Faculty Training for Online Teaching


Experts agree that faculty need training to teach online, yet a survey of faculty who teach undergraduate mathematics courses online indicates that most faculty at two-year colleges are still not receiving adequate training. While 89% of the participants in this research received at least some training, about half said that the training they received did not adequately prepare them to teach online. In addition, 60% said that they would have benefited from more training in facilitating online interaction before they began teaching online.

Demographics of Survey Participants

In October 2002, the online survey "How Do Undergraduate Mathematics Faculty Learn to Teach Online?" was sent via e-mail to 64 faculty who teach online undergraduate mathematics courses throughout the United States; 35 faculty responded to the survey. These faculty members teach a wide range of online mathematics courses, ranging from developmental mathematics through college algebra, trigonometry and calculus.

Participants in the study are experienced faculty, with more than 91% reporting five or more years of classroom teaching experience; only 17% reported more than five years of online teaching experience. Geographically, participants teach courses for colleges located in Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Washington, and 91% of the respondents teach at two-year institutions. As a follow-up to the online survey, 14 of the respondents were later interviewed during focus-group sessions where they provided additional information regarding the training they had received to teach online.

Technical Training

The most common type of training reported by participants was training to use course management software (CMS). CMS systems provided by companies such as Blackboard and WebCT integrate instructional functions. Typically, CMS is characterized by user-friendly interfaces that facilitate access to online lectures, assignments, moderated discussions, quizzes, grades and synchronous chat sessions. Altogether, 75% of the participants in this research received training to use either Blackboard or WebCT. This technical training generally lasted less than 30 hours and was provided by the college where the faculty member was teaching.

Occasionally, personnel from a college's instructional technology department provided technical training on an individual basis. Some faculty also received assistance from colleagues. Both of these types of training occurred far less frequently than college-sponsored workshops, wherein faculty were trained to use CMS. Even less frequently reported was training in the form of graduate-level coursework or workshops provided by for-profit companies or professional organizations. By far, the most popular training vehicle, indicated by more than 70% of participants, was workshops provided by their institution.

During follow-up focus-group sessions with several groups of participants, faculty expressed satisfaction with the technical aspects of the training they received to teach online courses. They referred to the continual improvement of both hardware and software, as well as agreed that, if a college uses a CMS to deliver online courses, faculty should be provided training to use that CMS.

Pedagogical Training

While this research demonstrates that most faculty receive adequate technical training to teach online, the situation with pedagogical training is quite different. Techniques that are effective in the traditional classroom are not necessarily effective in an online environment (White and Weight 2000). An online classroom provides the opportunity to establish a community of learners, but the techniques required to facilitate the development of such a community are very different from those that work in the traditional face-to-face classroom (Palloff and Pratt 2000). Faculty who are experienced and successful in traditional classrooms cannot intuitively make the transition to the online environment (Harasim 1990). They need professional development in order to learn what works and what d'esn't work online. Faculty do not want to "reinvent the wheel"; they recognize that the sooner they learn effective pedagogical techniques for the online environment, the more their students are likely to succeed. That is, faculty do not particularly choose to learn by experience. They recognize that formal training can save them time in the long run, as well as allow them to become more effective and more successful online teachers faster.

As previously indicated in this article, participants in the research were experienced faculty who, for the most part, received technical training to teach online; however, few received pedagogical training. While 75% of the participants received technical training, only a third received pedagogical training. Their pedagogical training included topics such as providing feedback to online students, active learning, student collaboration and designing online content.

A Spearman correlation c'efficient was calculated to determine whether a relationship existed between duration of training for online instruction and faculty incorporation of best practices for online education. The correlation was not significant; however, the correlation between faculty experience in online teaching and their incorporation of best practices was significant at a =0.05. The more experience faculty have in online teaching, the more they incorporate recognized best practices for online education in their courses.

This finding indicates that the pedagogical training received by most faculty is not adequately preparing them to teach online; instead, faculty are learning online pedagogy by experience. While experience is an effective teacher, it is necessarily slow. Pedagogical training provided before faculty begin to teach online would improve not only faculty morale, but also, and more important, would increase student satisfaction with online courses.

When a subset of participants were interviewed in small focus groups, all spoke of the difficulty of engaging students online, and indicated a need for pedagogical training geared specifically to teaching online courses. Of the 14 faculty interviewed, only two reported receiving pedagogical training to teach online.

