How to Garner Faculty Support for Online Education

How to Garner Faculty Support for Online Education

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Any institution that wants to expand and sustain the number of online courses and degree programs it offers would do well to recognize that it’s critical to secure faculty support and buy-in. National surveys still suggest that many faculty are skeptical and resistant when it comes to developing, offering and teaching online courses and degrees.

Faculty often question the rigor and credibility of online learning, even though what most of us consider to be online education took hold and has been expanding since the early 1990s. A number of large online efforts failed because university administrators tried to move forward with online initiatives without first seeking input from faculty and garnering their support.

A fair amount of research has been published examining not only factors that motivate faculty to gravitate toward online teaching, but factors that are demotivators as well. Some of the top motivating factors include the potential flexibility that comes with online teaching, seeing online course development as a new challenge that can lead to personal and professional growth, increasing access to online opportunities for students, and hearing about the positive impact online teaching has had on face-to-face teaching for other instructors.

Some of the primary demotivators include intellectual property concerns, fear of technology, a lack of training or not feeling prepared to teach online, and the perception that online course development and teaching are more work- and time-intensive.

The remainder of this article will focus on two strategies that can be employed to help garner faculty support at your institution.

Focus on quality, not growth
One mistake university administrators sometimes make is to forge ahead with online initiatives for the wrong reasons (e.g., everyone else is expanding the number of online courses and programs they offer, so we should as well; we need to generate more revenue, and online education is the way to do it; we could save money by closing some of our buildings over the summer and offering most of our courses online). Faculty are a pretty perceptive lot and can often quickly decipher the true intentions of university administrators.

The idea of quality online education is a broad one and is something that continues to garner increasing attention. One way to show faculty that you are serious about focusing on quality is to provide high-level training and support for instructors interested in teaching online. I’ve seen too many situations where unprepared faculty have taught an online course, and it ended up being a negative experience for both faculty and students.

Training may be done in-house, or institutions can collaborate with online organizations that specialize in offering professional-development opportunities for faculty. Providing exceptional support personnel (instructional designers, instructional technologists, media specialists, accessibility experts, etc.) for faculty as they develop their online courses is another way administrators can demonstrate they are committed to quality online programming.

Another mistake some faculty and administrators make is to rush online course development. Certainly there is variability in the amount of time it takes faculty to develop online courses. We provide funding for faculty to develop online courses at my institution, and they have a full year after funding availability to develop their course.

Some faculty complete course development in two to three months, and some take eleven or twelve months, but the majority take somewhere between five and seven months to develop their online course. Again, I’ve seen too many situations where faculty have been told two to three weeks prior to a semester starting that they will be teaching an online course. That is a recipe for disaster–don’t rush it!

Be transparent and view communication as your friend
I’ve had the pleasure of working in higher education for about twenty years, the majority as a faculty member. I’ve also had the pleasure of serving on many university committees such as the general education committee, the curriculum committee, the article and by-laws committee, the institutional review board, the faculty senate, and believe it or not, I once spent a year on something called the “Committee on Committees.” (I couldn’t make that up if I tried!)

I’ve seen numerous examples of faculty questioning and not trusting administrators because they felt something was being hidden from them, or there were ulterior motives on the part of administrators. In some of those scenarios, I thought faculty were being overly suspicious and paranoid; in other cases, I think the questioning and mistrust was warranted.

So how do you as an administrator best avoid arousing faculty suspicion? Be open with faculty with regard to online priorities and initiatives on your campus. Better yet, establish a mechanism on your campus, if one doesn’t currently exist, where faculty can have input and provide suggestions related to online priorities and initiatives. Two potential avenues are an online advisory board or an online education faculty senate committee.

Frank communication from administrators to faculty can help develop trust and rapport. Early in my online education administrative career, I was quick to communicate positive things that were occurring on my campus related to online education: materials that painted online education in a positive light, for example, or literature reviews or meta-analyses that demonstrated student satisfaction rates and academic outcomes were as good, in some cases better, in online vs. face-to-face comparisons.

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s OK to communicate concerns and challenges as well. For example, my institution recently completed the Online Learning Consortium’s Quality Scorecard Review. As part of that review, we received a number of recommendations on how we could improve and strengthen student support services for our online learners. Those recommendations have since been shared with faculty and other personnel on our campus, and we are collaboratively engaged in improving those services.

In conclusion, don’t underestimate the impact that faculty can have when it comes to online programming on your campus. Conversely, I urge you to encourage your faculty to spread the word about the creative and innovative things that are occurring in online education at your institution, as they are likely the individuals making them happen. Focus on quality, be open and transparent, regularly communicate with your faculty, and you likely will see online programming flourish on your campus.