Technology has enabled a boom in online education. No longer does location dictate where students can take classes and/or where instructors can teach. While this increased flexibility is appealing to many, it can also lead to feelings of disconnect and isolation (Dolan, 2011). As educational leaders, we want to be able to connect with the instructors who are teaching in our programs. As faculty, we want to be included in professional development opportunities and conversations about curriculum with our peers. But how can this be accomplished when people are not available at the same time or located in the same place? Well, by using technology.
Research has shown that interactions with peers promotes faculty engagement (McKenna, Johnson, Yoder, Guerra, & Pimmel, 2016). Faculty learning communities (FLC) have become very popular in recent years. FLCs focus on improving teaching and learning practice through collaboration and community building (Cox, 2001). Usually, FLCs are face-to-face meetings hosted at a physical location at a specific date and time. We understand the benefit of this type of experience. However, we recognize online instructors will likely find it difficult to participate in a traditional FLC. So, we set out to integrate FLC principles to provide our faculty, living and working all over the globe, a similar experience.
Recently, our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence took the plunge and offered a Virtual Faculty Learning Community (V-FLC) for instructors at our Worldwide Campus. The first experience was open only to adjunct instructors teaching online. The experience was asynchronous, lasted eight weeks, and focused on best practices for online teaching and learning. Within our Learning Management System, faculty led and participated in discussions around the topics that were of interest to them. Most topics focused on teaching practices and ways to enhance the online experience. However, other topics bridged the gap between teaching online and general best teaching practices. Faculty discussed supporting student writing across content areas, academic integrity, and time management. In addition to their comments about best practices, they also shared articles, tools, books, and websites that they found useful. While the sharing of best practices and resources was beneficial, the largest trend was around building relationships. The instructors who participated in this V-FLC enjoyed connecting with others, were thankful for the opportunity, and found it worthwhile.
We have seen great success in this faculty development offering; however, a V-FLC has various applications. It can be used within departments, between programs, or even with student groups. This can provide a collaborative opportunity when participants are in the same place, but not available at the same time. It can also be used to forge inter-university collaborations or make connections within a committee. The asynchronous component allows for flexibility, but the focused topics and regular engagement provides a feeling of belonging and connectedness.
To help others get started with a V-FLC, we developed a framework. This framework outlines 12 steps to develop, implement, and evaluate your own virtual experience. Please check out our Virtual Faculty Learning Community Implementation Framework on our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cox, M. D. (2001). Faculty learning communities: Change agents for transforming institutions into learning organizations. To Improve the Academy, 19, 69-93.
Dolan, V. L. (2011). The isolation of online adjunct faculty and its impact on their performance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(2), 62-77.
McKenna, A. F., Johnson, A. M., Yoder, B., Guerra, R. C. C., & Pimmel, R. (2016). Evaluating virtual communities of practice for faculty development. The Journal of Faculty Development, 30(1), 31-39.
Angela Atwell, M.Ed., is a faculty development instructor at the Rothwell Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence at Embry – Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). Cristina Cottom, Ed.S., is the research specialist for the Rothwell CTLE team. Lisa Martino, Ph.D., is a faculty development instructor at the Rothwell Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (CTLE-W), Daytona Beach, Fla. Sara Ombres, M.S., is the Director for the Rothwell Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (CTLE) at Embry-Riddle Worldwide.