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How to be an Effective Online Professor

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Rena M. Palloff, Ph.D., LCSW
Owner of Crossroads West

Rena Palloff, PhD, is the owner of Crossroads West, working with institutions, organizations, and corporations interested in the development of onl...


Andrew Hibel
Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder, HigherEdJobs

Andrew Hibel is a Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of the leading academic job board, HigherEdJobs. After starting their first jobs in highe...

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With the number of students taking online classes increasing, the need for instructors to be versed in the world of online teaching also increases. What are some best practices of online teaching? Do MOOCs have a place in the higher education learning market? How will the virtual classroom evolve? These questions and other useful topics are discussed in this month's interview with online teaching expert, Dr. Rena Palloff.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Dr. Palloff, you have extensive background in online teaching and learning in higher education.1 How did your interest in this area develop?

Rena Palloff, Ph.D, Fielding University: I did my Ph.D at Fielding Graduate University, which at that time was one of the few schools that was doing anything at all online. We were using a primitive dial-up system and my student colleague at that time, Keith Pratt, and I decided to explore how community might be formed online using such a system. We started presenting that work at conferences starting in about 1994 and got such great feedback that we just kept on going!

Hibel: You are the author of numerous books on the subject of online teaching and learning. Your newest book, Lessons from the Virtual Classroom, will be released shortly. Will you provide a preview and share a few of the lessons you've learned over the years from your experience?

Palloff: The new book reviews some of the current issues in online education, such as administrative concerns and disparities in technology integration and use. But many new issues and concerns have emerged in the last ten years, some of which we might never have anticipated. We opened the original Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom with a discussion of how little technology changes had impacted online learning. We did not anticipate any major technological changes at the time that might change the face of this form of education - how wrong we were! Technological changes, such as the use of mobile technology and social networking -- and now Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) -- are significantly changing how education occurs online. These changes, as well as the ways in which online education has evolved and is conducted currently are the substance of this new edition. Change is coming fast and furious. Our main concern continues to be with best practices in the delivery of education online and that is the focus of our work in this book, along with the questions and issues that continue to arise about this form of education.

Hibel: How has online teaching and learning evolved over the past decade and what do you see changing in the next 10 years?

Palloff: Technological changes keep coming fast and furious - there are questions about whether or not course management systems will stay alive, for example, or whether the use of social media and mobile technologies will take their place. MOOCs will definitely have an impact on how online learning evolves - how that will happen we don't know yet - but watching what's happening with them right now is creating tremendous interest, as well as questions about the efficacy and quality of online learning. There's no question that engaging in online learning has impacted how learning occurs in the face-to-face classroom as well. The popularity of the "flipped classroom" approach is a good indicator of this. It's so hard to see 10 years into the future of online learning - we'd never have predicted that it would look like it does now 10 years ago!

Hibel: What do you consider the top challenges associated with online learning and what are some advantages?

Palloff: Some of the biggest challenges are concerns about quality, rigor, and access. The access issues are being mitigated to some degree through the use of mobile technology. But concerns about quality and debates about that are increasing because of the MOOC movement. The advantages are the any time, any place nature of online learning, the ability to address multiple learning styles, the ability to accommodate many learners who might not otherwise be able to go to school due to job and family responsibilities, and in general, the flexibility. If done right, online learning can support collaboration and the development of critical thinking skills in ways that the face-to-face classroom might not.

Hibel: Let's be more specific here about a challenge you just mentioned, the MOOC movement. It is easy to see that the concerns about the quality have been largely discussed, but how has this discussion affected the day to day delivery of online education?

Palloff: It's interesting that we now talk about "traditional" online learning and then MOOCs. Evaluation of the effectiveness of MOOCs has not occurred and there is much discussion about how that might be done -- in fact, I'm working with a group that is looking at that topic. But in terms of "traditional" online learning, there has and continues to be an eye toward continuous quality improvement and a focus on best practices in online teaching. This is seen in research, journal articles, conferences, etc.

Hibel: A 2013 report tracking online education over the past decade has indicated that 6.7 million or over one-third of all students in higher education are taking an online course.2 There is an obvious demand for online courses, but there is also skepticism involved. How do you address the perception is that the quality of education is lower compared to students in a non-virtual classroom?

