Faculty as Authors of Online Courses: Support and Mentoring

by Deborah Cotler and Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Monmouth University


Our Present Context: How Did We Get Here?

Only a few years ago, if you had polled Simmons College administrators, faculty, students, and even technology staff members, the consensus would have been that “online”  learning is not relevant to the mission of our institution. A “small university”  with a liberal arts undergraduate program and four graduate schools, Simmons’ culture is “high touch”  and personalized. To the uninitiated, distance learning seemed antithetical to our institutional mission and philosophy of learning.

Along with thousands of other institutions of higher education, our views have changed as we have become increasingly sophisticated in our understanding of the tremendous potential for online learning. Today we offer hybrid courses, three fully-online certificate programs, and an online degree program in Physical Therapy. The School of Library Science is a member of WISE, a national network of schools providing online courses in information science. A number of other fully-online and hybrid programs are in development, including courses within the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only do pioneering faculty teach online at Simmons, those in the so-called “second wave”  are also developing hybrid and fully-online courses.

Our current challenge is to ensure the development of online learning that engages learners in the open-ended, inquiry-based learning that we believe is at the heart of a liberal arts education. We are finding that excellent professors whose face-to-face teaching is grounded in a liberal arts approach to learning may sometimes encounter difficulties when they take their teaching into the digital realm.

Our experience also suggests that the distinction between “pioneer”  and “second wave”  faculty is spurious. These labels distract from the insights and unique talents that a particular faculty member can contribute to a project. People don’t fit neatly into categories – they aren’t exclusively pioneers orsecond wave. Some faculty who are “second wave”  in relationship to technology can be pedagogical “pioneers.”  To realize the promise of online learning, we believe that academic technologists must learn how to collaborate with good teachers – even when technology isn’t a professor’s strong suit. Conversely, faculty members need help in learning how to work in partnership with academic technologists.

Good professors excel at engaging groups of students face-to-face, but few are prepared to develop courses online. In addition, their pedagogy is often implicit – developed and fine tuned over the years through trial and error.  Paul Hagner writes:

It is a basic fact that many of the best teachers possess natural communication and information management abilities that, for many of them, are simply assumed rather than the product of intensive self-examination.  Since one requirement for transformation is coming to grips with how the new technologies can enhance learning objectives, a problem results in that many successful teachers have never engaged in this form of articulation and self-examination.[1]

Faculty members and academic administrators who are new to e-learning are likely to overlook or even eschew logistical details that technologically-adventurous professors easily think through, grapple with, and resolve. Likewise, tech-savvy faculty may be undeterred by technical glitches, but have tremendous difficulty conceptualizing online offerings that are pedagogically progressive and grounded in inquiry.

Given this context, it is vitally important for those of us who are involved in academic technology to help faculty and administrators develop understandings and capabilities they may not realize they need.[2]And we may also need to step back and question our own pedagogical assumptions about the role that technology should/can play in teaching and learning at liberal arts institutions.

Just as a good teacher knows how to tailor a course to suit a particular group of learners, academic technologists need to develop a framework of support customized to meet the complex and variable needs of mainstream faculty, a support framework that is also congruent with the culture of the institution. In the same way that an ethnographer takes time to become steeped in the culture of a given community, we need to listen, observe, and thoughtfully assess faculty members’ perspectives and needs.[3]

To deepen our understanding of the range of their perspectives and needs, we interviewed several of our faculty collaborators, including:

Mary Jane Treacy, who directs the Honors Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College. In fall 2004 we worked with Mary Jane to help her develop her first hybrid course for graduating seniors. As part of a year-long fellowship, we are currently collaborating with her to integrate ePortfolio work across all years of the Honors Program and curriculum.

Vicki Bacon, who chairs the Counselor Education program at Bridgewater State College and is an adjunct faculty member at Simmons. She developed and teaches a fully-online course in Sports Psychology. Of the three faculty members we interviewed, Vicki had the greatest difficulty making the transition to teaching online. Our work with her is featured in a case study later in this article. We are grateful to Vicki for allowing us to write up the problems she encountered as a case study through which others can learn.

Robert (Bob) Goldman, who is a Mathematics Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College. He has developed two online courses, the most recent of which is “Webstat,” a fully-online statistics course.

