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The Role of Faculty Development in the Future of Online Education

Higher education has always been notoriously slow to change, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially accelerated it. In order to emerge successful, institutions need to prioritize faculty development, engagement and involvement to allow them to stay relevant in the online teaching space.

As institutions of higher education emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they will face a new reality.  Among the many elements that will define the new landscape of higher education is the fact that online education will play a much bigger role at most institutions.  The question is, “Will that be a good thing or a bad thing?”  

The process by which most institutions went fully remote in the spring of 2020 was a tumultuous one (see Lederman, 2020).  Institutions with no remote education infrastructure in place had to scramble to find technologies that would allow them to, at the very least, allow students to finish their coursework.  Institutions with a learning management system (LMS) that had been delivering a smattering of online courses and programs for some time did not necessarily fare much better.  In many of those cases, issues like lack of technology investment, lack of instructional design support, insufficient technology planning, and a generally weak understanding about technology’s role came clearly into focus.  Among the most glaring issues was one that had been lurking just below the surface for decades—an underdeveloped understanding of the role faculty development plays in an institution’s overall health, and especially the role it will play in helping faculty members become good online teachers (see Allen, 1988; Sorcinelli, 2007; Dysart and Weckerle, 2015; and Lederman, 2020).  This deficiency will come into greater focus as more and more institutions begin or expand online instruction.

Before the crisis, it is likely that most university leadership had never heard of an Online Program Manager (OPM) (see Budd, et al., 2020).  Post-COVID, many more will not only know who they are, but they will be looking to them as a lifeline that, despite the cost, may not only protect them from future crises that may disrupt teaching and learning but also to help expand their reach and increase enrollment.  They will find themselves in the company of a large number of other institutions that have done the very same thing.  Indeed, OPM firms and other similar partners are assisting institutions in creating world-class online courses and programs in ever-increasing numbers.  But institutions will be faced with a new question, “What will distinguish them among their competition in the expanding online education space?”  Sure, in-demand program analysis, quick turn-around, and targeted marketing efforts will make a difference.  But the truly successful institutions that realize long-term enrollment growth and high retention and graduation rates, will be those that invest as much in faculty development as they do in online technology and course development.

Consider these elements

In order for institutions to be competitive in online education, they will need to proceed with a high level of intentionality around all the elements in order to create excellent teaching and learning environments.  But as daunting as that might sound, it will force deep conversations about teaching and learning—conversations that may not have been had in a while.  And that’s a good thing.  To begin the process, consider these elements. 

Engage faculty in the online strategy process

Often, online courses and programs are created without a clear strategy.  As a result, institutions end up with a scattered collection of online courses and programs (of varying degrees of quality) that may not even be aligned with employment trends.  Institutions that use online education successfully will be those with a focused and resourced strategy for developing online courses and programs that are not only aligned with workforce needs but are constructed on a framework of quality teaching and learning.  Essential to that effort is engaging faculty members in the process.

We know that online education strategy includes much more than just technology infrastructure.  A key component to an effective online program is ensuring that it is constructed and delivered to give students the best opportunity possible to demonstrate good learning.  Those outcomes cannot be an afterthought.  It is a trained faculty who have the ability to identify them, work backward to construct good learning objects and assessments, and most importantly, to imagine the types of faculty development elements that must be put in place to scale up.

In addition to ensuring high-quality online learning, involving faculty members in the entire online planning process helps create “faculty champions” who communicate its advantages to colleagues who may be still reluctant to embrace that mode of delivery.  Indeed, even though online learning has been around for decades, there is still a sizable number of people who do not like it or do not trust it.  The academy is full of stories about faculty members who were, at one time, strongly opposed to online education but who later become strong supporters.  But that happens only after they are engaged in the process from top to bottom and supported as they learn teach in a way that is unfamiliar to most.  Online education is different.  It must be acknowledged that there will be anxiety about using new technology and losing their “voice” in the new modality (see Donaldson and McCarthy, 2018).  The bottom line is that without systematic engaging faculty in the online education planning process, there will be significant variations in the quality of online courses, even within the same institution.  That will negatively affect enrollments, retention, and student success.

