From On-Ground to Online: Moving Senior Faculty to the Distance Learning Classroom

min read

Jennifer Golightly is an Academic Trainer and Consultant for Pearson eCollege.

Key Takeaways

  • As postsecondary distance education offerings increase and budgets become tighter, it is becoming essential for institutions to rely on senior faculty to embrace unfamiliar — and at times daunting — pedagogical modalities.
  • Various strategies that can help ensure that faculty transition to online teaching methods successfully include workload reduction and showcasing collaborative outcomes.
  • Among the levers that can facilitate change are consultations between instructional design teams and senior faculty in the form of functionality training sessions as well as mentoring relationships between experienced online faculty and those new to distance education.

With the proliferation of distance education (DE) programs being offered by postsecondary institutions comes the question of how to increase the number of senior faculty able to adopt new teaching modalities. Many senior faculty with experience teaching on-ground have grown accustomed to teaching what are (at least nominally) hybrid courses — that is, they are accustomed to having an online component to their on-ground courses. Some of them use these online components to post grades or assignments, and some simply ignore them. When it comes to moving these faculty to online-only courses, however, many are hesitant or unsure because they do not know how to "translate" what they do in their on-ground courses to the online medium.

The question of how best to prepare senior faculty for teaching online is an important one for at least two reasons: First, with the impact of cuts to institutional hiring budgets, paying to hire increasing numbers of contingent faculty is not always feasible. Second, distance education is expanding across traditional, research I and II universities; previously, distance education programs for such universities were often limited to colleges of continuing education, but now traditional academic programs at these universities are beginning to offer fully online courses. Distance education is an increasingly attractive alternative to bricks-and-mortar education for many institutions because it provides a growing revenue stream and allows the university to reach students who might otherwise be unable to attend classes. This problem has been remarked upon by Chapman:

The number of distance education offerings, including programs and courses, continue[s] to grow in higher education. The current economic hardships have only increased the demand. However, with this increase comes the urgent need to maintain a reliable and consistent DE faculty. This need is complicated by the increasing reliance on contingent faculty to teach DE courses.1

Responding to this situation has led research conducted over the past two years to focus on ways of encouraging senior faculty not only to embrace new educational modalities, but to deliver quality online courses.2 Indeed, many who have spent most of their academic careers in bricks-and-mortar settings find the transition to online educational modalities difficult, especially if they have limited technological skills. But the success of any DE program necessarily relies on the effective translation of these courses into electronic formats.

In this article, I couple my own observations of training faculty to move from the on-ground to the online classroom with aspects of this research. In particular, I focus on establishing guidelines designed to help obviate the anxiety many senior faculty feel about transitioning to the online classroom. Several key areas include:

  • Reducing teaching loads so that these faculty members can spend sufficient time developing their online courses
  • Providing ongoing training from a range of experts specializing in online course development and delivery
  • Establishing communities of practice to encourage collaboration with distance educators
  • Establishing mentoring programs with experienced instructors, instructional designers, and trainers

Skepticism and Anxiety about Online Teaching

Whether at a for-profit or a traditional postsecondary institution, most online DE courses have traditionally been delivered by sessional instructors or adjunct and junior faculty, in part because getting senior faculty interested in embracing another teaching modality has not always been easy. According to Lesht and Windes, the "skepticism about online learning [that] still persists in higher education today" may explain reluctance by senior faculty to teach online.3 Indeed, the Babson Survey Research Group report observed that: "Less than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years."4

The fact is that institutions are increasingly requiring their senior faculty to transfer what they do in the on-ground classroom to the online classroom. Doing so, however, requires a huge shift for those who have been more accustomed to acting as the "sage on the stage" and have limited strategies for delivering material to their students outside the lecturing paradigm. There are at least two reasons for this situation:

  • First, developing an online course can be more time-consuming than for an on-ground class — and it has a significant technological component. (This is made worse by the fact that, according to Parker, faculty rarely receive reduced workload reductions as they transition to an online learning environment.5)
  • Second, the situation is compounded for those who have only ever taught one way for 15 or 20 years. Thus, in spite of their subject-matter expertise, many of these senior faculty are not easily able to assume the dual or triple roles of facilitator/mentor, subject matter expert, and web developer.