What Are The Concerns of Mainstream Faculty?

When asked about preliminary concerns in developing an online course, each of our interviewees shared similar concerns. Bob and Mary Jane were apprehensive about loss of control and quality in their teaching. They also expressed fear of failure.  (see “Preliminary Concerns” video)

Vicki wasn’t initially concerned. Because her ability as a classroom teacher is her “greatest strength,” it didn’t occur to her that she might have difficulty teaching online. Like Bob, she doubted the medium – whether a course like hers could succeed online. But she didn’t anticipate that distance learning would set in motion a process that required her to rethink how she teaches her subject.

Online Authoring: What’s Different?

Online course development challenges faculty to become explicit about their teaching because e-courses force them to “put it in writing”  (or into multimedia). Yet few first-time online professors – and even fewer academic administrators – recognize the course development process as an act of multimedia authorship.

According to Doug Brent, good courses are “like a story in an oral society … created and recreated each year in the complex guided interaction that occurs around [a] constellation of texts.” [4] When courses are offered over the Web, the posting of a session is a distinct act of authorship that precedes student and faculty interaction with the material. The “course”  reads as a musical score to be followed (and hopefully improvised upon) by course participants and facilitators. Each “class”  is an enactment, or performance, of this score, varying from semester to semester according to learners’ needs. The course score must be carefully composed in advance with attention to:

  • tone (desired approach and interpersonal dynamics);
  • part  (expectations for how students will interact with the material and with each other);
  • timing (a realistic assessment of how long each task will take); and
  • flow (how each component connects, furthers goals, and contributes to the learning experience as a whole).

As faculty members become immersed for the first time in the writing-intensive process of course development, they struggle to understand the genre. What constitutes a “session”  or “lesson?”  Lacking sufficient orientation, they tend to misapply familiar formats: cryptic lesson plan notes, PowerPoint slides that lack the speaker’s narrative, or lengthy academic articles. Faculty need guidance in developing a mental template for online learning that suits their personality, discipline, and pedagogical philosophy.

The collaborative dimension of online course development also requires faculty to become accustomed to a different pace and working style. With the exception of team-taught courses, most faculty members develop lesson plans on their own, using an idiosyncratic process that involves little or no interaction with others.

But for mainstream faculty who do not do their own technical implementation, online course development inevitably involves the give and take of working with a team of instructional designers and technologists. Ideally, team members are full collaborators with the faculty member. Instead of viewing others on the team as technicians who are solely responsible for “putting the course online,”  the faculty member needs to learn how to partner with people who possess professional perspectives, skills, and abilities. The work of educational technologists may be a heretofore invisible dimension of the process for the faculty member. For example, Instructional Designers, expert in web-based course design, implementation, and assessment, may suggest approaches that feel counter-intuitive to those who have never taught online. In addition, the technical implementation of course materials takes time, requiring faculty to adhere to deadlines that are well in advance of those that would be needed for a face-to-face course. According to Bob Goldman:

I’ve gotten used to working with the team that is preparing the course. I think that’s worked out well. I now know that I have to give them a lot of lead time. I know what they can do, and what they can’t do. And I’m now able to work within that framework much better than I was before.

Online Course Authorship Requires Faculty to Develop a New Skill Set

Assuming that online courses are a new genre of writing, what’s entailed in this type of authorship? In addition to asking our three inteviewees about their preliminary concerns, we also asked them to tell us what they think first-time authors of online courses need to know (see “What First Timers Need to Know”  video).

In reflecting on our interview data and on our own experiences working with faculty, we believe that faculty need support in developing the following understandings and capabilities:

Understand How to Author a Coherent, Integrated Learning Experience:  Most faculty members are unaware of the explanations they provide “in the moment”  when they teach face-to-face. Their first stab at translating sessions for online delivery reads like a set of lesson notes. For many, this is a necessary first step – putting the broad strokes in writing. When asked to flesh out the session, the second draft will often read like cookbook directions- with some clarifying details and the desired sequence of activity (“First, do this.  Then, read that.  Finally, do this.” ). But for the course to be a gratifying learning experience, sessions need a narrative dimension, the textual equivalent to verbal orientation and context setting. Sessions also need to be revised and polished in a manner usually reserved for print publications.