Best Practices for Online Education

It is not that best practices for online education have not yet been established. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) published "Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education" in April 2000. This document identifies 24 benchmarks "considered essential to ensuring excellence in Internet-based distance learning." In particular, the teaching and learning benchmarks state that student interaction with faculty and other students should be facilitated through a variety of ways, and that constructive and timely feedback to student assignments and questions should be provided.

Another source is "Guidelines for Good Practice," published by the Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers in May 2000. Their recommendations state that close personal interaction must be maintained between faculty and students (AFT 2000).

Both of these compilations of best practices reiterate what Chickering and Gamson write about in "Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education," in which the authors state that good practice in undergraduate education encourages contact between students and faculty, cooperation among students, and active learning, as well as gives prompt feedback, emphasizes time on task, communicates high expectations, and respects diverse talents and ways of learning (Chickering and Gamson, 1991).

Faculty as Students

Another finding of this research is that only 19 of the faculty responding to the survey had ever taken an online course. In other words, only 56% of the participants in this research, all of whom are teaching online courses, have experienced online education from the student viewpoint. It is very difficult to teach in a medium in which one has never experienced learning. And during focus-group interviews, all participants stressed the need for faculty to experience some portion of their training online. They were unanimous that, in order to teach online, faculty should first experience online education from the student's point of view.


Based on this research study, one can conclude that faculty who teach online courses are experienced classroom teachers who enjoy teaching online. This is confirmed by the fact that 88% of faculty responding to the survey indicated that they intend to continue teaching online.

Most faculty do receive some training to teach online, although they are frustrated by the inadequacy of that training. The majority of training currently provided by two-year colleges consists of workshops designed to familiarize faculty with the technical aspects of CMS, but d'es not consider pedagogy for online courses. Only 20% of the participants in this research study received training in facilitating either active learning or student collaboration online, yet all of the focus-group participants cited difficulty of engaging students online as a major problem. In addition, 60% of those responding to the survey "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that they would have benefited from training in facilitating online interaction among students.

This expressed concern with facilitating interaction, active learning and/or collaboration among students indicates that faculty are aware of best practices for online education, even though many do not fully incorporate them in their online courses. The most likely explanation is that faculty would incorporate best practices more fully in their online courses if they knew how. They have learned, mostly by experience, what works in the traditional face-to-face classroom. If we wait for them to learn by experience in their online classrooms, we are wasting valuable time and resources. Online students deserve better.


Training for faculty to teach online should contain four major components:

1.Technical training
2.Pedagogical training
4.Online coursework

At a minimum, technical training should include both the CMS that will be used to deliver the online course and the use of other software that facilitates communicating via the Internet.

Pedagogical training must emphasize accepted best practices for online education such as those published by IHEP, AFT, or Chickering and Gamson. Specifically, faculty should receive training in:

  • Facilitating interaction and discussion in online courses;
  • Facilitating active learning and collaboration online;
  • Assessment and evaluation for online courses; and
  • Community-building activities for online courses.

Some portion of either the technical or pedagogical training for faculty to teach online should be delivered online so that faculty experience online education from the student point of view.

Finally, faculty participants in the focus-group interviews also cited the need for mentoring as a type of training that should be provided. Many of these faculty said that, without the assistance of a particular colleague, they doubt that they would have continued to teach online. Recalling the positive correlation between years of online teaching experience and faculty incorporation of best practices in their online courses, it appears that a formal mentoring program would be one way of familiarizing faculty with best practices for online education.


American Federation of Teachers. 2000. "Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice." Online: http://www.aft.org/higher_ed/downloadable/distance.pdf.

Chickering, A., and Z. Gamson. 1991. "Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education." New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Online: http://www.msu.edu/user/coddejos/seven.htm.

Harasim, L., ed. 1990. Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment. New York, NY: Praeger.

Institute for Higher Education Policy, The. 2000. "Quality on the Line: Benchmark for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education." Online: http://www.ihep.com/Pubs/PDF/Quality.pdf.

Palloff, R., and K. Pratt. 2001. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

White, K., and B. Weight. 1994. The Online Teaching Guide. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

About the Author

Peg Pankowski, Ed.D., is the Dean of Information Technology and Telecommunications at The Community College of Southern Nevada. She has spent more than 25 years as a community college educator. Pankowski has served as interim director of distance learning for the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pittsburgh, Pa., and has taught online for four years. Before taking her current position in Southern Nevada, Pankowski was a professor of mathematics at CCAC and secretary of the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. E-mail: [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.