Conscious Onboarding: 10 Ways to Support New Online InstructorsRebecca Cooney | Director of Murrow Online Programs in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University
It is a widely accepted standard that in order for an academic department to recruit and retain valuable teaching faculty, they must provide orientation, professional development opportunities and sustainable support. This principle is true for all faculty and instructors, whether they are full-time or part-time; teaching in-person or online.
According to a report by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, of the 22 million students enrolled in postsecondary education, 3.5 million are registered in a mix of online and in-person courses (Lederman, 2018). As the demand for online course delivery continues to increase, academic units must respond, manage growth, and design instructor onboarding and support programs. Considerations must also be made for instructors teaching only online versus those teaching both in-person and online courses, since their situational needs, expectations and motivations are inherently different.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but focusing on the educators’ shared goals—meaningful engagement, quality curriculum and consistent user experience—provides a good foundation for the development of an effective and sustainable faculty onboarding program.
I served on the launch team for our first online master’s degree program six years ago. Everything moved so quickly. In the scramble of course design and delivery, assessment and accreditation, and recruitment, we ran out of time to establish a formal onboarding and sustainable support program for instructors teaching online courses. Instead, the orientation and support program of our faculty teaching online vs. those teaching both in-person and online has developed over time. Some aspects of our program are fully formed while others are still in process. Based on my personal experiences and working closely with peers, here are my top 10 ways to prepare and sustain faculty across modalities:
#1: Establish an Online Community of Practice Devoted to Faculty Teaching Online Courses
When executed well, a culture of community establishes a set of shared values and expectations that influence how a group interacts, functions, and collaborates. By developing a specific online community of practice for your instructors teaching online courses, you provide them with a real-time information hub they can refer to for topics and materials that directly impact the work they are doing every day. An online community of practice includes announcements and discussions, a shared files system, FAQs and how-to’s, templates, databanks for approved-to-use lecture slides, recorded lectures, tutorials, standard syllabus language, approved digital assets and rubrics.
Learn more and download a report about exploratory research in the value of developing online communities of practice. (Office of Educational Technology, n.d.)
#2: Establish A Support Network Of Dedicated Staff and Digital Resources
The widely publicized proverb “it takes a village” comes to mind with this tip. Increase confidence and security of your instructors with the development of a customized support network. It should include an organized and categorized bevy of digital resources for building your online course, recording video lectures and creating rubrics, as well as a regularly updated list of dedicated personnel who can answer questions about instructional design, teaching assignments, policies or tech support.
#3: Design A New Instructor Orientation Program Specific To Faculty Teaching Online Courses
In a Canvas article, it was noted that “the online learning environment presents a unique set of challenges that require a clear definition of instructor performance.” Delivering a class online for the first time is an entirely new landscape, regardless of whether an instructor is new to teaching or has been in the classroom for decades. They will need orientation and training specific to the world they are about to experience. Tracks can be developed for those teaching online-only versus those who teach both online and in-person as part of their regular schedule. A sample outline of topics includes department overview (program structure and contacts), services and resources, mentorship and stewardship, teaching and learning, faculty resources, and training and development. Learn more about the value of creating a tailored faculty orientation program. (Herdklotz and Canale, 2017)
#4: Design A Mandated Training Program For New Instructors Teaching Online Courses
Even the most seasoned instructor can use a refresher now and then. Requiring all new instructors complete a course devoted to excellence in online teaching will not hurt—but may help an instructor gain valuable insights and knowledge about best practices in online course design and delivery. These courses and workshops are often developed and managed by the college division devoted to online learning and continuing education or a third-party vendor.
Learn more about the value of new online instructors completing a mandated training program. (Lieberman, 207)
#5: Design A Communication Strategy That Includes Regular Touchpoints and Check-Ins With Instructors
Establishing a sustainable—and ideally, automated—communication strategy is a great way to have regular contact with instructors teaching online courses. Through announcements, emails, shared calendar with reminders, virtual or in-person meetings, confidence and connection are born. The strategy should allow for a feedback loop with pre-determined appropriate responses so individual needs, requests or issues are addressed in a timely fashion.
#6: Create A Series Of Checklists and Tip Sheets
Who doesn’t appreciate a good checklist? How helpful is an indexed-for-search FAQ list? It may seem simplistic and obvious, but good quick tips and checklists can go a long way in fostering confidence and community among faculty. Checklists for new faculty can include topics such as set-up information, introduction to the department, understanding technology requirements, an overview of policies, and what-to-do-when information. FAQs should contain relevant practical information about when grades are due, how to give an incomplete, midterm grade submission, student support resources, reporting violations to academic integrity or student conduct, where to find information, etc.
View an example page outlining checklists and resources for faculty teaching online courses at the University of Connecticut.
