High quality programs demand high-quality professional development

High quality programs demand high-quality professional development

Written by Brian Udermann, Ph.D

Article originally appeared in the June 1, 2014 issue of Distance Education Report (Volume 18, Number 11).

I read recently that approximately 50 percent of all academic job postings in higher education now require, or at least mention, that applicants should have previous experience teaching online courses. It’s also becoming much more common for institutions to hire instructors whose entire teaching load consists of teaching online.

If this topic of professional development for online instructors interests you, I’d suggest you read the recent review article by Katrina Meyer, PhD, of the University of Memphis in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (see the full reference below). In her review, Dr. Meyer examined 68 articles and five books on the topic of professional development and ultimately shares several valuable insights to consider when planning and implementing professional development programs.

Professional development opportunities for online instructors can be offered in many formats and structures: one-on-one consultations, online courses reviews, workshops, conferences, webinars, mentoring programs, faculty institutes, online teaching fellows or certificate programs, etc. These opportunities can range from 15 or 20 minutes in length to a cycle of weeks, months, or even years. Topics can include, but are not limited to, writing measurable objectives, creating and delivering content, learning to use a course management system, engaging online learners, facilitating effective online discussions, building community, and workload management issues.

A first consideration when planning professional development opportunities at your own institution would be to evaluate the personnel and resources you have available. I’ve always been a strong advocate of designing and developing our offerings in-house, as those opportunities can be customized for the needs of instructors at a particular school. However, if your institution has not hired instructional designers or instructional technologists to lead those efforts, you could consider sending some of your people to workshops or certificate programs offered by outside agencies and associations.

Keep in mind that you will likely not be able to do everything you might want to when it comes to professional development for your online instructors, and I encourage you to resist the urge to implement every innovative idea or program you see offered at other institutions.

For example, the instructional designers at my institution frequently engage in one-on-one consultations with faculty; they conduct online course reviews and provide feedback to faculty; they offer a variety of workshops related to blended and online education; and they facilitate online and blended learning instructor training programs that are each three weeks in length and offered twice during the academic year. In other words, they are very busy!

Even so, in the past few months, I’ve received emails from colleagues at my institution encouraging us to adopt an online faculty-mentoring program that they read about at another university, or design an online instructor master teacher certificate program that they saw implemented at another school.

The real takeaway is, whatever opportunities you decide to offer, make sure they are high quality and remember that even if you want to, you won’t be able to do everything!

Another discussion you will want to have at your institution if you have not done so already is whether you will require some type of faculty development or training before allowing an instructor to teach online. Some institutions require this and others don’t. This is an idea I proposed five or six years ago at my school, and after many discussions in many committee meetings, our faculty senate finally decided that our instructors would not be required to complete our training course prior to teaching an online course.

However, we do provide funding for faculty to develop online courses, and in order to be eligible to receive that funding, the training must be completed. So, even though it is not required for teaching online, I’d estimate that 95 percent of the online instructors at my school have completed our training.

It has been my experience that the vast majority of faculty are receptive to and appreciative of these opportunities. Most faculty realize that if they want to be successful teaching online courses it is important to learn about course design, navigation, online discussions, etc.

I’ll conclude by saying that over the past seven or eight years, my institution has seen steady and significant growth in enrollment in our online offerings. However, growth has never been our primary focus. Instead, our primary focus has always been quality. There is no doubt in my mind that our instructional design team and the professional development opportunities they offer our instructors are the reasons that over 90 percent of our online students say they are either satisfied or highly satisfied with the online courses they take.

Meyer, K. An analysis of the research on faculty development for online teaching and identification of new directions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (2014), Vol 17 (4), pp 93-112.