Palloff: It's so interesting to me that the quality of the lecture has never been scrutinized the way that online learning has been! Who says that large lecture courses (which MOOCs mimic, by the way) are the best way to teach or learn? There's a misperception that if we can't see or touch our students or if they can't see us, they can't possibly be learning. The other interesting aspect of that study is that many of the participants who expressed skepticism are not teaching online and have not taken online courses. It seems to me that part of this is fueled by fear of the unknown.

Hibel: The report referenced above states, "The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is now at 69.1 percent - the highest it has been for this ten-year period. Likewise, the proportion of institutions reporting it is not critical to their long-term strategy has dropped to a new low of 11.2 percent." What are your thoughts on these statistics?

Palloff: I think that these chief academic leaders are on target! Working online is definitely critical to a long-term strategy. I don't believe that the face-to-face classroom will go away - there are students and instructors who really don't take well to the online environment and shouldn't be forced to do so. However, the demand is huge and those institutions that want to stay alive and current need to be working online.

Hibel: Some faculty, particularly those accustomed to a brick and mortar classroom, may not embrace a virtual classroom. What are your methods to encourage them to adopt and effectively implement teaching online?

Palloff: It's important not to use a "one size fits all" approach to training new instructors to teach online. They need to learn that the methods used are different, the approaches are different, and that they can't simply move what they've always done online and be successful. A phased approach to faculty development helps. Using those instructors who are more experienced to help mentor and train those new to online teaching is a real plus.

Hibel: Although not new, the concept of MOOCs, free open access classes aiming at large-scale participation, have been making headlines recently. What role do you think these types of courses will play in higher education and do you think they will positively or negatively affect the general perception towards online learning?

Palloff: I do think that MOOCs likely have a role in the landscape of online learning. What that is, however, really needs to be critically evaluated. To complicate the existing portrait of MOOCs, the press, legislators, and even some in the general public have come to view them as a panacea for the budget woes facing higher education today. Public discussions debate MOOCs as a means by which education might be provided more widely, at what is perceived as minimal to no cost. These discussions ripple onto online learning overall. What is now being referred to as "traditional" online instruction has faced tremendous skepticism since its inception and, based on recent surveys of faculty, its quality continues to be questioned. However, many MOOCs appear to be receiving acceptance without question by these groups. Those touting the impact of MOOCs appear to have lost sight of more "traditional" online education, viewing MOOCs as their equivalent. The differences, however, are striking and need further exploration. There are important questions that have arisen and continue to arise beyond the economics of learning at scale. We can and should focus on the widely varying intentional learning science behind MOOC designs, broad differences in quality and qualities, as well as the real learning outcomes they produce. In so doing, we'll surface the real role that MOOCs can play in online learning and hopefully develop good strategies for evaluating them without all the angst that accompanies those discussions.

Hibel: What makes a good online teacher?

Palloff: A good online teacher needs to think about learning outcomes and learning first; the technology is simply a vehicle to help move towards those learning outcomes. Because of that, the instructor should choose technologies to support that goal. Just because a particular technology is available doesn't mean it should be used if it doesn't support the achievement of learning objectives. A good online instructor knows that it's learning that drives the process, not technology. Additionally, a good online teacher is fully present, responsive to her students, and knows how to facilitate a highly interactive environment.

Hibel: When administration is faced with making the choice of what classes should be delivered online and which professors should teach them, what factors should he/she consider in order to make it a good fit for both the faculty and students and the institution overall?

Palloff: The truth is that there isn't a class I know of that wouldn't benefit from online delivery! However, if an institution is just starting out, then it should consider where the greatest demand lies and who might be interested in teaching online. This should not be an overnight decision - institutions need to engage in strategic planning for online instruction. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen consistently. There needs to be a master plan for integrating online teaching and learning into the curriculum and faculty and students need to have a voice in how that happens and where it should start. Many institutions begin by encouraging their instructors to enhance their face-to-face courses with the use of technology or use a hybrid approach. With the popularity now of the flipped classroom approach, this is a great place to start. Many courses will evolve into fully online delivery from there.

Hibel: When interviewing a new candidate for an online teaching position, what are the key traits, knowledge or experience that would set an exceptional candidate apart from others?

Palloff: This is an interesting question as I've been hearing more and more as I consult around the country that institutions are looking for faculty, even to teach face-to-face, who have online experience. If I were looking for someone to teach online, I'd look first for someone who has either received training in online teaching through a certificate program or the like, or who has taken online classes as part of a degree program or for professional development. Understanding and experiencing online learning from the student side helps an instructor understand both what works and what not to do when teaching online. I'd also want to know about that person's teaching philosophy. If she sees herself as "the expert," for example, that's someone I would not consider. Yes, people are hired for content expertise, and clearly that's important. But, I want someone with a more collaborative mindset, who respects students as learning colleagues, and who will enter that relationship with a great deal of humility and respect.

