Teaching Online Professors ... Online

Pearson plans to join small group of providers selling online courses aimed at instructors shifting to digital environment.
November 10, 2010

Will colleges and universities buy online courses designed to train the instructors who teach online courses?

Pearson, the education and media conglomerate, is betting on it. The company will announce today a plan to sell courses aimed at preparing professors to teach online.

As more traditional institutions look to scale up their online offerings, Pearson -- which already sells some pre-packaged courses, as well as textbooks and online learning platforms — sees demand for training rising. “We’re pretty bullish on the opportunity," says Don Kilburn, CEO of Pearson Learning Solutions. “There’s a real need to help.”

Pearson officials say the target audience for the new courses, scheduled to be offered beginning in January, will be institutions and systems looking to outsource training of existing faculty as they grow their Web-based programs, as well as freelancers looking to bolster their résumés as they apply for adjunct gigs. The company is also hoping to team up with one or more accredited graduate programs to offer the courses as part of a degree — or at least a certificate — in online teaching.

The move is part of Pearson’s strategy to expand beyond publishing into more segments of the e-learning industry — not unlike Blackboard, which recently announced that it will soon start packaging and selling remedial education courses to community colleges in conjunction with another e-learning company, K-12.

Like Blackboard’s remedial courses, Pearson’s courses in online teaching are still in development. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System is piloting some of the courses, but it is only two weeks in — and while Pearson has provided a good foundation, there is still tweaking to be done before the courses are shelf-ready, says Tammy Hall, director of academic services there.

Still, a preliminary menu available on Pearson’s website lists eight course titles: Introduction to Online Learning, Instructor Technology Preparation, Instructional Design for Online Learning, Promoting Student Success in the Online Learning Environment, Assessing Knowledge and Skills in the Online Learning Environment, Beyond the Online Classroom, Online Teaching Internship, and Course Design/Project Practicum.

The company plans to market the courses in the K-12 and corporate training sectors too, but it plans to do about half of its business in higher education, Kilburn says.

Many higher ed institutions with large online enrollments — including the University of Phoenix, the largest employer of online instructors — run their own training programs. But there are a few third-party providers that handle online instructor training, both for individuals and for institutions.

One is the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit that focuses on technology and online education. Sloan runs nearly 100 workshops, averaging about a week in length and costing $400 to $500 each for individuals or $3,500 for a 100-seat institutional license. It provides online training for around 2,500 instructors per year, according to John Bourne, the organization’s executive director.

Another nonprofit, called LERN, offers a three-course sequence, plus course materials, for about $800 per head. LERN has found an accredited partner in the University of South Dakota, which offers a handful of LERN courses in online instruction for credit toward a master’s degree in educational administration. Outside of that, the organization handles online teacher training for a number of institutions, including Middle Tennessee State University, Missouri Baptist University, New Mexico State University, Norfolk State University, and several University of Texas campuses, according to Tammy Peterson, head of customer service at LERN.

Kilburn, the Pearson executive, says it is too early to estimate how his company will price its courses. But it is hoping to attract not only institutions looking to grow online that lack any scalable training mechanism for faculty, but also institutions that already do online instructor training in-house that might decide it is cheaper or more effective to outsource that task to Pearson. “I do think there will be some folks who have their own in-house programs who will look at [our offering] and evaluate it,” Kilburn says.

As for selling the courses to accredited colleges, Kilburn says about a dozen institutions currently offer comparable courses as part of their teaching curriculums. Given the demand for online teachers, Pearson anticipates that plenty of programs would be interested in adding such courses.

Hall, the director of the program at Louisiana Community and Technical College System, which is running the Pearson pilot, says she thinks that the benefit of such courses may lie not so much in their content, but in the opportunity to get online instructors in a virtual environment together, talking about best practices. Online instructors, especially adjuncts that teach exclusively online, tend to be isolated, Hall says, and that isolation deprives them of the ability to casually talk shop with their colleagues.

“It’s not only the content that we think is important, it’s that sense of community,” she says. “And I think you can do that better in a six-course sequence than in a one-hour or one-day orientation.”

Besides, Hall adds, the experience of taking online courses is likely to make instructors better at administering them. “They have to know,” she says, “what students are experiencing.”

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