Preparing Faculty to Teach Online

Area C Representative, Online Education Committee Chair
El Camino College, Online Education Committee

Interest has increased in recent years regarding the expansion of access to courses through the growth of online[1] education offerings.  During the Great Recession and with subsequent reductions in course offerings, policy makers and politicians viewed the expansion of student access to higher education through increased online education offerings as a cost-efficient panacea for the access problems that California college students in all segments faced.  In the 2013-14 state budget, the California legislature authorized funding for the Online Education Initiative[2].  A key component of the OEI is developing and providing tools and resources for faculty preparation and readiness to the California community colleges.  However, given the long-standing disparity in retention and success rates between in-person and online courses, the need for professional development to prepare faculty to teach in the online environment has long been recognized prior to the advent of the OEI. 

Even as online course offerings increase and online student retention and success rates improve, retention and success gaps between in-person and online education courses persist. As of 2013, the Chancellor’s Office reported that the seven-year average of in-person retention and success rates are 84.5% and 66.4% respectively, while distance education and retention and success rates are 77.4% and 55.9%.

Faculty development for online instruction enhances student success and retention and is encouraged and required by federal and state agencies. In addition, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) accreditation standard IIIA.14 requires that campuses provide and evaluate the effectiveness of ongoing professional development programs for distance education faculty that include online teaching and learning methodologies. 

At the Spring 2013 ASCCC Plenary Session Resolution 19.06 S13 was adopted by the body:

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges survey colleges to determine what local requirements exist for certification of faculty to teach in the distance education modality and communicate those results to the body by Spring 2014.

In response to this resolution, the Academic Senate’s Distance Education Task Force conducted a survey in Fall 2013 to determine how California community college faculty are being prepared to teach online.

With 53 respondents, the survey results reveal that colleges are providing training in a diversity of ways and are at a variety of different stages in developing and enacting that training.  Some colleges provide extensive and careful training, while others provide very little or none at all, relying on outside vendors for training of their faculty.  At the time of the survey, many colleges were in the process of developing their online faculty training programs.

Faculty preparation should include both technical training in the use of the course management system (CMS) and training in effective pedagogical methods for online instruction. A majority (59%) of California community colleges require faculty training in order to teach online, and most of these colleges (58%) provide training that combines pedagogy in online teaching with technical training in a CMS.  In addition, many of the colleges surveyed that do not require training nevertheless make training opportunities available to faculty.  The nature of the technical training required by a college correlates with whether or not a college has a common course management system. Faculty training may be easier to provide when one CMS is in use. Of the 23.1% of colleges that permit faculty to select their own CMS, 87% do not provide support for all CMSs. Per ACCJC standard IIIC.4, colleges that allow the use of more than one CMS are expected to ensure that equivalent levels of training and technical support are available to faculty and students for each CMS.  “In house” online faculty training is provided by 81% of the colleges surveyed.  Other forms of training are provided by a third-party vendor, through @ONE or the through the CMS vendor.

While only 59% of colleges require faculty training, 78% of colleges do offer professional development credit for completing training and 21% offer unit credit applied towards the salary scale.  Provision of “other” credit, which may include monetary compensation such as stipends or reassigned time, constituted 12% of the responses, and 12.5% responded that their faculty collective bargaining agreements allow for additional mandatory training beyond the CMS training.  In addition to the initial training to begin online instruction, 64% of campuses reported that they provide ongoing training and supplemental training materials.

When asked what role their senates played in training faculty for the online environment, 41.5% of respondents answered that their senates review and approve training policies and guidelines.  On the other hand, 36.6% replied that their senates played no role in such training.  Title 5 §53200 identifies “policies for faculty professional development activities” as an academic and professional matter under the purview of academic senates.  Therefore, depending on locally established processes, local senates may take a role in developing local policies for preparing faculty to teach online.

Faculty should participate in training on teaching in the online environment because such training supports quality instruction and student success.  ACCJC accreditation standard IIIA.1 also requires that the “institution assures the integrity and quality of its programs and services by employing administrators, faculty, and staff who are qualified by appropriate education, training, and experience to provide and support these programs and services,” and standard IIIA.14 requires that colleges “provide all personnel with appropriate opportunities for continued professional development, consistent with the institutional mission and based on evolving pedagogy, technology, and learning needs.”  In its Guide to Evaluating Distance Education and Correspondence Education (2013, pages 25 and 27)[3], the ACCJC is quite clear that it expects institutions to consider the qualifications of faculty selected to teach online and that colleges with online programs must include in their professional development offerings professional development for online faculty.