Hibel: As a mentor, what advice do you give to faculty members in order to be a successful mentor to other online instructors?

Palloff: The most important piece of advice that I have to give is to a mentor is to honor the mentee's experience! So often, orientation, training, and mentoring programs start with the assumption that someone new to the institution's faculty ranks equates with a lack of experience and knowledge in general about how to teach and how to teach online in particular. I found myself in this position a few years ago - I was working with a new university (not Fielding Graduate University!) as a faculty development specialist and was required to go through their orientation and then mentoring program, which is their entry process. That's fine, but I was assigned a mentor who had been teaching online for a year, knew nothing about my experience level, and assumed that I was a novice to online teaching. I tried to remain as open as I could during the process because I believe that I can learn new things from anyone, regardless of how long they've been teaching or learning. However, she refused to honor my experience and thus we missed out on what might have been a great opportunity to learn from one another. Mentoring involves engaging in a partnership where both parties benefit - my advice is to stay open to that and learn!


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Reply Winifred Deavens said...
I am considering launching a career as an online teacher as an extension of my current training. Your thoughts have been helpful as I reflect on my personal qualities and style. I would be interested in learning about modifications I would need to make in the form of teaching strategies and approaches for personalization. Thank you for this beginning. I will look for your book.

06/18/2013 09:36 AM

Reply D.Holliness said...
Great Information. I am currently attending Leading Edge training for blended and online programs for educators. It has been a great experience and am learning a wealth of information. Reading this article has shed additional light on my interests of becoming an educator in the online profession. Thank you for your insights.

06/18/2013 11:13 AM

Reply InstructorPayan said...
Thank you Dr.Palloff for her comments about the qualifications to teach online. Because I had a background in webdesign understood how to use HTML and the web I was able to step into several online teaching positions and implement social media to retain student interest. With my five years of experience teaching online using Moodle and Blackboard I do not see the need to be certified but with more colleges and universities even corporations ramping up their online programs I believe faculty should be trained to understand this new form of learning. Those with extensive online teaching experience could be waived by possessing a portfolio or their online teaching evaluations.

06/19/2013 01:16 AM

Reply Deirdre F. McKeller-Price said...
As I read this interview, I was finally thrilled to hear someone like Dr. Palloff express herself with such clarity and openess. Her responses regarding the needed evaluation of the MOOCs to determine their overall value, effectiveness, etc, her comments on the qualities of a good online instructor, and mentioning that a good online teacher would be a person who has also been a student online, along with the comment that any discipline could benefit using online delivery, were remarkably insightful statements. While I have studied higher education in a traditional classroom setting, my 2 degrees were obtained (BS & MAED) via online studying. I have been a student of online learning, as well as I have been an adjunct for several classes (Com, Eng) at a University. Online instructors should know the online environment from the student perspective; or, at least, as Dr. Palloff mentioned, should understand that a collaborative approach to learning provides a more compelling learning environment for students.

06/21/2013 02:07 PM

Reply Debbie P said...
I have taught online courrses for 3 years. I would like to make contact in higher education because I would like to conduct online courses at the university or community college level. I teach the French language. I welcome any networking opportunities.

06/22/2013 11:43 AM

Reply Robin said...
This is an excellent interview from both sides. Dr. Palloff had strong points about instructors who are able to share their delivery from both sides, student and faculty. It is paramount to have that background and also to have the certification, which helps to bring a more well rounded expertise. Thank you for sharing.

06/23/2013 10:50 AM

Reply Verna said...
I have been an online learner for about 5 years. I obtained my Masters in Counseling/Psychology fully online. Currently I am working toward my PhD in General Psychology. My goal is to obtain a position at the higher education level. I welcome any suggestions as to what other certifications I may need. Dr. Palloff's pointers were extremely helpful especially the point about being a long time online learner. I have carefully observed the interactions of students and instructors online. I have noticed how online instructors techniques of delivery has varied and the effectiveness. I welcome any networking opportunities.

