Professional development for faculty who teach in the online environment is key to ensuring student success, particularly given the rapid pace at which new technology is continually emerging. However, administrators face numerous challenges in delivering these professional development opportunities, both in terms of securing the resources needed to support the trainings and persuading faculty to participate. To meet these challenges, administrators can draw on innovative strategies to meet the training needs of faculty and incentivize their participation.
The number of institutions with at least five fully online programs increased significantly over the past decade, jumping from 48% to 76% (Capranos, pg. 6), requiring, in turn, that an increasing number of faculty provide instruction in the online environment. These online instructors may find that, in addition to delivering content, they are called upon to support student engagement, facilitate interaction, and bolster students’ technological skills, thereby increasing the challenges they face beyond those found in the traditional face-to-face classroom setting (Zweig, p. 400). While these challenges can at times be daunting, instructors who regularly participate in professional development can improve the success of students in their online classes.
Many faculty who may have excelled in the face-to-face classroom are not necessarily well-prepared to make the transition to online teaching, and “when faculty are not prepared to teach online, it directly affects the enrollment and potentially student success” (Hopkins, p. 25). Moreover, because by its very nature online learning is reliant on technology that is everchanging, faculty teaching in the online environment must keep pace with emerging technologies such as immersive virtual reality (IVR), which can promote students’ achievement of learning outcomes (Yunru, p. 71), artificial intelligence (AI), which aids in promoting self-regulated learning among online students (Jin et al., p. 17), and ChatGPT, which can offer “personalized and adaptive learning experiences . . . tailored to the needs and preferences of each student” (Bozkurt & Sharma, p. 6). While being familiar with the latest technology is an important first step, effectively employing that technology to provide students with an engaging online experience is essential – but often not intuitive. To prepare faculty to teach online, many institutions require them to complete training on the learning management system (LMS) used by the institution. However, most institutions do not typically require faculty to participate in any additional training -- such as pedagogical training or best practices – that would enhance their abilities in online teaching (Capranos, p. 21).
Although ongoing professional development is not required by most institutions for faculty teaching in the online environment, the benefits of such trainings have been demonstrated in the research. Specifically, faculty who engage in professional development “translate their learning into course materials and assignments that . . . positively influence students’ learning” (Condon, p. 98). Particularly impactful is continuous and ongoing professional development, with those faculty who “amass a more extensive [professional] development history . . . show[ing] measurably larger changes in their teaching than faculty whose participation is slight” (Condon, p. 98). Given the demonstrated value of professional development for faculty teaching in the online environment, how can administrators encourage online instructors to participate in continuous training?
If professional development is not mandated by the institution as a requirement for teaching online, voluntary participation in training comes down to instructor motivation. While some instructors are intrinsically motivated to engage in lifelong learning for the sake of their students, others are extrinsically motivated by incentives such as stipends/supplemental or summer pay, new technology or tools, awards or other forms of public recognition, or course reassignments. Unfortunately, when incentives are not offered, as is often the case, many instructors (much like students) will not participate in professional development.
Even for those faculty members who are intrinsically motivated to engage in professional development to improve their online teaching expertise, high teaching loads, demanding service expectations, and ongoing research projects can make it difficult to prioritize professional development. While they recognize the benefits of attending training and choose to participate as often as possible, the competing demands on their time can pose barriers. However, given that instructors who engage in professional development are better prepared to effectively contribute to student learning and success than are their colleagues to do not participate in such training (Condon), it seems evident that institutions should implements strategies to encourage faculty who teach online to participate regularly in trainings to enhance their capabilities. Moreover, continuous professional development in distance learning may be more of a necessity than a luxury due to the ever-changing landscape of technological advances.
Many institutions offer professional development internally through the department, college, and a campus-wide Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, while others fund faculty participation in external training opportunities through organizations such as the Online Learning Consortium. Through these opportunities, faculty gain the knowledge and skills necessary to help them grow as online instructors. However, while participants may leave these discrete training sessions with a wealth of ideas, they may find it difficult to put them into practice when they return to the daily demands of their faculty roles. Thus, another challenge faced by administrators is ensuring the infrastructure is in place to encourage continuous engagement with professional development and to support faculty through the process of applying what they have learned.
One strategy for addressing this need is to create a culture in which experienced online instructors share their expertise with their colleagues and engage with less-experience faculty as they seek to improve their online materials and grow their expertise in distance learning. Experienced instructors can foster professional development in distance learning through one-on-one discussions with colleagues, by leading distancing learning workshops, through informal discussions, or by hosting online resources or materials in a central repository – a one-stop shop that instructors could access at their leisure. Creating mentoring teams or pairing novice distance learning instructors with experienced practitioners is another strategy for creating enduring connections that will promote ongoing opportunities for continuous professional development.
Another approach is to host student panel discussions focused on the pros and cons of distance education that allow online instructors to hear about the student experience directly from the students themselves. Hearing from students first-hand about their online learning experiences – both the good and the bad – can be both eye-opening and a tremendous motivator for online instructors seeking to improve in the area of distance learning.
