Faculty as Authors of Online Courses: Support and Mentoring
Deborah Cotler and Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Monmouth University
Our Present Context: How Did We Get Here?
a few years ago, if you had polled Simmons College administrators,
faculty, students, and even technology staff members, the consensus
would have been that "online" learning is not relevant to the mission
of our institution. A "small university" with a liberal arts
undergraduate program and four graduate schools, Simmons’ culture is
"high touch" and personalized. To the uninitiated, distance
learning seemed antithetical to our institutional mission and
philosophy of learning.
with thousands of other institutions of higher education, our views
have changed as we have become increasingly sophisticated in our
understanding of the tremendous potential for online learning. Today we
offer hybrid courses, three fully-online certificate programs,
and an online degree program in Physical Therapy. The School of
Library Science is a member of WISE, a national network of schools
providing online courses in information science. A number
of other fully-online and hybrid programs are in development, including
courses within the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only
do pioneering faculty teach online at Simmons, those in the so-called
"second wave" are also developing hybrid and fully-online courses.
current challenge is to ensure the development of online learning that
engages learners in the open-ended, inquiry-based learning that we
believe is at the heart of a liberal arts education. We are
finding that excellent professors whose face-to-face teaching
is grounded in a liberal arts approach to learning may sometimes encounter
difficulties when they take their teaching into the digital realm.
experience also suggests that the distinction between "pioneer" and
"second wave" faculty is spurious. These labels distract from the
insights and unique talents that a particular faculty member can
contribute to a project. People don’t fit neatly into categories
- they aren’t exclusively pioneers or second wave. Some faculty who are "second wave" in relationship to technology can be
pedagogical "pioneers." To realize the promise of online
learning, we believe that academic technologists must learn how to
collaborate with good teachers – even when technology isn’t a
professor’s strong suit. Conversely, faculty members need help in
learning how to work in partnership with academic technologists.
professors excel at engaging groups of students face-to-face, but few
are prepared to develop courses online. In addition, their
pedagogy is often implicit – developed and fine tuned over the years
through trial and error. Paul Hagner writes:
is a basic fact that many of the best teachers possess natural
communication and information management abilities that, for many of
them, are simply assumed rather than the product of intensive
self-examination. Since one requirement for transformation is
coming to grips with how the new technologies can enhance learning
objectives, a problem results in that many successful teachers have
never engaged in this form of articulation and self-examination.
members and academic administrators who are new to e-learning are
likely to overlook or even eschew logistical details that
technologically-adventurous professors easily think through, grapple
with, and resolve. Likewise, tech-savvy faculty may be undeterred
by technical glitches, but have tremendous difficulty conceptualizing
online offerings that are pedagogically progressive and grounded in
this context, it is vitally important for those of us who are involved
in academic technology to help faculty and administrators develop
understandings and capabilities they may not realize they need.
And we may also need to step back and question our own pedagogical
assumptions about the role that technology should/can play in teaching
and learning at liberal arts institutions.
as a good teacher knows how to tailor a course to suit a particular
group of learners, academic technologists need to develop a framework
of support customized to meet the complex and variable needs of
mainstream faculty, a support framework that is also congruent with the
culture of the institution. In the same way that an ethnographer
takes time to become steeped in the culture of a given community, we
need to listen, observe, and thoughtfully assess faculty members’
perspectives and needs.
deepen our understanding of the range of their perspectives and needs,
we interviewed several of our faculty collaborators, including:
Mary Jane Treacy, who
directs the Honors Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at
Simmons College. In fall 2004 we worked with Mary Jane to help
her develop her first hybrid course for graduating seniors. As
part of a year-long fellowship, we are currently collaborating with her
to integrate ePortfolio work across all years of the Honors Program and
Vicki Bacon, who
chairs the Counselor Education program at Bridgewater State College and
is an adjunct faculty member at Simmons. She developed and
teaches a fully-online course in Sports Psychology. Of the three
faculty members we interviewed, Vicki had the greatest difficulty
making the transition to teaching online. Our work with her is featured in a case study later in this article. We are grateful to Vicki for allowing us to write up the problems she
encountered as a case study through which others can learn.
Robert (Bob) Goldman,
who is a Mathematics Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at
Simmons College. He has developed two online courses, the most
recent of which is "Webstat," a fully-online statistics course.
