Vol. 16 : No. 1< >
Editor's Note: Drs. Muirhead and Betz have provided two interesting perspectives on the faculty training that occurs in what is undoubtedly one of the most renowned of all online universities, the University of Phoenix. Their separate analyses are detailed and positive. Online faculty training that occurs at UOP is rigorous in discipline, comprehensive in approach and focused on development of competent and aware online faculty.
Faculty Training at an Online University
Brent Muirhead and Muhammad Betz
This article considers the practice of training faculty candidates to become quality instructors at a well-known, online university. Two perspectives are given: that of a faculty candidate who has just completed the initial, four-week preparatory class and that of a veteran trainer, who has conducted, or facilitated several Training courses.
Part 1-A Faculty Candidate's Perspective on Training
As a veteran teacher educator who has spent the last ten years preparing undergraduates to use educational technology in America's public schools, I was recently struck by the anomalous situation that I was in. I was preaching educational technology to hundreds of students every year, but had only made one attempt at teaching electronically. Further, in a recent unpublished research study, I found that in the geographical area served by the traditional university where I teach, between 80% to 90+% of new teachers, veteran teachers and school administrators believed that teacher/school administrator preparation courses should be offered online (Betz & Desiderio, 2001).
With the help of a friend who referred me to the University of Phoenix (UOP) Online, I applied for and was accepted into the UOP Online training program for creating "facilitators" of online courses. The intention of this case study is to give readers an inside account of how a major, online university prepares traditional instructors, professors, and teachers to become online facilitators.
Preparations for Online
The preparation to enroll as a faculty candidate in the UOP Online training course was in and of itself a significant step. An application for employment, resume, letters of recommendation, and social security card were submitted. Following notification of acceptance as a faculty candidate, I was notified of the particulars of the full probationary process. First, there was a proficiency test in using Outlook Express. Outlook Express is a free email program that accompanies the popular web browser, Internet Explorer, and in this instance, I received a CD-ROM from UOP that contained both. The Outlook Express proficiency test consisted of an online tutorial that teaches faculty candidates how to configure both email and newsgroup accounts as well as how to use and format email messages.
The next step was to receive a user I.D. and password allowing access to restricted areas of the UOP web site. The UOP Web Site, which, along with Outlook Express, serves as the portal for both students and faculty to conduct business with UOP. Telephones and fax machines are also available for problem situations but are rarely used.
Having received a user I.D. and password, I, like all faculty candidates configured one email account and several newsgroup accounts on the UOP server. The template for offering UOP courses usually includes eight newsgroups. The newsgroups are identified by the course name and the date that the course will begin. Only students listed in the class roster can subscribe to the newsgroups. The newsgroup format works very well within Outlook Express, primarily because of the "preview pane" that allows readers to quickly flip through messages by highlighting message titles in the top viewing pane, while speed reading message contents in the bottom viewing pane. The newsgroup method proved to be much easier to use than web-based, course software, such as WebCT and Blackboard, which require each message to be fully opened and closed.
As implied above, there are two main goals to the training course. The first goal is to prepare faculty candidates to use Outlook Express software skillfully and to communicate effectively. The second goal is related to the context and content of working with an institution of higher education online, including policies and practices, and learning how to create clear, respectful, and engaging communications in an online environment. The purpose of the four-week training course is to provide faculty candidates with the essential qualifications for the next step in the online faculty preparation process, the mentorship. A four week introductory course to the world of online education might be perceived as excessive to a novice administration wanting to provide online courses as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. However, the need for practicing the skills required to facilitate or to teach an online class, to manipulate the online environment, and to master the required skills of communication and interaction cannot be underestimated.
Distance education theoretician, Otto Peters, asserts that distance education is an industrialized form of teaching and learning (Peters, 2001). He implies that distance education must be conducted like the assembly line/mass production model that requires extensive preparatory work, planning, organization and standardization. Training to become a member of the online faculty at UOP certainly bolsters Peters' view.