Understand What Needs To Be Composed in Advance and What Can Be Improvised: In a face-to-face setting, the teacher goes to class with a repertoire of strategies, discussion questions, and other resources jotted down in her lesson notes (or in her head). If students do not connect with one approach, she can improvise. In developing an online course, first timers have difficulty distinguishing between materials that need to be incorporated into the course text and things that can be communicated in impromptu announcements and discussion posts.

Understand the Emotional Needs of Online Learners: In the face-to-face classroom, good teachers know how to use subtle gestures and tone of voice to set an emotional tone that is conducive to learning. In preparing a course for delivery online, faculty are often inattentive to issues of tone. They need to learn how to use words, color, and images to communicate that their course welcomes intellectual risk-taking, inquiry, and deep thought.

Understand How To Keep Students Engaged and Oriented: Perhaps the most difficult challenge for faculty is to develop online sessions that are both explicit and engaging. Well-crafted sessions address the metacognitive dimension of learning. For example, callout boxes can be used to help learners see how discrete activities connect up with larger learning goals.

Faculty members who are new to teaching online often focus on the limitations of the medium – overlooking types of learning that can only take place “at a distance.”  For example, instead of doing all coursework online, students can get up from their computers to do activities around their homes and communities in geographically diverse settings. They can then report back. Within a relatively short time frame class members can benefit from information or stories that peers have gathered from across the country or even the world.   Groups can compare, contrast, analyze, debate, and synthesize their experiences into a multi-dimensional understanding of the topic.

Understand How The Course Looks and Feels From The Students’ Perspective: In the face-to-face setting, there are numerous cues about how a session is going – students’ body language and questions indicate when the learning is off course. But in an online course, serious problems can go unnoticed and compromise student learning. For this reason, we ask first-time course developers to solicit feedback through frequent formative assessment surveys. While the problems with a given session are still fresh in students’ minds, we use the following three questions at the end of each learning module:

  • How many hours did you spend working on this module?
  • What are your suggestions for improving this module? Please also fill us in on any problems you encountered with the technology, directions, or organization of materials.
  • Considering the objectives for this module, what do you think is the most important thing you learned? What questions remain?

The three-question format helps us disentangle technical and pedagogical glitches. Some things can be fixed in the moment. Student engagement intensifies when they realize that their input results in on-the-fly course revisions. Other issues are duly noted and “fixed”  in the next “edition”  of the course.

This skill set serves as the framework we use in consultation with faculty. But what does it look like in action? The following case study serves as an example.

Case Study

In 2003, Simmons launched a fully-online certificate program in Nutrition. Sports Psychology, taught by Professor Vicki Bacon, is one course in the program.

Well-regarded by her students and by others in her field, Vicki prides herself in her ability to “walk into a classroom, quickly size up the dynamic and mold the classroom experience accordingly.”  Her courses are pedagogically progressive and take a liberal arts approach to health science learning. She makes extensive use of novels (A River Runs Through It), films (“Fearless”), community-based interviews, and case studies. Course discussions are shaped by open-ended questions that have no clear answer – queries that are thoughtfully designed to engage students in inquiry, reflection, and critical thinking.

Vicki’s class was first taught live on Simmons’ campus and then piloted online. Modifications were made in response to formative assessment and the course was taught a second time online in spring of 2005.

Challenges: The Sports Psychology course faced a number of barriers to success in its online debut. This was the department’s first foray into distance learning. Other departments had taken the plunge into web-based distance learning. But, in the absence of an institutional mechanism for intentional information-sharing, communication among faculty and departmental administrators about distance learning took place on an ad hoc basis.

Other challenges involved gaps in support at the institutional level. Academic Technology was in the process of hiring two fulltime instructional designers to work with faculty, but at the time that Vicki was authoring a first draft for her course there was insufficient support in place. In retrospect, all involved acknowledged the need for more training, modeling, and guidance prior to the course development phase.

In addition, both the department and Vicki assumed that the project entailed “putting the course online.”  In reality, as Vicki noted during her interview, online course development involves rethinking fundamental aspects of oneself as a teacher and how to best engage students in learning.

