A new academic fairy tale goes something like this.
Once upon a time there was a great faculty member who had been lecturing to her class for 25 years. She was smart, entertaining and interesting. One day, the president of her university told her they were going to flip the classroom. In a flash, she placed much of her material online, along with interesting videos and other material and, in class, she cleverly led the discussion among students, always making sure to speak far less than her students.
The reality? It doesn’t always work out that way.
In an attempt to control costs, colleges across the country are requiring faculty members to teach at least one online course each semester and many colleges may favor in hiring or promotion those with online teaching experience. This works when faculty members are given proper support to succeed. Online education is inherently a technology communication platform that offers another method for student instruction. It is up to the instructor to make it great. But, even after many years of online programs, many instructors still don’t have the necessary tools to move to an online format.
Too often the transition from classroom to online or blended learning is difficult. Articulate faculty members steeped in traditional classroom instruction may find their style translates poorly to an online environment or a videotaped lecture. Being able to “act” for a videotaped lecture is not a typical requirement for a professor’s CV.
It is up to academic administrators to not only instruct students in online courses, but also to teach faculty members how to be effective online instructors. As a first step we need to communicate about why we are considering flipping classrooms or introducing or increasing online instruction. Research and thought pieces about how new instructional methods impact student learning should be shared with faculty.
Instructors should be involved in university decisions about changing classroom education, integrating new technologies, and building the step-by-step process to make this happen. Unless we manage change well, our most respected faculty members will vote with their feet, leaving for other positions, and colleges and universities risk losing their most valuable resources.
Online education needs to work closely with educational technology teams to enable faculty members to translate their classroom courses to new blended or online learning environments. Focused training should include how to set up online courses, how to use the university learning management system for online courses (LMS) and discussions about new software tools that can be used to enhance online learning.
Peer-to-peer learning can enable translating strategies into best practice in online courses. Consider the learning opportunity in webinars for information sharing and remote train-the-trainer courses for new and experienced online faculty.
By partnering with department chairs, colleges can reinforce the role of faculty and ensure that non-traditional courses are integrated into the department’s academic goals and strategies. And colleges can show that they are committed to faculty success in online education by providing release time or incentive pay to those willing to create new online courses, mentor colleagues less familiar with distance education, or offer webinars to share best practices with other faculty teaching online.
Faculty may be offered a small monetary incentive the first time they teach an online course to encourage them to try this new delivery platform and to compensate them for any extra work involved.
Universities can show they value excellence in online education by evaluating online, as well as classroom teaching, as part of faculty review for promotion or tenure.
Faculty members are the university’s unique selling point and most important competitive advantage.
But many professors have been pushing back against the mega-move to online education as a matter of misconceived self-preservation: Although professors define a university’s identity, some professors may believe their institutions will replace them with online education solutions and they will be out of a job.
That’s not likely, even from the narrow perspective of a university’s self-interest.
First, colleges are not about to fire their full-time tenured instructors or even lower their salaries and replace them with online courses that require no faculty presence. The massive lawsuits and other complications that would arise make this unrealistic. And most colleges respect and value their professors.
Second, colleges are not likely to rent out space in their classrooms, let buildings lie abandoned, or repurpose all classrooms to other academic use space as students lie in their beds watching online classes.
Finally, there is a false belief that, as colleges pursue cost savings, they will purchase material from one of the small numbers of MOOCs – massive open online courses – or another for-profit course material producer and offer it to their students. Colleges that buy courses from the same relatively small resource pool would rapidly lose their distinctiveness and unique pedagogical selling points, unless faculty remained involved and transformed static online material to a dynamic learning experience.
No, those beautiful old colleges won’t fade away. Parents are willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their children’s education because they believe university-based education is the key to the future. Educational magic is created by great faculty members who provide the knowledge and tools students must acquire to reach their goals. To make that happen we need to ensure that instructors receive the training they need to be most-effective in the rapidly changing educational landscape.
Marian Stoltz-Loike is vice president of online education at the Touro College and University System.