06/24/2013 09:13 AM

Reply Miriam M said...
Thanks Dr. Palloff. I truly value your insight and consider you one of the top experts in this field. I work directly with faculty in designing and developing their online courses. Sometimes my job can be very frustrating but I always feel inspired when I read comments like yours.I know they are based on evidence-based practice and feel they truly are an inspiration to all instructional designers.

06/25/2013 12:50 PM

Reply Gerry Bedore, Ph.D. said...
Hi Dr. Palloff,

I enjoyed considering the insights you have shared. Indeed, things are changing fast.

Dr. Gerry Bedore :-)

06/25/2013 01:39 PM

Reply Dr Banjo said...
Any idea of where I can get an online on online course designer. I am interested in starting a university online and will also need collaborators.
Come on guys need some hands.
Thank you for the encouragement Dr. Palloff your observations are stimulating. I have just completed some courses with MIT and Harvard in edx and I will say as a Professor I find them very challenging and worth the effort.

06/26/2013 01:56 PM

Reply Dr. Diane Bandow said...
Hello, Dr. Rena - it's been a while! The comments about working together instead of assuming the mentor knows more are very true, even with students - some students have amazing experiences to share, often these are great examples for the classroom to help others understand concepts.

06/26/2013 10:59 PM

Reply Jan Bone said...
When and where can I buy /Dr. Palloff's forthcoming book?

(online English comp instructor at a university and a community college, Chicago suburbs) Adjunct Jan Bone

06/27/2013 07:20 AM

Reply Gerard McGrellis said...
That was a great article. I am getting ready to teach my first online course and I am excited. I have researched effective online teaching and have found participation is essential. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

06/27/2013 09:41 AM

Reply Victoria Miles said...
Where can I get training to teach online courses? I have been an adjunct for a few years but would like to experience online/virtual classroom teaching.

06/27/2013 12:13 PM

Reply Mary Lane Carlson said...
Dr. Palloff mentioned that if she were to hire someone to teach online, she would first look for an individual who has received training in online teaching through a certificate program. Can she give some recommendations for such programs?

06/27/2013 12:22 PM

Reply Luther Stohs said...
Appreciated the discussion. When I first searched for an online teaching opportunity, it required a masters in instructional design, including webinar creation. The job was to prepare and develop online trainings for a large legal and financial services company. Certification was a little more doable, and I ended up receiving instruction in online and hybrid formats as a student. Thanks for the validation!

06/27/2013 01:37 PM

Reply Verna said...
Will you give more detail as to where and how you acquired your first online position. Thank you.

06/28/2013 09:29 AM

Reply Marlow Coleman said...
I am in the Military (US Navy) and I recently earned a MS in Criminal Justice. I would like to teach online classes. Any suggestions on where I should start.

06/28/2013 12:53 PM

Reply Dr..ADIL HASSAN LOGHMANEnter Your Name said...
I would like to teach online classes. Any suggestions on where I should start.

06/29/2013 09:37 AM

Reply Dr..ADIL HASSAN LOGHMANEnter Your Name said...
would like to teach online classes. Any suggestions on where I should start.
FIELD:Project manamement

06/29/2013 09:40 AM

Reply Nelson said...
On Line teaching: - My concern is that todays' on line student usually copy and paste answers. There is no originality. Most of the time there are posting of answers of books we use. What the student does, go to some site and copy.
I do penalize the student for copy/paste.

06/29/2013 10:46 AM

Reply Beth Wettergreen said...
Thank you, Dr. Palloff! I have been teaching online for 13 years in advanced academic research writing. The pace of technological change in online education is mind-boggling, but I really want to keep current with online pedagogy.
Specifically what I would like to learn from Dr. Palloff (or anyone else taking part in this discussion) is the names of entities that are currently developing MOOCs. I say "entities" because--from the little I know--these online communities are not universities in the usual sense. For instance, there is a company near here in Mountain View, California that has been advertising for online instructors in my field. But , when I got to their website, I found out that I would have to script and produce a "cute, perky, fun" 5-7 video of my own that entertainingly presented a concept, such as how to evaluate sources for a research project. Since I have primarily been a professor and don't have the skills to produce online videos, I wasn't able to apply, even though I am highly skilled in all areas of online teaching.

Dr. Palloff, Do you have some more information about who the MOOCs are in the current scene? Are video production skills a requirement for these types of jobs?

