Mark Zupan, Dean of the Eller College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Arizona, is facing a bit of a quandary. The school's Department of Management Information Systems (MIS) ranked fourth in the country in U.S. News & World Report's annual evaluation of graduate business programs--certainly, good news for Eller. It's not surprising, then, that Zupan wants to maintain the school's strengths. But he also wants to meet the graduate students' need for flexibility. That flexibility, however, means meeting the students' demand for online classes--and there's the rub.
"I'm skeptical that you can deliver high-quality business education via the Net," says Zupan. "Case studies, teamwork--that's all a part of the MBA, and if you don't have that, you miss out. I'm just not a fan of distance learning." But Zupan is no Luddite either, and as a university administrator, he's a realist. So, in 1999, the graduate program added a modified distance class for students in the Silicon Valley as well as for those in its home Tucson market.
Yet, as Eller committed to the virtual classroom initiative, Zupan and his colleagues began to realize that instructors needed directions to get on the Information Highway. The professors' mastery of their chosen subject matter wasn't the issue, but it soon became apparent that many of the teachers needed technological coaching. It turned out that the very faculty who had helped make Eller a U.S. News Favorite also needed handholding in tech basics. They needed a tech support capability to help define and create a topical course listserv; the ability to develop a sense of community among virtual classmates; the facility to establish schedules for revising and posting class notes to Web sites (so that all students would have the opportunity to download them before class); even the sense of knowing where to stand during a video-recorded lecture.
Until the distance learning venture, Zupan hadn't imagined that stage direction would be part of his job description. But with the increased interest in distance learning programs, a recessionary economy leading laid-off and career-concerned workers back to school, and heightened IHE interest in new revenue streams, issues such as video-cam stage presence were suddenly be coming important to university administrators. In addition to the other online concerns now facing them (concerns such as maintaining sufficient bandwidth availability; quality control; and consistency of curriculum, online, and other distance courses), there was a new concern: how to train the trainers.
No matter the subject or educator, say distance ed experts, the basic truth of e-learning is that a good classroom lecturer does not necessarily make a good online teacher. College administrators like Zupan now admit that ignoring the necessity of training faculty for virtual education could leave them out in the cold.
TRAINING FOR A NEW KIND OF PEDAGOGY
According to Brian Nueller, VP/C00 of the for-profit adult education giant University of Phoenix, "Teaching an online course requires a special skill set: not only that of knowing how to deliver content, but of knowing what content is most effective online. You can't present the same material in the same way to a learning team in a threaded online conversation as you would in a traditional lecture."
With 17,000 total faculty members--5,500 of whom teach online courses (a number that has doubled since 2001 and is estimated to double again in 2003)--UOP claims it is the industry leader in developing faculty training initiatives. In fact, the UOP system trains an average of 600 new faculty every month, through its online prep program, which was developed in-house.
The program starts with an unpaid four-week online session, administered asynchronously, so that prospective faculty--who come both from other universities as well as industry--can log on whenever they have the time, rather than at set hours. The month-long prep orientation covers the preparation for Web-based teaching, including: syllabus development, sexual harassment prevention, understanding online tone, and components of virtual lecture effectiveness. Prospective UOP faculty observe current online courses in their specific subject areas, so that they can see how the material in their particular disciplines is applied in the Internet classroom. An education professor might experience the kinds of questions asked by students studying for special ed certification, while a business professor might see how accounting case studies are handled in a chat room.
The total training session lasts 12 weeks, during which time prospective faculty teach a course (also asynchronous) while a current member of the school's mentoring faculty observes. The mentor lurks in newsgroups and follows the new faculty member through teaching the class, signing off on the syllabus, detecting plagiarism, answering student queries, and handling other pedagogical and technical details. Because instructors are located throughout the country (and because a prime training objective is to help academics feel comfortable communicating in the Internet setting), all of the sessions are conducted online.
Still, there are always the experienced lecturers who resist the idea that they need to learn how to teach in a new medium. "In traditional academia in particular, they're sometimes outraged that they would need training," says Russ Paden, UOP's VP of Online Academic Services. "They'll say, `I've been teaching for five years: But we don't even care if someone has been teaching online for five years. Everyone goes through the training."
Many institutions--particularly traditional campus-bound universities--were hesitant to implement formal prep programs because they represent such a paradigm shift in academia. But distance learning administrators now say they've learned the online classroom is more than a room without desks.