Another challenge faced by administrators seeking to support professional development for faculty who teach online is funding. Even those administrators who are strongly committed to supporting development for online instructors must make difficult decisions about how to allocate the limited funds at their disposal. In times of deficit, this may mean professional development is postponed in order to fund more pressing concerns. However, some administrators may choose to use the opportunity to collaborate with other units on campus that share a similar commitment to professional development for online instructors, pooling their resources to provide opportunities for a greater number of faculty across multiple departments. Alternatively, administrators can more aggressively promote university-supported initiatives, such as a Quality Enhancement Plan, to their faculty in order to take advantage of existing opportunities that may have been otherwise overlooked.
When promoting university-supported trainings or other such opportunities for professional development in the area of online teaching, administrators should develop a strategy for frequent communications with faculty at regular intervals to ensure they are made aware of the distance learning resources available to them both on and off campus. A communication strategy that is clearly articulated to faculty – so they know when to “be on the lookout” for it – is particularly valuable at large institutions in which faculty are bombarded with information daily and do not have time to filter through everything to identify the items most relevant to them. An administrator, such as a department chair or director, can promote appropriate and relevant professional development opportunities for their faculty by identifying, curating, and distributing key information in a digest format. This digest might also include opportunities for instructors to seek distance learning credentials, certifications, and/or digital badges that recognize their unique qualifications and expertise in a tangible and visible way.
While communicating professional development opportunities for online training to faculty is an essential first step, identifying a providing extrinsic motivators is an important follow up to encourage active participation. Awards that recognize the efforts of a faculty member to “go above and beyond” by participating in professional development may incentivize some faculty. Other forms of recognition – in newsletters, at department meetings, through department updates, in individual emails or notes – present opportunities not only to acknowledge the efforts of faculty to engage in continually improvement as online instructors but also to reinforce the values of the unit (i.e., regular participation in professional development) and to help create a culture in which engagement in professional development is expected and celebrated.
Publicly recognizing professional development fosters a culture that encourages online faculty to engage in these opportunities regularly; however, administrators must also establish the expectation for professional development in writing – for example, in promotion and tenure guidelines or other appropriate department documents – and to formally acknowledge in annual reviews those faculty who participate in such opportunities. Including the expectation for ongoing professional development into official department or institutional documents lends weight to such expectations and offers faculty the opportunity to claim their participation in training as achievements when they undergo annual reviews and well as reviews for promotion and tenure. Formalizing professional development expectations and faculty achievement of these expectations sends a strong message from administrators that lifelong learning and the honing of one’s skills as an online instructor is valued.
Recognizing the value of professional development for online instructors, our institution implemented several strategies to encourage faculty participation in distance learning training and continual improvement:
- One-Stop Shop. We created a one-stop-shop “class” for online instructors within our learning management system. This class contained resources and documentation to encourage knowledge sharing, such as:
- Strategies for building online communities
- Tools for synchronous online instruction
- Instructions for developing an interactive syllabus
- Guidance for designing widgets to help with course organization
- Approaches for delivering course content effectively
- Lunch and Learn Workshops. We hosted Lunch and Learn workshops, offered by motivational distance learning practitioners from within our institution. These events, which included lunch for attendees, allowed participants to hear from experienced online instructors on a wide range of topics related to distance learning. These workshops were particularly effective and popular for variety of reasons:
- Require minimal funding
- Allow for interaction between attendees and experienced online instructors
- Can be offered in-house, making it convenient for faculty to attend
- Attract faculty interest because a free lunch is offered
- Limit the time commitment (i.e., a single lunch hour) for faculty with already full schedules
- College Workshop Series. We offered a college-level workshop series that invited online faculty to participate in numerous workshops, scheduled over a set period (e.g., academic year, semester, or summer), designed for faculty with limited experience teaching online. These workshops included one that walked participants through One-Stop-Shop LMS class; the remainder included invited speakers or webinars on topics such as:
- Engaging and retaining online students
- Alternative instructional equivalencies
- Course accessibility
- Course design and layout
- Interpersonal relationships (i.e., fostering relationships at all levels - instructor to student, student to student, and student to course content)
- Professional Development Project. We offered a college-level professional development project that typically spanned a single semester (i.e., fall, spring, or summer). Through this initiative, online instructors had the opportunity to choose a distance learning project that they completed with mentoring from a facilitator, with the goal of producing a deliverable designed to enhance their online presence or course. During the semester, each participant was required to submit one or two progress reports on dates set by the facilitator; these were reviewed by the facilitator, who provided feedback as warranted. Participants who submitted their final deliverable by the stated deadline received compensation in some form (e.g., small stipend or summer pay). These professional development projects included the following:
- Develop engaging multi-media accessible online course content.
