Distance learning is no longer considered a trend – it’s become a permanent fixture in today’s higher education landscape. But it’s not surprising that some colleges have been reluctant to adapt to this modern structure. Converting residential courses to an online format is much more complex than it sounds.

Establishing secure technology platforms and virtual course content presents a significant challenge in itself. But you can’t overlook the importance of preparing those responsible for teaching in this new atmosphere.

How can institutions ease this transition for the sake of both faculty and students? We enlisted the help of Rebecca Anderson, M.Ed., learning solutions coordinator at Collegis Education, to get her expert advice on the topic. Keep reading to learn about the demands of online teaching and how you can ensure your faculty are equipped to facilitate a successful online learning environment.

Adapting to the demands of today’s prospective students

A seismic shift is happening in higher education. And it’s starting with the students. Today’s students are hyper focused on outcomes. They are cognizant of the cost of college and want to ensure they will have a good return on their investment.

Because of this, they’re starting to ask a lot of smart questions. And schools are responding.

“The higher education landscape is really shifting toward the learner,” Anderson explains. “The student is demanding more for their learning experience. This comes in the form of skills, jobs and other tangible assets. Schools that are not able to offer these are starting to find themselves at a loss.”

Today’s prospective students no longer have the notion that college is simply an inevitable next step after high school. They’re more aware of alternative options, so they’re taking a more calculated approach to evaluating the value of a formal education. They’re asking practical questions such as, “How much will I earn with this degree?” and “What kind of skills can I expect to acquire?”

In short, they want to ensure they’re getting something tangible from their investment. And schools are forced to adapt in response.

“We see many schools rushing to provide concrete learning experiences,” Anderson says. “Whether that is articulated competencies, published and verifiable placement rates or more investment in career centers, schools are looking at how to best deliver.”

With a shrinking pool of prospects to win over, the competition to enroll students is heating up in higher education. Schools need to articulate and show prospective students how their institution stands out compared to other options – and how they can provide students with exactly what they’re looking for.

The integral role of instructors in online learning

Distance learning has emerged as a common response to the practical demands of today’s students. But online education brings a unique set of challenges for institutions – and for the faculty who teach courses online or in a hybrid format. It’s true that the percentage of faculty members who have taught an online course has increased over the years, but it still represents only 46 percent, according to the 2019 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup.

So for a model that is still unfamiliar for many faculty members, there are a number of factors to consider when bringing them on board. For starters, there’s the technology aspect. It can be intimidating for faculty to learn new technology – especially when it is ever-evolving.

“Technology is constantly changing. Learning a new tool is always challenging, particularly to those who may have limited experience with technology,” Anderson explains.

There are pedagogical considerations to these technological changes as well. Online teaching requires deliberate behaviors that can differ greatly from residential teaching. It also affects the ways faculty have traditionally built and fostered a sense of community with their class and how they can communicate with students.

These complex contrasts make it all the more critical that institutions focus on supporting their faculty in order to make their online courses successful.

The overlooked importance of preparing faculty

Faculty members are undoubtedly experts in their respective fields, but they can fall on any level of the spectrum when it comes to digital fluency.

“We see some instructors totally dive in and embrace all available means of teaching and learning,” Anderson explains. “And some faculty – not so much.”

The importance of adequately preparing and supporting faculty as they venture into online teaching cannot be overlooked. Faculty are the hands and feet of the institution – having a direct influence on student success and experience. If a student has a bad experience, it can reflect poorly on more than just that particular course.

Anderson stresses the substantial impact an instructor can have. If they are prepared to teach online, the probability of a student being engaged and having a positive experience significantly increases. If faculty are ill-equipped, student experience and outcomes can greatly diminish. This tends to lead to a negative retention rate, according to Anderson.

“Ultimately, students will judge the faculty, the school and the program on a single experience,” Anderson adds.

Advice for transitioning to an online teaching format

We’ve established the importance of ensuring faculty are prepped for success in the online classroom. But how can you help support them in this effort?

Anderson recommends the following:

  • Provide different modalities of training for faculty.
  • Let faculty experiment with the tools before the class goes live.
  • Give faculty opportunities to contribute to the courses as they’re being built.
  • Offer additional support resources for faculty.

Equipping your faculty is one critical component, but it extends even further. It’s important to encourage open dialogue with a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure both faculty and student needs are being met.

“It is important that institutions and faculty alike be coherent and sensitive to the pain points of transitioning courses online,” Anderson shares. “Positive, open communication amongst administrators, faculty, staff and IT will generate a smoother conversion, improved compliance and overall satisfaction for everyone – including the student.”

It all comes down to providing the best possible learning experience and outcomes for the student, regardless of the modality of their program.

Prepare for success online

As higher education continues to evolve, every aspect of the educational experience needs to be supported, from the faculty all the way to the students.

Stay on top of the trends emerging from the shifting landscape of higher ed. Learn more in our article, “Student Demographics Are Changing: Here’s What Colleges Need to Know About It.”