How to Fuel Your Online Growth: Let Faculty Interest Do It

How to Fuel Your Online Growth: Let Faculty Interest Do It

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

It’s not surprising that there continues to be growth in the area of online learning in higher education. A majority of central administrators say that online learning is an important component of their institution’s long-term goals and strategies. More students are taking online courses today than ever before. And employers are recognizing in greater numbers the rigor and credibility of online degrees.

The fact is, though, that this growth depends on faculty acceptance, participation and enthusiasm for online learning. Administrators of online programs are keenly aware of this.

I can tell you that there are discussion going among program administrators and staff at hundreds — maybe even thousands — of colleges and universities in the United States and around the world related to this fact. The conversations tend to revolve around some basic questions. Questions like:

    “How can we get our faculty to buy into the idea of online learning?”

    “What professional developmental opportunities related to online education can we
    provide our faculty?”

    “How can we scale the successful online courses and degree programs we currently
    offer, while maintaining quality?”

I’ve served as a director of online education at my institution since 2007. In this column I’d like to share a key insight I’ve gained over the years related to growing online courses and degree programs, along with several recommendations that follow from that insight.

The key insight? Let faculty interest fuel your online growth.

What do I mean by that and why do I think that’s a good idea? Well, for one thing, online initiatives that follow a top-down model are frequently met with resistance; and sometimes they fail miserably. One good example of this is the University of Illinois Global Campus (UIGC). The board of trustees of the University of Illinois established UIGC in 2007, and it was launched in 2008. The global campus was to be a stand-alone accredited arm of the Illinois system and was projected to enroll 9,000 students by 2012 and 70,000 students by 2018. The price tag on the project: approximately $7 million.

In 2009, the same board of trustees that established UIGC voted to dissolve it.

Limited space doesn’t allow me to discuss all of the possible reasons why UIGC failed, but in my opinion, one reason — maybe the primary one — that it collapsed is that the faculty were not supportive of it and were not invested in it.

The UIGC was designed using a profit-driven model: have a well-respected, tenured faculty member design and develop an online course and then take that course and have lower-paid, non-tenure track adjuncts teach multiple sections of it.

This model never sat well with faculty in the system, and there were significant concerns related to the quality of courses and degree programs that would eventually be offered. The lesson that I take from this is that involving faculty early and often in discussions related to online education initiatives is crucial, especially if you will be investing hundreds of thousands — or millions — of dollars into the initiative.

Since the UIGC initiative was occurring at the time I accepted my online education administrative position, I paid close attention to it. And I have to confess, I initially had my own visions of a fully online branch at my institution with enrollment figures doubling or tripling in a few short years. Didn’t happen. However, we have seen annual increases of between 20 and 30 percent in the number of online courses we offer, dating back to 2007.

What we’ve done for program growth

I believe this growth is, in part, due to a number of things we’ve done to increase faculty interest in online learning. For example, the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at my institution has offered a variety of one-hour workshops related to online education. The titles of some of these workshops include, “Introduction to Online Teaching,” “Self and Peer Evaluation of Online Courses,” “Creating and Delivering Online Content,” “Facilitating Effective Online Discussions,” “Time Management Tips for Teaching Online,” and “Twenty Things You Thought You Knew About Online Education But Might Not.” Many of our faculty have gained their first exposure to online learning through these workshops.

We also have a three-week online instructor training course available, and we pay our faculty $500 if they complete it. I’ve found that even relatively small financial incentives can have a positive impact on faculty motivation and interest.

One of the most effective strategies we’ve used to increase faculty interest is to conduct in-house online education faculty showcases. These showcases consist of having four or five faculty who teach online courses give 15–20 minute presentations on creative and innovative teaching techniques they are using in their classes. The showcases are very popular. We try to invite faculty presenters from all of the academic colleges across campus as well as faculty of various levels of academic rank in order to give the events widespread appeal.

Who can better influence a tenured full professor who has many years of teaching experience, but who is skeptical of online learning, than a tenured full professor with many years of teaching experience who is excelling in the area of online education? We annually conduct quality reviews on 40 to 50 online courses at my institution. Every time we see an example of a faculty member doing something innovative and noteworthy in their course, we write it down, as they will more than likely get invited to present at a future showcase of online instruction techniques.

We also try to hold annual luncheons for faculty who teach online courses. These luncheons are usually pretty informal and are simply a way to get faculty together to get to know each other better, and to let them know that what they do is appreciated. During these luncheons, I usually give a short “state of the union” address related to what is happening in the area of online education on campus. (I’ve also learned that in the absence of financial incentives, food can be a moderately powerful motivator.)

If your goal is to see growth in the number of online courses and degree programs offered at your institutions, try utilizing some of the tips and strategies in this article to promote faculty interest in online learning. The growth may not occur overnight, but if done right, you should realize steady and significant increases in your online offerings. Strive to do the things that will result in partnering with your faculty, and avoid the things that would result in going to battle with them.