March 29th, 2013

A Better Way to Talk with Faculty about Teaching Online


Addressing faculty perceptions of distance learning has been a matter of intense concern since the beginnings of online course delivery. Many articles have been written discussing the reasons that faculty may be disinclined to participate in an online course and how to persuade them to change their minds.

For Bernard Bull, assistance professor of educational design and technology and director of the Instructional Design Center at Concordia University in Wisconsin, it is time to move away from administrative desire to mold attitudes and move toward a discussion that takes into account faculty experience. “This is not a sales pitch,” he says. “Dialogue is beneficial even if it slows down the process. It is not always about achieving consensus.”

Bull offers six ideas about how to think differently about faculty perceptions of distance education by encouraging discussion, always remaining mindful that every person and every program brings a unique point of view to the table.

1. Move from propaganda to academic discourse – “Beware of the hard sell. There are benefits and limitations to anything,” Bull says. He encourages administrators and faculty to become familiar with literature and discussion that raise both positive and negative points about distance learning. “While one may fear that doing so simply provides ammunition for opponents of distance learning, this is the spirit of academic discourse. It is a dialogue that welcomes, even finds benefit in diverse perspective, the ability to test and critique ideas and efforts,” he says. Making this move is the first step in allowing all members of the discussion to feel heard, and this is critical to avoiding the hard sell.

2. Value individual as well as collective perception – “Individual perceptions are just as important as data collection,” Bull says. He points out that the desire to learn quantitative data about a population may mask the qualitative stories of individuals who could make a difference to the program or the university. “The data may be hiding a champion,” he says. For example, data that shows that 80 percent of a faculty population is, at best, weakly positive to neutral on distance learning may mask knowledge of the 20 percent that are true champions willing to advocate, lead, and mentor. This 20 percent may be more than enough to keep a program alive and thriving.

3. Value faculty preferences – “We can get so focused on best practices that we don’t leave room for faculty preferences,” Bull says. While the temptation to investigate and implement best practices is pervasive — and the habit can lead to some effective ideas — it may cause administrators to overlook ways that they can work within faculty preferences to achieve good results.

Bull tells of one study a university conducted on student satisfaction in online courses. The study found that student satisfaction correlated positively with the amount of feedback given. An effort to learn more about the way feedback was given found that some faculty strongly preferred to give their feedback verbally; these faculty members would talk with students for quite some time if they had the opportunity to meet face-to-face, but the online course management system did not have a mechanism to allow for any but written feedback.

The university then developed a tool for faculty members to record their verbal impressions of student work, which are then attached to the assignment and transmitted to the student. “All of this stemmed from taking the time to have open conversations with faculty and students, from taking seriously faculty communication preferences, and from involving interested faculty in an opportunity to pilot an innovation that has promise for both distance learning and traditional classroom environments,” Bull says.

4. Frame the dialogue as part of the institutional mission – Bull advocates for making the distance learning part of the larger mission of the institution, program, or department. “Simply posing the question about the relationship between distance learning and the University mission frames the discussion about distance learning in a way that shows a commitment to play by the rules established at the University….Framing dialogue about distance learning in terms of the University mission communicates an important message, that distance learning efforts are not an add-on or supplement to the primary mission,” he says. “It puts distance learning on an equal footing.”

Framing distance learning as part of the university mission also moves the dialogue from distance learning itself to a discussion of overarching goals. For example, a given faculty member may support or not support distance learning, but his or her opinion may be different when asked about a mission to support rural students with scheduling or logistics difficulties.

5. Unpack the applications of distance learning – Treating distance learning as a single thing makes no more sense than considering whether cars are good or bad. In the latter case, there is a big difference between a Hummer and a Smart Car, not to mention there are a number of different criteria on which the cars can be assessed, including crash protection, environmental friendliness, hauling capacity, and number of cup holders. Additionally, even those who would like to avoid using a car regularly might find occasional use for one.

Likewise, it is impossible to treat distance education as a single entity. Distance learning is employed across a variety of disciplines using a variety of different tools and delivery methods. And, even a faculty member who does not want to teach online might adopt a technique or tool for use in the face-to-face classroom.

6. Cultivate a culture of support – Even though Bull advocates for open dialogue about distance learning, “it is important to find ways to frequently and openly communicate the positive stories and benefits of distance learning,” he says. Sharing positive experiences with distance learning helps create a climate in which people are encouraged to embrace distance learning as part of the university’s mission.

Excerpted from A Better Way to Talk Distance Learning with Faculty Distance Education Report, 16.4 (Feb. 15, 2012): 4-5.