Invest in and reframe faculty development

In too many institutions, a formal and integrated faculty development effort is lacking.  At institutions beginning or expanding online education, faculty members will be asked to, in a way, learn how to teach again.  Faculty development must become the centerpiece of university planning. It cannot be an afterthought. 

But let’s not forget that lack of faculty desire for certain types (especially teaching) of development may also play a role in the situation.  Better engaging faculty as described in the last section sparks an important culture change.  It begins to reframe the relationship between faculty and faculty development from a punitive one, perceived by many as a system whereby the institution offers a way to address a weakness, to one that asks faculty members to tell the institution what it needs to provide in order to allow them to reach stated goals (see Haras 2018).  Engaging faculty members in creating an institutional strategy will help leaders understand how it needs to be funded. Investing in faculty development will return dividends.  

Focus on assessment

It has already been suggested here that the time for tolerating mediocre online courses and programs is over.  Institutions will increasingly face heavier competition.  Assisted by OPMs and similar companies, filling in the gaps that once kept them from competing in the online education environment, many more institutions will now offer quality online programs.  Thus, the quality of teaching and learning will become the major distinguisher.  So, how do we shape faculty development for online education?  A good first step is to know where the gaps are. Are ADA provisions being adhered to?  Are there sufficient communication tools?  The list goes on.  Some institutions use external resources to assess the quality of online courses, such as Quality Matters (see  Some institutions construct internal tools and rubrics.  Of course, there are pros and cons to both.  The most important thing is that institutions have a valid assessment method.  The results help actually frame the areas in which faculty need support to improve the quality of online courses, especially the degree to which students are learning.

So, let us not forget learning outcomes assessment (LOA).  At most institutions, though there is variation, LOA systems have existed for some time.  For institutions that do not have them in place but that want to compete in the online education arena, creating such an assessment infrastructure must be done simultaneously to creating the online technology elements.  How else will teaching and learning be properly managed?   Online courses also offer some innovative ways to conduct LOA’s that might not have been possible in traditional modes.

If working properly, an institution’s online course and program assessment apparatus should identify problem areas (e.g., ADA issues, course consistency, poor learning outcomes), so that adjustments can be made on the fly.  This ongoing quality-assurance process takes time and energy, but it is essential to ensuring that students have a good learning experience and addressing critics of the learning modality.

Celebrate, collaborate, repeat

But what is sometimes overlooked is regular recognition of progress made.  This author has had great success in hosting faculty showcase events at various times throughout the year. First, these events allow faculty members who have been working with development teams the opportunity to show off a bit.  Some institutions actually require this as a last step in the “Train, Test, and Certify” process for teaching online.  In any case, faculty members describe the goals they had for the course, the design process, the learning objects they used, and some of the interesting things they are finding as they teach the course.  Second, the resulting discussion with their colleagues–some teaching online, some considering it–is where things really get fun.  Ideas are exchanged, problems are often solved, and the cadre of online faculty is strengthened.  Finally, sessions like these also act as important conduits of information that can be used to inform the next iteration of faculty development, so the next round of online education development is stronger and more effective than the last.

Final thoughts

Change is poised to be a powerful force in higher education for the foreseeable future.  For too long, institutions have been able to get by with little or no focus on learning outcomes assessment plans, technology strategies, and adequate support for faculty development.  Whatever challenges higher education will face, there will, no doubt, be a need to help faculty members adapt and thrive.  Without that support, teaching and learning will surely suffer.  Institutions must see it as essential, rather than an enhancement. Faculty members need to look at it as an opportunity to stay on the cutting edge rather than as an admission of weakness.  There is a lot of anxiety about where higher education is headed.  But, with a renewed focus on the essential cornerstones of teaching and learning, our students will benefit like never before.

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