07/03/2013 12:01 PM

Reply Patty Shockley said...
Your discussion is extremely timely. My undergraduate and graduate program were offered in a classroom format as were the classes that I have taught as an adjunct. I will soon begin a DNP program that is a hybrid format. I have never participated in an online program and am preparing to complete an online tutorial of Blackboard. My career goal is to become a FT college instructor and look forward to reading your book.

07/09/2013 07:45 AM

Reply wwgd said...
My students can learn anytime and anywhere. All they need to do is open a textbook and read. This is essentially "flipping the classroom". Online is being pushed because universities can charge a higher tuition rate and pay-off faculty with incentives.

07/09/2013 03:14 PM

Reply Dr. No said...

07/09/2013 03:24 PM

Reply wwdd said...
Great comment wwgd... I've never seen academics so willing to sell themselves out of a job for a few dollars. The future is no tenure, no full time jobs, no benefits and students who only know how to cut and paste. People act like "flipping the classroom" is a new concept. Real teachers have been doing this for years. But a few business people and computer experts sell it like it's the second coming.

07/09/2013 03:28 PM

Reply kj said...
Agreed wwdd. I have found that many faculty use the hybrid model as a way of saving their own time - so they don't have to teach. Post assignments or quizzes "online" (what used to be known as homework) - and then receive praise from administrators because you are taking "risks" - and trying new and innovative approaches to teaching. And yes, students will learn in this environment. But those of us who are honest know there are issues with assessment of that learning.

07/09/2013 03:46 PM

Reply Gary G said...
When I do my online teaching, I open the course so students have access to the powerpoints, can read the book, take the quizzes and tests, and I get paid extra for this type of teaching. I've never been more excited about teaching. Thank you Dr. Palloff and my jammies thank you too.

07/09/2013 03:48 PM

Reply wwgd said...
Gary G - don't most textbook companies provide this material? If so, how much are you really teaching? It seems online teaching is really facilitating a course. Do we really need to hire Ph.D's or Ed.D's to facilitate materials from the publisher?

07/09/2013 03:53 PM

Reply Gary G said...
Don't be such a downer wwgd!!! You don't know how rich the discussion can be in an online course. I can sit on the beach and "facilitate" (to use your word)the content of the course. I'm being innovative and taking risks by teaching this way. You're just upset because you're afraid students will like my course better than your face to face.

07/09/2013 03:57 PM

Reply Rodney said...
I have a BA in Psychology and a MA in Forensic Psychology, I am currently in a Higher and Postsecondary doctoral program. My goal is to teach online classes however I have noticed that a lot of professors who teach online classes have PhD's do you think that will make a difference in finding a job.

07/09/2013 11:12 PM

Reply Online Educator said...
I have taught in the face-to-face classroom for 20 years... and in the online classroom for 18 years!! Amazingly enough, online programs were initiated by major universities in the mid-1990s. Platforms have changed, pedagogy has changed considerably. Administrations now embrace middle management with certifications as 'distance education administrators' as the arbiters between the institutions / faculty/ students. Faculty beware... if you value freedom in the classroom... there is an increasing trend towards 'templating' the online experience for students and for faculty. Also, of course, most online faculty are adjuncts with NO job security. Next on the agenda... unionizing online faculty as a group. This MUST be done - and soon!! Otherwise, the slave labor of low pay and no opportunity for benefits, security, or advancement will continue to be the norm. Online teaching sounds wonderful but be careful about selling your soul for a few pennies...!! An experienced online and f-t-f classroom educators has spoken!!

07/11/2013 10:38 PM

Reply TheScholar1 said...
Dear Online Educator, I think that the job of online educator is headed for less security, even though some universities (such as my own) have recently implemented union representation for adjuncts. The fact is that for every person like me who has an MFA and has been teaching writing for 23 years, there are thousands of newly-minted PhD's who are willing to teach my classes for less money than I've "earned" through my experience. The online universities basically follow the same profit-motivated approach as WalMart and Target. I am lucky enough to be retired with full medical benefits, etc., so the adjunct game isn't quite as painful. But, the next direction, I have heard, is MOOCs. These are gargantuan "free" universities in which the "professors" are paid a pittance($50 a lesson, no copyright) for developing text-based and video-based lessons which are posted online. This is a free university concept--free as in students all over the world receive a 100% free education if they are willing to make the two concessions of having to view loads of pop up advertising, and receiving no certification from the MOOC. Right now I'm trying to put together a few quirky cute videos based on the depths of English Romantic poetry...anyone else out there trying to work with the MOOC?

07/30/2013 06:24 PM