Online Ground Rules-Participation
The ground rules for participating in the online training course for UOP Online relate to the concept of participation. To pass the training course, candidates are required to officially participate on five of the seven days of each week of the course. Candidates are required to thoughtfully read and respond to course readings, assignments, and discussions, as well as to visibly participate in cooperative learning groups or learning teams. Substantial contributions are required, consisting of several meaningful sentences and/ or coherent paragraphs: one line email messages do not constitute valid participation in the Training course. Candidates who do not register full participation in the training course are usually not allowed to proceed to the mentorship.
Online Ground Rules-Academic Honesty
Every online course syllabus is required to include a section describing what constitutes academic honesty for online students. Students are referred to documentation from many sources that clarify online honesty, such as the use of original words or citations from relevant sources. UOP policy spells out academic dishonesty as having someone other than the student to complete a portion of student assignments; allowing another party to make extensive revisions to an assignment; copying work submitted by another student; or using information from identifiable sources without citations.
Online Ground Rules-Attendance
Online attendance policies are dictated as part of UOP policy. Students are required to post at least one message to one of the course newsgroups on two different days of each week using their UOP email address. According to university policy, not meeting minimum attendance requirements on two weeks of the course will result in automatic withdrawal and ineligibility to receive credit or earn a letter grade. Attendance is taken electronically.
Online Ground Rules-Time
The online week at UOP Online is different from the traditional work week. The first day of the online week is Thursday and the last day is Wednesday. Each day's parameters are construed to be the twenty-four hour time frame within the time zone of the student. The week is so structured to make optimal use of weekend time for online students, who can use ample asynchronous weekend hours to complete the bulk of their scheduled assignments.
In addition to the skewed week, the time to conduct a course is altered. A traditional three hour course, either at the graduate or undergraduate level, has duration of about fifteen weeks. The duration of online courses at UOP is less than half of that, but an online course for either a facilitator or a student is much more than a three-hour per week venture. In fact, one does not seem to be offline except for brief periods. The reading assignments and the writing assignments are indeed commensurate to assignments in a traditional setting. The end effect is that online time is concentrated time, in which more work, and predictably, more learning is required in a condensed period of time.
The key to the software logistics of UOP Online Training is the effective use of two components of Outlook Express: email and newsgroups. The traditional use of email is reserved for private communications between students or between the course facilitator and students. The workhorse for online courses is the newsgroups, and every UOP course is configured to use, in default, eight of them. Faculty candidates subscribe to each newsgroup from a designated server according to specific instructions that they receive from UOP technical support via email.
The designated newsgroups for the UOP Online training course are as follows:
Finally, in case the faculty candidate cannot access the computer(s) on which he/she has configured Outlook Express, web access is available from the student's UOP portal at the UOP web site.
Online Essentials-Learning Teams
Learning teams are an integral component of all UOP online courses. These teams are established during the first or second week of the course, with each team assigned to a specific newsgroup as their workroom. Faculty candidates are required to participate in learning teams so that they will know how to work with learning teams when they begin to facilitate courses.
Online Essentials-Faculty Training Course-Content
The faculty training course lasts four full weeks, and candidates are evaluated after completing each week, before receiving one of three summative verdicts: promoted to a Mentorship course, in which they will facilitate their first course for UOP; retained for a second training course; or dismissed from the program. The general content of the four-week course is as follows.
Week One. Orient candidates to the UOP Online philosophy and to the UOP learning model. The importance of online tone as it supports the UOP character is emphasized. Several readings and assignments are included. Particular attention is paid to establishing a collegial ambiance in the course communications. First names are used by students and facilitator, and considerations are fostered that are in alignment with precepts of adult learning (Conner, 1995).
Week Two. Prepare candidates to facilitate on online course for UOP and introduce them to the concept of online learning teams or cooperative learning groups. These groups are a part of every UOP course in accordance with the expressed importance of group interaction and collaboration in distance education (Simonson, et al., 2000). As is the case with many UOP courses, group work is fostered by the requirement of group projects. The planning and production of group projects is conducted within specific "learning team" newsgroups, prior to posting final versions to the Main or Assignments newsgroup.
