Taking Faculty Development Online

The online medium nurtures dialogue among faculty coming from different disciplines and levels of experience.

Two years ago, I was asked to assess the needs of new faculty hires at my college, Kapi’olani Community College, in Honolulu, and to design a program that would support new faculty through their first year. I discovered a funny contradiction. On the one hand, new faculty crave guidance and eagerly attend that first day of new faculty orientation. On the other hand, overwhelmed and confused, it is not surprising that new faculty cry out, “Leave me alone, let me sort this out for myself,” and attendance at workshops declines as the semester proceeds. Furthermore, seasoned faculty are becoming overloaded with committees, hiring, accreditation and the development of student learning outcomes; and for this busy group, attendance at workshops is always the first to go.

I realized that it was time to think seriously about what kind of professional development experiences we could provide and how we wanted to provide them. The first thing we did was to focus our professional development work by articulating specific professional development outcomes — faculty learning outcomes, or FLOs. This seems so obvious, but many colleges never articulate exactly what they hope to achieve through their professional development programs. One of our FLOs was to “create connections among faculty,” both within the new faculty cohort and with seasoned faculty members. We also wanted to create both interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary connections, as well as connections across our seven-campus system. It was time to take professional development online.

Some of the online activities we have since planned or implemented (in addition to the obvious things, such as a campus intranet and online handbook) include a “happy blog” where faculty can post successful experiences implementing new pedagogies; an online coaching database and “open classroom” calendar where faculty can connect with mentors, online teleconferences and archives of others and online delivery of training for our new course management system. But our most successful online faculty development experiment is the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development’s Learning Scenarios Course, “Teaching for Learning,” which we provide for all new faculty across our seven-campus system. Analysis of the discussion boards tells us about the benefits of online faculty development and how it is experienced by different faculty groups: new faculty, seasoned faculty and faculty from different disciplinary backgrounds.

The course follows the progress of the fictional Steven Cauley, a new psychology professor, as he creates a syllabus, gets to know his students, negotiates student conferences and so forth. Participants read narrative “scenarios” about Steven’s successes and failures, as well as a set of resource readings, and then discuss both Cauley’s experiences and their own in an asynchronous online discussion. The online format is ideal for new faculty. It’s convenient and provides a “24-7” outlet that new faculty can use for their questions, frustrations and elations. They can find a new classroom activity or models for designing alternative assessments.

In addition, crafting an online post provides a valuable form of reflection, and the quasianonymity of the online environment makes it easier to be honest and ask questions. We quickly began to see that the value of the course is in the mix; the online medium nurtures dialogue among faculty coming from different disciplines, different backgrounds, and different levels of experience. We began inviting seasoned faculty to participate as facilitators- in-training or asking them to help us evaluate the course. Seasoned faculty gain just as much from the dialogue; the online environment provides a relief from having to project self-confidence, from hierarchical politics, from the convenient excuse of “I’m too busy.”

Vanessa Moreno, technical course manager for NISOD Learning Scenarios, has helped us add scenes to customize the scenarios for our needs. She shares the observation that everyone benefits from being in the mix. “The courses are very interactive and a real sense of community emerges, which is especially important to faculty that don’t get to spend a lot of time with their fellow teachers.”

While new faculty tend to post questions and focus on the immediate and the practical, seasoned faculty make longer, more complex posts that probe the deeper issues of assessment and accountability, college mission, student culture and managing life balance. Faculty from different disciplinary backgrounds behave differently online. Faculty coming directly from business or industry tend to make shorter posts that acknowledge information. Many are hired as experts in complex career and technical fields, but with very little experience as teachers. They benefit from seeing the “thinking out loud” dialogue of seasoned faculty or teachers coming in with more specific training in educational theory and pedagogy.

Online professional development experiences such as this course are new opportunities to create a mix of clinical and classroom teachers, performance-based and knowledgebased disciplines and participant backgrounds. This mix is beneficial to the quality and quantity of the online dialogue. — Krista Hiser is an assistant professor and the new faculty coordinator for the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, and Technology (CELTT) at Kapi’olani Community College.

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