We’ve Set Sail Online, Now Where Are We Headed?

“The things we fear most in organizations–fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances–are the primary sources of creativity.”  Margaret Wheatley

You’ve heard the expression, “That ship has sailed.”  The pandemic forced institutions across the country to set sail to expand and accelerate online course delivery, and there’s no going back to shore.  Regardless of how much online experience your institution had before this unexpected upheaval or how seaworthy your LMS may be, faculty and staff will surely encounter some stormy seas ahead. 

Learning how to use the LMS and getting the courses online gets the ship in the water.  Now, what can higher education leaders do to help provide guidance and direction to ensure that you’re headed in the right direction of safe, successful and sustainable online horizons for the future?

Based on my experience teaching online for over 20 years and running large online programs with hundreds of full-time and adjunct faculty and staff. I’ve found that the following Four C practices create stability and predictability and calm the stormy seas in times of rapid change.  

Clarity

 Establish clear and explicit standards and online policies and procedures that reflect your mission and institutional values.

Clarify roles, responsibility and accountability: 

  • Who is responsible for course content?  Individual faculty, department, program, a cross-functional team?
  • Who creates the course shells?  Not every institution has the luxury of dedicated course designers.  
  • What can faculty change within the course shell?
  • Who reviews and mentors faculty?  Is there a peer review process?
  • Who provides guidance and training for ADA and Section 508 standards?

What are the expectations of faculty in the online classroom?  Faculty handbooks should make explicit expectations of online faculty for classroom presence, returning student calls and emails, (24- 48 hours) and grading turnaround (2 days, 3 days, calendar days, business days?) as well as expectations related to assessment data.

Consistency

Consistency is a major weapon against chaos and confusion in the online classroom. Consistent course design standards improve faculty and student performance:

  • Course shells and templates
  • Branded university syllabi templates that include policies on grading, late work, academic integrity
  • Consistent grading policies, late policies, and rubrics, particularly within a program
  • Class scheduling – Faculty are more efficient with a predictable class schedule

Community

It is well established that creating a sense of community in the online classroom is essential to the student experience.  Students need to connect with their faculty and their fellow students. By the same token, faculty, particularly adjunct faculty, can feel alone “at sea” without some connection to other faculty, their department, and the institution. Faculty who feel connected to, listened to, and cared about by their institutions impart that same positive attitude to their students.  Increased online enrollments often result in more reliance on adjunct faculty, and also create more opportunities for them to go elsewhere.

  • How engaged are faculty?  Conduct surveys and/or focus groups to let them know you are listening and incorporate their opinions
  • Publish the results of the feedback
  • Ensure adjunct faculty have a central “go-to” contact (Department Chair, Program Chair, Dean) 
  • Create opportunities for all faculty to provide input into course content 
  • Provide vehicles (online or face-to-face) facilitating socialization and idea-exchange
  • Provide professional development opportunities
  • Consider concrete ways to reward high-performing adjunct faculty
    • Commit to favorable schedules and/or increased course-loads
    • Develop pay-scale based on adjunct faculty rank
    • Access to professional development grants

Continuous Improvement

  • Best Practices – Benchmark leaders in online education quality
  • Collect data through LMS, student surveys, focus groups, advisory boards, alumni, etc.
  • Develop mentoring systems for faculty development
  • Faculty recruitment:  Do you have a bench of experienced online faculty? If not, how can such faculty be recruited?
  • Program innovation:  create teams of faculty to explore new program and certificate opportunities
  • Establish schedules for ongoing program reviews, course revision, and ongoing faculty development training in technology and pedagogy.

Contact me at Dutcher LLC (rosemary@dutcher.llc) – I can provide cost-effective group coaching sessions for faculty who need some extra support during these stressful and challenging times.

Rosemary Hartigan is formerly associate vice dean of the business and management department and MBA chair and professor at University of Maryland Global Campus – the largest public university online campus in the country.

Sincerely,
Rosemary Hartigan
Higher Education Consultant

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