For this reason, teaching online can create a great deal of anxiety. As Lackey pointed out:

Literature suggests there has been little improvement over the last ten years in increasing the instructional and technical training and support needed by faculty to teach online successfully. Faculty members are transitioning into new foreign roles, ill-equipped with the technical knowledge to manage the course and the instructional skills to meet the needs of the online learner.6

As Academic Trainer and Consultant for Pearson eCollege, I have firsthand experience of this anxiety. Participants in my two most popular courses — Developing Online Courses and Teaching Online Courses — have repeatedly voiced their frustration with the online modality after the ease of teaching face-to-face in a classroom situation. For instance, I received the following question from a student in my professional development course:

"I am not sure how to adapt my style to an online course. Actually, I know it cannot be adapted. For 19 years I have lectured; I can't do that here. What I am wondering is if you could show me (at the end of the course will be fine) an example or examples of what other history teachers do? In preparation, I downloaded an online course syllabus from the U for which I teach, but it really did not help me. How do other history teachers conduct an online class?"

I have witnessed similar technological discomfort among the senior faculty at various other institutions across the country — especially if they have not ventured much beyond word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and basic online database research on their computers.

Instructional Design Teams and Faculty Freedom

The first step most frequently implemented by institutions seeking to effect the transition from on-ground to online has been to develop an in-house instructional design course to build online courses that are then given to senior faculty to teach. In some cases, the instructional design team directly responds to the needs of an individual faculty member, while in others, it is more of a collaborative effort. In still other cases, a faculty member will receive training and be required to develop and build a course independently. The first and last approaches are most common: either the institution retains all control over the building of the online courses for the purposes of standardization and quality control, or the institution (usually a faculty freedom school) provides some training to the faculty, provides some resources should questions arise, and then allows the individual faculty to build their courses, often with varied results in terms of effective course design and quality.

The use of instructional design teams to build online courses has both advantages and disadvantages: On the one hand, they respond effectively to the challenges faced by technologically challenged senior faculty, but they can also be seen to undermine academic freedom and autonomy. Depending on the culture of the institution, this disadvantage can be more keenly felt. Indeed, while many for-profit institutions are not concerned with academic freedom (as they are primarily interested in standardization), for traditional, research-based universities that are expanding their online course offerings — adding "global" campuses, for instance — faculty may find this loss of autonomy more difficult.

Transitioning from On-Ground to Online Education

Institutions may offer three things to senior faculty to ease the transition from face-to-face lecturing to teaching online: reduce the faculty member's workload; encourage collaborative learning and course enrichment; and provide consultants with specialized knowledge in online pedagogy to help faculty adjust their teaching to the online environment.

Workload Reduction

Despite the potential inconvenience, it is crucial that institutions offer workload relief to their senior faculty as part of their remit to embrace the online modality. Indeed, the faculty will need sufficient time to build what are essentially new courses that, further, will be delivered in a wholly new pedagogical model and with unfamiliar technological tools. Everything — from content to delivery — needs to be reformatted. It is simply not sustainable to assume that a week or two between terms would be adequate time.

Collaborative Enrichment

One of the great advantages of online DE is its potential for allowing instructors to enrich course materials through collaboration. Regrettably, many instructors don't realize this potential — they are isolated, often working alone and distant from colleagues engaged in similar sorts of teaching. Ironically, even though its value for students is widely accepted, the impact of collaborative learning for faculty has not been equally appreciated. As Rovai and Downey stated:

Few programs view faculty as adult learners and consider their prior knowledge and experiences. Some faculty members teach their first online course or experience a globally diverse online learning community without any prior online teaching or learning experiences and with minimal faculty development that is often limited to technology use. This is especially true for adjuncts.7

Ultimately, pedagogical development and the establishment of a network of support for online faculty is a key component in the success of online programs. The Sloan Consortium Report to the Nation underlined this point a decade ago when it described faculty satisfaction as one of the "pillars" of quality online education, pointing to the "need for moral support" for online faculty in a quality online program.8

Consultation Sessions

Even though they may be experts in their fields of study, many senior faculty do not have the pedagogical skills required to choose the best method for presenting content in the online classroom. For this reason, it is essential they consult with experts in pedagogical best practices for online course design.

