Sunday, March 29, 2015

Motivating faculty to teach online....errr...coming again?

It seems like I am living in a time-warp this semester :)  I had saved an article to read, and respond to, titled "Motivating Faculty to Teach Online" that was published in Inside Higher Education. I could have sworn that I saved this back in the fall at some point, but looking at the date it was earlier this month. I am not sure if time flowing slowly is a good thing or a bad thing.  In any case, my motivation for responding to this article as been like a seesaw.  Some days when I see it in my Pocket reader I am all gung-ho about responding to it...and then there are days where I shrug my shoulders and wonder what the point is to responding to such an article.

Just to set the frame here: I work for an institution as a manager of an online MA program.  I love what I do. I've been working with faculty for the past 15 years, in a variety of roles, and throughout these 15 years I've seen faculty, and their various motivations, through a variety of lenses.  Our institution gives a development stipend for developing a new online course.  In some instance, rare ones, when a new faculty takes over a course that has been taught by someone else, and the course is ancient, they provide a smaller stipend to re-develop the course.  If you regularly teach the course then they don't pay you to update the course, this is assumed since you are professional who should be keeping up.  Faculty also get paid extra to teach in the summer since faculty have 9-month contracts.

OK, now that the stage is set, in reading this article I really don't get why  institutions are hand wringing over motivating faculty to teach online.  From where I stand, having experienced campus and online courses, and having taught online, it seems to me that teaching, regardless of the medium, is one of the three pillars of tenure track faculty (the other two being research and service). The medium of instruction should not matter.  If a faculty member is contracted to teach a 2-2 course-load each year it shouldn't matter if the courses are online or on-campus.  Is there much more work in an online environment compared to an on-campus environment?  Some may say yes, but I think it's debateable.

You see, in both online and on-campus environments you have great professors and really bad professors.  What's the overlap between the two? The butts-in-seats time (on-campus).  Both great professors and poor professors need to spend these 3 hours per week in a classroom.  What separates great professors from poor professors is the  attentiveness to learners.  While this isn't an exhaustive list, and while it certainly does not apply everywhere, a great instructor both on-campus and online makes the students feel like they matter.  Not only that, he or she also provides both mentorship that learners need and the tough love that learners have to have sometimes.  A poor instructor on the other hand will do the bare minimum. There is one key difference between campus and online that I can point to: Lack of a Reality Distortion Field. See, a poor professor that has honed his or her craft can baffle, and dazzle, you with bullshit in those 3 hours in class.  So much so that you might be able to put up with the otherwise poor performance.  Online such deception is harder to  hide.

What it boils down for me is this:  In other professions there is an expectation that employees improve and hone one's skills. When I was working as a systems librarian† I was hired to do desktop support, maintenance, and management. My colleague (a network sys-admin) and I cross-trained and I learned the skills I needed to maintain, setup, and take care of the server side of things when he was out. To me this was a natural extension of my work (a server after all is just a computer).  When I worked in A/V services we went from Pentium I processors (1998) to post-Pentium Dual Core machines (2006).  We went from Windows 98 and MacOS 9, to Windows Vista and MacOS X. We went from pre-LMS on campus to having the LMS being one of the main tools used for both campus and online courses.  All throughout my career as  a professional in those fields I, and my fellow colleagues, updated our skills to be productive, efficient, and good at our jobs - regardless of the tools that we had at our disposal.

So, why is teaching so different of a profession?  Shouldn't teaching embrace new tools, approaches, pedagogies, and mindsets?  Professors are professors because they, in part, like to research. Research requires inquisitiveness and open minds.  So why doesn't this translate to teaching practice?  One of the linked documents in this IHE article is an Ithaca report from 2012, where faculty are reported to be partly resistant to online because they liked the way they were taught, and their mentor relationships, that they want to replicate that. While I am happy that they have had good, productive, relationships with their former professors and mentors, if I were to use the same analogy in any other profession I would be laughed out of the room.  Well, I really loved how MacOS 8 with ClarisWorks formatted my papers, so I will only use that, and I will never learn to support others who use other systems and other word processors.  Chances are, in addition to being laughed at, I would also be fired from my IT job.  This stance makes no sense.

Finally, I wanted to briefly discuss the issue of rewards. I think that financial, or time-off, rewards are counterproductive today.  15 years ago when we first made our foray into online teaching the financial incentives (stipends) to create courses online worked and were appropriate for the time. Online learning was new and some incentive needed to be in place in order to get those early explorers of the medium to tread the road so that I, and others, could follow after them.

I believe that right now we are at a point where faculty are firmly on the Hedonic Treadmill with those incentives. They have come to expect them course development stipends, and course re-development stipends when they do any work to improve their course.  A few years ago, when I was discussing the lack of redevelopment stipends (remember, at our institution they are not a given), the faculty member indicated that the lack of such stipends was stupid.  After all what incentive does a faculty member have to improve their course if there is no stipend. I was dumbstruck.  This came from the mouth of a tenured faculty member. I would have expected that an annual salary to teach 2 or 3 courses per semester (depending on your department) would include you, as subject expert, making changes and updates to your course for the benefit of your learners. This, to me, signaled that such incentives not only did not work, they also continued to foster an environment of that I can only describe as "gimme! gimme! gimme!"

We need to reframe the conversation.  It shouldn't be about motivating faculty to teach online by providing perks that don't exist on-campus and monetary incentives.  It should be about expecting, enabling, and fostering faculty development so that they do teach online.

Your thoughts?

† That wasn't my title, by the way, but in any other context, had I earned an MLIS, I would be a systems librarian - so from this day forth I am just calling myself a systems librarian for that job that I had ;-)
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