What Are The Concerns of Mainstream Faculty?
asked about preliminary concerns in developing an online course, each
of our interviewees shared similar concerns. Bob and Mary Jane
were apprehensive about loss of control and quality in their
teaching. They also expressed fear of failure. (see "Preliminary Concerns" video)
wasn‘t initially concerned. Because her ability as a classroom
teacher is her "greatest strength," it didn’t occur to her that she
might have difficulty teaching online. Like Bob, she doubted the medium -
whether a course like hers could succeed online. But she didn’t
anticipate that distance learning would set in motion a process that
required her to rethink how she teaches her subject.
Online Authoring: What’s Different?
course development challenges faculty to become explicit about their
teaching because e-courses force them to "put it in writing" (or into
multimedia). Yet few first-time online professors -
and even fewer academic administrators – recognize the course
development process as an act of multimedia authorship.
to Doug Brent, good courses are "like a story in an oral society …
created and recreated each year in the complex guided interaction that
occurs around [a] constellation of texts." 
When courses are offered over the Web, the posting of a session is a
distinct act of authorship that precedes student and faculty
interaction with the material. The "course" reads as a
musical score to be followed (and hopefully improvised upon) by course
participants and facilitators. Each "class" is an enactment, or
performance, of this score, varying from semester to semester according
to learners’ needs. The course score must be
carefully composed in advance with attention to:
tone (desired approach and interpersonal dynamics);
part (expectations for how students will interact with the material and with each other);
timing (a realistic assessment of how long each task will take); and
flow (how each component connects, furthers goals, and contributes to the learning experience as a whole).
faculty members become immersed for the first time in the
writing-intensive process of course development, they struggle to
understand the genre. What constitutes a "session" or
"lesson?" Lacking sufficient orientation, they tend to misapply
familiar formats: cryptic lesson plan notes, PowerPoint slides that
lack the speaker’s narrative, or lengthy academic articles. Faculty need guidance in developing a mental template for online
learning that suits their personality, discipline, and pedagogical
The collaborative dimension of online course development
also requires faculty to become accustomed to a different pace and working
style. With the exception of team-taught
courses, most faculty members develop lesson plans on their own, using an
idiosyncratic process that involves little or no interaction with others.
But for mainstream faculty who do not do their own technical putting the course online, the faculty member needs to learn how to partner
implementation, online course development inevitably involves the give and take
of working with a team of instructional designers and technologists. Ideally, team members are full collaborators
with the faculty member. Instead of
viewing others on the team as technicians who are solely responsible for "
with people who possess professional perspectives, skills, and abilities. The work of educational technologists may be
a heretofore invisible dimension of the process for the faculty member. For example, Instructional Designers, expert in
web-based course design, implementation, and assessment, may suggest approaches
that feel counter-intuitive to those who have never taught online. In addition, the technical implementation of
course materials takes time, requiring faculty to adhere to deadlines that are
well in advance of those that would be needed for a face-to-face course. According to Bob Goldman:
putting the course online,"
the faculty member needs to learn how to partner
I’ve gotten used to working with the
team that is preparing the course. I
think that’s worked out well. I now know
that I have to give them a lot of lead time. I know what they can do, and what they can’t do. And I’m now able to
work within that framework much better than I was before.
Online Course Authorship Requires Faculty to Develop a New Skill Set
that online courses are a new genre of writing, what’s entailed in this
type of authorship? In addition to asking our three inteviewees
about their preliminary concerns, we also asked them to tell us what
they think first-time authors of online courses need to know (see "What First Timers Need to Know" video).
reflecting on our interview data and on our own experiences working
with faculty, we believe that faculty need support in developing the
following understandings and capabilities:
Understand How to Author a Coherent, Integrated Learning Experience: Most
faculty members are unaware of the explanations they provide "in the
moment" when they teach face-to-face. Their first stab at
translating sessions for online delivery reads like a set of lesson
notes. For many, this is a necessary first step – putting
the broad strokes in writing. When asked to flesh out the
session, the second draft will often read like cookbook directions-
with some clarifying details and the desired sequence of activity
("First, do this. Then, read that. Finally, do
this." ). But for the course to be a gratifying learning
experience, sessions need a narrative dimension, the textual equivalent
to verbal orientation and context setting. Sessions also need to
be revised and polished in a manner usually reserved for print
Understand What Needs To Be Composed in Advance and What Can Be Improvised: In
a face-to-face setting, the teacher goes to class with a repertoire of
strategies, discussion questions, and other resources jotted down in
her lesson notes (or in her head). If students do not connect
with one approach, she can improvise. In developing an online
course, first timers have difficulty distinguishing between materials
that need to be incorporated into the course text and things that can
be communicated in impromptu announcements and discussion posts.