Finally, as someone who had never taken or facilitated an online course before, it was difficult for Vicki to know what was required of her. Perhaps her biggest challenge was learning how to teach in a context in which she was unable to “read”  the expressions and reactions of her students. While her skill at reading a room served her quite well in the classroom environment, it hindered her ability to author course materials that anticipated the needs of virtual students.

As mentioned previously, online course development constitutes a new genre of writing for most academics – both the process and the product that differ from their previous experiences authoring books, scholarly articles, book reviews, or even email messages and PowerPoint presentations. The text Vicki produced for the pilot version was skeletal. The outline was explicit, but the narrative that helps students connect the dots was noticeably absent. This is not unusual for a first time online course author. All three faculty members interviewed for this article mentioned that translating “lecture notes”  into a coherent online learning experience for students was one of their biggest hurdles.

Predictably, the course debuted with a bumpy start. Course modules pointed students to articles, case studies and lecture notes, but failed to set the context for learning. Participation lagged – students submitted the required work, but the learning and level of engagement stagnated. Vicki expressed frustration that the students were failing to “take it to the next level.”  She was concerned that these students’ discussions, reflections, and questions were not indicative of the type of learning she usually observes in her classes – conceptual understanding and insight did not seem to build from one module to the next.

Weekly formative assessment, gathered through WebCT surveys, confirmed what was already evident; students were not engaged, they didn’t come away from the modules having grasped the key concepts, and they were often confused about what they should be doing.

Intervention and Revisions: Fortunately, as these challenges unfolded, Simmons College was increasing its infrastructure for faculty support. As the newly hired instructional designers, one of our first tasks was to provide Vicki with the guidance and support she needed to succeed. In addition to face-to-face consultation and coaching, we also introduced her to the literature about best practices in online teaching.

The Evolution of an Activity: The following example presents the evolution of one assignment, illustrating how we worked with Vicki to turn it into a successful experience of learning through inquiry.

The genogram assignment required students to use Inspiration software to construct a diagram of their own family’s roles and dynamics. The purpose of this assignment was to help students examine their family history and reflect on potential “hot buttons”  that might impede their ability to work with a client.

Pilot Version:  Directions for the assignment, in the first iteration of the course, read as follows:

You should complete construction on your family genogram this week. In the discussion forum, first post about your experience developing your own genogram. Given your experience, what do you think is the genogram’s value for client assessment? Then, review your classmates’ posts and post at least one reply to another thread.

The formative assessment and implementation of that plan quickly revealed that students were struggling. Because there was no on-site demonstration, it took students longer to learn how to use the software. Because students weren’t explicitly told to attach their genogram files to their posts, they couldn’t understand details in peer comments on the experience and had no basis for comparative discussion. Because this was the first week of the class and community norms were still in flux, they felt awkward sharing personal details about family dynamics. Finally, because the assignment guidelines and discussion prompt were vague, the discussion fell flat.

The following are typical student comments from formative assessment surveys conducted during the pilot:

“Things are too scattered around.”  “I was confused with this module.”  “I tried to develop a conversation … and until the last day received little to no feedback.”

As an “on the fly”  change in response to formative assessment, Vicki decided to extend the discussion into a second week – this time encouraging students to post their genograms. But at best this was damage control – before the course was offered again, Vicki worked with Deborah Cotler to revise and reformat the entire course, including the genogram assignment.

Online Course Revised:  After analyzing students’ formative feedback, Deborah and Vicki realized that the goals for the assignment were unclear – both for the students and for Vicki. For example, the stated goal was for students to identify prior life experiences that might affect their ability to work with clients on certain issues. But the assignment’s discussion prompt also asked students to consider the value of using client genograms as a tool for assessment.

Deborah asked Vicki to describe how she would teach the assignment in the context of a face-to-face class. Vicki said that she would probably begin the discussion by focusing on what students learned by doing their own genograms and then ask follow-up questions to extend the conversation to cover the value of genograms in a sports psychology context. But in the online context, absent facilitation in the moment, presenting both discussion topics at once resulted in confusion about the assignment.