#7: Establish A Program For Ongoing Professional Development and Training
Training and professional development for faculty is often readily available through an institution’s office devoted to teaching and learning. They offer training in syllabus design, online and in-person instruction, pedagogical assignment design and student engagement. An academic media services department may offer additional training and workshops in use of online and in-person classroom technology, recording lectures and interactive teaching tools. From my experience, the challenge is not access to training. Whether they are part-time or full-time, instructors typically wear many hats and juggle multiple priorities. Taking time out for continuing education is the biggest barrier, so it is most effective to identify highly relevant training opportunities for instructors that are convenient, self-paced, and require a limited time commitment. As an added bonus, you can incentivize faculty to continue their education through programs such as micro certifications and badges that count toward promotion and/or build credentials.
Learn more about how to provide incentives for faculty participation. (TopKit, n.d.)
#8: Create A Faculty Handbook Specific To Online Course Delivery
One of the issues that came up early in my tenure as the director of online programs was the absence of clear and consistent steps and responses to common challenges unique to online courses. Working with my leadership team, we began building a faculty handbook that not only included many of the items listed in tips 1-7, but also workflow processes for issues such as what to do when an instructor suspects an academic integrity violation, a student requests leave for military assignment or medical emergency, and recommended responses to no-shows, perpetual tardiness or inappropriate discussion forum etiquette. As issues arise, we create a workflow for response complete with key messages, email templates and step-by-step instructions.
View a sample faculty handbook for online instructors from the University of Texas at El Paso.
#9: Create Opportunities For Engagement, Collaboration, and Sharing Information
As an online program grows, more instructors are hired to cover the course load. As a result, a department will inherently need to hire adjunct instructors or draw upon a pool of instructors based outside the regular faculty roster. Although complex and diverse in many positive ways, this unique group of educators is also at risk of feeling like they are on an island – disconnected, out of the loop, and unsupported. Implementing ideas from this tip list is a good start to solve this problem, but finding additional ways to motivate engagement and inspire collaboration will contribute to job satisfaction and retention. Suggested programs include the creation of course teams (faculty teaching the same classes collaborate and share ideas), assigning peer mentors (senior instructors support junior instructors), live chat sessions led by senior instructors and the department chair, and the creation of a shared folder system that stores files, templates and digital assets.
#10: Adopt A Continuous Improvement Mindset: Survey, Assess and Adjust
As with any iterative initiative, adopting a mindset for continuous improvement is the best way to impact quality and retention, simplify work processes, create efficiencies and enhance overall job satisfaction. Through surveys, focus groups, or workshops, an academic unit can gain valuable insights and usable feedback that results in ongoing improvement and evolution of online program design and delivery.
Read more about creating a culture of continuous improvement in other articles published on The EvoLLLution.
Designing, implementing and maintaining a sustainable faculty onboarding program is no small task. It takes strategy, coordination and cooperation to pull off. It is laborious, iterative and requires prioritization. Take it one step at a time and build from there. Communication and consistency are the greatest paths toward success. I will close with a quote by author and poet Sir Michael Morpurgo, “It’s the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.” Whether our instructors are teaching in-person or virtually, the ultimate goal is that they bring their best selves to the curriculum. Solid onboarding and sustainable support programs are ways a department can inspire and retain valuable teaching faculty.
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Canvas (n.d.). 20 best practices and expectations for online teaching. Retrieved from https://canvas.instructure.com/courses/1068822/pages/20-best-practices-and-expectations-for-online-teaching
Denoyelles, A. (n.d.) How to provide incentives for faculty participation. TopKit. Retrieved from https://topkit.org/developing/tools-techniques-strategies/provide-incentives/
Herdklotz, C. and Canale, A.M. (2017, Dec 19). Made to order: A one-size-fits-all faculty orientation program may not effectively reach all faculty members, given differences in ranks, roles and experience. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from
Lederman, D. (2018, Nov 7). Online education ascends. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/11/07/new-data-online-enrollments-grow-and-share-overall-enrollment
Lieberman, M. (2017, Nov 1). Should online instructors be online students? Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/11/01/online-instructors-differ-whether-they-need-online-course
Morrow, D. (2017, Sep 15). Faculty resources for teaching online at UConn. UConn Campus Knowledge Base. Retrieved from https://kb.ecampus.uconn.edu/2017/09/15/faculty-resources-for-teaching-online-at-uconn/#more-2967
Office of Educational Technology (n.d.). Designing online communities of practice for educators to create value. Tech.ed.gov. Retrieved from https://tech.ed.gov/designing-online-communities-of-practice/
University of Texas at El Paso. UTEP connect faculty handbook [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.utep.edu/extendeduniversity/_Files/docs/utep-connect-faculty-handbook-final.pdf
Youngstown State University (n.d.). What is culture of community? YSU. Retrieved from https://ysu.edu/multicultural-affairs/culture-of-community
Author Perspective: Administrator