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Professional development for online instruction ~ one size does NOT fit all

There is no single, best-practice solution for developing a technology support and training program for higher-education faculty; instead you need to offer a variety of resources to meet a variety of needs. From 1998-2003, the Faculty Computing Support Center (FCSC), a professional development program at Cal Poly Pomona, provided a cafeteria of training options for early adopters, second-wave faculty, and reluctant users of online teaching tools and strategies. The FCSC program, cited in The Educause Review for its best practices in promoting technology training, is one part success story, one part cautionary tale.

What does it take for traditionally educated college faculty to become successful online instructors?

Web literacy used to be an option for college faculty. Today it is a pedagogical necessity. The wealth of online resources in every academic discipline makes using the web an attractive, 24/7/365 alternative to reserve books at the library. Online pictorial, multimedia, and digital video dramatically expand and enrich learning materials beyond the print realm. Students can take a virtual tour of the Louvre's masterpieces, watch a Sioux Ghost Dance filmed in 1894 in the Library of Congress American Memory Collection, or examine brain scans from Harvard Medical School among the resources in MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching). A faculty web page is a convenient conduit to instructional and scholarly material. And the technology is in place to share online resources with the Internet community or to restrict viewing to students in one's class.

Students are fueling the demand for course web sites and distance-learning options, but they are not alone in pushing the technology envelope. College administrators and staff are also turning up the heat, not only to accommodate non-traditional students and life-long learners, but also to deal with changing administrative support realities. At a Microsoft Word workshop I conducted, one participant told me: “I'm here because our department secretary no longer types syllabi for faculty. If I learn how to create a template, I can do them myself.” The next step for this faculty member was putting his syllabus online.

Beyond early adopter

Web-enabled tools and strategies are transforming higher education - but what about the educators themselves? As makers or breakers of the new learning environment, they fall into two general categories: vanguard or early adopters, and mainstream or second-wave faculty.

Early adopters of Internet-based instructional technology grappled with challenging first-generation software programs. They haunted online discussion groups to find the latest software fix. Trial-and-error was a frequent stand-in for formal training or computer help desks. These entrepreneurial educators built web sites to complement traditional classroom learning. Their time investment was enormous - and so was their personal sense of discovery.

“Unlike the entrepreneurs, potential second-wave faculty will demand more user-friendly levels of institutional support,” reckons Paul R. Hager, advisor to the president for Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Hartford. Cal Poly Pomona was on Hager's list of 26 universities that demonstrate best practices in technology training. To broaden its base of web-literate faculty, Cal Poly Pomona launched its Faculty Computing Support program in 1998. The program's no-instructor-left-behind strategy was designed to attract and nurture online neophytes, while challenging veteran academic technology users to stretch themselves creatively.

The Collaborative Online Learning and Teaching Program (COLT), developed under the FCSC aegis, is one part success story, one part cautionary tale. The goal of this innovative project was to encourage and support faculty in developing online courses. Participants converted an existing traditional class to an online class. COLT defined an online course as one that meets a maximum of four times per term in an on-campus classroom.

Best & worst practices

Beginning in summer 2002, COLT supported twelve faculty members who worked collaboratively over a one-year period. These faculty eventually offered primarily upper division online courses in a wide range of disciplines: Anthropology (Physical Geography), Behavioral Science (Health Psychology), Business (Compensation; Consumer Behavior), Computer Information Systems (Object-Oriented Programming with Java), Graduate Education (Tests and Measurements), Engineering (Capital Allocation Theory), English (Freshman Composition; Introduction to Shakespeare), History (American Indian History), Music (World of Music), and Urban and Regional Planning (Cities in a Global Economy).

Funding for the program was a one-time $56,000; in addition, financial support for laptop computers came from a faculty technology equity program surplus. More than 80% of program budget supported one-course release-time for faculty during the term that they taught their first online class. As Table 1 indicates, faculty felt that this was money well spent; the only COLT program feature that participants unanimously evaluated as useful in preparing them to teach an online course was the release time. “The reassigned time was critical for the first course online as the amount of time involved was three times that of an on-campus course,” one participant noted.

COLT's centerpiece was a nine-week intensive training program where faculty participated as students in a totally online course about online learning and teaching that I designed and taught. The summer experience served as a model for and crash course in online pedagogy. COLT participants learned what it is like to be a neophyte student in a totally online environment. They communicated synchronously and asynchronously in a variety of ways, collaborated on group projects, created and shared PowerPoint presentations, worked with campus technologists to create streaming video programs, and dealt with technical difficulties, web time-stamp deadlines, and each other's vacation schedules. They used most of the tools available in our campus course management system, WebCT, and assessed each tool's value for their own teaching endeavors. In the one-week WebCT workshop that followed their online course, faculty quickly mastered WebCT course design. Most COLT participants valued their experience as online students. Only one faculty member “was not sure that having faculty become students in a class is as effective as a series of seminars about online teaching.”

Other program features and their value to the 12 COLT faculty are indicated in Table 1, and discussed below.

