License to Teach

Saint Mary's College of California introduces a "Digital Driver's License" for faculty members teaching online. It may become a requirement for teaching in its business school at all.

November 14, 2014

If you want to teach an online course in the Saint Mary’s College of California business school in a few years, you’d better get your license. The School of Economics and Business Administration will soon require its faculty members to be certified to teach online -- if they want to teach at all.

Faculty who enroll in the program, which launches Monday, will come away one quarter later with what the business school calls a “Digital Driver’s License.” The program will teach them how to use screen capture, podcasting, voice grading and other technologies in their classrooms, but most importantly, it will help them become self-sufficient online instructors, said Barry Eckhouse, the professor behind the idea.

“It’s not going to happen on its own,” Eckhouse, the business school’s director of technology and online programs, said. “It struck me that without something systematic in place that would certify as much as possible that our faculty who go into these online environments are prepared ... we would have no reason to believe they’re going to be able to do a good job.”

The business school will certify 34 faculty members over the next two years -- six per quarter. Before those two years are up, Eckhouse said, he believes all of the school’s programs will have been hybridized, meaning half of the instruction will be delivered online, the other half face-to-face. That effectively means faculty members need to have earned their license if they want to teach at all. (Update: In an email, a university spokesman said hybridizing every program is Eckhouse's personal prediction, and that it "is not the plan of the administration.")

“In another year or so, they’re not going to have a choice of teaching online or not,” Eckhouse said. “They’re either going to teach online or not at all. That’s where we’re going, for better and worse.”

The business school is investing in a service many faculty members nationwide believe is going underfunded -- if it exists at all. As more colleges and universities expand their hybrid and distance education offerings, training faculty to teach students not physically in the classroom -- and to use the technologies that will enable that form of delivery -- will continue to rise in importance. Although most faculty are satisfied with the development and training programs their institutions offer today, a recent Inside Higher Ed survey suggests they feel campus IT offices need more resources to prepare instructors for those challenges.

Saint Mary’s, like many institutions in California, is “maxed out,” Eckhouse said. The college physically can’t fit any more students on its campus, which is located about 30 minutes outside San Francisco. To alleviate its growing pains, the business school in 2006 began to flip its programs, reducing the time spent in the classroom.

“I think there are a lot of institutions in this very position where they need to grow but there’s no space to grow -- in a traditional sense,” Eckhouse said. “It’s hard stacking buildings on top of buildings or digging underneath them. [Hybridizing programs] seems to be a good solution to an otherwise pretty difficult challenge.”

The business school decided flip some of its programs after seeing course evaluations, Eckhouse said. Not only do the hybrid programs give the school room to grow, but students have also rated courses with faculty-produced digital resources more highly than face-to-face courses. By requiring faculty members to be certified before they teach hybrid courses, the school hopes to standardize that experience.

“Because the growth has been so rapid, I don’t think that we really had a chance to look at how well our faculty are prepared to teach in this relatively new environment -- relatively new to a lot of them,” Eckhouse said. “The idea is to take what some of our faculty have done very, very well and ensure as much as we can that that applies to every class experience.”

The requirement is also motivated by competition, said Zhan Li, dean of the business school. The landscape of online business education -- particularly M.B.A. programs -- is growing more diverse as institutions market their programs to students looking for a specific type of program. Saint Mary’s, Li said, will emphasize its mission as a teaching college.

“Saint Mary’s has been known for teaching excellence in a face-to-face fashion for 150 years,” Li said. “We want to deliver high-quality teaching both online and face-to-face, and for that to happen our faculty have to have the right skills and capabilities.”

The business school could have signed its faculty members up for any one of the number of online teaching certification programs available online. Instead Eckhouse was able to secure funding for a new digital media center, housed in the business school, so the program could be managed in-house. “I think if we decided to make it a peripheral option, it would be considered as having peripheral importance,” he said.

Eckhouse and Li acknowledged the response to the new requirement has been mixed, but they also pointed out that some faculty members had to be turned away from the session starting Monday. “We would not be living in a university environment if we didn’t have different opinions,” Li said.

The business school is at least offering an incentive. Although faculty members won’t be able to get certified in lieu of teaching a course, they will receive a stipend equivalent to a half-course overload, Eckhouse said. “The compensation is more symbolic, and I think it’s important,” he said. “It says the college thinks it’s significant, and we’re prepared to pay you for your time to become proficient.”


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