Week Three. Provide candidates with information needed to facilitate an online course. UOP uses the term "facilitator" to describe instructors, a term that carries many ramifications of meaning for practice. The concept of facilitating learning in online courses is built by the various assignments, including the observation of a current, online course by an expert facilitator. This week highlights a theme emphasized throughout the online training experience of learning by doing and by observing.
Week Four. Provide candidates with information related to evaluating student performance in online courses and to bring closure to the training course. In particular, faculty candidates are trained in the use of the UOP evaluation system, including the assignment of grades.
More specifically, the content of the training course consists of practice: practice in using Outlook Express and the UOP web site; practice in writing course syllabi, lectures, discussion questions, and assignments; practice in monitoring and facilitating online discussions; and practice in the general administration of an online course.
Taking the Faculty Training Course
I took the faculty-training course during February and March of 2001. Each week opened up new vistas of thought related to my role as a professional educator and classroom instructor. At the completion of the course, I reflected, if all online courses could generate the learning that I received in the faculty training course, then the future of online education is a surety.
Part 2-A Veteran Faculty Member's Perspective on Training
Computer-mediated or online education is becoming more popular among today's students. In 2000, the University of Phoenix (UOP) had an increase of student enrollment of 84%. Currently, 30, 000 online students are taking undergraduate and graduate classes that are facilitated by 2,500 instructors. I work for UOP as the area chair for their MAED program in curriculum & technology, teach online graduate classes, train and mentor faculty candidates and frequently conduct peer reviews of veteran faculty members. Therefore, I have a variety of perspectives on training new faculty candidates.
Training Online Instructors
Faculty Candidates at UOP receive four weeks of training prior to their mentorship. The class provides extensive opportunities for individuals to become familiar with Microsoft's Outlook Express software program that is used for the online classes. The candidates learn about the essence of computer-mediated education by reading relevant lectures, respond to weekly questions and online scenarios, work on team projects, study UOP academic policies and observe online classes. It is an intensive training but candidates appreciate their trainers who share guidance and insights on the teaching and learning process. The class is an essential component in equipping individuals with basic knowledge and skills to facilitate their first online class.
Why does the University of Phoenix place so much emphasis on training their new faculty? Research studies reveal that the quality of online education classes varies considerably due to instructors who fail to provide timely and consistent feedback to their students (Caudron, 2001; Muirhead, 1999). UOP has created training and mentoring process that is designed to help instructors make the transition from the traditional classroom setting to becoming effective online instructors. The university wants to make sure that instructors are well prepared to facilitate online classes. Then, more students will have a positive online experience that promotes high academic standards
The need for training is highlighted by the diversity of tasks that are expected of online instructors. For instance, instructors at UOP will facilitate learning teams in their classes. Moderating the group process requires having the knowledge and skills to effectively promote successful collaboration. Guiding the learning teams requires knowing how to create a setting that engages all participants in sharing online and completing a variety of projects. Collison, Elbaum , Haavind & Tinker (2000) have listed eight instructor tasks that must performed to foster dynamic small groups:
This list of tasks reveals the importance of providing relevant training. The UOP training program for faculty candidates is designed to prepare individuals to be effective online facilitators who can manage an assortment of responsibilities. Bischoff (2000) notes that online instructors are provided instruction in four primary areas:
Trainers assist candidates in the four instructional areas and help them make the transition to working online. A second element in the training process involves the use of mentors who are veteran faculty members. Mentors assist individuals by helping them prepare for their first class by providing advice on how to create a syllabus, lectures, a personal biography and course notes. The mentor will stay with the candidate throughout their first class and offer advice and feedback (i.e. student surveys) by using frequent email notes. The focus of the current discussion will be on the four-week training class.
Faculty candidates learn how to be visible online instructors by doing individual and group assignments that require posting messages to the UOP newsgroups. It is vital that instructors learn how to use their emailed messages to foster a community spirit with their students. A lack of instructor visibility will make students feel deserted or cause them to question whether their really cares about them. For instance, if an instructor always answers student questions by sending their messages to private their mailboxes, the class misses this interaction. Obviously, there are certain questions that need to be handled by private email. Yet, when students post questions in the main newsgroup that is observed by the entire class, it is an excellent opportunity to model interaction for the class (Bischoff, 2000).
