This is the second post in a series that evaluates “The Online Instructor” as a Microsystem. Last week’s post covered two of the external factors that influence or impact the system, specifically the institution and student related factors. This week’s installment will review the remaining factors: peer group faculty, content and instructional design, and facilitation skills. I make no assumptions that these posts will address every external or internal factor, but should be considered a work in progress that will evolve over time. Comments on this post are welcome and your input is appreciated.
Peer Faculty Group
An online faculty member is influenced in a variety of ways by peer faculty. These can be seen in mentoring or support, recognition of excellence in online teaching, research funding, or acceptance of the online instructor as a valuable contributor to the faculty at large.
Training programs for faculty typically include ways of teaching online, use of technology to improve student learning outcomes, and pedagogical principles of effective online teaching. A large number of institutions have created programs for online faculties that are required for completion prior to teaching online for the first time. These programs are typically blended in delivery and assist the instructor in making the transition from teaching as a face to face instructor to teaching online without making the assumption that faculty understand effective online teaching.
Recognition of excellence in online teaching is also a factor. There have been numerous studies undertaken which look at the power of praise. It is essential to recognize talent in every situation and online teaching should be no different. This can be done in a variety of ways in higher education. Awards and recognition in the tenure process are obvious methods but some institutions are being creative by offering monetary rewards for faculty who scale their courses to a larger audience and by funding research regarding the efficacy of online education. This commitment by institutions to the scholarship of teaching and learning online is one factor that contributes to the success of faculty teaching in this mode of delivery. Faculty members who engage in research and publishing about online education help to broaden the base of information about the field and give back to the larger community of online educators. As with any peer group, acceptance is important to the participants. Online instructors should be included in all events that face-to-face faculty and blended faculty participate in.
Content and Instructional Design
There are a few issues related to how textbooks used in online courses have impact on the online instructor. These are: (1) online instructors are often not involved in the decision making process when it comes to choosing textbooks, (2) digital resources that are available to the online instructor, (3) evolution of the textbook to an e-book, (4) and the rising cost of textbooks.
Faculty members that teach the face-to-face sections of the class often select instructional materials, which are used in online courses. Inclusion of the online instructor in the decision making process or allowing them to choose different instructional materials for the online version of the course is important. Many textbooks today come with digital materials to support the online instructor in the creation of their online courses. However, there is a recent and growing shift to digital or eBooks by the higher education publishers. Brian Kibby, president of McGraw Hill, announced in fall of 2012 that all instructional materials would be in digital form within three years. There has also been an increase in publishers and platforms for ebooks receiving venture capital funding to obtain a portion of the “textbook pie” as this digital shift is occurring. While the move to digital textbooks is a strategic move based upon existing technology possibilities, it is important to note that recent articles have highlighted that students find textbooks too expensive and that they are not buying them. Students are making their way through classes without ever purchasing the textbooks. The transition to digital texts will also make them more affordable for the learner, which is a noble mission on the part of the publishers, one that students will appreciate.
Instructor, or instructional designer, created materials are the heart of the online course. It is these elements that allow the instructor to have a sense of presence in their course. Instructor presence is one of the elements within the Community of Inquiry framework and can be enhanced by leveraging the power of learning technologies and multimedia. Instructors are leveraging the power of audio and video in their assignments and assessments, not just in the content of the course. With the advent of the MOOC, which allows instructors to “see” other online courses for the first time, these materials are getting more and more attention and in some cases are driving revamping as well.
One way to reduce the costs of materials for students is to leverage open educational resources. Open Educational Resources are gaining attention as the Open Learning movement is underway. The largest challenges and barriers presented require innovative thinking in order to expand access to a global repository of learning assets that could transform higher education. Opening up access to materials that can be translated and repurposed internationally will help developing countries save on course content development, facilitate the sharing of knowledge, and address the digital divide by providing capacity-building resources for educators (Olcott, 2012).
The “great” online instructor is a facilitator of learning within the online environment. They are effective communicators, give timely feedback, build rapport, have incredible instructor and social presence, and know how to set expectations and manage their time wisely. The great online instructor also remembers that teaching is learning and continually improves their course based upon their experiences of what worked and what did not.
Teaching online is not for everyone, however, with the right set of facilitation skills the learning experience online can be just as good as, if not better than, those in traditional face-to-face settings.
While this post may not address every challenge or opportunity within the microsystem, it is a collection of thoughts toward that end. There is much work to do to ensure that the online instructor receives the needed support to continue to deliver high quality experiences for our students. I look forward to the years ahead and being a part of that support system.
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