From Fringe to Mainstream: Increasing the Acceptance of Online Education on Your Campus

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Overall, colleges and universities continue to expand the number of online courses and degree programs they offer. But even with the continued growth in online programming, significant resistance to online education persists on many campuses. This resistance can come from faculty, staff, students, and administrators. This article explores five strategies to increase the acceptance of online education on campus.

1. Get faculty involved

One strategy that can help increase the acceptance of online education on campus is to involve faculty early and often in online education initiatives. This involvement can take many forms. One idea is to create an online advisory group or online education committee and make sure there is strong faculty representation in that group. When I became the director of online education on my campus 12 years ago, one of the first things I did was create an online advisory group. Proposed initiatives or policies and procedures related to online education would originate from that group, not from me. The campus community was more receptive to supporting and moving forward with online education initiatives because of the faculty involvement in those decisions. Another idea to get faculty involved is to have them take the lead on matters like new online program development. Proposing a new online program, especially if it is the first one offered on campus, can be a tricky and even contentious process. Having a faculty member (rather than, say, an administrator) lead that effort can make for a smoother approval process. Some institutions provide a small incentive for this work, such as a stipend or course release. 

2. Be responsive to faculty concerns

I’ve yet to interact with an online education administrator who has said that when their institution decided to explore more online programming or move forward with a large online initiative, the faculty were 100 percent onboard. Faculty will have concerns. Those concerns often relate to the rigor or quality of online education, academic integrity, workload and compensation, intellectual property, a reduction in student credit hour production in face-to-face courses or programs, new policies and procedures specific to online education, online education taking over the campus, and the eventual closure of the brick-and-mortar institution. Many online administrators are tuned in and aware of what concerns the faculty on their campuses; however, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Consider surveying faculty to determine what their major concerns about or barriers to online education might be. Host campus open forums where faculty can express their views. Attend faculty governance committee meetings when discussions about online education are on the agenda. Additionally, have as many conversations as possible with individual faculty and solicit their views about online learning. Years ago, when my institution was first attempting to grow our online courses and programs, I would block off one hour per week to walk around campus with the aim of talking to as many faculty as I could. 

3. Focus on quality, not growth

Over the years I’ve seen many higher ed administrators panic because they felt like they were falling behind their peers or competition in regard to the number of online courses and programs they offered. Sometimes this panicked state results in unwise decisions to quickly forge ahead with large online initiatives even though faculty may be unprepared to teach online, student support services offices may be unable to adequately support online learners, and the overall institutional infrastructure to support online education may not exist. I’ve also seen administrators start crunching numbers and making growth and revenue production their primary motivation to expand online programing. Faculty are usually more receptive to the expansion of online education if they believe the motivation for doing so is to better serve students while making quality the focal point. Much could be written about ensuring quality in online programming, but let me share one strategy that has greatly helped my institution: hire exceptional faculty support personnel, such as instructional designers, instructional technologists, eLearning specialists, and media specialists. These are the folks who often work the closest with faculty, helping them with issues such as mastering the learning management system, online course design and facilitation, and best practices in online teaching. 

4. Offer high-quality professional development opportunities for faculty 

Fear often comes with the unknown, and some faculty fear making the transition to teaching online because they know little to nothing about online instruction. Not feeling prepared to teach online can be a major hurdle or barrier to faculty deciding to design and develop an online course. That’s where offering high-quality professional development opportunities can help. These opportunities can range from one-to-one consultations between instructional designers and faculty to workshops or seminars offered through an institution’s teaching and learning center to multi-weeklong online instructor training courses or certifications. While qualified faculty support personnel often lead these sessions, it’s been my experience that having experienced online instructors help with or lead professional development opportunities for those interested in online teaching is particularly effective. As I like to say, “Who better to influence a tenured professor who has been teaching on your campus for 30 years and is resistant to online education than a tenured professor who has been teaching on your campus for 30 years and is having great success with teaching online?” Also, institutions will need to decide whether to develop these opportunities in-house, use an outside company or vendor, or do both. And some institutions provide faculty incentives for completing professional development opportunities, especially longer trainings or certifications.   

5. Provide strong student support services for online learners 

Giving online students the help and support they need to succeed in class comes with benefits such as increased student satisfaction, improved retention, and heightened academic achievement. Greater student support usually precedes greater student success. It’s important to attempt to determine and plan for the types of help and services online learners will need. This shouldn’t be an afterthought to launching a large online education initiative; it should be discussed at the outset. Units and offices that can influence student success include admissions, records and registration, financial aid, academic advising, career services, counseling and testing, the tutoring center, information technology services, the library, student life, the multicultural support center, and many more. Online learners should receive exceptional support from the time they contact admissions to inquire about the institution to the time they graduate. Online learners should be afforded the same services as on-campus students; this has become a regional accreditation expectation. I recommend that someone on campus—often it is the primary online administrator—periodically reach out to the directors of units and offices that support students and review the services they provide to online learners. 

Brian Udermann, PhD, is director of online education and professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.