We Expected 30; We Got 350: The First Year of a Graduate Student Online Teaching Certificate

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

This session describes the design and implementation of a new competency-based, online teaching certificate program for graduate students. Presenters discuss how they scaled up their online training program to accommodate 350 students, the components of the new program, challenges and strategies for problem-solving, and analysis of program evaluation data.


Larry holds a PhD in Educational Theory and Policy from Penn State University and an MEd in Leadership, Policy, and Organizations from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. He directs the Online Faculty Development unit at Penn State World Campus and teaches on the Educational Leadership faculty both online and resident instruction. His research interests include online teaching and learning, online faculty development, urban school districts, and educational leadership. Prior to his work in higher education, Larry served in K-12 schools as a teacher, administrator, and principal. Larry is 2012 graduate of the Institute of Emerging Leadership for Online Learning (IELOL), the recipient of the Online Learning Consortium’s Best-in-Track for Faculty Development award (2014, 2015), and a former Pauline Turner Fellowship recipient in the College of Education. Larry is published in education journals including American Educational Research Journal and Peabody Journal of Education.
Andrew holds the Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership, Management, and Policy from Seton Hall University in 2013. His dissertation is titled, The Strained Partnership Between Secularization and Sectarianism in Higher Education. He earned my B.A. in religion from Westminster College (PA) followed by my M.Div. and Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary where he won the Fellowship in Practical Theology. Andrew began work in faculty development as a Senior Instructional Designer at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ and then as a Federal Title III Grant Program Director at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He has published in the Teacher’s College Record, the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. He has also co-written a book chapter in the volume, Private Higher Education in Post-Communist Europe: In Search of Legitimacy (2007). Andrew has presented at conferences such as The Association for the Study of Higher Education, the Online Learning Consortium, Educause, and the Educause Learning Initiative. He is the proud father of two young boys and have an adorable black lab. He is an avid reader, drummer, insatiable consumer of music, coffee fiend, and you will find him running whenever and wherever he can.

Extended Abstract

The session is presented by the co-designers and administrators of the program and includes the following components: 1) a description of the context in which the program was created, 2) a description of the program components and philosophy, 3) an overview of the program evaluation, and 4) audience discussions around central questions raised by the program.

1. The Context. In our Research 1 university in the Middle Atlantic States, we offer a dozen online learning courses and a five-course, online teaching certificate that graduate students, faculty, instructional designers, and staff are eligible to complete. In the spring of 2015, we recognized a potential need for a separate program for graduate students who likely had little to no teaching experience or formal teaching training. Designing a program around the novice online instructor would serve those students as well as give us the opportunity to build a competency-based starting point, or baseline, for training programs that addressed the continuum of online teaching skills, from novice to master. We also wondered about the implications of one’s first formal teaching training being for online instruction, as some of the graduate students would teach online for the university.

2. Description of the Graduate Online Teaching Certificate Pilot Program.  As we designed the program, we anticipated 30 students would be interested. Instead, 350 students voluntarily enrolled in a four-week, cohort-based, all-online, asynchronous instructor-led course that included reading, interactive discussions, six demonstrations of competencies, a digital badge credentialing system, and a synchronous webinar. Fourteen sections were taught by 10 academic faculty and two staff with PhD’s, each having received online teaching training and possessing online course teaching experience. Half had earned the unit’s Online Teaching Certificate. The program experimented with several components:

  • Competency-based education (CBE) with assignments designed to simulate best practices for online instruction;
  • A blend of the CBE framework with a Teaching for Understanding framework (Harvard Project Zero) that a) addressed higher order skills and b) required demonstrations of teaching as performances of understanding and applied knowledge;
  • A nascent digital badge system created by the university and adjusted to fit the unique enrollment needs of the program;
  • An asynchronous community of practice faculty model;  
  • A required live webinar to impart content and share participants’ responses around a final reflective teaching practice assignment; and
  • A longitudinal study on the ongoing impact of the training on online teaching self-efficacy.

3. Program Evaluation.  Early feedback from the first cohort from Fall 2015 suggests that the competencies and assignments of the course improved participants’ notions about online teaching and learning, demystified the online teaching process, and reduced anxieties about teaching online and perhaps teaching in general. The course assignments and assessments made participants feel more prepared to teach their first or their next courses. Participants also indicated that the course was rigorous and placed a higher demand on their time and effort than they had originally expected. Of the 350 who signed up for the course 209 (60%) successfully earned the badge credential. Another 50 participants remained in the badge system with one or more assignments due. The main factors contributing to the attrition were the level of rigor demanded and the time and effort required to complete the program.

4. Audience Involvement in the Session. By designing what we hoped would be a comprehensive introductory course instilling essential understandings and teaching skills to novice online teachers, most of whom had not received any formal teaching training in face-to-face or online settings, several questions arose that we think are worth discussing in the session. The presenters will involve the audience in small and large groups discussions around the following questions:

  • Which online teaching competencies are essential for novice teachers to demonstrate satisfactorily in order to earn a credential for essential online teaching competence?
  • Are demonstrations of online teaching competencies outside of actual teaching valid? In other words, if the flight simulator doesn't crash, does that suggest competence in actual flying?
  • What are the instructional challenges in a new program that is competency-based instead of course-based? How can common assessment standards be determined and communicated to local and remote faculty?  
  • The program required 14 section instructors. What are effective methods for conducting asynchronous faculty meetings, especially around a new program with a new badge system, thus creating a “remote” community of practice?
  • What are effective strategies for a small online faculty development unit to create capacity in order to scale up for large enrollments in one course? What were the specific challenges and how were they met? What are best practices and advice for starting an online faculty development unit in a university?
  • What does it mean for future professors to have their first formal training experience in online teaching?
  • What can we learn about online faculty development from training novice teachers who may not formally teach for 1-3 years? Is there a long term effect from this training? If so, how can we know? What are credible measures?
  • How can a new graduate online teaching certificate program inform our existing courses and programs?
  • What role does efficacy and emotions play in undergoing training for online instruction and applying it in real teaching situations soon or years later?

Session Outcomes. The session aims to produce the following outcomes:

  • An increased awareness of the need and potential opportunities for providing university graduate students with formal online teaching training;
  • Best practices in program design, implementation, and evaluation;
  • Best practices in rapid unit scale-up to increase instructional and administrative capacity;
  • Positive examples of working across university units to realize ideas and solve problems;
  • A viable model for remote faculty meetings and the development of an online community of practice for existing and new programs;
  • Potential research questions and study designs to measure the impact of online teaching training for faculty development.

The Contribution to the Field. Based on this one case, there appears to be a great hunger among graduate students to have formal training and credentialing in online instruction in order to be competitive on the job market and competent in the online classroom, where they assume they will teach as new professors. We did not realize this until we created the program, not knowing for sure the response and interest. The program we created was based on our best scholarship and expertise in online teaching training, yet much was an experiment in this pilot. Fortunately, we succeeded on all measures. We suggest there is a need in universities to train graduate students to teach online. Our session contributes to the field by:

  • Providing one example of a large scale program to meet a hidden need;
  • Providing an example of a program that embodies a university’s higher calling to help improve the future of online teaching;
  • Highlighting coursework blending competency-based education with Teaching for Understanding;
  • Assessing an experiment with digital credentialing of an online teaching certificate;
  • Showing one way to organize a community of practice asynchronous faculty cohort; and
  • Describing a case study in scaling up a small online faculty development unit to accommodate unexpected demand for program and services.