Teaching to Teach

A conference on online learning promises "A Universe of Opportunities," and attendees interested in faculty development are getting their money's worth.

November 22, 2013

ORLANDO -- "A Universe of Opportunities" -- the tagline for the Sloan Consortium's International Conference on Online Learning -- is also an apt description of the glut of different faculty development models presented here so far.

Over the course of three days, attendees at the Sloan-C conference face a series of dilemmas when deciding which of the almost 500 sessions -- most of which run concurrently -- to attend. In addition to sessions belonging to the broadly defined technology and emerging learning environments track, instructional designers and other conference-goers have flocked to the more than 100 sessions on how to prepare faculty members to teach online.

Why? “We’re all struggling with the same challenges,” said Lujean Baab, senior director for networked learning design and strategies at Virginia Tech.

The interest in sessions devoted to faculty development echoes the findings in the 2013 Campus Computing Survey, released in October, in which 79 percent of respondents rated faculty training as “very important.”

Jason Rhode, director of distributed learning at Northern Illinois University, said course and faculty development often go hand in hand, which could explain why so many attendees crammed into the breakout sessions to hear how other institutions are training their instructors.

“I’m seeing more of a focus on some of these higher levels of training, support, and not so much on the technology,” Rhode said. “If you’re doing faculty development in an institution -- if you have that in place -- it enables you to have successful programs, to have quality courses.”

Several presenters at the Sloan-C conference pointed out that the growing popularity of online education is causing more faculty members to come to terms with the shortcomings of their own teaching styles, which may not always translate to an online audience.

“I think we’re just becoming more and more aware of the fact that faculty who are subject matter experts are not necessarily teachers,” Baab said. “They are a product of the education that they had, where faculty were standing with their back to them writing on the board. Who taught them how to teach? No one.”

Turning Professors Into Students

Although the number of models presented at the conference so far is almost as large as the number of sessions, one idea presented itself in almost every session: treating instructors as students.

In a session called “Back to School: What Happens When Faculty Experience Online Education From a Student's Perspective?, Joanne Dolan of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay described the impact of a (voluntary) online faculty fellows program designed to introduce soon-to-be online instructors to the university’s learning management system and digital pedagogy.

“A lot of faculty have never faced that moment of cold, sweaty fear when they log on to an online course and don’t know what to do first,” said Dolan, instructional design coordinator for the advancement of teaching and learning at Green Bay. “We try to give them that.”

The four-week course, for which participating faculty members receive a cash stipend, challenges would-be instructors’ assumptions about elements of course design and strategy, such as navigation, how much discussion to encourage or require, and whether and to what extent to depend on group work.

She recounted numerous moments when instructors had their assumptions challenged through their experience on the other end of the faculty-student relationship – sometimes because of very purposeful decisions by Dolan as the training course’s creator.

“I will often do things that are not best practice, to see if they’ll notice. Sometimes I’ll hide things just a little, in a place that seems logical to me but maybe isn’t obvious.  And they’ll say, ‘I can’t find this week’s assignment,’ and when I show them where it is, faculty really start to understand how easy it is to get lost in an online course.”

Wisconsin-Green Bay has set up its Desire2Learn software to allow instructors, but not students, to revise their posts in discussion groups. When they are taking the training course, instructors will realize they’ve misspelled a word or badly explained a concept and want to change them – and that may make them slightly more forgiving of errors in students’ own posts.

Some of the instructors-turned-students also find themselves getting overwhelmed by the dozens of unread posts, which has them to consider changing the number of posts they require students to make and read or respond to, Dolan said. And they also notice it when Dolan herself stops participating in the discussion groups.

“They’ll notice it right away and start to complain,” she said. “They’ll talk about how lonely it felt -- how they felt, 'What's the point?' ” Those kinds of experiences makes “some faculty who had never done discussion tiptoe in. We’ve had others back off.”

Dolan also has discovered that faculty members hate group work just as much as many students do. Instructors in the class have found it difficult to find times when everyone is available to participate synchronously, and she also felt at times like she “needed to go in and start handing out detention passes.”

That was particularly true when one instructor, frustrated by a colleague not doing a fair share of the work, said: “Maybe we need to vote someone off the island.”

Yet other institutions have found that faculty perform better when they answer to their peers, Baab said during her session, titled “Faculty on the Fast Track: Efficient Effective Development and Design for Faculty Creating and Teaching Online Courses.”

“They will be responsive to each other because they understand each other,” Baab said. “They understand if they don’t put in their work so their peer reviewer can move on, they’re holding up someone else with the same time constraints they have.”

Dolan believes the course can continue to be improved, especially by moving more of it online; right now the course meets in person once a week for an intensive session, and some of the participants hold back their thorniest problems and questions until the in-person meeting. “It would be more authentic if we met less – we want them to struggle, and to have to make those links like their students do.”

But all in all, the course is effective, she said, in proving that “sometimes it’s better to go back to being a student so you can see the world the way they do.”

On Their Own Time

While many institutions compensate instructors for attending training sessions, some have found that faculty members have a hard time breaking away from their existing commitments. And even if they find time to enroll in a faculty development program, many instructors spend more than one semester completing it.

“We do a really bad job at saying, ‘You have no idea how much work we just asked you to do,’ ” said Kevin Crow, assistant professor of educational design and technology at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Northern Illinois therefore spent 18 months developing a self-paced program to weed out faculty members who -- like the thousands of students who sign up, then drop out of massive open online courses -- were curious but ultimately not interested in teaching their courses online.

“With tighter budgets, faculty are being asked to do more with less, and so we want to be cognizant of that too,” Rhode said.

The program involves completing six modules on the basics of online education and a handful of electives on topics such as videoconferencing and presentation tools, and can either be completed for a certificate or accessed for background information. Faculty members can access the modules through the university's Blackboard app in the same way students access their courses. As the program is self-paced, those pursuing certificates have no other requirements than finishing within a semester.

Completing the program could become a threshold that faculty members need to reach in order to discuss specific plans for online courses, Rhode said.

“From that point, we could have those conversations that wouldn’t have to be repeating that same information in multiple ways,” Rhode said. The faculty development program would then move to face-to-face workshops and eventually one-on-one conferences.

Northern Illinois piloted the program this summer and is spending the next several months evaluating the results and making changes.

“We’re really hoping we can train more faculty, because we’ll be free to serve a larger number of faculty,” Rhode said.

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Carl Straumsheim
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