Deborah worked with Vicki to hone the assignment to make the rationale, process for implementation, and expectations explicit. They also moved the genogram assignment to the third week of the class, allowing time for community-building before asking students to disclose personal family information. Comments made during the second round of formative assessment indicate dramatic improvement:

“I learned to look at the possible conflicts I can have with patients because of their beliefs and lifestyles. I did realize this before, but this module made me focus and think about the possibility of this happening in my clinical practice.”

“Another great application of our learning to real life. It’s great to apply this knowledge to a real person and see how it actually fits in real time. My confidence about applying this to my patients outside of this class is growing.”

At the end of the semester, course evaluation comments were equally gratifying:

“Dr. Bacon was the best facilitator in my entire Simmons College online experience. She was extremely insightful and provided food for thought in several of the modules. It was encouraging that she responded to all the modules. This gave us a feedback as to that we are on the right track.”

Support for Developers of Online Learning: What’s Helpful?

To get a better understanding of what we were already doing “right,”  during faculty interviews we asked which aspects of our support had been most helpful (see “What Helped?”  video). Based on this feedback and our own observations, we offer the following suggestions:

Establish optimal conditions for dialogue. Before you begin working in depth with a faculty member, point them to a copy of the literature that informs your approach to online pedagogy. We find that when faculty members come to the table with a foundational understanding of the principles that guide your approach, the dialogue starts at a much more productive level.

Articulate goals for student understanding and skill development. By identifying learning goals at the outset of the project— and frequently reassessing these— you will ensure that course materials and activities support the desired learning.

Clarify how students will learn. Brainstorm ideas for what students will do or experience to further their understanding of course concepts. Identify, in advance, the artifacts of learning (discussion posts, work samples, chat logs, etc.) that will provide the professor with insight into students’ learning needs and progress toward goals. Help faculty keep cognizant of the fact that, in the online environment, you can never be too explicit in writing up assignment directions – but that doesn’t mean that assignments need to take an objectivistic approach to learning.  The assignment tasks need to be crystal clear, but the process of enacting those tasks – projects, research, discussion, reflection, etc. – will ideally engage students in constructivist meaning-making.

Work with faculty as writers. The most critical turning point for many faculty members is the moment they recognize this effort as an act of authorship. Suggest a process for authorship and help them develop a consistent format for session modules. Model a sequence for authorship that begins with analysis of students’ ideas. For example, instead of beginning with “what I want to say,”  begin with “what are common student misconceptions, where do the students tend to struggle?”  Then develop the course with these patterns of need in mind. Help them reflect on the desired class culture, or sense of community, and what needs to be included in the course to achieve that dynamic.

Work with faculty as revisers. Just as an author would never write an academic paper without multiple rounds of revisions, a course author must be prepared to revise the course based on feedback from others. Offer to be a reviewer. Encourage the faculty member to solicit peers as additional reviewers.

Final Words

Collaborating with course authors can be an immensely satisfying experience. When the pieces fall into place and an online course runs well, the result is intensely generative. Rather than increase the distance between faculty and students, faculty are discovering that web-enhanced learning engenders the type of personalized learning that is at the heart of Simmons’ mission.  According to Mary Jane Treacy,

I have never learned as much about a group of students in all my years at Simmons College. I am just amazed by what I know about them – and also amazed by how they’re coming together, getting close, but also bumping elbows, and how they’re getting closer to me. It feels very, very good.  It’s the right thing to do.

At Simmons, we have had the pleasure of enjoying many such positive partnerships. It is our hope that the suggestions and experiences we have detailed will assist you in your own consultative work with liberal arts faculty.

[1] Paul Hagner, “Faculty Engagement and Support in the New Learning Environment,”  Educause Review (September/October 2000), 31.

[2] Though beyond the scope of this article, a set of suggested guiding questions we developed for administrators and faculty involved in developing online programs is available athttp://my.simmons.edu/services/technology/ptrc/pdf/educause04_handouts.pdf.

[3] Video clips from interviews we conducted in preparation for this article are available online athttp://my.simmons.edu/services/technology/ptrc/resources/articles.shtml.

[4] Doug Brent, “Teaching as performance in the electronic classroom”  in First Monday 10, no. 4 (2005):60, http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_4.