Such consultations should be conducted with a variety of mentors: instructional designers, researchers in the field of pedagogy, and experienced online faculty should all be involved in helping support faculty present online content effectively. The format for these consultations might include a series of brown-bag lunches, for example, during which faculty more familiar with the online modality would showcase their courses and discuss various pedagogical strategies for engaging students. Seeing well-designed courses would be invaluable to the more inexperienced online faculty.

In the same way, the institution might also consider offering a series of research-sharing events during which research into pedagogical models for online learning would be presented. Ongoing, periodic trainings with instructional designers, open to small groups of online faculty, would similarly showcase basic system functionality and also offer insights to serve various pedagogical purposes. Such advanced functionality trainings would encourage senior faculty to imagine their courses as part of a brave new world of collaborative, constructive learning.

Such sessions would help create communities of practice among all faculty members, thus enhancing collaborative synergies.

Recommendations for Helping Senior Faculty Teach Online

Institutions can help senior faculty transition from teaching on-ground to teaching online most smoothly by considering the following recommendations:

  • There must be greater attention paid not only to training faculty to teach online, but to preparing them to teach online — to wit, to helping them develop courses that will be delivered online.
  • Consideration must be given to the learning curve associated with and the logistics of developing online courses for senior faculty deeply embedded in one pedagogical paradigm.
  • An inclusive training and development package should be provided that covers all aspects of the transition from on-ground to online courses. Training should provide faculty with the tools they need to begin working in the online course environment, particularly within the structure and organization of the LMS. Ongoing development for faculty is also essential: once they have the basic skills needed to translate what they do in the on-ground classroom to an online medium, faculty are not necessarily skilled online teachers. Institutions should provide their faculty with opportunities to enhance their course development skills (for example, by showcasing different content presentation options so that faculty do not continue to rely on text-only courses) as well to expand their familiarity with different strategies for teaching fully online courses.
  • The training program should include a component that permits collaboration and the development of communities of practice among faculty.


In all, the transition from the on-ground to online classroom need not be one of frustration or anxiety for senior faculty members at higher education institutions. With the strategic implementation of external supports, the process can be realized effectively and efficiently. Among these are the offering of collaborative sessions with faculty experienced with online delivery methods and the implementation of workload reductions during the process of course development. Indeed, the benefits of realizing this transition considerably outweigh the challenges.

  1. Diane D. Chapman, "Contingent and Tenured/Tenure-Track Faculty: Motivations and Incentives to Teach Distance Education," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 14, no. 3 (2011), p. 1.
  2. See I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011 (Babson Survey Research Group, 2011); Alfred P. Rovai and James R. Downey, "Why some distance education programs fail while others succeed in a global environment," Internet and Higher Education, vol. 13, no. 3 (2010), p. 145; and Karen Lackey, "Faculty Development: An Analysis of Current and Effective Training Strategies for Preparing Faculty to Teach Online," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 14, no. 5 (2011), p. 1.
  3. Faye Lesht and Deborah L. Windes, "Administrators' Views on Factors Influencing Full-Time Faculty Members' Participation in Online Education," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 14, no. 4 (2011), pp. 1–2.
  4. Allen and Seaman, Going the Distance, p. 5.
  5. Angie Parker, "Motivation and Incentives for Distance Faculty," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. 6, no. 3 (2003).
  6. Lackey, "Faculty Development."
  7. Rovai and Downey, "Why some distance education programs fail."
  8. George Lorenzo and Janet C. Moore, The Sloan Consortium Report to the Nation: Five Pillars of Quality Online Education (The Sloan Consortium, 2002).