The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Blurring the Lines for Faculty Development

A person (Derek Bruff) smiles at the camera.

By Derek Bruff

In December 2020, my staff at the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching sent a survey to about 500 faculty and other instructors who had completed the online course design institute we offered the previous summer. The OCDI, as we called it, was a two-week faculty development program aimed at helping our university’s instructors prepare to teach online that fall. In response to one survey question, 90% of the 252 instructors who responded to the survey, agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that students can learn effectively in online courses.

Sadly, we didn’t think to collect a benchmark for this statistic prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I suspect that the number would have been much lower a year before. Outside of our nursing school, which had a long-established distance education program, very few faculty on my campus had any experience teaching online until 2020. In fact, one department (that I shall not name) refused to take transfer credits for online versions of very commonly offered courses because the faculty there didn’t believe online courses had sufficient credibility.

Recently, UPCEA’s Jay Halfond posed a provocative question in the UPCEA forums: “Have we opened up the online floodgates beyond our capacity to support these courses?” Jay referenced the increasing enrollments in online courses and programs at colleges and universities, even among traditional residential undergraduates. That’s true at the University of Mississippi, where I work now, and I suspect that’s true at many other institutions, too.

Why the flood? As I mentioned in my very safe prediction for the UPCEA 2024 Predictions report that we’ll see more creative online offerings from colleges and universities in 2024, traditionally aged college students are increasingly looking for online and asynchronous options. This is likely in response, at least in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, which opened students’ (and parents’) eyes to non-traditional modalities. Moreover, those faculty who now see online teaching and learning as viable are leading a growing interest among faculty in teaching online.

So let me rephrase Jay’s question a little: How should higher ed go about supporting all these new online offerings?

In the before times (that is, prior to the pandemic), it was often the case that a new online course or program received some level of support in the form of instructional design or digital media from campus units tasked with such work, and faculty teaching these courses often had to complete some kind of training in online instruction. In contrast, onsite course offerings did not receive such routine support, although instructors could, at many campuses, request advice on course design, student engagement strategies, and more from their local center for teaching and learning.

When we pivoted to emergency remote teaching in the spring of 2020 and later in the year to more intentionally designed online instruction, I was fortunate to be directing a teaching center that also administered and supported our campus’ learning management system. While we didn’t offer the instructional design or digital media services that a full office of online education might provide, we did regularly help faculty and other instructors learn to use the LMS effectively in support of their onsite courses.

The combination of traditional teaching center services and instructional technology support meant we had a lot of strengths in supporting our university’s move to online instruction that year. Faculty across campus were already used to calling us for advice on their teaching or for help using the LMS, and we had an existing course design institute we could quickly engineer into the OCDI I mentioned above. Having 500 instructors complete the OCDI made a big difference for the student experience that fall.

Today, it’s clear that some institutions have moved to a new support model where online assistance is opt-in, much like onsite course design help was prior to 2020. That makes some sense, because faculty have more experience and expertise in teaching online than they used to, thanks in part to faculty development offerings like our OCDI that were provided all over higher ed. However, having worked in faculty development for two decades, I’ve seen how beneficial it can be to both instructors and students when faculty take advantage of the kinds of support that teaching centers and online education offices can provide.

What if we went in a different direction? What if we blurred the lines a bit between online and onsite when it came to helping our faculty? After all, it is often the same instructors teaching across modalities, something that is likely even more true today than it was in 2019. And it is often the same students learning across modalities, as traditional residential students take more online courses. What if we provided instructors of all kinds with the professional learning they need to teach well, regardless of modality?

I have a chapter about my teaching center’s experiences during the pandemic in the new book Higher Education Beyond COVID: New Teaching Paradigms and Promise edited by Regan Gurung and Dwayne Plaza. I interviewed Regan and Dwayne on my podcast, and I keep thinking about something Regan said while reflecting on the diverse campus experiences represented in the book. “Campuses with well-established [teaching] centers that also had good communication with leadership and administration, they’re the ones that coped better.”

Whether a unit is a center for teaching, an online education office, or some combination of the two, if it can provide quality faculty development on teaching for its campus, it can help in a time of a crisis while also building a kind of resiliency that helps an institution weather all kinds of challenges to its teaching mission. Including, perhaps, a flood of new online learning offerings.

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