Concord University Law School in Los Angeles, the Kaplan-owned online law school that opened in 1998, couldn't be more different from the traditional lecture-style format of land-based taw schools. Prospective faculty are intensively trained in school policies; calibrating grades; the art of creating a positive and motivational learning environment on the Internet; how to conduct chats using Concord systems; and the best ways to achieve the learning objectives using the Concord system. Certain core competencies--such as how to use e-mail and appropriate experience in the subject field--are typically assumed at most institutions, including Concord, leaving distance training to address the specific complexities of reaching a remote pupil Many training programs also review: understanding the tone of comments in Internet chat and e-mail, achieving optimum message response times, enforcing attendance regulations, and identifying plagiarism. Less than 30 percent of the training at Concord covers technical how to--which clearly takes a back seat to what Concord sees as more important issues.
Most online instruction courses also include a time management component, because the accessibility expectations of virtual students are dramatically different from those of on-campus students who only approach their teachers during scheduled office hours.
"On the Internet, students have no qualms about e-mailing you left and right. They expect immediate feedback; the Internet has bred that," explains L.D. (Skip) Green, VP/e-learning at Walden Institute, the Bonita Springs, FL-based national online professional development school. "Faculty have to be more responsive than in a traditional classroom setting. It's not unusual to get 10 e-mails a day, even if your class meets once a week."
While few (if any) programs require their instructors to carry wireless devices 24/7, instilling a timely response ethic is crucial to distance learning success. Internet access is typically a prerequisite to landing an online teaching job, and few schools reimburse their faculty for the costs of surfing the Net. UOP contributes $10 per month toward faculty Internet-access expense, but the university requires its faculty to be online and posting messages five out of seven days a week, providing ongoing feedback for students. All assignments must be graded within one week. Concord reimburses faculty for technology costs only when teaching requires upgraded access, or specific hardware or software to access the school systems. Most of the faculty have broadband or high-speed connections before they begin teaching for the law school.
At Indiana University Kelly School of Business in Bloomington, faculty are expected to respond to 300 or more e-mail messages in 24 hours or less, a demand that has led prospective faculty to come to terms with the fact that an Internet course is not any less demanding than an in-person lecture, says Timothy T. Baldwin, professor of management.
Adds Greg Brandes, Associate Dean of Faculty at Concord, "It's a challenge to teach people to be that supportive. For a professor who has taught for many years in a fixed facility, responding to student questions within 24 hours is something new." Such responsiveness also comes in the form of detailed feedback on class papers and constant communication between the student, faculty, and school, should any problems arise. Faculty who adhere to the office-hours-only model of student interaction typically do not fare well with the daily demands on their time that online teaching necessitates.
Paula Szulc Dominguez, Director of Research and Evaluation for Hezel Associates, a Syracuse, NY distance learning consulting firm, says that applying the standards of on-campus student/teacher interaction to an online course is one of the most problematic areas in adapting instructors to e-learning.
"Any faculty member will say that `meaningful professional relationships with my students' is what they like most about teaching. But the traditional classroom model they use is, unfortunately, not ideal online," she believes. What's more, "Expectations of students and administrators are very different from school to school. In some cases, you may need to give faculty grad students to help answer e-mail. In others, you may need to teach faculty how to access students' personal Web sites and use what they see there to encourage a cross-pollination of ideas inside and outside of the online course. That interaction is very different from what takes place in a face-to-face setting. But if you leave the model of face-to-face and get rid of the notion that face-to-face is the only way to interact, then it gets interesting."
Dominguez has been most impressed by the viral effect online education efforts can have. Once bricks-and-mortar faculty leave the confines of the computer lab or cyber cafe and return to the department offices, they see how online instructors are changing their syllabi, developing more team projects, and increasing the kinds of detailed feedback they give. This categorizes training into pedagogical terms for them, she says; they suddenly stop seeing online teaching as simply all about advanced tech support.
According to Gary Miller, Associate VP for Distance Education, and Executive Director of the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, "We're trying to get faculty to think about how to use technology as a pedagogical tool--not just as a way to reach students." Yes, says Miller, the technological basics are covered in the World Campus program (an asynchronous training curriculum called Faculty Development 101), as are the expectations on instructors, in terms of time commitment and response time to student queries. But Faculty Development 101, which takes instructors an estimated one hour per day for one week to complete, also looks at broader concerns, such as how to author a distance course.
And at Concord--still a small school with 85 online teachers--law instructors must, at minimum, have some degree of technical ease, Internet access, and a demonstrated ability to teach via written communication. "They don't have to be Webmasters, but there should be some level of accessibility," Brandes says. Legal writing professors, he says, typically have an easier time with the writing-on-the-Web requirement than do other law professors who are not used to taking apart written work for a student.
