Colleges turned training for online instruction into overdrive. Can it last?

Students weren’t the only ones disrupted when the pandemic forced colleges and universities to shutter their campuses and move activities online. 

Faculty also had their work upended, with no indication of when, or if, the status quo would return.

They weren’t entirely without a safety net, however. As spring turned to summer and the realities of the pandemic crystallized, several colleges shifted professional development efforts into a higher gear. That support ranged from informal consultations to multiday workshops about how to teach online. In more than a few cases, compensation and credentials were offered.

Eight in 10 college instructors participated in some form of professional development for digital learning to prepare to teach online this fall, according to an August survey of 3,641 faculty members across 1,532 two- and four-year colleges by investment bank and consulting firm Tyton Partners. Respondents said their schools offered more help for online instruction compared to the spring. 

Faculty development experts are hopeful the effects will be lasting. Faculty have been “so much on a learning curve themselves that it’s like, there’s no way you can unexpand what people now know and use in education,” said Kathy Fernandes, academic technology officer at California State University, Chico.

But as colleges seek to grow their online offerings more broadly, how schools and instructors adjust to the pandemic-induced shift can illuminate the support needed for a permanent transition.

Much of the focus has been on improving the learner experience, said Terah Crews, vice president of learning solutions at Guild Education, which partners colleges and corporations to provide education benefits. “The next step is to bring that forward and go, ‘How do we improve the faculty’s experience?'” 

Five days of Zoom

Faculty members participating in CSU Chico’s online learning summer institutes got a taste of what it’s like to be a college student in 2020: five nonconsecutive, seven-plus-hour days of synchronous video instruction. 

If it sounds onerous, that’s the point. It “was invaluable for faculty to be on the other end of Zoom for such long periods of time. That informed them,” said Fernandes, who developed and oversaw the three-week programs, which included nine days of asynchronous activities. 

The experience featured presentations from faculty and subject-matter experts as well as a discussion with students. Faculty mentors also helped participants talk through what they learned in smaller groups. Those mentors allowed Fernandes’ small team to help more instructors than they would have otherwise been able.

In all, 310 faculty members participated, along with 20 mentors. Participants had to complete several tasks: Set up a course in the learning management system for two weeks into the semester, post the syllabus, develop a two-page course plan, and create a video reflecting on the experience and sharing plans for that course.

Programs at other institutions also included ways to show instructors understood how to teach remotely.

Xavier University of Louisiana switched LMS providers a couple of years ago and many faculty had yet to fully transition. 

“That obviously proved to be a pretty big problem in the spring when we switched to remote learning kind of at the last minute,” said Jason Todd, an English professor and associate director for programming at the university’s faculty development center.

To help faculty get up to speed, the center developed an asynchronous course called #LearnEverywhereXULA, which took participants about 12 hours to complete. After working through eight course modules, they had to finish creating a course in the LMS and submit it to Todd’s team for feedback. In exchange, they could earn a certificate and $2,000, Todd said.

It’s not the only campus to pay instructors. CSU Chico gave faculty participants $1,500 if they completed course deliverables by a set deadline; faculty mentors got $6,055. All faculty also received a completion certificate that can go in their personnel file.

North Carolina State University provided $1,000 per fall course taught by full-time faculty on nine-month contracts to help them prepare over the summer in case their classes moved online. (The university shifted to fully remote instruction soon after the term began.)

The vast majority — 93% of respondents to Tyton Partners’ survey said they’d be teaching a hybrid or online course this fall. Of that group, a similar share said they were transitioning a class that previously was taught face-to-face. 

Screenshot of the California State University Chico's Go Virtual video landing page

California State University, Chico made the videos and other materials for its Go Virtual seminar available online.


While faculty members are accustomed to unpaid summer work preparing fall classes, “it was nice that this time, the urgency was demonstrated with that financial support,” Xavier’s Todd said. That hasn’t been the case for many faculty, however.

While some teaching and learning experts interviewed for this story were unsure whether this period would have a lasting impact on how institutions supported online instruction, they generally agreed that having faculty level up their skills simultaneously would have long-term benefits.

“We have had people participating collectively in professional development at the same time on an unprecedented scale,” said Emily Magruder, director of CSU’s Institute for Teaching and Learning, noting that some 17,000 faculty systemwide participated in programs this summer designed to help them teach remotely this fall. “When they’re all doing it at the same time, that has the virtue of creating a kind of collective teacher efficacy vocabulary conversation.” 

“Any exploration of teaching and learning is going to inform the way people teach in any modality going forward,” Magruder continued, noting that the system’s early decision to have fall classes mostly online yielded important time to prepare.

Changes for the long haul

Kansas State University began fall with a mix of hybrid, in-person and online classes, but there was a lot of uncertainty around if and when the campus might need to go fully remote, said Katie Linder, executive director for program development at Kansas State’s Global Campus. Faculty also knew they would need to accommodate people who couldn’t come to class because of the virus. 

To help instructors ready their classes for online delivery, Global Campus, working with other groups including the university’s teaching and learning center and its IT services, came up with the Online Course Design Institute

The team shifted the mostly asynchronous institute slightly to cover blended teaching and learning as the university formalized its fall plans. About 400 faculty and staff members completed the summer courses.

Many colleges are likely to at least start the spring term online. And the pandemic has seen several institutions make new investments to expand online learning for the long term.

Greg Siering, director of Indiana University Bloomington’s teaching and learning center, expects one lasting impact of the pandemic will be greater flexibility around how classes are offered. But more funding, smaller class sizes and enhanced course design support will be needed to make it work, Siering said.

The higher ed sector will need to realize what is already known about online learning, Siering said, which is that “it takes significant investment.”

CSU Chico used funding from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay for its training program. Crews, the consultant, is seeing colleges use their CARES money to build out basic capabilities for online learning, noting that the initial investment can be the biggest hurdle. “It’s created focus and discussion,” she said of the relief funding.

“There’s no way you can unexpand what people now know and use in education.”

Kathy Fernandes

Academic technology officer, California State University, Chico.

Prospects for additional relief have dimmed, though the sector has been pushing for more. And while Tyton Partners’ survey indicated that required training could be a burden on faculty already strapped for time, it also found more support was needed for faculty teaching hybrid classes.

“There’s definitely a sense of exhaustion and burnout” among faculty, said Chantal Levesque-Bristol, executive director at Purdue University’s Center for Instructional Excellence. The university developed truncated versions of its IMPACT course development program in response to the pandemic, which more than 1,000 faculty completed this summer. CARES money was used to fund part of the program, which taught online and hybrid instruction through the LMS.

Materials from Kansas State’s institute will be available to anyone at the university, Linder said. And participants in CSU Chico’s seminars can continue their discussions at weekly virtual meetings. Those conversations and other interactions are important, Fernandes said. “How do we keep supporting faculty through December to keep moving them forward without them being exhausted? In other words, how do they support each other?”

But Fernandes and others are looking ahead to the next term, when they want to offer more training. But they won’t have as much time to prepare and aren’t sure what kind of funding will be available. “That’s a challenge, the next challenge,” Fernandes said.

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