    Program feature

    Very Valuable/ Valuable


    Not Very Valuable/ Useless

    No Response

    One-class release time while teaching online course




    Face-to-face meeting before summer online course




    One-week summer WebCT workshop




    Online Summer Course




    Other on-campus IT workshops attended



    Help from FCSC student assistants




    COLT faculty learning community








    Summer & Fall $500 stipends




    Campus Online Resources




    COLT email discussion list




Table 1: Faculty Assessment (n=12) of COLT 2002 program features in terms of their usefulness in preparing to teach an online course

All twelve COLT 2002 participants completed the program and subsequently taught the courses they had developed. After their first online teaching experience, all but one group member said they had already planned to or might teach online again. One participant wrote, “The challenge is to maintain quality. Programs like COLT that emphasize pedagogy are critical to this maintenance of quality. And we have to keep in mind that online instruction is not everyone's cup of tea - and neither is online learning.” (View

A second COLT program, which began in summer 2003, proved less successful. Under-funded and short on incentives, COLT II had a bleak retention rate. Of the 33 original participants, only seven completed the summer online coursework.

Unlike the earlier program, COLT II did not provide release time or stipends for participating faculty. The previous summer's intensive web development workshop programs were eliminated in 2003, as was the student-assistant component that offered one-on-one help for faculty. No funds were available for laptops. Participants were not required to have prior commitments from their dean and department chair to teach an actual online course in the upcoming academic year. Course development for most COLT II participants, unfortunately, was more of a theoretical exercise than a real-world task.

COLT was the field test that validated my long-standing convictions: that professional incentives, institutional commitment, just-in-time technical support, and real-world problem-solving opportunities help wary and time-pressed faculty embrace new technologies. Based on my own operational experiences with COLT, formal assessments of program components, anecdotal feedback from participants, and observations of programs elsewhere, I have garnered a pretty good sense of what works and what does not.

In the ever-changing world of computer-mediated learning, promoting faculty development is necessarily a work in process. Here are some of my preliminary observations and recommendations:

In reaching out to wary learners and other second-wave users, one size does not fit all

Engaging reluctant users in the new learning environment can be a daunting task. Veteran faculty in particular may balk at altering their teaching style. Time-starved instructors of all ages may draw the line at lengthy seminars or learning to build an educational web site from scratch.

There is no single, best-practice solution for developing a technology support and training program for higher-education faculty. You need to offer 360-degree programming: a variety of resources to meet a variety of needs.

Cal Poly Pomona's time-challenged faculty members typically teach four courses per quarter for three quarters per year. For many, summer is the only time for technology training. From 1997 to 2002, our summer offerings included intensive one and two-week web development workshops that changed with faculty needs and technological innovations. In 1997 as the web exploded, we gave three two-week-long, discipline-based introductory web development workshops. Early-adopter faculty from disciplines like History, Communication, Biology, and Music led these workshops that emphasize pedagogy. By 2002 we offered one-week workshops in Dreamweaver, Flash, and WebCT for experienced web developers. For beginners with more time to spend, we ran one two-week introductory web development workshop. The COLT 2002 intensive-immersion course in online teaching and learning lasting nine weeks was also on tap that summer. Many COLT 2002 faculty took one or more of the other workshops to enhance their web development skills. The faculty in all of these workshops produced tangible results - a course web site they would use and assess in the upcoming academic year.

What about faculty not interested in investing two weeks in technology? Another year-round option for second-wave faculty was our JumpStart program, an opportunity to try out the web. Talented student technology assistants designed several "cool" templates for web pages based on basic instructional components that I identified. A faculty member would select a template design and color scheme and provide student assistants with appropriate text, documents, graphics, and subject-related online resource links. The students then built and published the instructional web site. Interested faculty could learn to revise their web sites at a later date through workshops or one-on-one assistance from students. Many did.

Use student assistants for affordable, flexible, just-in-time support

Although several public universities have students who manage technology labs, Cal Poly Pomona was one of the first to offer one-on-one student support to faculty in their offices at their workstations at their convenience. I carefully selected and trained students who were not only computer-savvy, but also patient and charming with adult learners.

In 1999, our Academic Senate received a $100,000 windfall for technology development - to support student assistants to help faculty with technology. They proposed spreading the wealth equally among 600 full-time faculty members, who could each use their money to hire a student assistant. How would faculty know who to hire, I objected, and how would the Senate evaluate the results? The Senate opted to let me experiment with $40,000 for half a year to develop a student support program. After the trial run, $80,000 per year was allocated for baseline funding of IT-Fits: IT-Faculty In-Office Technology Support program.

IT-Fits helped hundred of Cal Poly Pomona faculty overcome their fear of technology and/or their time constraints. And the program benefited students as well, enhancing their technical understanding, work ethic, and communication skills. Instructional technology assistants (ITAs) met with faculty for up to ten hours per quarter, or about one hour a week. These knowledgeable students served as consultants on several topics, including web page development, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, databases, file management, and using email programs. The ITA motto: “Never touch the mouse. We teach faculty ‘to fish’.”

