Improving Faculty Attitudes about Online Teaching

Online Learning: More Faculty Are Engaged … And Skeptical

The New Media Consortium has identified the “evolution of online learning” as a key trend that will accelerate adoption of ed tech in higher education for the next one to two years. Meanwhile, a recent study by Inside Higher Ed shows that while the number of higher ed faculty teaching online is increasing, many remain skeptical about whether online learning is effective.  Improving faculty attitudes about online teaching is important to students and the future.

In general, attitudes are mindsets that inform a person’s behavior. Attitudes are complex and are theorized to be comprised of three components: feelings, thoughts or beliefs, as well as actions.  Our attitudes influence our choices and guide our behavior. An online instructor with a poor attitude toward online learning is less likely to be dedicated to creating an engaging, student-centered learning experience.

Given the correlation between attitudes and behavior, we should be pondering the impact that skeptical faculty have on the future of high quality online learning.  Institutions should be making an effort to explore ways to improve faculty attitudes about online teaching and learning. To change a person’s attitude, one must be engaged at both a cognitive and emotional level.  For example, if you wish to convince me that I need to exercise every day, you’ll need to provide me with information, as well as engage me emotionally by making connections between this new behavior and the things that are important to me.  Just telling me to exercise because it is good for me will not be enough to sustain a change in my attitude.

Supporting the Emotional Aspects of Becoming an Online Instructor

The work of Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt discusses a need to cultivate a “phased approach” to faculty development to support the shifting needs of faculty as they move through the stages of Visitor (one who is contemplating teaching online) to Novice, Apprentice, Insider, and Master.  The four core facets of the online faculty development experience, according to Palloff and Pratt, include: personal, pedagogy, content, and technology.

What’s intriguing is how faculty prioritize these four facets differently as they move from the visitor to the master phase.

Copyright: Rena Palloff, 2014

Of particular interest is how the need for support with the “personal” element of online teaching becomes a top priority at the novice phase, while it moves to last at the other four phases.  Palloff and Pratt note that the types of personal support needed by faculty at the novice phase include reassurance and help overcoming “any fears about online teaching” (Palloff & Pratt, 2011, p. 25).  Novice online instructors need support with improving their confidence about their ability to transition from the face-to-face to online environment.  They need to experience how to foster a presence online. New online faculty frequently need to understand how to convey a sense of who they are online — without being physically present with their students.  Many desire to learn how to convey their sense of enthusiasm for their discipline through an online course. Others need to explore their teaching style and develop an online teaching philosophy, as well as improve their confidence in their ability to use technology.

How to Humanize Your Online Course

In my role as Instructional Technologist for Online and Blended Learning at CSU Channel Islands, I have had the opportunity to develop and facilitate an Online Teaching Preparation Program for new and experience online instructors.  The program was launched in the Spring of 2014 and is comprised of three fully online 2-week courses.  Faculty may take all three courses to complete the program or select to take courses a la carte.  The outcomes of the courses are aligned with the CSU Quality in Online Learning & Teaching (QOLT) framework and are anchored in fostering of student engagement, human presence, student-student and faculty-student interactions, and  At CSU Channel Islands, our program begins with the class, “How to Humanize Your Online Course” and is followed by “How to Design Your Online Course” and “Designing Engaging Online Activities.”

Courses two and three reflect typical courses you will likely find integrated into most online faculty preparation-type programs.  The Humanizing course, however, is unique.  It is designed to provide the type of personal support Palloff and Pratt identify as a priority to novice online instructors. In the 2-week class, faculty engage faculty in a meaningful, experimental, and supportive experience that involves investigating and reflecting on research about the role of social presence in improving online student learning.  Through the course, faculty participate in asynchronous VoiceThread conversations (in voice or video), share content they have created with a tool of their choice from the Tool Buffet, and create a humanized online course action plan in which they reflect on the particular behaviors and strategies they will utilize to improve instructor presence.  The course is supported with a Google+ Community (where faculty share a course introduction video and their humanized course action plans in written or video format) and ends with an optional Google+ Hangout.

Changing Faculty Attitudes through Immersive Faculty Development

As the facilitator of the courses, I realize the critical impact I have on each faculty member’s attitude about online teaching. The course design is critical, but being an active, supportive, flexible, and empathetic facilitator is essential.  As online learners themselves, faculty experience the challenges of figuring out how to navigate an online course, how to use new technologies, identify elements of a course that support their needs as a learner, and feel the value of an instructor who provides flexibility with due dates when a crisis surfaces.

Perhaps the thing that is most unique about the Online Teaching Preparation Program at CSU Channel Islands is the fact that I work remotely.  Not only do faculty in the program learn to teach online through the lens of an online student, but most of them have not met me face-to-face at the start of the program. This is important because they can reflect on how technology can be effective at establishing a relationship at a distance.

We have just wrapped up the first year of the program.  The presentation shared below showcases some of the data we captured through anonymous faculty evaluations at the end of each course. As I reflect on this data, I am excited to see evidence of improved attitudes about online teaching from novice instructors. One faculty shared that the Humanizing course is “a must take course for faculty … who think online learning is nothing more than a glorified correspondence school.” Another noted, “I am heartened by the approach of starting first with humanizing the online experience. It helped alleviate my major fears about teaching online, by being able to get right to what worries me the most and see that there are tools and strategies and people who care about the topic. I see the possibilities so much better now.”

What do you think? Is it important to immerse higher education faculty in an online experience to experience cognitively and emotionally how effective online learning can be? What strategies are taken at your institution to achieve this goal?

References

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M. (2014) Promoting Excellence Online: How to Develop Excellent Online Instructors. Inside Higher Ed webinar. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/audio/2013/12/12/promoting-excellence-online-how-develop-excellent-online-instructors

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