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Three Barriers to Faculty Teaching Online and How to Overcome Them

Three Barriers to Faculty Teaching Online and How to Overcome Them

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

As colleges and universities continue to offer more online courses and degree programs, online education is evolving from a radical idea to a more mainstream idea across all institution types in higher education. Even so, some faculty continue to resist the idea of taking the plunge into online teaching. This article explores three barriers that sometimes keep faculty from embracing online education and provides strategies on how to overcome them.

1. Lack of compensation and incentives for developing online courses
A number of studies have found this to be the primary barrier cited by faculty to teaching online. There appears to be a belief among faculty—approximately 70% of faculty, in fact—that developing and teaching online courses requires more work and is more time consuming than developing traditional courses. However, a number of studies have measured the amount of time faculty spend developing and teaching online courses, and these studies have shown mixed results. Some suggest online is more work, some suggest face-to-face is more work, and some report no difference.

I started teaching online in 2005 and have always felt that I spent roughly the same amount of time prepping a unit or module for my online course as I spent developing a lecture for my face-to-face course: between three and five hours. I frequently ask faculty, both at my institution and at others, how much time they spend developing online units or modules versus face-to-face lectures. The vast majority report the same time expenditure: three to five hours.

To help break through this barrier, I share with faculty at my institution previously published research about how much time it takes to develop and teach online courses. This often leads to a discussion on course design and how that can affect workload. For example, I’ve seen lots of faculty who teach a 14-week online course that includes two required discussion forums per week. That would be a lot of reading and grading, just for the discussions! Maybe one discussion forum per week is enough. Maybe even having one forum every two weeks would be enough. Course design can have a significant impact on workload. Many institutions provide incentives for faculty to develop online courses such as a stipend (often $2,000 to $3,000 per class) or release time. These incentives provide substantial motivation for faculty to develop online courses.

2. Faculty feeling they don’t have the pedagogical skills to teach online
This is a concern I hear frequently from faculty, but less from newer faculty, as many of them have either taken online courses as part of their graduate schooling or have some online teaching experience, maybe having served as teaching assistants in an online course. I remember experiencing this fear in 2004 when I was first exploring the idea of teaching online. That was before we had instructional designers on campus to assist faculty in developing online courses, and before we had a course that teaches the basics of online instruction.

I believe the primary way to overcome faculty concern about not being prepared to teach online is to offer high-quality professional development opportunities related to online education. It could be through one-on-one consultations, workshops (e.g., “Getting Started Teaching Online,” “Developing and Delivering Content In Online Courses,” “Engaging Students Online,” “Facilitating Effective Online Discussions,” etc.) and offering more-extensive online instructor training courses. The training course at my institution runs for three weeks, and faculty are told they can expect to spend between 10 and 15 hours a week in the course–which they do!

Another strategy that can help alleviate the fear of teaching online is to give faculty adequate time to develop course content. Because sufficient time to design a course can reduce stress and anxiety, I suggest allowing six months to a year for course development. I also consider it important to involve faculty in the entire process of course development, starting with crafting the learning objectives, to determining how the content will be developed and delivered, to creating the assessments for the course.

3. Belief that instructors will lose quality interaction with their students if they teach online
I have been serving as the Director of Online Education at my institution for the past seven years, and this is by far the No. 1 concern of faculty who are thinking about developing and teaching their first online course. I frequently hear comments such as “I’ll miss the personal interactions I have with my students” and “I won’t be able to see the glazed-over look when they are confused about something.”

To address this concern, I again share research; this time research that has examined student satisfaction and the quality of interactions that occur in online courses. I sometimes point to a study I conducted and published years ago on student satisfaction in the same course taught face-to-face and online.

I happened to be teaching both online and face-to-face sections in the same semester and asked students 25 questions related to course satisfaction. A number of questions focused on interaction. There was no difference in satisfaction levels between online and face-to-face sections. This type of study, with similar conclusions, has been replicated many times.

Another strategy that can be used to help alleviate this fear is to have experienced online instructors at your institution participate in what we call “online education showcases.” Experienced instructors share, or showcase, creative and innovative things they are doing in their online courses. Some of the topics highlighted relate to student engagement and interaction. These showcases, which involve the ability to interact with colleagues, can be a powerful motivator when it comes to teaching online. I like to say, “Who better to impact a tenured full professor who has been teaching on your campus for 30 years and is opposed to the idea of teaching online, than a tenured full professor who has been teaching on your campus for 30 years and is having great success teaching online?”

There’s no doubt that there has been increased faculty interest in teaching online over the past 10 to 15 years. However, even with this increased interest, there still are faculty who resist the idea of teaching an online course. I believe resistance can be countered by adequately compensating faculty for teaching online, by providing incentives for developing online courses, by providing exceptional professional development opportunities for faculty, and by showing faculty that interactions with online students can be as positive as with their face-to-face students.