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How to be an Effective Online Professor

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!