Establishing an Online Professional Learning Community to Promote Faculty Engagement and Excellence

In online higher education, adjunct faculty members are an essential resource. These faculty members teach, research, perform service and outreach, and even oversee administrative aspects of higher education institutions (Doe, Barnes, Bowen, Gilkey, Smoak, Ryan, & Palmquist, 2011). Unfortunately, adjunct faculty members often feel isolated and set apart from the full-time faculty, administration, and staff. Dolan (2011) reported adjunct faculty members are generally disappointed with communication, recognition, and a lack of opportunity. One way to improve a sense of belonging is through the development of a strong professional learning community. A successful learning community is primarily focused on student learning, collaboration, and accountability for outcomes (DuFour, 2004).

Higher education leaders can foster an online professional learning community to promote faculty engagement and teaching excellence in the following ways:

  • Establish a faculty development team. An established group of experienced practitioners can serve as a point of contact for anything from classroom management strategies to dealing with difficult students. Having a core team of people to act as mentors and host professional development workshops can help make an online university seem less overwhelming and more like a community.
  • Hold regular faculty meetings. Involving all faculty, whether full-time or adjunct, in regularly scheduled meetings is a great way to bring faculty up to speed on policies, procedures, and organizational changes, while simultaneously creating an environment where faculty can get to know one another, share experiences, discuss best practices, and address shared and individual challenges.
  • Partner new faculty with experienced faculty. This mentoring partnership allows new faculty to become better acquainted with faculty expectations, gain insight into online classroom management strategies, and form a relationship with a more experienced colleague.
  • Make peer review an annual event. The mentor-mentee relationship does not have to end after just one class. Annual peer review allows faculty to share ideas with one another, pass along best practices, ask questions about policy, and share concerns. It is also a great opportunity to remind faculty of any new expectations they should be adhering to as they work with their students. These connections between faculty and peer reviewers extend beyond the peer review period and many times result in long-lasting relationships.
  • Be proactive. Reach out to colleagues and offer assistance before they need it. Frequent and ongoing communications to faculty regarding policies, initiatives, and frequently asked questions can help everyone feel connected to the institution while also ensuring information is disseminated in such a way that results in increased performance.
  • Give faculty the opportunity to be students. Professional development workshops that are offered in the online environment allow faculty to remember what it is like to be a student. In addition to the learning that takes place, these opportunities create a community wherein faculty can make connections to others, establish a network of relationships, and engage with peers in an online environment. Many times these relationships extend beyond the online environment.

Establishing an online professional learning community allows all online faculty, whether adjunct or full-time, to connect and collaborate with one another. The creation of a faculty development team, at the heart of this professional learning community, allows online universities an effective way to orchestrate faculty development efforts. Leaders in higher education should strive to foster a sense of community among all faculty members. This professional learning community will build faculty retention, ensure standardized processes and policies are enforced across the institution, and promote excellence in teaching leading to student success.

Doe, S., Barnes, N., Bowen, D., Gilkey, D., Smoak, G., Ryan, S., & … Palmquist, M. (2011). Discourse of the firetenders: Considering contingent faculty through the lens of activity theory. College English, 73(4), 428-449.

Dolan, V. (2011). The isolation of online adjunct faculty and its impact on their performance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(2), 62-77.

DuFour, R. (2004, May). What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11.

Anne O’Bryan is an online adjunct instructor at Colorado State University-Global Campus. Todd Kane is the Faculty Training Manager and teaches business at Colorado State University Global Campus. Melanie Shaw serves as an adjunct faculty member at several universities, including Colorado State University Global Campus.