just having to write notes, I had to participate. I had to question my assumptions around things,” Lenhardt said. “That was just, as a learner, a very drastic transition,” but a necessary one as she moved beyond the traditional lecture format.

Even with the benefits she’s gleaned, however, Lenhardt thinks it’s possible to be a successful online instructor without having taken an online course. Some instructors, she said, learn best using different tools.

“As long as people are willing to go through trainings, even experience a short training online themselves, I think that that would be very valuable,” Lenhardt said.

Taking two online certificate courses through the Online Learning Consortium gave Peggy Semingson, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Arlington, a window into the minds of her students.

“Meeting the deadlines of the homework was actually a challenge,” said Semingson, who teaches entirely online. “It surprised me because I’m always nagging my students about deadlines, and here I was working on things at 11 p.m.”

She enrolled in the certification program thanks to a nudge from her institution, which provided funding for her course fees. The institution no longer offers that benefit, however.

Taking online courses is far from the only path to becoming a better online instructor, though. Michael Goldberg, assistant professor of design and innovation at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, scanned platforms like Coursera, edX and NovoEd to size up existing entrepreneurship courses -- “opposition research,” he calls it. He quickly discovered that few were treading the same territory as his online course on growing entrepreneurship and transitioning economies.

Goldberg’s research revealed that much of the video offerings in other online courses were outdated, and he set out to incorporate more graphics and dynamic content to make his course more engaging. Skimming online courses helped him establish priorities, but he said he didn’t see a need to finish the full courses.

Avoiding Preconceived Notions

Marva Solomon, associate professor of education at Angelo State University in Texas, told “Inside Digital Learning” she has actively avoided taking an online course during her four years of teaching online, because she didn’t want to inadvertently absorb someone else’s teaching style into her own courses.

“Since I am in education, there’s almost that idea of, if you’ve been taught that way, that’s the way you teach,” she said.

Instead, to prepare for her new teaching medium, Solomon enrolled in a weekly Digital Pedagogy Lab from the University of Mary Washington, as well as a few Blackboard training courses. Taking an online class, however, hasn’t seemed worthwhile, she said.

Jo Hopp, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, sought advice from friends and colleagues who had taught online, including her husband, who completed his degree entirely online at Stout. She’s continued to make changes to her course midstream, even soliciting ideas for improvements from students, but she hasn’t felt the need to enroll in an online course.

To Hopp, teaching online isn’t fundamentally different from teaching face-to-face -- most of the goals are the same, even if the delivery method varies. “Online teachers need to care about how their students are learning, just like face-to-face instructors do, and make necessary adjustments to support student learning,” she said.

Some instructors would take an online course but struggle to find the time and resources. Angela Wiseman, associate professor of literacy education at North Carolina State University, has taught hybrid courses for about four years. She said she’s open to enrolling in an online course, but she’s not sure when she could squeeze it in. (Her institution hasn’t required her to take an online course.)

“I do think I’ve been self-taught to do a lot of stuff. I don’t need to look at every online class,” Wiseman said. “But there’s plenty I could learn.”

A Multitude of Paths

The number of instructors who have taken online courses might not increase much in the years to come, given the proliferation of online training programs hosted by individual institutions, according to OLC’s Buban. Those programs are more “generic” than an actual online course, she said, but they also have broad appeal.

“These onboarding and training programs are so comprehensive that they really provide a background and foundation that faculty need to be effective,” Buban said.

Yochum hopes to eventually require Seton Hill’s online instructors to engage in a peer audit of an online course taught by a colleague at the university. But constraints on faculty members’ time have prevented that policy from taking hold, she said.

In the meantime, new online instructors at Seton Hill are required to enroll in a virtual academy designed by one of the institution’s two instructional designers. They also collaborate with an instructional designer when creating an online course, and can solicit feedback from that person and from students after the course has launched.

Still, Yochum sees value in instructors assuming the student perspective. It’s easier for instructors to understand how long assignments and activities should take when they’ve done online assignments themselves, Yochum said.

“I think when you become the student yourself, you obviously learn a lot in terms of looking at it from different learning style perspectives,” she said.

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