Planning Online Programs: Involving
Faculty Early

A May 6, 2011 open letter addressed to the University of California chancellor Mark Yudof by the faculty senate expressed concerns over how the system's pilot effort for online programming would be evaluated, as well as (implied) concern over how faculty would be involved in the ongoing planning process.

The issues raised at the University of California are just one example of an obstacle that several high-profile online initiatives have encountered over the past decade.

"If you look closely at those initiatives that have failed to succeed," suggests John Ebersole, current president of Excelsior College and responsible in past years for creating Boston University's successful online program, "the common missing piece in all of them was that faculty were not at the table during the early planning. Their concerns were not addressed at the outset, and in fact it was perceived that it was the intent of the organization to go around them. This led to intensified skepticism and the eventual ire of the faculty." Ebersole also cites other common issues -- most significantly, insufficient market research to determine the student demand for a program and the lack of a systemic, institution-wide plan for growing online programming.

Focusing on the issue of faculty involvement, we decided to interview online programming veterans John Ebersole (president, Excelsior College), Joel Hartman (vice provost for information technologies and resources and chief information officer, University of Central Florida), and Barbara Macaulay (associate provost of online education, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) for their lessons learned and specific tactics for ensuring that an institution that is either embarking on an online initiative or looking to expand current programs succeeds in preparing, informing, and involving faculty

Address Concerns Early

"Your faculty have to want to engage in online learning; you need them to learn about the new tools and processes willingly, and you want them to be leaders of the online learning initiative rather than being reluctant participants or opponents to it. That means addressing concerns up front."
Joel Hartman, University of Central Florida

"The best way to bring faculty on board," Ebersole suggests, "is to move beyond just symbolism and seek their real input early in the process -- not on whether you'll do the initiative, but on how you'll do it. This allows you to address the question of the quality of online education up front. Make sure there is a shared understanding of how your institution is defining quality (is it learning outcomes? Engagement? Academic rigor?), and make sure that your greatest faculty skeptics have the opportunity to articulate their specific concerns."

Hartman suggests addressing:

  • Questions around intellectual property
  • Quality of education (can you offer data to show how online education compares with face-to-face education, or perhaps more pertinently, data to show the extent to which the mode of delivery matters, versus the quality of the instruction and the academic preparedness of the students?)
  • How the program will be assessed and evaluated (plan up-front for an institutional assessment and systemic data collection effort to assess online learning both quantitatively and qualitatively)
  • The need for faculty development
  • The impact on faculty workload
  • The less tangible concerns -- such as the reluctance some faculty may have to engage in an activity at which they may be shown at a disadvantage, either among their students (by appearing unfamiliar with the online medium) or among their peers (by engaging in an activity perceived as low-status)

"Do everything possible to set faculty up for success," Hartman urges.

Faculty Leaders and Curriculum Design

Macaulay notes that one particularly meaningful way to engage faculty from the outset is to identify those faculty leaders at your institution who have, historically, taken a significant role in curriculum development. These are your veterans. "Get their feelings and concerns and ideas about building an online program," Macaulay suggests. These leaders can help you identify programming ideas that haven't worked well in the past; they can keep you from repeating past mistakes.

Your faculty leaders can also help you identify what led to past successes. "If there was a new program delivered in recent years that was rolled out very smoothly and successfully," Macaulay suggests, "take a close look at how and when faculty were involved in that process. Learn from what worked and why it worked."

Address the Impact on Faculty Work Directly

While offering few conclusions, a recent article in Inside Higher Ed raised timely questions about faculty workload and faculty burnout in online programs. The main takeaway from the article is that to proceed with online programming without planning for the impact on faculty workload leads to not only decreased faculty buy-in but also decreased effectiveness.

"The time dimension is very different," Hartman notes. "We aren't talking about traditional lecture and office hours; online education doesn't inherently come with defined, finite faculty work hours. Students and faculty could theoretically be engaged in communication 24/7 if they were willing to do so. Define the workload and the expectations around time and compensation."

Ebersole directs attention to the success of Boston University's effort; its approach involved not only compensation for time spent converting classroom courses into online courses, but also provided for academic units to receive credit for the head count they produced. This rewarded participation in online coursework and incentivized further participation, and allowed the departments to see the impact of the increased revenue. "Money flowed back to the schools, creating advocates," Ebersole says.

Not Just Faculty

Macaulay adds that while faculty involvement is especially crucial, there are a variety of offices across your institution that need to be involved earlier rather than later. You need to understand what support services will be needed to encourage the success and persistence of the students who enroll in your online programs. You'll need to investigate the costs of marketing and IT, and the impact on financial aid staffing and processes. If you inform financial aid at the last minute that the institution will have more students applying from out of state, and then ask them to update their processes and workflow at the eleventh hour, this will lead to acts of triage -- which will help neither current services nor those that the institution is now trying to get into place.

"You want to do your troubleshooting along the way, not at the end," Macaulay remarks. "Otherwise, you might get a great curriculum online but still see low completion or persistence rates from students. It's too easy to get wrapped up in just the curriculum your institution will deliver, without planning for the big picture."