Building a Successful Online Program: A Model for Effective Implementation Any Faculty Can Use

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

Mason’s Education Leadership faculty designed a framework to build a successful fully-online Master’s degree program. Likewise, your faculty, even those new to online, can achieve success. Key elements include highly collaborative course design teams of instructors, an instructional designer, consistent professional development, a common course template, and common participation rubrics.


Anne-Marie Balzano is an associate professor in the Education Leadership program in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She teaches courses about developing and evaluating curriculum, leading school and communities, and using research to lead school improvement. She began her career in education as a middle school language arts teacher and a secondary school administrator.

Extended Abstract

This interactive presentation documents the learning process of the Education Leadership faculty charged with the development and delivery of a completely online Master’s degree program, as well as the impact on faculty perceptions of distance education. We followed a process built on the following framework:

  • setting clear goals,
  • having access to a course designer,
  • three-member design teams of faculty with shared course development responsibilities
  • consistent professional development and collaboration,
  • developing a common course template,
  • designing a common participation rubric, and
  • designing a pre-program student orientation course.

Without question, these factors were essential to support faculty in successfully creating a fully online program.

Our experience and process provides a foundation for how other university programs might approach online program design and delivery of coursework. This concrete process provides faculty with the necessary support to gain the knowledge and skills needed to design effective online classes. The presentation will provide an opportunity for discussions around curriculum development, collaborative teamwork, course design, professional development, teacher presence and interaction, course management, and the impact of this design on instructional practice. Artifacts and examples will also be provided. In addition, the constraints of this model will be discussed, and how interested participants can address them in their own professional contexts.

At many higher education institutions, a majority of faculty members are still fearful of virtual instruction, according to a study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group (2012). The Education Leadership faculty at George Mason University were no different – in fact, arguably we were late-comers to the online world, with all of the typical fears, complaints, and concerns about online instruction. We had serious doubts about our capacity to forge productive learning relationships online, and questioned whether leadership could be developed and nurtured without ever meeting a student face to face. Like many university professors, we feared that we did not have the knowledge or skills to design and implement highly effective and engaging online courses. In addition, some of us harbored the common misconception that online classes produce inferior learning outcomes than those taught face to face. However, the process we outline in this presentation allowed for the design and implementation of a fully online and high demand Master’s program over a two-year period. Participants attending this session will be able to synthesize the “best practices” needed to facilitate the collaborative development of an online program and apply them within their own contexts.

In early 2014, the program faculty was awarded a grant from George Mason’s Office of Distance Education (DE) to design and deliver a completely online Master’s program. The Master’s degree in Education Leadership is comprised of ten courses (30 credits), including a year- long internship component. The grant funded faculty stipends for both course design and hardware/software needs, plus a dedicated instructional designer, who provided intense professional development in the areas of online pedagogy and technology.

Until the grant award, only one Education Leadership faculty member had any prior experience with online learning and many voiced apprehension over the design process. Much of the literature on faculty perceptions of distance education emphasizes factors that either inhibit or support participation in online initiatives. These factors, particularly professional development and collaboration, provided the foundation for the effective design and implementation of our fully online program.

Traditionally, Education Leadership classes are taught face to face on campus and in off-campus cohorts. For the online program, we made the conscious decision to utilize a cohort model, with students moving together in a set schedule of classes in order to support a cohesive learning community. This model has proven effective, with three cohorts currently engage in the program of study, and two additional cohorts slated for the 2016-2017 school year.

Collaboration was a key factor in the design process and impact on faculty perceptions. For many years prior to this distance education initiative, faculty members worked in curriculum teams to update course objectives, align learning outcomes to standards, and to create common assessments and rubrics. This model has proven effective as a tool for continuous program improvement and curriculum renewal (Briggs, 2007). We took this same approach with online course design. Faculty worked in three-member design teams to develop each course in the program, including the internship component.  Each member took the lead on designing a single course, with two other faculty members offering support. This also allowed for faculty to be involved with the development of multiple courses within the program. Colleagues shared innovative lesson ideas, effective lesson structures, and offered support/assistance with learning new design strategies.

Another part of the collaborative design process was for faculty to come to consensus on a common course template, as well as a common student participation rubric and a pre-program orientation. This allowed for a shared understanding and commitment to the program as a whole. The result of intensive professional training and collaboration highlights our faculty’s increased ability to design effective courses more autonomously using both online education pedagogy and relevant technologies, as well as a change in their perception of online learning. The emphasis on collaboration also carried over into the actual program design, with every course including several opportunities for students to work together in both small and large groups.

Training, workshops, technical, and institutional support also play a critical role in minimizing faculty frustration and encouraging involvement (Betts 1998; Chizmar and Williams 2001; Lee and Busch 2005; Tabata and Johnsrud 2008).  Over the last two years, the EDLE faculty engaged in one-hour, whole group professional development sessions twice a month, and optional two-hour small group sessions twice a month with our instructional designer. These sessions focused on both technical competence (Blackboard, Camtasia, Kaltura, etc.) and online pedagogy. In addition, the instructional designer met with faculty individually to provide more targeted and intense support.  She also observed each faculty member teach face-to-face, in order to incorporate his/her teaching style and preferences into the design.

In May 2016, the EDLE program launched pilots for the final two courses in the online Master’s degree. While most faculty members were initially fearful about transitioning their courses to the online education environment, most are now confident in their ability to create and deliver engaging and effective online learning opportunities for students. This knowledge also has positively impacted our face-to-face courses, with a majority of faculty reporting that participating in the professional development and collaboration for the online courses has made them better face-to-face teachers. As one faculty member reported, “ I view the support of colleagues as incredibly beneficial to the DE course design process. Whether the focus of our meetings is on current or future courses, there are always connections to strengthening teaching and learning. Moving to the DE platform has clearly prompted reflective practice in all aspects of all of our courses.”

Additionally, engaging in consistent professional development and collaboration resulted in shifting faculty members’ perspectives of online education. While many faculty members initially believed that the learning outcomes for online courses would be less rigorous than face-to-face courses, the assessment data indicates otherwise. Faculty also report the learning outcomes for their face-to-face and online courses are comparable, as is the rigor and level of student achievement. As one member noted, “From a program standpoint, it is exciting to know that we can teach and learn in different environments, and still maintain a high level of engagement and rigor.”



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