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How Financial Incentives Can Jumpstart Instructor Training

How Financial Incentives Can Jumpstart Instructor Training

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

One barrier for many faculty who want to develop and teach online courses is a feeling that they don’t have the knowledge, skills and abilities to effectively adapt their face-to-face course for an online format or to develop a new online course from scratch. They often report feeling overwhelmed and not knowing how to get started. To help counter this barrier, a majority of institutions now offer online instructor training courses, or similar professional development opportunities, to better equip and prepare faculty to teach online. These courses, often facilitated by instructional designers, place faculty in the role of online student, offering firsthand experience of what it’s like being a student in an online course. This experience is often
invaluable, giving faculty members the confidence to develop their first online course.

These online teaching preparation courses make it less likely that faculty will venture out into the world of online teaching completely unprepared, which, not too many years ago, happened all too often. I started teaching online ten years ago, prior to my institution offering any professional development opportunities related to online education. In all honesty, I was one of those completely unprepared faculty. With many years and many lessons, and a strong commitment to seeking student feedback and continually tweaking my courses, things have turned out OK.

My institution has been offering a three-week intensive online instructor training course, twice a year, for about four years now. On average, approximately 20 faculty sign up each time it is offered. The first few times the course was offered there was no financial incentive to take it. Approximately 50 percent of those who enrolled in the course completed it and for one of the offerings, only three out of 15 faculty who signed up successfully finished it. We learned that faculty have many of the same excuses as the students they teach for missing deadlines or turning in shoddy assignments!

Two years ago, we started offering faculty $500 if they successfully completed the training. Although not a huge incentive, it helped keep them motivated while they worked on revising student learning objectives, developing their online course syllabus, and interacting with other faculty in discussion forums. The completion rates increased to between 70 and 80 percent, with 20 out of 21 faculty completing the training the last time it was offered.

Incentivizing Course Development

In addition to financially incentivizing the training, we also support faculty financially in developing online courses. This is done by about 80 percent of institutions, with the amount of support ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 but averaging somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000.

We provide course development funding in the amount of $1,000 per credit hour, so for a three -credit course faculty would receive $3,000 to develop the class. Some institutions alter the amount of funds awarded for online course development by level of course (undergraduate or graduate), discipline, academic rank of the faculty member (i.e., assistant, associate or full professor), or if the instructor is a full-time employee of the university or an adjunct teaching part-time. I like to keep things simple and consistent so we do not alter the amount of funding based on these factors.

Many institutions that provide online course development funding have a quality assurance measure in place to evaluate the course after it has been developed and/or prior to it being taught. There are a variety of course review rubrics, both fee-based and free, that can be used for this purpose. For an example of a course review rubric, see the UW-L Online Course Evaluation Guidelines at the following link: http://www.uwlax.edu/uploaded-Files/Academics/online/guidelines.pdf

Who owns the course?

One important topic to consider when providing funding for online course development is course ownership or the intellectual property policy (or lack of one) at your institution. Ten years ago, approximately 40 percent of colleges and universities had formal written policies on course ownership of online or distance-education courses; today that number is closer to 80 percent.

Course ownership policies can vary widely when a faculty member gets paid to develop an online course. Some institutions retain full ownership and will not allow faculty to teach the course at other institutions, even if that faculty member quits his or her current job. Other institutions allow faculty to retain full ownership of the course and all materials developed. One other arrangement, which appears to be gaining in popularity, is joint ownership of course materials. An institution has discretion about using the course or course materials, and a departing faculty member can use the course materials at another institution.

If this is something your institution is currently discussing, keep in mind that faculty tend to be more receptive to the idea of developing and teaching online courses if they are allowed to retain ownership of the materials they develop – even if they are getting paid for course development. This is something I heard loud and clear when I became Director of Online Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2007.

Faculty sole ownership agreement

The University of Wisconsin System intellectual property policy for “Copyrightable Instructions Materials Ownership, Use and Control,” which includes course materials, is vague. It states “In those cases where substantial institutional resources are provided to support the development of instructional materials, however, the UW System may assert ownership or other property interests that should be addressed through specific agreements with the authors and producers of the materials.” What exactly does “substantial institutional resources” mean, and is $3,000 substantial? Some on our campus felt that $3,000 was substantial; many others did not. So, our online advisory board, working with the provost and the faculty senate, created a Faculty Sole Ownership Agreement. Put simply, when faculty members receive funding to develop an online course, they can sign this agreement and all of the materials they develop for their online course belong solely to them.

In addition to paying faculty to develop online courses, institutions are providing a number of other incentives to increase interest in online education. These incentives include providing release time for developing online courses, providing funding to faculty to attend conferences or other professional development opportunities related to online education, viewing online course development positively when considering promotion and tenure, and upgrading or purchasing software and computers to enhance online instruction.