THE VALUE OF OVERSIGHT
Knowing how much to invest in helping instructors master the new medium is the conundrum facing university administrators who, just a year ago, were trying to decide whether or not to have training programs for online ed, at all. At University of Arizona's Eller College of Business, initial faculty prep can vary from two hours to 12 weeks, without a guarantee of being hired to teach. And many institutions require ongoing training to improve skills, review new technology, and reiterate school objectives.
Most schools see training time as part of the requirements for online teaching--but (unlike UOP) with no extra compensation included. That policy helps institutions reduce their costs for distance learning, but Dominguez says that model works well with full-time faculty who "consider meetings part of their responsibility," whether they're online or in-person. "They're given some coffee and cookies and they head to the computer lab. But adjunct faculty (and about 80 percent of all colleges and universities outsource online teaching to adjuncts) have little allegiance to any particular institution. If they are not compensated for training, it is harder to get them to show up."
In fact, few schools have developed business models for calculating the return on their training investment. Even for-profit institutions like UOP, which claims to "spend more money than anyone out there," can't come up with a ratio of how much it spends per student or course on online instruction, or how much it saves by holding training sessions online, rather than in person. The experts insist that evaluating the success of training can be a long-term process, looking at both student and teacher satisfaction over time; and measured by enrollment, retention, and student and faculty-mentor evaluations of classes and instructors. In the short term, e-learning programs continue to invest time and money in training, because, although they may not be able to calculate the ROI, they are able to determine that such training is a necessary expense that goes well beyond traditional tech support.
As for the written student evaluations (which employ metrics such as responsiveness to student questions; appropriateness of books, lectures, chats, and tests; and availability of technical support), distance educators can get a more comprehensive sense of how effective their faculty are online, than they can get of their instructors in the classroom.
UOP's Mueller feels very strongly that student evaluations are the best barometer of distance ed success. At the culmination of each class--which is typically five to six weeks long--students complete an 18-question Web-based evaluation of their teacher. "We are a for-profit, private university, so we have organized the university very much like a business, based on quality control and customer feedback. The students are the customers," says Mueller. "Evaluating the quality and effectiveness of what we do assures that both the students, and the employers they work for, are getting what they pay for."
And UOP can be quite choosy about its instructors: The university accepts just 30 to 50 percent of those who express interest in teaching one of its courses. Minimum requirements include a master's degree, Internet access, and relevant work experience. Of those it admits to the workshops, the majority--98 percent--move from the introductory four-week period into the mentoring phase. Those who don't move forward with the program usually opt not to because of the time commitment involved in online feedback. Others prove to be less than adept at writing detailed comments on student papers. In total, 70 to 75 percent of all prospective lecturers eventually become UOP faculty, with those who are not chosen weeded out thanks to negative marks on student evaluation forms. Others don't make the grade due to an inability to adapt to UOP's online policies and practices.
Even after they are hired, faculty evaluations continue. Mentors continue to observe lecturers in action by "sitting" in chat rooms reading written comments on student papers, as well as reviewing the student Web evaluations that are filed after every course. Ironically, because of the ongoing feedback from the student body, online programs can often achieve a degree of quality control that is not possible in bricks-and-mortar classrooms. Often, quality control can be delivered in real time: If, for instance, a mentor senses an instructor is frustrating a student, he can send an instant message to the professor about how best to answer the student's question--and he can make the suggestion without undermining the faculty member's authority, because the student is unaware that the mentor is simultaneously communicating with the teacher.
Concord (which annually trains twice as many teaching candidates as it eventually employs) hires all new faculty members on a three- to six-month trial period basis. During the trial, instructors are evaluated by other faculty and via student feedback (culled from twice-annual written evaluation forms that ask both specific questions and allow for narrative comments). The online courses are recorded by a Web audio feed so that faculty can hear themselves teach, a training program element that has been useful in improving virtual communication skills and charting progress.
"A lot of traditional universities lack quality control," says Carolyn J. Geiser, who has taught math, international politics, and communications For a number of universities both on campus and on the Net, including UOP. "They might have an area chair observe someone for the first few weeks, and maybe, a few years later, there will be a peer review. But generally, unless you commit a crime, you teach there until you're dead."
Life is a lot tougher in an online university, say those who've endured the training and quality control reviews: If you can't learn to deliver distance education effectively, you're out before you know what hit you.
Margaret Littman is a freelance journalist in Chicago.…