by Brian Udermann, PhD
This article originally appeared in the publication Distance Education Report.
It is becoming more common to hear people, especially administrators, talk about “faculty buy-in” when it comes to online education. I would say that this is for good reason. I’ve been an online administrator for the past seven years and know firsthand the importance of having faculty backing and support for online education initiatives. In the past, a number of very large online initiatives have failed (Google “University of Illinois Global Campus” for one example), and one of the reasons such initiatives fail is because of a lack of faculty buy-in and support. This article will address three strategies that can be used to promote and enhance faculty buy-in at your institution.
1. Involve faculty early and often
When my institution decided seven years ago to create a position with the title “Director of Online Education,” our provost and other central administrators thought it would be best if that individual came from within our own faculty ranks. I believe the thought was that hiring a faculty member to oversee online education would at least help with this idea of faculty buy-in. I think it has.
Shortly after becoming the director of online education, I created our institution’s online advisory board. I made sure to include at least one faculty member from every academic college on campus. The online advisory board was the group tasked with discussing and developing policies and procedures related to online education. However, that group did not give final approval to such policies; the faculty senate did. However, most of the policies and procedures the online advisory board forwarded to faculty governance committees and eventually the faculty senate were approved without much discussion, as faculty had already had significant input into what had been created.
So, if a policy or a discussion were somehow tied to the curriculum (e.g., if a faculty member converts a face-to-face course into an online course, does that course need special approval by a committee on campus?), I would make sure the undergraduate and graduate curriculum committees were involved in that discussion. (They decided that no, the course didn’t.) Or if we were having a discussion on whether teaching online should be weighted differently for promotion, tenure, and retention, I would make sure the promotion, tenure, and salary committee was involved in those discussions. (They also decided that no, teaching online shouldn’t be viewed any differently from teaching face-to-face.)
2. Err on the side of faculty
Maybe this is so important to me because I came up through the faculty ranks. However, there is always a small yet vocal percentage of faculty who immediately think conspiracy when there is a new initiative on campus. This is likely the same group of faculty who has a general mistrust of any and all administrators. That was true for online education. “Online is going to take over.” “Online offerings will mean on-campus professors will lose their jobs.” “More online courses will result in decreased quality in our courses.” None of those things occurred.
Here are two concrete examples of decisions that were made on my campus where I think we erred on the side of faculty. First, faculty on my campus can receive funding to develop online courses in the amount of $1,000 per credit hour. So if a faculty member develops a three-credit-hour course, he or she can receive $3,000 for doing so. Some faculty were hesitant and had concerns that if they accepted the course development funding, someone at the university (e.g., department chair, college dean) would take or steal their course materials and give them to other instructors or adjuncts to use in their courses. So, we developed a Faculty Sole Ownership Agreement that faculty could sign (interestingly, many don’t) indicating the faculty member is the sole owner of the course materials they develop. In addition to the faculty member’s signing that document, I sign it, and the provost signs it as well.
A second example has to do with a discussion we had on my campus years ago about requiring faculty to complete an online-instructor-training course prior to teaching online. I had heard from online instructors and department chairs that they felt it was important for faculty to be trained prior to offering an online course. The online advisory board discussed this and agreed as well. So, the recommendation that all online instructors must complete the training prior to teaching online was forwarded to the faculty senate. The senate, like usual, had a vigorous debate and after much discussion decided (it was a very close vote) that our institution would not require faculty to complete the training prior to teaching online. I could have petitioned the provost to institute this requirement despite the faculty senate vote, and she probably would have, but I decided not to. That would have angered many! It has been my experience that most faculty want to do a great job when they develop and teach their first online course and most seek out training and assistance from our instructional design team, even though they are not required to do so.
3. Resist the urge to go to battle
I have a slightly competitive personality and usually enjoy a good challenge. However, I’ve learned over the years that staying calm and treating people with respect, even when you feel you are being attacked, are good practices.
A couple of years ago I sent out an email to our campus highlighting some of the growth that had occurred in our online education offerings. Almost immediately I received an email from a faculty member who made what I would consider to be a number of rude and insensitive comments. Of course, I felt attacked. I immediately drafted a response—not a very nice response—and I was ready to go to battle. Luckily, I decided to not hit the “send” button and waited to do it the next day. I never did send that email. That individual has since completed our online-instructor training course and just successfully finished teaching his/her first online class. I’m not sure whether the outcome would have been the same if I had sent that email.
Here is the conclusion to a three-page letter I received from one of our faculty members a few years ago.
“I earnestly hope that UW-L prohibits online course instruction. Let us stick to our mission of excellence in the classroom and not fall prey to compromising trends. If I may be blunt, put an end to the academic cancer which increasingly adulterates our campus.”
Again, my first reaction was to get defensive. Actually, I think my first reaction was disbelief, shortly followed by becoming defensive. I never did respond directly to this faculty member’s comments about online education but continued to be polite and respectful in my interactions with this individual. This person has not yet offered an online course and may never decide to do so, but that is OK.
Change can be challenging—especially in higher education. I remember 12 years ago when I first started working at my current institution, the process to submit final grades was a pencil-and-paper process. I had come from a university where final grade submission was done electronically. So I was asked to serve on a committee that was exploring the idea of submitting grades electronically. Of course, there was significant resistance to this idea. Would it take more time? Would the electronic submissions be secure? What about faculty who didn’t use computers? There were some! Might the university implode if we made this change? And of course it was just different from how we’d always done things. I was a big fan of the electronic submission process and shared my previous experiences in committee meetings. I believe having a faculty member on the committee (me) who had a positive experience at another institution and who greatly favored the electronic process helped decrease fear and increase faculty support for the idea. We transitioned to submitting electronic grades that year.
Faculty buy-in does matter.