Does Online Faculty Development Really Matter?
Laurence Boggess has had an interesting career path to his current position as the director of faculty development for the Penn State World Campus. After 25 years as a K-12 administrator, he earned his Ph.D. at Penn State and continued on to take a faculty position in the department of educational leadership at Miami University. He moved to the college of education at Penn State before taking his current position as director. Along the way, he has formed his own opinions about the importance of online faculty development and whether it really matters.
Does it matter?
Boggess poses this question, then allows that “the follow-up question is, ‘to whom?’” He explains that this question is a natural outgrowth of the understandable uncertainty that accompanies these sorts of training endeavors. “We always wonder, ‘is what I’m doing making a difference?’” he says. “Does it matter to the faculty and administration?”
Part of the question is how the success of a faculty development program will be measured. “What are the metrics we’re going to use to measure student success? You can’t draw a straight line from faculty [development] to student success; there are too many other factors,” Boggess says. However, the question remains: “How can we convince the administration to [fund the program] and faculty to come take our courses? What are the metrics that are meaningful?” While he understands that many people aren’t thinking of this ROI perspective on faculty development, he says that, in the current climate, “they will be.”
Boggess explains the problem like this: “Increasingly, universities are suggesting or requiring some credential—a course or a series of a courses or modules—to ‘prepare’ or ‘qualify’ faculty to teach online. However, there is a tenuous research thread, at best, associating faculty training and student learning. Given the inability of educational research to establish credible measures of causality, faculty developers and faculty development researchers commonly look to proxy measures of effectiveness….”
Instead of these proxy measures, Boggess proposes the collection of data that more closely measures the success of online faculty development.
Higher education will be looking at metrics to measure the success of online faculty development initiatives because online learning has matured in the higher education environment. “Nationally, we’ve accepted that online learning is here to stay,” he says. Therefore, the notion of having intentional faculty development has also matured.
Success at the World Campus
Penn State World Campus offers a nationally-recognized series of courses for its online faculty. The initial course, OL 1000: Welcome to World Campus, is followed by courses on teaching the adult learner, teaching the military learner, accessibility online, and using the LMS. All of these courses are self-paced. Additional instructor-led, cohort courses are also available.
The core course, OL 2000: Effective Online Instruction, makes up part of the online teaching certificate that instructors can earn. This four-week, instructor-led, cohort class teaches competencies in pedagogy, management, and technology. To date, nearly 1,400 individuals have taken the course, including faculty, instructional designers, staff, administrators, and graduate students. Completion of this certificate demonstrates that “faculty have taken their interest in online teaching seriously,” Boggess says.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of this course, Penn State undertook a study of faculty self-reports in the course evaluation of OL 2000. The study sought to show how faculty experienced the course and their assessment of its outcomes. This study was conducted via a quantitative analysis of the faculty responses on the written portion of the course evaluation. More than 250 individual faculty members contributed written responses that could be included in the study, which covered 22 sections of the class from 2012-2015.
Three major findings resulted. In a recent Online Learning Consortium conference presentation, Boggess summarized these findings as follows:
- A significant majority had positive experiences.
- Their pre-course concerns were affective and technical.
- Their post-course reflections highlighted relief expressed as increased comfort, competence, and confidence.
In other words, the course made the majority of faculty feel much better about their ability to teach online.
Many faculty members went into the course with significant anxiety, signaled by words like “unprepared,” “incompetent,” “inexperienced,” “uncomfortable,” and even “lonely.” However, when asked to describe their feelings post-course, the words used signaled a sense of relief: “surprised,” “comfortable,” “confident,” and “competent” were all used.
The new level of comfort seems to have been brought about by certain faculty discoveries that helped them feel better prepared.
Boggess explains that the faculty discovered, among other things:
- Resources they didn’t know existed.
- Colleagues of mix[ed] experience.
- Techniques for engagement.
- Techniques for student motivation.
- Strategies for personalizing a course.
- Strategies for time management.
Although there were no hard data connecting the completion of the course with student success, the results of the course were quite clear. “Faculty come [to the course] with an overwhelming feeling of apprehension that translates to a feeling of relief,” Boggess says. “I think that’s a good finding to share with administration,” he says, explaining that this information can have a great deal of power when disseminated throughout the university. Faculty tell other faculty that they needed to do the training,” he says.
The value of the online faculty training has indeed spread through the university. The institution has undertaken a pilot program for graduate students that allows these new instructors to learn some of the skills they will need in the classroom, and the response has been tremendous. “We combined a couple of courses [and] use the badge system to microcredential it,” he says. The institution expected about 30 graduate students to sign up for the training, and some 350 did so. To date, about 280 have completed the training. “A strong motive was [that they] wanted to have some credential on their CV,” he noted. This indicates a desire to demonstrate the commitment to online teaching also seen among the non-student faculty. “We want to start following them longitudinally,” Boggess says. However, at this time, the graduate student training is open online to Penn State graduate students, with discussions still ongoing about whether this training could be opened to graduate students across the country.
When asked about his advice for other institutions thinking about a Penn State-style online faculty development program, Boggess urges his peers to think about things in terms of impact. “If you’re not thinking about metrics, you should be,” he says.
“Faculty development is assumed to be good, [but that thinking’s] probably not enough anymore.” Instead, institutions should take charge of their online faculty development and how it is perceived by faculty, administration, and other constituents.
“We’re in control of the message at this point,” Boggess says.
Whether institutions like Penn State can keep in control requires forward thinking and a desire to demonstrate the effectiveness of training.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is managing editor of Academic Leader. A version of this article first appeared in Distance Education Report.