Faculty may ask why they are being required to undergo additional training to teach online while additional training is not required of faculty that teach in-person classes.  While online courses have the same objectives and student learning outcomes as in-person courses, an instructor’s online course cannot simply mirror what he or she does in the classroom.  In The Excellent Online Instructor:  Strategies for Professional Development[4], Palloff and Pratt explain that online education trainers need to be cognizant of the widely varying skills and online teaching experiences of the trainees and be responsive to their needs and interests.  Online instructors must be trained to use technology to teach and measure the objectives and outcomes in different ways.  Therefore, online faculty need professional development in the technological and pedagogical tools necessary for building an effective and engaged online learning community.[5] The online format requires different presentations and pedagogical approaches that make effective use of technology such as multi-media, chat rooms, discussion boards, and file sharing. In addition, many faculty assigned to teach online have little experience with taking online courses themselves and hence have fewer effective online teaching models to emulate than they do with in-person instruction, thus creating a need for additional training relevant to online instruction.

Training for the online environment should include instruction in the pedagogy of online teaching and technical training in the development of online materials and the use of a CMS.  Training begins with the essential understanding that teaching online is at least as labor intensive as classroom instruction.  Faculty must ensure instructor-initiated regular and effective contact with their students.   Federal regulations, state regulations, and accreditation standards require that colleges have policies on regular and effective contact in order to ensure course quality and to ensure that online faculty are meeting their students on a regular basis that is equivalent to the faculty-student contact in in-person courses.  Regular and effective contact is an academic and professional matter per Title 5 §55204(a)[6], and therefore policies[7] on regular and effective contact require collegial consultation with local senates.  In order to ensure regular and effective contact, faculty-student interaction and student-student interaction are necessary.  Student retention and success benefit from ample student-student and faculty-student interaction that creates an online community of students and personal presence by the instructor. 

Online faculty instructors also need to be trained to meet the evolving pedagogical and technical requirements of state and federal agencies for online education.  This training should include ways to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and methods for authenticating student identity, which is required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act to avoid financial aid fraud and cheating.   In addition, local senates should encourage their faculty to make thoughtful decisions about the extent of their use of publishers’ course materials in lieu of instructor created content and assessments.

Local senates should consult with their union colleagues before developing policies that establish preparation requirements for faculty to teach online.  If the local union has negotiated for online faculty training, then it may be required by the collective bargaining agreement.  If training requirements are in the contract, the contract language should clarify whether the requirements pertain only to learning the CMS or also to learning online pedagogy and course design.  Local collective bargaining agreements may specify a responsible party, such as a distance education committee, for ensuring that any mandated training and certification for faculty occur before faculty are assigned to teach online.  Even if a collective bargaining agreement is silent on training and preparation matters, the senate and union should engage in dialog in order to ensure that a high quality distance education program is provided for the students while respecting the workplace rights of online faculty.

With the current emphasis on expanding online education for students in the California community colleges, faculty, through their senates and curriculum committees, must engage in dialog about the quality of their online education programs. Through the collegial consultation process, local senates play a central role in ensuring that professional standards are established for faculty training.  Faculty must recognize that teaching online requires skills and training not only in the use of technology but also in effective pedagogical methods for teaching in the online environment.

[1] For the purposes of this article, online education is the same as distance education (DE).  Online or distance education courses, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education courses (C.F.R. Title 34 Section 600.2, are courses in which part or all of the student contact hours are offered online and for which there is regular and effective contact.

[2] See OEI article in the September 2014 Rostrum

[3] Note:  This guide is based on the June 2012 revision of the standard and is found at

[4] Palloff, Rena and Keith Pratt. (2011).  The Excellent Online Instructor:  Strategies for Professional Development.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey Bass.

[5] Training in online pedagogy is available to faculty through @ONE ( at low cost. 

[6] Title 5 §55204(a) Any portion of a course conducted through distance education includes regular effective contact between instructor and students, through group or individual meetings, orientation and review sessions, supplemental seminar or study sessions, field trips, library workshops, telephone contact, correspondence, voice mail, e-mail, or other activities. Regular effective contact is an academic and professional matter pursuant to sections 53200 et seq.

[7] The regular effective contact policy at Mt. San Jacinto College is an excellent example of such a policy and is found at