The University of Florida's Distance Education Faculty Training Program: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Abstract

The number of faculty innovators on the cutting edge of using technology in the classroom has grown in recent years. However, many faculty members have limited background in the high-end technologies and instructional design expertise typically needed to develop more technologically sophisticated course projects. The University of Florida's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences recently completed a project to address the need of developing training materials for faculty who teach or plan to teach distance education courses. The "Distance Education Faculty Training Program" (DEFT), a collaborative effort of instructional designers, professors, and communication specialists, resulted. The objective of this paper was to describe the evolution and development of this project, which resulted in the production of a self-paced interactive training program showing faculty how to develop an effective distance education course.

Background

As one of the tenets of their mission to provide life-long learning, land-grant universities and other agricultural institutions have been at the forefront in developing extensive infrastructures to facilitate distance education delivery of courses to a diverse community of learners, both traditional and nontraditional (Miller & Pitcher, 1999). Most of these academic programs involve technological delivery of distance education coursework in a variety of majors at both the graduate and undergraduate levels using such tools as teleconferencing, videotape, and the Web. However, technological infrastructure is not enough to ensure success in the distance education environment.

Research indicates that new teaching techniques are necessary in the distance education environment, and training is essential for instructors to be able to use these new techniques (Thach, 1993; Willis, 1993; Wolcott, 1993). King (1999) said distance education training helps provide faculty with a "reservoir of ideas" to teach and encourage critical thinking skills in students (p. 170). Research also indicates that faculty need technical support and training in instructional technologies (Spotts, 1999). Such training improves not only distance education courses but also traditional courses (Moskal, Martin, & Foshee, 1997).

Interactive or "hands-on" training and experience prior to the beginning of a new course enable instructors to become much more comfortable and confident with the context of distance learning. Additionally, it provides an opportunity to try out course materials and techniques prior to actual implementation. Moore and Thompson (1997) have stated that since a technologically mediated course is "only as effective as its instructor and/or facilitator there must be adequate guidance and support for faculty in selecting and implementing appropriate teaching behaviors and techniques" (p. 40). They listed a number of skills that a distance educator should utilize: providing structure, providing socioemotional support, establishing a democratic atmosphere, creating a sense of shared space, modeling appropriate behavior, clarifying material, and maintaining an appropriate pace. Numerous principles such as establishing rapport, meeting learner needs, providing a supportive learning environment, and using variety in educational approaches have been shown to positively affect learning (Place, 2001).

Nevertheless, the physical separation that exists in distance education requires that instructors plan, present, interact, and perform in ways that are significantly different from traditional face-to-face instruction. This would tend to support the argument that providing training for faculty who will teach at a distance is critically important. But what should a distance education faculty training program look like? What topics should be covered, and how should training be conducted? This case study details how the University of Florida's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences developed a self-paced, interactive program to train faculty who will teach distance education courses. …