Brian Udermann, PhD
As an online administrator, I can tell you that it feels like we have been talking about ways to improve faculty buy-in for online education for the past 10 to 15 years. And we have. While online courses and degree programs are becoming more accepted and mainstream at many institutions, there’s still considerable apprehension and resistance among some faculty. This article will present four strategies to help improve faculty buy-in for online programming at your institution.
Involve faculty early and often
I began serving as the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2007, a position I still hold today. Having come up through the faculty ranks prior to accepting my administrative position, I understood how important it was to get faculty involved in the discussions my institution was starting to have about online education.
One way we accomplished this was by creating an online education advisory group and inviting faculty from the various colleges at my university to serve on that group. That certainly helped faculty feel like they had a seat at the table as we discussed initiatives and priorities related to online education.
We have also encouraged faculty involvement by recruiting them to take the lead on online initiatives or projects, such as the development of new online programs. Ideas for new online degrees often come from our faculty and they often take the lead on shepherding a new proposed online degree through what can sometimes be a tricky and even treacherous faculty governance degree approval process. Offering an incentive, such as a small stipend or a course release, can help encourage faculty to take on these additional duties.
Communicate and be transparent
Early on in my online education administrative career, I likely over-communicated with faculty and staff at my institution. However, I felt that was probably better than having our campus community wondering what was going on and questioning where things were headed with online programming.
I had been a faculty member long enough to know that some faculty (albeit often a small but vocal group) continually think that university administrators are usually up to no good and are busy plotting the demise of the institution. I believe constant communication to our faculty and staff helped alleviate some of these worries and concerns on our campus, at least related to online education.
Having been in higher education now for more than 20 years, it frightens me a bit to think about the hundreds or even thousands of meetings I’ve participated in. Whether it has been a one-to-one meeting with a faculty member or a Dean’s or Provost’s Council meeting, I’ve tried hard to never say anything that I wouldn’t mind sharing in public outside of those meetings.
Faculty appreciate it when administrators are transparent, and being an intelligent bunch, faculty can often decipher when they are being lied to or being told half-truths. Being open and transparent can help with faculty buy-in.
Focus on quality not growth
I have had many conversations over the years with faculty who were opposed to the expansion of online education on their campus because they either perceived or were told directly that the reason for such expansion was to generate revenue. If revenue generation is in fact one of the primary reasons for offering more online courses and programs, don’t try to hide it; again, transparency is important!
There are many ways to focus on quality; one is to provide high-quality professional development opportunities related to online education to faculty. These opportunities could include one-on-one consultations with instructional designers, workshops offered through an institution’s teaching center, seminars, webinars, mentoring programs where experienced online instructors are paired with instructors who are less experienced, online instructor training courses, etc.
Another common way to focus on quality is to thoroughly review online courses before they are offered. This is becoming common at colleges and universities. These reviews can be done with a quality review rubric such as Quality Matters, or many institutions are now creating their own rubric or course evaluation guidelines. These reviews can help identify weaknesses or shortcomings in a class before the course goes live with students.
One of the reasons faculty often give for not pursuing online teaching is a belief that they are not prepared to do so. Offering professional development opportunities to faculty can help them feel confident in their abilities to develop and teach an online course and should also help in growing the number of online courses and even degrees offered at your institution.
Err on the side of faculty
Administrators often have to balance faculty desires and moving forward with online education initiatives. I strongly believe that faculty can, and probably should, be the primary drivers in efforts to expand online offerings. Erring on the side of faculty has helped make this a reality at my institution. I’ll offer two examples.
The first occurred years ago when some online faculty and department chairs suggested that training should be required before faculty are allowed to teach online. It was discussed by our online advisory board (they agreed) and the recommendation was sent to our Faculty Senate. After much discussion, the Senate voted (it was contentious, and the vote was close) that training should NOT be required. Even with the Senate vote, the Provost still could have instituted a policy that would require training prior to teaching online but decided not to. The vast majority of our faculty want to be successful in their online courses, and even though it isn’t required, most (almost 300 to date) have completed our three-week online instructor training course.
The second example is related to intellectual property. Faculty at my institution can apply for and receive funding to develop online courses. The amount is $1,000 per credit for their first online course and $500 per credit for any subsequent online courses they develop. Faculty who receive this funding can sign a faculty sole ownership agreement which states they own any online course materials they develop. Those materials can’t be taken by a department chair or college dean and given to other faculty or adjuncts to teach. This intellectual property policy would be considered faculty friendly by most and has certainly helped get more of our faculty interested in teaching online.
I don’t envision there will ever come a time when all faculty will be supportive and in favor of online education. However, university administrators can take steps to enhance faculty buy-in for online programming and four ways to do that are to involve faculty early and often, communicate and be transparent, focus on quality not growth, and err on the side of faculty. Good luck as you continue with your efforts to improve faculty buy-in at your institution.