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A New Role for Faculty in the Virtual Classroom

A New Role for Faculty in the Virtual Classroom
The transition to the online classroom presents the opportunity for faculty to specialize in particular areas of the learning process, making the institution more efficient and the learning environment more effective.

The evolution of technology has certainly caused a stir in the world of higher education. The impact of broader internet access and increasingly impressive software for facilitating learning has been discussed, debated and reviewed many times over. Those discussions and debates are not going away anytime soon. However, one aspect of this new online community that has received little attention is the role of faculty. What should be the role of faculty in the virtual environment?

The advent of wholly virtual institutions along with the abundance of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offerings, most of which are asynchronous and self-paced, is driving change in faculty roles. Though there is still a great deal of work to be done for ensuring the viability and sustainability of the MOOC and traditional universities, the impact these innovations have on the role of faculty will likely change them permanently. It seems wise, then, to consider what the new role of faculty in the virtual institution should look like. Presented here are a few ideas that support the disaggregated faculty model.

First we should define what we mean by disaggregated faculty. Chris Policastro, while at Nova Southeastern University, referred to this concept as “unbundling” of the faculty role. Instead of being all things to all students, faculty will have the luxury of choosing their favorite activities and those that best fit their strengths. Policastro argues that distance education, if not all forms of education, will benefit from this new faculty model. Logically, a bifurcated or disaggregated faculty model is more efficient because faculty are no longer pressured to do it all. Some will design courses in collaboration with instructional designers and other subject-matter experts (SMEs). Some will facilitate courses, which in the online environment might mean more opportunities to work one-on-one with students at their pace and skill level. Other faculty may choose to focus on assessing and evaluating student work.

Of course, there are those that feel threatened by a disaggregated model. To some, it might appear that dividing faculty duties in this way will eventually lead to less demand for higher education faculty. After all, with each faculty member taking on a specialized role instead of trying to fill every possible role, the institution should operate more efficiently. While the concern is natural, it is not very probable. Learning is a social event and even the best of students require a degree of high-level support at varying times during the course of their studies. Replacing instructor-centered content delivery with student-centered inquiry will likely increase the odds for successful mastery of content, if only because of the motivational shift on the part of the student. Further, the increase in individual attention for students will help ensure they learn according to their own learning styles.

A bifurcated faculty could also help to remove assessment bias from the learning cycle. Almost everyone who has been a student has had an experience where he or she felt unfairly judged by an evaluator, and grade inflation is often a concern in the higher education industry. By separating the assessment role from the instructor role in the learning cycle, blind evaluation should be possible. Such a design should build stronger confidence in the mastery level of the student because student performance will be judged based on what is demonstrated, independent of the student’s engagement with the instructor.

This type of model is already working well in online, competency-based institutions. Competency-based programs with disaggregated faculty help facilitate individual investment and responsibility in one’s own learning.

The disaggregated model also helps the student to build a network of support while learning. Most fair assessment practices advocate testing students with varied modalities in order to ensure the student has every opportunity to prove what he or she has learned. A disaggregated faculty model gives students access to varied perspectives because the course is designed by one SME, facilitated by another and the work is evaluated by yet another. The exposure to several perspectives in any domain of knowledge is a learning enhancement, and that, coupled with opportunities to network and develop critical thinking skills as a natural outcome of the process of having multiple instructors, are valuable benefits indeed.

Another advantage of the disaggregated model is the opportunity for students to demonstrate what they can do in addition to what they know. Performance assessments and peer-reviewed learning activities are often incorporated into this type of model. Both forms of assessment allow students to use the knowledge they are building by applying what they have learned to authentic situations related to the area of content.

One final potential benefit of a disaggregated faculty model is the opportunity to reduce costs and build efficiency and productivity into faculty roles and, more broadly, the learning process. As innovations in higher education lead to more open resources, faculty will be in a position to develop their skills in the roles they enjoy most, and share them using a broader variety of learning formats.

Now seems to be the time to embrace innovations and new paradigms to help build new educational opportunities. Most of the newer streams of thought on higher education emphasize student-centered learning. Higher education faculty could have a meaningful influence on how their roles evolve in this new era, if they are willing to cultivate new skills and use their current expertise in non-traditional ways.

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