“Training” faculty to teach online

At a professional development meeting last year, I found myself objecting to the word “training” to describe what the Program for Online Teaching offers to our instructors.

dog jumping through hoop
Image from SkycaptainTwo at Flickr

I was recently made aware that we may need to justify our “training” of online faculty for accreditation reports. Occasionally, I hear that we should have a program for “training faculty to teach online”. Everyone who teaches online, goes the argument, should be required to complete such a program. Other colleges offer training, at least through @ONE group, or have required workshops. Do we?

Note first that we have no “training” for on-site faculty, those who work in the classroom, with or without supplemental electronic technology. Something is perceived to be very different with teaching online, despite the fact that the course description, transfer requirements, materials, standards, student learning outcomes and everything else are identical regardless of “delivery format”.

And we need to define the word “training”, since two areas are often combined which shouldn’t be.

Technical training means teaching the use of the technology. Unfortunately, doing so is often used as a substitute for the development of an instructor’s online pedagogy, which should come first. Many other programs drill the technology and have faculty fit their pedagogy to it, as opposed to the other way around. The result is cookie-cutter courses and little innovation, plus an unhealthy reliance on expensive, enterprise-based CMSs like Blackboard.

Such training may not even be needed if the instructor knows the web, and those who do spend much time online tend to find training “requirements” intolerable (I know I do). Such training is commonly requested by faculty themselves on a “just in time”, need-to-know basis, from technical staff. It should never, ever be required. In the case of POT, we supplement the college’s technical training with faculty-led workshops on new technologies we know work for teaching, but which wouldn’t be on anyone’s “training” radar because they are not commercial systems. It would be bizarre to require it.

The other area I’ll call “training in teaching online“. Some colleges have a workshop or two in this, often called “Introduction to Online Teaching”, usually as a single offering among multiple workshops on how to use Blackboard. Sometimes such intro workshops are taught by faculty, but usually by those who are not experts in online pedagogy (or those who say they are experts but only teach about teaching, having PhDs in Education). POT, instead, uses experts in pedagogy (active professors in the disciplines) to teach about online pedagogy.

I don’t like to call this “training” — though some do. What is it? Teaching? Collaborating? Learning? Let’s try “preparation” or, I know, even better: “professional development”.

Such professional development for effective online teaching should be faculty-led. Technical training in commercial systems should be provided by technicians as needed. Online teaching standards, curriculum, etc. should be determined by departments and Senate, the same as they are for on-site classes — they are, after all, the same courses.

teacher-point-color
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art
Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com

So how do we know that our online teachers are doing a good job? How do we know if they need “training”? The same way we know this about our classroom teachers, of course.  At our college, the hiring committee, then the Tenure Review Committee, determines the need for any additional professional development or skills acquisition as part of the evaluation process. Departments set standards for the teaching of the discipline, and department chairs and administrators evaluate faculty work.

Unfortunately, these colleagues and administrators, those doing the evaluating, are often uncomfortable with online teaching. I know any number of them, people I respect, who really don’t think teaching a class online is “real”, that it involves real learning or real teaching. Perhaps they are the ones who need to be “trained” in online pedagogies, since they are having trouble determing standards for online. In almost all cases, basic pedagogy (such as Chickering and Ehrman’s seven priniciples for good practice in undergrad ed from 1987) apply the same to online as on-site classes [see the TLT interpretation (1996) and this fabulous white paper from Virginia Commonwealth University (2009) about which I’ll write more anon]. The weakness is one of understanding on the part of colleagues and administrators, and, in some cases, lack of meta-cognitive pedagogy (whether online or on-site) among faculty.

The misconceptions about the validity of online teaching are only encouraged by using the word “training”. It implies a false proposition: that instructors need to learn the tools first, and that once they have done so they will develop good online classes. Neither of these is true. Instead, instructors should be encouraged to examine their pedagogy as they begin to teach online, and be provided with extensive technical support as they develop courses based on their chosen pedagogy. And powers-that-be (accrediting agencies, Chancellor’s Offices, and our own colleagues) should be aware that the need is for creating a good environment for encouraging such practices, instead of certifying “training in teaching online”.

4 comments to “Training” faculty to teach online

  • Excellent! I’ve been making this argument at my institution for what seems like years now. The good news is as part of re-accreditation, we included faculty pedagogy as part of our quality enhancement plan. The bad news is, I’m now on the committee tasked with developing said program.

    We hired a consultant to produce a Blackboard class for faculty, and it was pretty much a disaster, so we’re more or less starting over from scratch.

    Thanks for the links above, and given that you POT link invited faculty from other colleges, I’ve signed up for your Moodle as well.

  • Donna Farren

    I really like your point that F2F teachers don’t have to go through a training to teach in a F2F class. People forget that Distance Education is a field of education and has been studied for a long time. Acting like it just came around with online classes ignores the history of research done in the field.

    • On the other hand, most of us have decades of experience in the f2f classroom and lots of models of teaching from years of undergraduate and graduate school.I and most of the people teaching online at my institution have no experience as students in online classes, so we don’t have the same experience to build on. One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is to deliver our program online to give faculty experience as online students.

      • Oh oh, great point! Yes, we’ve all taken classes (good and bad) on-site. Yes, it would be cool if people who were going to teach online took an online class as a student — many of our faculty mention how beneficial that is. Makes me think we should work that into our certificate somehow — they have to attend online sessions, but not a whole designed class.

        But what of folks who take a really bad online class? I’m thinking now about a fellow faculty member who, having never taught online himself, had to take over an online class for a colleague in the middle of the semester. That instructor’s pedagogy didn’t suit his at all, and he came out with a negative impression of online classes in general. I could see that happening if a newbie took a lousy online class…

4 comments to “Training” faculty to teach online

  • Excellent! I’ve been making this argument at my institution for what seems like years now. The good news is as part of re-accreditation, we included faculty pedagogy as part of our quality enhancement plan. The bad news is, I’m now on the committee tasked with developing said program.

    We hired a consultant to produce a Blackboard class for faculty, and it was pretty much a disaster, so we’re more or less starting over from scratch.

    Thanks for the links above, and given that you POT link invited faculty from other colleges, I’ve signed up for your Moodle as well.

  • Donna Farren

    I really like your point that F2F teachers don’t have to go through a training to teach in a F2F class. People forget that Distance Education is a field of education and has been studied for a long time. Acting like it just came around with online classes ignores the history of research done in the field.

    • On the other hand, most of us have decades of experience in the f2f classroom and lots of models of teaching from years of undergraduate and graduate school.I and most of the people teaching online at my institution have no experience as students in online classes, so we don’t have the same experience to build on. One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is to deliver our program online to give faculty experience as online students.

      • Oh oh, great point! Yes, we’ve all taken classes (good and bad) on-site. Yes, it would be cool if people who were going to teach online took an online class as a student — many of our faculty mention how beneficial that is. Makes me think we should work that into our certificate somehow — they have to attend online sessions, but not a whole designed class.

        But what of folks who take a really bad online class? I’m thinking now about a fellow faculty member who, having never taught online himself, had to take over an online class for a colleague in the middle of the semester. That instructor’s pedagogy didn’t suit his at all, and he came out with a negative impression of online classes in general. I could see that happening if a newbie took a lousy online class…