New study discusses the skills and motivations of qualified online faculty in order to prevent burnout, inefficiency.

online-faculty-skills

Not all faculty are created equal for online learning, argues a new report.

In the midst of low retention rates and lingering perceptions of faculty around the quality of online learning, it’s never been more important to identify what makes effective, and motivated, online faculty, says Dr. Lisa Marie Portugal, education professor at the University of Phoenix.

Knowing what skills and motivations are needed by online faculty “may be useful to stakeholders such as administrators, faculty mentors, faculty trainers, and faculty interested in employment in the modality so that identifiable and realistic criteria may be available upon which to base future hiring standards, employment practices, training, and decisions about teaching online,” she explained. “Insights about procedures and practices have been identified that may be effective in helping to develop initial training programs, faculty mentor supports, administrative decisions, and on-going faculty training.

Using phenomenological data (qualitative analysis of narrative data) from 12 online faculty with three or more years of experience in online teaching at many institutions, Portugal’s report highlights 5 skills all online faculty should possess, as well as how these skills differ from traditional skills, and factors that could lead to job burnout.

(Next page: 5 skills and how they differ from traditional skills)

According to the 12 online faculty interviewed, there are 5 specific skills and characteristics needed to be an effective online teacher and minimize burnout:

1. Time management: Management in responding to multiple e-mails is required by online faculty. Most universities with online coursework require faculty to respond to students within 24 hours, and online faculty are often required to manage student e-mails and questions with individualized attention and in a timely manner. Finding ways to do this on a daily basis is necessary for faculty, says Portugal.

2. Learning new technologies and software quickly: This involves learning new software and programs quickly and effectively so that there is little-to-no down time in the online classroom. Faculty are required to learn new online technologies on a regular and consistent basis, and online coursework often requires changes to the curriculum. Online systems also often need to be altered, removed, changed, and newly created. “Faculty need to be able to learn these new skills as quickly and effectively as possible so that students and teaching ability are not negatively impacted,” noted Portugal. “Learning online technologies quickly and adeptly is a fundamental and significant skill for faculty to possess.”

This skill will also help faculty develop a “comfort with an online environment,” which all faculty part of the survey said was critical in preventing job burnout.

3. Teaching strategies for individualized learning: Individualized teaching strategies may involve faculty using “progressive” teaching strategies that “address various learning styles with significant, specific feedback to each learner that is unique to each learner’s needs,” Portugal explains. “A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching does not address individualized teaching strategies.” Faculty should address students on an individual basis, meeting the student where he or she is, and working toward bringing each student to a higher level. This approach requires that faculty respond to each student according to his or her individual needs with individualized feedback rather than standardized feedback. All correspondence to each student should be created uniquely for each student based upon students’ comments, assignment submissions, e-mails, questions, and etc. 

This skill is also critical for online faculty, says Portugal, because flexibility and personalization are two of the main reasons why students sign up for online classes, as most online students have other significant obligations and need online faculty to understand their background and education goals.

4. Positive attitude: “While traditional faculty members who are engaged in face-to-face lectures have recognized online teaching as a new teaching method that reaches potential university enrollees, traditional faculty continue to remain doubtful regarding the efficacy of online learning,” says Portugal. “The suspicion and continued distrust of faculty toward online learning have been depicted in traditional universities’ preference to hire faculty who earned their degrees at traditional institutions. This preference for hiring faculty who prefer the traditional methods of teaching has the potential to result in a shortage of faculty who appreciate online learning.” Having online faculty, who can be most involved and fulfilled in an online environment, is imperative for the growth and success of institutions of higher education, she emphasizes.

5. Good organization: The nature of the online classroom requires more time in the preparation of instructional materials and evaluation of students’ performance than face-to-face instruction. Moreover, online instruction imposes urgency in reviewing and providing feedback to keep the online discussion and coursework active. Based on these responsibilities and work expectations, online instructors must also have competency in written instruction. 

“University administrators who intend to improve the delivery of quality education through online education must emphasize the development of these attributes to their hired online instructors,” says Portugal. “Other than providing training on the use of software and other related technology, administrators of online instructors may also consider the development of value-based training and development specifically in honing their patience and diligence in mentoring students with learning difficulties.”

(Next page: Factors that can lead to burnout and how to prevent them)

According to interviewed online faculty, once the five skills are acquired, the elements that contribute to stress and job burnout among online faculty who have been teaching for several years are their “inability to handle the behavior of students who take for granted their online course requirements, the demands of students for higher grades without making extra efforts, administrators who take the side of students who complain unjustly, and administrators who compromise quality education to attract and retain students,” Portugal explains.

These stress factors “are particularly experienced by online faculty from private for-profit academic institutions, who avoid arbitration due to fear of losing their jobs,” she continues.

According to all 12 survey participants, the best way to combat these stressors is to ensure that grading rubrics are set, clarified, and agreed by the students enrolled in the course. Based on this agreement, the instructors evaluate the students’ performance based on the agreed rubrics. Rubrics also serve as the instructors’ monitoring and evaluation tool concerning the achievement of the learning course objectives.

Also, Portugal notes that “regular monitoring of faculty during the interview stage where faculty are required to complete a mock online training class, the first class assignment, and annual peer-mentoring and monitoring evaluations would be effective” in recruiting and retaining online faculty.

In addition, faculty supports such as faculty chat rooms, on-going training and mentoring in areas such as technology, software, classroom facilitation techniques, and research support in all areas of online instruction would be beneficial,” she says. “Faculty could also benefit from peer-mentoring and administration support where questions, problems, and solutions can be addressed effectively and without fear of dismissal.”

Though online teaching may seem difficult thanks to the information noted above, Portugal’s report emphasized that there are many motivating factors for online faculty: continued enhancement of technical skills; a better balance between familial roles and professional practice; personal and professional satisfaction; and the perception that the online environment offers a new perspective in teaching students.

For a more in-depth look into the study, “Work Ethic, Characteristics, Attributes, and Traits of Successful Online Faculty,” click here.