This article is reprinted from The Best of the 2020 Teaching Professor Conference.
We had a vision. What if we could create an online teaching resource that is organized and presented in a way that makes sense to faculty? What if it not only functioned as a resource but also helped foster a community of online instructors?
Technical solutions—a necessary but not sufficient condition—were not getting us where we needed to go. Developed over the years, our campus resources were solidly grounded in the technical use of our learning management system (LMS). Many of our more experienced online instructors, though, wanted more. Much more.
Faculty experienced with online instruction had been experimenting with ways to elevate the student learning experience to mirror the best of face-to-face teaching mixed with the convenience of the virtual environment. All of us have had moments of inspired success in our online classes, but no structure or collective community existed to promote sharing those individual successes so others could learn from them.
We knew we needed an accessible vehicle that could foster the magic of teaching and learning in the online environment. We also wanted to create a sense of what Fullan and Quinn (2016) call collective purpose among the faculty who demonstrated a commitment to learn together how to teach online exceptionally well. This was the vision that shaped the creation of our Online Teaching Faculty Toolkit.
We are two colleagues with varied, but complementary backgrounds. Experienced in teaching, we both are passionate about pedagogies that promote student learning, and we are committed to helping our colleagues with their own questions about student learning in their online courses. One of us recently returned to full-time faculty status after years as a university-level administrator; the other completed an advanced degree that paved the way for her new role as an instructional designer in our Center for Teaching and Learning.
Conversations about our own learnings quickly turned to our colleagues who were new to online instruction. They eagerly sought guidance on how to use the LMS. As they overcame the inevitable frustrations associated with learning a new technology, however, their attention turned to matters that faculty care most deeply about: effective teaching and genuine student learning.
As the demand for online courses grew at our institution—and proliferated when COVID hit—faculty new to online instruction needed help. Clearly, learning to build a course in the LMS was the easy part. Faculty realized they lacked the strategies and skills to teach online effectively. Missing, too, was a grounding in the learning sciences that support this work. Faculty wanted to know, “What does the research say? What strategies make a difference with student learning? Because bottom line, that’s what we care about.”
More specific questions came along, such as the following:
These questions shaped the toolkit as we experimented with course designs, pedagogies, and tools with promise for creating communities of learners.
Faculty-friendly language permeates the toolkit, while an aesthetically pleasing design points instructors in the right direction so they do not waste time finding answers to their questions. We were inspired to be highly conscious of the language we used and to prioritize the design after years of being frustrated by the existing website that hosted technical job aids and advice on course design. As we sifted through that website, we found ourselves getting lost in an abundance of information. From an instructor perspective, we found that much of what was available used the LMS’s technical jargon and did not speak to us in terms that we felt would help us in our frazzled teacher moments. We also noticed that the technical job aids never touched on why an instructor would want to use these tools from a pedagogical perspective.
The organization of the homepage of the toolkit is driven by the kinds of questions that we both repeatedly heard from other online instructors. The four main categories of the toolkit are presented in an order that might help instructors think through the entire process of designing and delivering an online course. The first category, although not instructional in nature, guides faculty through the basics of course design. That’s followed by three instructional needs categories: Creating Community in Your Online Classes, Presenting Engaging Learning Materials, and Offering Constructive Feedback. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. The homepage of the toolkit
Although the design of the toolkit was critically important to reduce cognitive load, the meat of the toolkit is found in the Online Teaching Guides. The purpose of the guides is to present solutions to faculty who are seeking ways to engage their students in meaningful learning experiences. When instructors are in teaching mode, they sometimes have difficulty finding the help they need when they need it. Furthermore, screen fatigue and information overload are real barriers. The online teaching guides are designed with these problems in mind. We have structured them so that faculty can easily find the technical instructions they need while also learning about online teaching strategies that will make their courses more engaging and promote deep learning. The one-page teaching guides were in part inspired by Mishra and Kohler’s (2006) TPACK model and the firm understanding that professors are masters of their content knowledge. These guides address pedagogical knowledge first and technical knowledge second. Each guide presents concrete, ready-to-implement, evidence-based online teaching strategies. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Online teaching guide
Because we well know that using both new and familiar technologies to implement these teaching strategies can cause frustration, the guides include links to Technology Quick Guides that provide instructions for using various tools in faculty-friendly language. We also include a list of references so that instructors who would like to learn more about the learning science behind a particular strategy know what to read next. Many of the instructional solutions are accompanied by short videos (one to two minutes) made by instructors who tested and refined the strategies in their own online classes. They share how the solutions worked as well as the pitfalls they encountered, with suggestions to viewers to learn from their mistakes and successes.
Our vision for the toolkit fit neatly into the ongoing work of the Center for Teaching and Learning, which sponsored a fall semester faculty reading group that we co-led, taking a group of 18 faculty through Darby and Lang’s Small Teaching Online (2019). The authors’ frank suggestions paved the way for substantive discussions with our faculty about the realities associated with online instruction and ways to make progress with what we most care about: students’ success as learners.
We encouraged vulnerability in those sessions by modeling it first with stories of our own failures and subsequent corrective actions if and when we had figured things out. Open sharing in a safe environment—nothing was sacred—birthed what we fondly call our online teaching faculty community.
When we shared the prototype for the Online Teaching Faculty Toolkit with these faculty and asked for their suggestions and contributions, the response was overwhelming. Comments such as, “That’s exactly what we need to make sure that I’m reaching my students and addressing their learning needs!” reaffirmed our belief that we were on the right track. We had the sense, too, that this toolkit could potentially ratchet up the cultural norms for interest in growing high-quality online instruction as a cross-campus expectation. We started to see a real opportunity to take the work we were doing with the faculty reading group and the subsequent development of our toolkit and embed it into our institution’s academic culture.
Was it real? We wondered whether the community we were nurturing through informal means was real or whether we were projecting our desired expectations into their responses. Our answer arrived when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. The CTL director asked for faculty volunteers to mentor others who had been thrust into the online teaching arena literally over a weekend. Forty-four faculty answered his call for help, a number far higher than expected. The community was real, and it was growing. Together, we were able to (remotely!) teach our faculty not only how to use the tools but also recommend ways to use them to create courses full of engaging content and activities.
When we started working together back in December 2018, we had no idea that it would lead to the development of the toolkit and the establishment of such a dedicated community of online instructors. We certainly could not have predicted how valuable that toolkit would be. Our toolkit is proving itself to be a powerful resource that online faculty use as they create engaging and meaningful learning experiences for their students.
Darby, F., & Lang, J. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2009). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Corwin Press.
Misha, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technology pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054.
Myrna W. Gantner, EdD, is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of West Georgia, where she teaches in online educational leadership programs. She is the former associate provost at UWG and a K–12 principal and evaluator of instructional technology grants.
Mandi Campbell, EdS, is an instructional designer at the University of West Georgia, where she supports faculty as they design and implement both online and face-to-face courses. She also teaches composition, literature, and first-year seminar courses.