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Pennsylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University is rethinking how it trains future faculty members after doctoral students flocked to a crash course in online teaching.

The university had hoped its free, noncredit certificate program, which launched in September, would attract about 30 students interested in developing their online teaching skills. Instead, the program beat that target by a factor of ten. The university is now planning to change its existing professional development program to fit the new course’s mold, emphasizing skills-based education over seat time.

Laurence B. Boggess, director of faculty development for Penn State World Campus, the institution’s online degree and certificate division, said the interest in the program suggests this generation of graduate students sees online teaching experience as a core skill as they enter the job market.

“These graduate students who are about to go off and be the professors of the future, they get it,” Boggess said in an interview. “They understand that they’re going to be teaching online at some point, and they understand that online education -- for better or worse -- is not going anywhere. … They want to be sure that if they’re going to be competitive in the job market and get that assistant professor job, and if they’re going to be asked to teach online, that they can do it competently.”

Many colleges offer online teaching certificate programs, but most of them spread their content across multiple courses that can take several semesters to complete. World Campus also offers one of those programs, known as the Certificate for Online Teaching, a five-course series that mixes independent work with instructor-led sessions on topics such as accessibility, learning management system use, community building and more.

The Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate program, in comparison, consists of a quick, four- to five-week course, Essentials of Online Teaching and Learning, with assignments that students largely complete on their own time, plus a 75-minute webinar. The program draws from the courses required for the Certificate for Online Teaching, but the assignments are designed to simulate what students encounter in a virtual classroom. For example, students may be required to demonstrate that they can write a welcome letter or record a video, or show how they would settle an argument between two students on a discussion forum.

After filling 14 sections with a total of 350 students last fall and receiving “rave” student evaluations, World Campus is reconsidering the structure of the Certificate for Online Teaching program, Boggess said. What will likely happen, he said, is that the Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate program will replace it -- perhaps as early as next year -- and become a core class. The faculty development office will then build electives based on input from students.

Students in last fall’s pilot came from all disciplines. Boggess said he was somewhat surprised in the interest among postdoctoral fellows -- people who may never teach but are still interested in shoring up their qualifications with a credential attesting they have some experience with online instruction. (World Campus offered the credential as a digital badge, but in an ironic twist, the “vast majority [of students] wanted a piece of paper that they could put in a frame and hang,” Boggess said.)

About 60 of the roughly 350 students were scheduled to teach online this academic year. Other than that immediate benefit, Boggess said, the university is essentially using its own resources to prepare students to teach elsewhere, which he said is consistent with research universities’ commitment to graduate education.

“This is investing in the whole future of higher ed,” Boggess said. “We’re paying it forward. If that can be replicated, that just lifts all boats and all online programs and all universities.”

Penn State may have tapped into a need that many administrators and faculty members bring up when asked about the professional development programs available on their campuses. In a survey conducted last year by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies and the Learning House, about half of the surveyed administrators said their adjunct online faculty were required to complete training programs on academic policies, support services or technology use. Only about one-third said they require them to participate in sessions on effective online teaching methods.

Similarly, in an Inside Higher Ed survey conducted in partnership with Gallup in 2014, half of all surveyed faculty members said colleges don’t spend enough on training programs (versus 7 percent who said they spend too much). A handful of faculty members said a lack of training is keeping them from teaching online.

Boggess said he believes more colleges will put more money toward faculty training once they realize the revenue that online education can generate for them. He also said that, as online education becomes more mainstream, students will come to demand more from their instructors.

“Now what the country is asking is, ‘Who’s teaching?’” Boggess said. “Once they get past ‘Who are they?’ the question they go to is, ‘Are they prepared?’”

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