- Creating an online course using a quality online course checklist (e.g., Quality Matters, OLC Scorecard, etc.) and ensuring accessibility
- Enhancing an existing online course by (1) creating accessible engaging lectures and/or quizzes and (2) redefining the online course layout and design to facilitate greater student engagement
To assess the impact of the Professional Development Project, we surveyed participants to gather their feedback. We conducted a 23-question survey (multiple choice, Likert scale, and open ended) over 4 years with full-time faculty in one college, and received 37 respondents over the 4 year span. Our survey findings revealed that:
- The majority of participants possessed limited online teaching experience, having taught 0-3 online courses prior to participating in one of our professional development opportunities.
- Participants’ average rating, when self-assessing their knowledgeability of our learning management system, was 7.3 out of 10.
- The majority of participants rated the online webinars as very useful to somewhat useful.
- Participants’ average rating, in assessing whether their experience with the professional development project was positive, was 91.25 out of 100.
- Participants reported that their primary reason for not participating in professional development opportunities was the time required to do so.
- The majority of participants indicated that spring and/or summer semesters are the best time to participate in professional development.
- A majority of the participants indicated that they enjoyed the variety of our workshops, projects, and resources to further engage their students through online learning.
Based on feedback from participants, we found that the strategies we employed were effective in encouraging participants to engage with our professional development opportunities in meaningful ways that allowed them to enhance their online teaching.
Increasing faculty participation distance learning professional development is not without its challenges – most notably a lack of funding. Often, funding available for professional development is limited, and there may be a significant disparity in funding allocated for professional development between units on the same campus. However, administrators looking for opportunities to improve student success in online classes would be wise to carve out what funding they can to support professional development opportunities for faculty who teach online. Moreover, a strategic approach to disseminating information among all online faculty – through mentoring programs, sharing of best practices, and in-house workshops – can help to ensure a small investment has a broad reach.
While administrators can establish an expectation of participation in professional development and promote a culture that values continuous growth as an online instructor, without a formal requirement or mandate – whether at the unit level or university level – professional development among all online faculty, or even a majority of those faculty, is unlikely to happen with any regularity. However, even if the expectation for online faculty to participate in professional developed is mandated, faculty are still faced with the challenge of carving time out of their schedules to participate in training. If 100% of an instructor’s workload is already consumed with teaching, scholarship, and professional service responsibilities, expectations in one of these three areas must be reduced to allow time for professional development. And, of course, the time spent participating in a professional development activity is only the first step in part of a much longer process that includes determining how to implement new ideas and strategies into one’s online, executing those plans, assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of modifications and new materials, reflecting on the findings – and then repeating the process in order to further refine one’s course and improve as an online instructor. Such is the iterative scholarly process. Until administrators can make space in faculty members’ workloads to accommodate this process, faculty who teach online may continue to be reluctant to fully and continuously engage in professional development.
Given both limited institutional resources and the demands on faculty time required to participate in professional development, administrators are well-advised to invest in opportunities that are the most beneficial to faculty and, in turn, the students they teach in their online courses. Therefore, areas for future research should include an exploration of the most impactful technologies for teaching in the online environment so that administrators are best able to focus trainings on technologies that will be most impactful. Additionally, research on best practices for incorporating emerging technologies, such as IVR, AI, and ChatGPT, can offer administrators a wealth of best practices for effectively incorporating these technologies in the online classroom that can be captured and shared through faculty professional development. More broadly, research into the challenges faced by faculty making the transition to online teaching and striving to gain mastery of technologies required in the online environment can help administrators better understand the types of professional development that are most needed by faculty. The findings from research into these areas will be tremendously beneficial to administrators as they seek to provide the most effective professional development opportunities to faculty, maximize the trainings they can offer on limited budgets, and limit the demands these trainings make on faculty time.
Bozkurt, A., & Sharma, R. C. (2023). Challenging the Status Quo and Exploring the New Boundaries in the Age of Algorithms: Reimagining the Role of Generative AI in Distance Education and Online Learning. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 18(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo....
Capranos, D., & Magda, A. J. (2022). Online Learning at Public Universities: Views of AASCU Member Institutions as COVID-19 Transforms Higher Education. Wiley University Services. https://universityservices.wil....
Condon, W., Iverson, E. R., Manduca, C. A., Rutz, C., Willett, G., Huber, M. T., & Haswell, R. H. (2016). Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the connections. Indiana University Press.
Hopkins, J. E., & Pittman, J. (2021). The impact of college faculty perceptions of professional development on course design, teaching, and assessment practices (dissertation).
Jin, S.-H., Im, K., Yoo, M., Roll, I., & Seo, K. (2023). Supporting students’ self-regulated learning in online learning using artificial intelligence applications. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 20(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-023-00406-5.
Yunru Liao. 2023. “Effects of immersive virtual reality technology on online learning outcomes.” International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning 18 (13): 62–73. doi:10.3991/ijet.v18i13.41201.
Zweig, J., & Stafford, E. (2016, December 31). Training for online teachers to support student success: Themes from a survey administered to teachers in four online learning programs. Journal of Online Learning Research. https://www.learntechlib.org/p....
 Refers to AACSU institutions, as measured in a 2022 survey (Capranos, 2022).