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Evaluating Online Instructors: Invite the Faculty or Go in Cold?

Promotion, Tenure, and Evaluation

Evaluating Online Instructors: Invite the Faculty or Go in Cold?

When students arrive at their computers – or their phone screens – for the first day of their online courses, no faculty are physically present to guide them through the syllabus, course expectations, or finding their way around in the class.

It’s often a make-or-break moment for online students – either they open the virtual door to find directional signs and intuitive next steps, or they plunge into a pool of chaotic clicks that result in directionless drifting.

If that’s the sink-or-swim leap that students must take on their first day, shouldn’t administrators and peers approach evaluations for faculty teaching online courses in the same manner? Should faculty be present for evaluators entering their classes when they are not for students?

That’s the debate roiling on many campuses where deans and other evaluators, long shy of online courses, are now stepping into the mix.  With 5.3 million post-secondary students nationwide taking at least one online course,  and higher education online continuing to grow(according to the 2014 Babson Research Group study), evaluating instructors’ online classes becomes a higher priority. Where once online classes were an afterthought, they are now part of the regular evaluation cycle at many colleges.

Under the spotlight

Online education is coming under the spotlight in many states. In California, with 102 public community colleges, the state’s accreditation board has signaled a new emphasis on online education.

At a California Academic Senate Institute held in San Mateo in February, members of a panel on accreditation noted that while some visiting accreditors are satisfied with a sample of online classes made available by the administration, others are now looking in each online course shell. They seek to determine, among other concerns, whether the instructors are present in their course in accordance with the Carnegie unit formula of one hour per one course lecture unit.

Classes in which instructors provide the kind of contact and presence that a Carnegie unit prescribes would likely provide guidance and be intuitive to students. Therefore, no faculty need be present during evaluation of an online course, administrators could argue.

That argument has merit. Best practices in online education describe courses that are intuitive from the first encounter. Students take their first virtual steps inside the course and can tell immediately where they should go and what they should do next. There is a ‘Start Here’ button, or an instructor’s welcome letter or video. There may be a recorded or text version of an orientation inside the course, even an orientation quiz to ensure comprehension. If evaluators can’t find those directions easily and independently, how could students?

But best practices also suggest that online instructors contact their students in advance of the beginning of classes. Instructors being evaluated may have sent emails to students with a welcome letter, course instructions or information about the orientation in advance of the course beginning.  These notifications would not be visible to the evaluator, unless the faculty were careful to send the emails from inside the course shell. If the class instructors require a synchronous online or even in-person orientation meeting, that may or may not be immediately visible or apparent to an evaluator who has not received those emails. And because many Learning Management Systems (LMS) do not include records of emails sent outside the course – even those official college district emails – the evaluator wouldn’t know what had been done ahead of time.

What’s fair?

Still, late students may add the class the day the course begins or even during the first two weeks at some colleges. Their experience could be similar to that of the evaluators dropping into the class.

If the evaluator is willing to watch and engage with the entire orientation, as a late-arriving student would be required to do, then it’s a fair deal to allow administrator and peer evaluators to open the virtual class door, have a seat and attend the class to see what students see.

But if the evaluators intend to skip through this crucial portion of the course, they should allow the faculty to help them get started by being present to guide them through the beginning–offering information on course expectations, where to find evidence of instructor presence and student interaction, and in general how and where to click for what. That’s only fair since online students can and frequently do ask procedural questions of the instructor early on. In addition, and this is anecdotal and experiential and not founded in data, allowing the faculty to be present for the initial introduction to evaluators could alleviate needless anxiety at wondering what the evaluators will or will not find or understand.

Wandering through the course

After that initial explanation, assuming they are not otherwise contract-bound or restricted to a specific set of topics, the evaluators could then wander through and explore the course to understand the nature and frequency of instructor-initiated contact, including course news and announcements on the homepage, online meetings with students in online office hours or synchronous chats, instructor guidance in discussions, instructor-led lectures, and assignment feedback. The evaluators might look up one of the group work assignments or discussions to see how students interact in the course. Evaluators may find an instructor-placed survey asking for student feedback on such issues as due dates, lecture type and length and the sense of community the course engenders.

You might still be wondering about the student who registers late, and arrives in class without benefit of the advance e-mails the instructor has sent, or the synchronous orientation the instructor required. Surely the evaluation has to take those students into account?

Yes, of course. But what would an instructor – whether onsite or online – require of a student arriving late? Instructors would require the students to orient themselves perhaps through a recorded archive of the orientation, or through a face-to-face or online one-on-one meeting with the instructor.

Online faculty should be held to a high standard. Students’ education is at stake. But online faculty should be allowed to be present and explain a little before you take your walk through their classroom. It’s what online faculty would do for their late-arriving students and it’s the same courtesy you would provide your onsite faculty.

Joanna Miller, EdD, is a member of the journalism faculty at Moorpark College in southern California, teaching media communication and advising the student news media.  You may contact her at JoannaMiller@Vcccd.edu.

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