As a UOP Trainer, I find that it is useful to model a variety of messages for my faculty candidates. Instructors can use their messages to the newsgroups to demonstrate online presence. Here are five different types of messages that instructors can use:
During my training classes, I really stress the importance of using messages to personalize the learning experience for students. UOP uses case studies and scenarios that contain common student issues to help candidates learn how to creatively design relevant messages for their students. Faculty candidates often comment on how it is challenging to develop messages that are both professional and personal. Yet, students appreciate instructors who provide timely and specific feedback on their assignments. It can be very frustrating for students when they are not sure of their teacher's expectations. The wise instructor will provide appropriate guidance to both individuals and student teams to keep the class on track for completing the assigned work (Palloff & Pratt 2001).
I encourage my faculty candidates to follow a student centered educational model that promotes the idea of self-directed learning. It is important that instructors empower their students by giving them the opportunity to have enough control to influence the educational process. Obviously, the degree of personal control varies in every learning situation. Teachers give students instructional influence based on factors such as their knowledge of the subject matter and the type of learning assignment. Computer-mediated education is self-paced and students are given various opportunities to create relevant and interesting work. The distance education format challenges teachers to develop a learning environment that places more responsibility on the student to accomplish academic tasks with minimal teacher assistance. Students are treated as adults who are capable of effectively learning new ideas and academic disciplines (Kasworm & Bing, 1992). It requires having teachers who are willing to experiment with innovative educational methods. It is an open-ended learning model that will bring some anxious moments to the best online teachers.
The University of Phoenix has created a training program to meet the needs of today's instructors. Contemporary educators and administrators need to explore relevant ways to educate new and existing faculty members to the online learning environment. Instructors vary in their level of online experience; therefore their facilitator skills must be supported and encouraged through formal and informal professional development activities. A good training program will affirm high academic standards while helping instructors create friendly and dynamic online learning communities (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).
Betz, M., & Desiderio, M. (2001). Educational technology in teacher education: 2001. Unpublished research.
Bischoff, A. (2000). The elements of effective online teaching: overcoming the barriers to success. In (K. W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds.), The online teaching guide: A handbook of attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Caudron, S. (2001). Evaluating e-degrees. Workforce, 80 (2), 44 -47.
Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S. & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood.
Conner.M. (1996). Learning: The critical technology, a whitepaper on adult education in the information age. Wave Technologies International, Inc. (retrieved online at: http://www.wavetech.com/abt/abttmwp.htm).
Fullmer-Umari, M. (2000). Getting ready: The syllabus and other online indispensables. In K.W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds.) Online teaching guide: A handbook of attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom (pp. 57-72). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Kasworm, C. E. & Bing, Y. (1992). The development of adult learner autonomy and self-directedness in distance education, Report No. CE 063 391, Springfield, VA: DYNEDRS (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.ED 355 453).
Muirhead, B. (1999). Attitudes toward interactivity in a graduate distance education program: A qualitative analysis. Parkland, Fl: Dissertation.com.
Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Peters, O. (1998). Learning and Teaching in Distance Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing Inc.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2000). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
About the Authors:
Brent Muirhead has an extensive and impressive background in both research and practice across a multitude of disciplines. He teaches computer-mediated graduate research classes in information and technology for the University of Phoenix and history classes at a high school near Atlanta, Georgia. He also serves as Executive Peer Reviewer for "Educational Technology and Society," an Electronic Journal. Dr. Muirhead's letters are frequently published in USA Today, The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muhammad Betz graduated from Ball State University with a B.S. in secondary education in 1976 and completed a M.Ed. (1984) and a Ph.D. (1990), specializing in Instructional Technology at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, Dr. Betz is an Associate Professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in teacher education. Dr. Betz became a member of the Online Faculty at the University of Phoenix this year. He may be reached at email@example.com.