Some of the student assistants ran a dual-platform faculty annex with four high-end computers, several scanners, and other digital equipment. Faculty could walk in from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week or call with a question. Unlike the regular campus help desk, this service offered just-in-time help with web pages. It was not just a place for learning how to retrieve your email. These students also assisted at workshops held during the academic year and ran the annex and our twelve-station dual-platform faculty training lab.

In 2000, the dot-com sector was still booming. The $10-to-$12 an hour we paid our student assistants did not prevent them from seeking and finding higher-paying jobs in the private sector. I lost several computer information systems and software engineering students that way. The dot-bomb disaster, on the other hand, did wonders for our recruitment and retention process. The communication skills our students learned by working with professors prepared them well for future, private-sector employment.

Standardize on specific software tools and offer them to participating faculty at little or no cost

Learning to use technology to enhance teaching and learning should be seen as a professional development endeavor. In an institution that values teaching, if faculty members take the time to develop web pages for classes, they should receive recognition for their efforts. Unfortunately, many departments who make retention and promotion decisions do not see it that way.

Faculty who take or teach technology workshops or work on their own or with assistance to develop their technological expertise can receive acknowledgment of their efforts, or possibly service credits or special awards. At a 2001 reunion of five years of summer web workshop graduates, we handed out “wired prof.” certificate of excellence awards for “outstanding contributions to enhancing teaching and learning with instructional technology;” campus support staff also received awards. At the least, academic technology program administrators can write letters of recognition for faculty files, and work with their academic senate and administration to find ways to reward faculty.

Keep your spending priorities straight - especially when budgets are tight

It is easier to count computer workstations and software programs than to assess the impact of training and support. However, if you give faculty hardware and software they cannot use effectively, you are wasting money. If you build a high-end computer lab that people do not know how to use, you're squandering technology dollars. If you equip a lab with only high-end PCs, you are ignoring the diversity of user needs; academia must accommodate Macintosh as well as Windows users. When you take the time to evaluate your campus needs in light of its strategic objectives, solicit input from all constituencies: faculty, students, academic support staff, etc.

Unfortunately, often those in the academic side of the university have the biggest stake and the smallest voice in IT decisions. The Faculty Computing Support Center merged into Instructional & Information Technology Learning in 2003, part of the university's IT division. This move diluted the power of faculty and academic affairs to influence faculty support policy issues and practices.

Approach technology training from a faculty-development perspective

It is critical to understand faculty needs and interests in order to spend technology funds wisely. Each campus has its own culture that must be recognized and respected. I came into academic technology from a faculty background, teaching at Cal Poly Pomona for seven years before supporting faculty use of technology through the Faculty Center for Professional Development. So I understood faculty needs and interests at that institution. At Cal Poly Pomona, enticing faculty to spend time to enhance their technology skills as a form of personal and professional development worked. It worked because the university attracts and hires faculty who value to teaching as well as research.

Do not just teach Dreamweaver as software, but teach faculty how to create web pages that will enhance their students' learning. In lieu of offering a software-focused workshop on Microsoft Office, show participants how to create a syllabus template with Word or a grade sheet with Excel. Do not assume that faculty members have mastered basic skills such as computer searching. Work with reference librarians to help instructors find specific resources in their discipline related to course objectives. A history teacher, for instance, might want students to understand the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. To meet this course objective, show the teacher how to locate specific web sites on internees and their descendants, and how to evaluated the credibility of web sites.

There is no single, best-practice solution for developing a technology training and support program for higher education faculty. The Faculty Computing Support Center offered a variety of resources to meet a variety of needs and teaching and learning styles: extensive short beginning-to-advanced workshops during the academic year, intensive summer workshops, free access to high quality web development software, personalized one-on-one in-office student assistance, faculty early adopters teaching workshops to their peers, just-in-time walk-in and telephone help five days a week, a small high-end dual-platform faculty lab with extensive software and peripheral equipment, a web page production service, special year-long technology development programs like COLT, an extensive and informative web site, informal weekly on-campus “lunch byte” discussions, and regular email communication. These resources grew over a seven-year period, each interconnecting with and strengthening the others - and eventually providing 360-degree support that helped the COLT 2002 faculty to succeed.

Learning by Doing - Faculty Reflections on Participating in a Totally Online Course as a Student

The Fall Quarter 2002 Brown Bag Lunch Bytes series featured presentations by Cal Poly Pomona faculty on topics and themes of interest to the entire university community.

This vintage (unedited) Brown Bag Lunch Byte round table discussion features eight California State Polytechnic University, Pomona faculty members discussing their experiences as students in an online class about online teaching and learning. Faculty were participants in the first COLT (Collaborative Online Learning and Teaching) Program.

Faculty participants - Päivi Hoikkala (History), David Kopplin (Music), Nancy Prince-Cohen (Education), Susan Kullmann [Puz] (Faculty Computing Support Center), Susan Rogers (English & Foreign Languages), Phil Rosenkrantz (Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering), Ralph Westfall (Computer Information Systems), and Lin Wu (Geography & Anthropology)

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Susan Kullmann (formerly Puz) runs DoctorGeek. She holds a doctorate in history from Carnegie Mellon University and is the former Director of the Faculty Computing Support Center @ California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She can be contacted at

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