Evidence-Based Principles for Online Faculty Development

Key Takeaways

  • Responding to calls for additional resources to support postsecondary instructors, many vendors and organizations now offer online educational development resources.

  • The ultimate goal is to improve instruction and student learning, but to get there, higher education institutions must examine and evaluate these tools, as well as consider the specific needs of diverse campus stakeholders.

  • After research and discussion, the Professional and Organizational Development Network developed eight principles to guide institutions as they explore and select online educational development resources for their campus communities.

Over the past decade, stakeholders have increasingly demanded that colleges and universities take accountability for postsecondary teaching and learning. In addition, educational developers — that is, the people who provide professional support for postsecondary instructors — have requested the resources they need to scale up their efforts. Both trends have inspired many organizations, including the Association for College and University Educators (ACUE), the Wiley Learning Institute, Epigeum, and Magna Online Courses, to develop instructional modules accordingly; other organizations, including Coursera, edX, Instructure, and Udemy, have developed related massive open online courses (MOOCs) to address the issue. Some of these online tools are produced to stand alone as a primary resource, while others supplement face-to-face educational development initiatives on campuses.

These efforts align with a long-term academic tradition where, each year, instructors rethink and redesign their classes. In many cases, instructors seek new approaches and methodologies to improve their courses and support student learning. Institutional decisions about faculty development shape the resources available to assist faculty in these efforts. For example, does the institution offer teaching center consultants? Workshops? Online resources? Colleagues who can serve as mentors? Faculty learning communities? Given the right support, faculty members can enter each year prepared to effectively teach new or revised classes. To provide this support, however, colleges and universities must become critical consumers of educational development initiatives and evaluate their evidence base.

With this in mind, leaders from the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education — a national organization of professionals involved in faculty, graduate student, and organizational development — have developed eight principles to guide colleges and universities in adopting, implementing, and purchasing online faculty development programming. We developed these principles based on faculty development scholarship and numerous conversations with leaders in the field (see "Contributors") and members. Higher education institutions can use these principles to support their strategic planning and funding decisions around educational development, including large-scale purchasing decisions for online modules, courses, and webinars.

Contributors

The development of these principles is the outcome of insightful contributions from many people, including the following:

  • Deandra Little, Past-President, Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network

  • Constance Cook, Clinical Professor Emerita, University of Michigan

  • Mary Deane Sorcinelli, Prior President, POD Network (2000–2004)

  • Melissa McDaniels, Assistant Dean, Graduate School, Michigan State University

  • Virginia Lee, Prior President, POD Network (2007–2010)

  • Alan Kalish, Director, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching, The Ohio State University

  • Matt Kaplan, Executive Director, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan

  • Todd Zakrajsek, Associate Director, Faculty Development Fellowship, University of North Carolina

  • S. Raj Chaudhury, Chair, POD Network Electronic Communications and Resources Committee

  • Olena Zhadko, POD Network Electronic Communications and Resources Committee

As the following descriptions show, our principles fall into four general categories: leveraging on-campus resources, using collaborative decision making, attending to institutional context and audiences, and examining the evidence.

Leverage On-Campus Resources

Principle 1: Offer on-campus follow-up support by trained consultants. Research suggests that educational development is most successful when knowledgeable consultants collaborate with instructors to enhance their teaching. Institutions can amplify an online resource's effectiveness by identifying trained, skilled facilitators familiar with the local context who can clarify ideas, discuss effective implementation, and help resolve challenges. The best way to implement this support is to offer multiple-session programs and follow-up support from a skilled facilitator. Sustaining programs in this way is more likely to result in a positive change in teaching behaviors.

Principle 2: Support communal learning. Communities of practice, such as faculty learning communities and teaching circles, have positive effects on teaching development, including course redesign, satisfaction with teaching, and instructors' understanding of how students learn. Further, campus experts — especially those who are "on the ground" and working directly with faculty — should drive the decision about whether an in-person faculty learning community or an online learning community would be most effective within their particular campus contexts.

Use Collaborative Decision Making

Principle 3: Involve stakeholders in purchasing. When making purchasing decisions, campuses should involve key stakeholders — that is, the people who work most directly with instructors — through faculty focus groups or governance structures. These key stakeholders include teaching and learning center directors, department chairs, deans, and associate deans. When these instructors and stakeholders collaborate in decision making about purchases, the resources are more likely to be used; without that collaboration, purchases are more likely to be incompatible with the campus structural and cultural contexts, and thus sit idle.

Attend to Institutional Context and Audience

Principle 4: Consider customization. Campuses should evaluate possibilities for customizing the resource to suit the local context. This might include chunking videos into small modules so campus facilitators can choose relevant pieces to fit their specific needs or offering in-person discussions with a trained facilitator to help instructors apply the material to the campus context.

Principle 5: Consider the audience. The resource should have a clear and discernible audience. Graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, full- and part-time faculty, non-tenure-track, and tenured and tenure-track faculty all face different constraints and have distinct responses to educational development. In this field, one size definitely does not fit all; educational development resources should be tailored specifically to the target audience's needs.

Examine Evidence

Principle 6: Evaluate resource impact. Campuses should examine evidence of the resource's impact on both short- and long-term changes in their faculty's teaching beliefs and practices. If you choose to invest in commercial products, a long-term study is especially important; research suggests that gains are often short-lived unless you provide continuing, on-campus, face-to-face support.1 Although vendors should provide evidence for the efficacy of their products or resources, campuses should conduct their own evaluations of effectiveness.

Principle 7: Evaluate suitability for diverse needs. Campuses have a range of educational development needs, and it's important to ensure that the resource can meet most of them. Vendors should provide institutional impact data, such as the resource's effect on existing educational development capacity. Questions to consider include: Do existing teaching and learning centers experience an uptick or downturn in traffic from participating faculty following introduction of the resource? Will the resource add to or detract from existing educational development efforts or centers? Clearly, a resource should build rather than erode capacity to support faculty development.

Principle 8: Consider best practices. Vendors should provide a clear description of the evidence on which they base their resources; doing so lets campuses assess the degree to which resources align with inclusive, evidence-based best practices in teaching and learning, including effective feedback and active and engaged learning.

Conclusions

To best facilitate student learning, campus faculty and administrative leaders should drive decisions about educational development and its future. If they make these decisions in thoughtful and measured ways, online commercial tools will help bring development opportunities to many more instructors and allow for greater resource personalization. However, if campuses fail to consider the principles named here, they will not only miss the opportunity to improve instruction and learning but also might dismantle existing and effective face-to-face programs in favor of online resources that might initially appear cost-effective, but ultimately fail to have lasting impact.

As the Asilomar Convention for Learning Research in Higher Education noted, digital technologies, including educational development resources, "can enhance, do not replace, and should never be allowed to erode the relationships that make learning a humane enterprise." As faculty know with their own students, learning is social, and the relationships of those closest to learners both initiate and sustain good teaching practices.

Note

  1. For all research sources, see the POD Network website.

Mary C. Wright is president-elect of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education.

© 2016 Mary C. Wright. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review online article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 license.