Keeping Pace with Online Learning Trends

Online learning has gone through a dramatic transformation since its inception with over 6.7 million students now taking courses online, according to a report by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C). Students also expect faculty to stay current on online learning trends and best practices.

“Students today have high expectations for their online courses,” explained Bruce Chaloux, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, Sloan Consortium. “They want interactivity, digital tools and an engaging experience. It’s imperative for faculty to constantly update their skills to provide students with a rich, quality experience.”

This is why the Sloan Consortium, known for its online learning conferences, now offers a certificate program that aims to prepare educators to teach and improve online courses.

The Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program includes a nine-week foundation course and three learning specializations that focus on improving overall competency within a specific academic area. Participants can select three workshops within one track for their specialization or select three electives from a list of over fifty workshops. A unique feature of the program is that mentors work individually with certificate candidates to help them accomplish their specific goals.

A Smart Investment
In today’s tough economic climate, online teaching training has to compete with other programs for a college or university’s limited resources. This is something Dr. Dionne Curbeam, Director of Instructional Technology at Coppin State University knows firsthand.

Dr. Curbeam had presented the idea of online teaching certification programs for years, but it wasn’t until she got the ear of Dr. Sadie Gregory, Coppin State’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, that her words started to gain traction.

According to Dr. Curbeam, Dr. Gregory had a clear vision for Coppin State’s future in online learning and she believed it was worth the investment.

Dr. Curbeam explained, “She felt strongly that if the University was going to offer online classes, that its faculty should be trained in how to teach online so that the online courses matched the integrity and quality of our offline programs.”

Like Dr. Curbeam, many instructional technology and academic professionals at higher education institutions across the country have to make a case for why online teaching certification is worthy of the college’s resources.

For Dr. Sajid Hussain, chair of the Department of Business Administration and associate professor at Fisk University, one of America’s premier Historically Black Universities, the investment in Sloan-C’s Online Teaching Certificate was justified because with Sloan-C, faculty and administrators also get access to a learning community.

“When you take a certificate program, you take the required courses and earn your certificate and then your relationship with the organization offering the program is over,” explained Dr. Hussain. “With Sloan-C, you are not only gaining valuable information on how to design and teach in the online classroom, you are also gaining access to a valuable learning community that is constantly providing new information on the evolving nature of online learning.”

Since the completion of the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program by several Fisk University faculty members, the University now offers approximately ten online courses. Dr. Hussain believes the greatest benefit has been that faculty are more comfortable and interested in teaching online.

Dr. Curbeam agrees that faculty at Coppin State University are more interested in teaching online and feel empowered since taking the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program. According to Dr. Curbeam, the most significant outcome from faculty taking the program is the improved student experience with Coppin State’s online courses.

She affirmed, “Students who take courses with faculty who have completed the certificate program spend more time in the online classroom, are involved in greater interactivity and discussions and are utilizing the latest online tools such as avatars. There is no question the certificate program has improved the quality of our programs.”

In Step with Technological Advances and Evolving Best Practices
For colleges and universities with more robust online programs, the need to advocate for investing in additional online resources and training is less than at schools with nascent programs. Yet, there is still a need to ensure that faculty and instructional designers receive professional development to continue to stay abreast of trends and best practices in online learning as the environment continues to evolve.

In Pierce College’s Military Program, 65 percent of the courses are taught online by over 50 faculty. Many of the students in the online program are deployed members of the U.S. Army or Air Force.

“It’s important that our faculty work very closely with our students to help ensure they have the greatest opportunity for success,” said James Johnson, Special Assistant Program Manager and Coordinator for Information Technology and Instruction at the College.

Johnson believes the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program has advanced the quality of Pierce Military College’s online programs by faculty incorporating best practices they learned into their online teaching.

He explained, “In addition to the content of the program, faculty enjoyed being with fellow faculty from other colleges and universities and learning about their online learning programs.”

George Mason University has 26 online degree and certificate programs, offering 200 courses to almost 5,000 students each semester. One of the strategic priorities of the instructional design team is to seek professional development that provides them with the latest innovations in online learning so when they partner with faculty, they are knowledgeable about the latest tools and thinking in online education. Participating in the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program was the first step in that professional development.

According to Stephen Nodine, Manager of Instructional Design and Senior Instructional Designer, “The Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate gave our team a comprehensive view of online learning and had an immediate impact on our department. After completing the program, the team realized just how much they had learned in the program and led us to refine our own internal online learning templates and best practices.”

Faculty and administrators that participate in the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate program have the opportunity to engage with a diverse group of peers from other higher education institutions. The program features interactive team exercises and individual work designed to allow participants to become knowledgeable in the principles and practices of asynchronous instruction.

While advocating for online teacher certification has been difficult in the past, the tide may be turning. According to the 2012 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium, nearly 70 percent of academic leaders now believe online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. As competition for students intensifies, the institutions that invest in their online programs—particularly in the training of their online faculty—will be well-positioned to attract students and faculty, and ultimately to grow their programs.