Ease Faculty Concerns about Online Programs
Although online education is now ubiquitous across higher education, there is still a gap in how faculty and administrators view the quality, implementation, and outcomes of online learning. In general, administrators tend be more enthusiastic and optimistic about the potential and learning outcomes of online education than faculty. This comes as no surprise, as faculty are the ones who must step out of their comfort zones and change the way they teach. However, if provided the right support resources (both pedagogical and technological), we've seen that faculty have the potential to build a thriving, high-quality online learning experience that they’re proud of.
To discuss this very issue, Wiley Education Services sat down with Professor Catherine Staite of the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) to talk about her experiences teaching and transitioning programs and faculty online. Staite is a distinguished member of Wiley’s Faculty Fellows initiative, which aims to foster a community of practice among Wiley's institutional partners focused on innovative online teaching and learning.
Q&A with Prof. Catherine Staite of the University of Birmingham
Wiley Education Services: What is your role is at the University of Birmingham?
Catherine Staite: I am the Director of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) and I teach leadership, people management, collaborative strategy, and strategic commissioning to Masters’ level.
Let's start at the beginning, what were your first thoughts about online learning and how do you feel about it now?
Catherine Staite: When I was first invited to take part in a pilot online program, I was very aware that I knew absolutely nothing about how online learning worked. But after going through the process of designing and creating new materials, I began to understand that online education is a very powerful method of teaching and learning, and most importantly, it is in no way inferior to classroom or on-ground learning. It is very different, but in many ways I think that it is much better for our students.
What was it like trying to convince other faculty in your department to transition to a newer form of learning? Any major fears or obstacles that you had to work through?
Catherine Staite: The University of Birmingham is a very traditional English university and is among the top universities in the United Kingdom. There is a large amount of confidence in what we already do, which means that sometimes it can be difficult to convince people that doing things differently is worthwhile. As a head of the department, one of my jobs is to encourage faculty to do things differently.
I’ve worked to tackle the anxieties that some faculty feel when asked to use new teaching methods that they're completely unfamiliar with. Many of my colleagues are very senior and they are used to being taken seriously as senior academics. Some found it uncomfortable to go back to being a beginner in their own field. As part of my role, I worked with our faculty to illustrate the benefits that online learning affords both them and our students. So far, it has worked! We now have a great amount of enthusiasm and commitment from staff – from the most senior to the most junior – and everybody is very supportive of each other.
It sounds as though convincing faculty to move out of their comfort zones required very strategic thinking on your part. What actions did you take to encourage faculty to try teaching online?
Catherine Staite: In an environment where people are perfectly happy with what they’re doing, it is very difficult to convince them that things need to change. But the reality is that we need to change because we are changing as a department. My goal is to show people that change does not have to be extremely difficult and that fears can be managed.
In my experience, establishing champions or advocates for a desired change is more effective than me, head of the department, dictating that change. In order to simplify and naturally facilitate this process, I identified members of our staff who were likely to be early adopters of online learning and got them involved. This way it was not just me telling faculty we needed to change, instead colleagues were working together on it. They were able to discuss in departmental meetings how the learnings they gathered from teaching the online programs could also be used to improve the on-ground teaching experience as well.
Can you talk more about how you chose which people would be the first champions and advocates for teaching online?
Catherine Staite: I volunteered to go first because I believed that I would be in a better position to support staff as they ventured into these new areas, as well as to advocate for online learning’s value. In this way, I was able to get my message across gradually without abruptly asking my faculty to do anything differently.
I then identified one of my senior professors who was approaching retirement and asked him to get involved. I chose him because he was so senior and so well regarded, and also was not the sort of person one would assume would be an early adopter of new technology. The fact that he was so enthusiastic about it, and was clearly enjoying himself, gave everybody a strong sense that this was going to be easier and more pleasant than they had thought. So as people got more drawn into the process, everyone’s attitudes became more enthusiastic about teaching online.
How did your faculty react to working with Wiley’s instructional designers during the course planning, design, and development process?
Catherine Staite: Wiley’s instructional designers have been absolutely amazing and very kind to us. We have our precious teaching materials, our theories, and our frameworks which we're terribly fond of and wedded to, and the instructional designers have suggested ways for us to make those better without making us feel that we are dumbing anything down. The way in which they deconstruct and reconstruct our materials to make them easier to follow has been a revelation for me.
When we showed the team the online course prototypes that we'd built with Wiley, they were in awe of what could be done through the instructional design process. This truly built their confidence. Suddenly, they all wanted to look good on video and they all wanted their teaching materials to look that smart and clever! Overall, the instructional designers have been extremely helpful and very, very patient with us.
All in all, how do you believe Wiley Education Services is helping the University of Birmingham, your faculty, and your students advance within the changing higher education environment?
Catherine Staite: Wiley is helping the University of Birmingham navigate and understand the opportunities and challenges of online learning. There is a large amount of knowledge and expertise within the university, but it's scattered across a number of departments. There is no central bank of knowledge.
By working with Wiley, the University is gaining a much better understanding of what good alternative methods of learning delivery look like. Wiley's helping us as academics because they have become part of our team. We now feel that we have people to ask questions of and people to help us and therefore we don't feel that we are doing it alone. Overall, Wiley values the knowledge that we have about our subjects and the world in which our students operate and they want to help us evolve the way we deliver our learning experiences.
Q&A Takeaways: Tips to Ease Faculty Anxiety About Teaching Online
- Identify faculty members who are most likely to be early adopters of online programs
- Have early adopters share course development experiences in wider staff meeting
- Draw entire faculty into the process to create enthusiasm about teaching online
We've helped many university and college faculty transition the curriculum to the online environment. To learn more about our recommendations for addressing faculty concerns or the Wiley Faculty Fellows program and its members, visit our Resources page.