Understand the Emotional Needs of Online Learners: In
the face-to-face classroom, good teachers know how to use subtle
gestures and tone of voice to set an emotional tone that is conducive
to learning. In preparing a course for delivery online, faculty
are often inattentive to issues of tone. They need to learn how
to use words, color, and images to communicate that their course
welcomes intellectual risk-taking, inquiry, and deep thought.
Understand How To Keep Students Engaged and Oriented:
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for faculty is to develop online
sessions that are both explicit and engaging. Well-crafted sessions
address the metacognitive dimension of learning. For example,
callout boxes can be used to help learners see how discrete activities
connect up with larger learning goals.
members who are new to teaching online often focus on the limitations
of the medium – overlooking types of learning that can only
take place "at a distance." For example, instead of doing all
coursework online, students can get up from their computers to do
activities around their homes and communities in geographically diverse
settings. They can then report back. Within a relatively short time
frame class members can benefit from information or stories that peers
have gathered from across the country or even the world.
Groups can compare, contrast, analyze, debate, and synthesize their
experiences into a multi-dimensional understanding of the topic.
Understand How The Course Looks and Feels From The Students’ Perspective: In
the face-to-face setting, there are numerous cues about how a session
is going – students‘ body language and questions indicate when the
learning is off course. But in an online course, serious problems
can go unnoticed and compromise student learning. For this
reason, we ask first-time course developers to solicit feedback through
frequent formative assessment surveys. While the problems
with a given session are still fresh in students’ minds, we use the
following three questions at the end of each learning module:
How many hours did you spend working on this module?
are your suggestions for improving this module? Please also fill us in
on any problems you encountered with the technology, directions, or
organization of materials.
Considering the objectives for this module, what do you think is the most important thing you learned? What questions remain?
three-question format helps us disentangle technical and pedagogical
glitches. Some things can be fixed in the moment. Student
engagement intensifies when they realize that their input results in
on-the-fly course revisions. Other issues are duly noted and "fixed" in the next "edition" of the course.
skill set serves as the framework we use in consultation with
faculty. But what does it look like in action? The
following case study serves as an example.
2003, Simmons launched a fully-online certificate program in
Nutrition. Sports Psychology, taught by Professor Vicki Bacon, is
one course in the program.
by her students and by others in her field, Vicki prides herself in her
ability to "walk into a classroom, quickly size up the dynamic and mold
the classroom experience accordingly." Her courses are
pedagogically progressive and take a liberal arts approach to health
science learning. She makes extensive use of novels (A River Runs Through It),
films ("Fearless"), community-based interviews, and case studies.
Course discussions are shaped by open-ended questions that have no
clear answer – queries that are thoughtfully designed to engage
students in inquiry, reflection, and critical thinking.
class was first taught live on Simmons’ campus and then piloted
online. Modifications were made in response to formative
assessment and the course was taught a second time online in spring of
Sports Psychology course faced a number of barriers to success in its
online debut. This was the department’s first foray into distance
learning. Other departments had taken the plunge into
web-based distance learning. But, in the absence of an
institutional mechanism for intentional information-sharing,
communication among faculty and departmental administrators about
distance learning took place on an ad hoc basis.
challenges involved gaps in support at the institutional level. Academic Technology was in the process of hiring two fulltime
instructional designers to work with faculty, but at the time that
Vicki was authoring a first draft for her course there was insufficient
support in place. In retrospect, all involved acknowledged the
need for more training, modeling, and guidance prior to the course
addition, both the department and Vicki assumed that the project
entailed "putting the course online." In reality, as Vicki noted
during her interview, online course development involves rethinking
fundamental aspects of oneself as a teacher and how to best engage
students in learning.
as someone who had never taken or facilitated an online course before,
it was difficult for Vicki to know what was required of her. Perhaps
her biggest challenge was learning how to teach in a context in
which she was unable to "read" the expressions and reactions of her
students. While her skill at reading a room served her quite well
in the classroom environment, it hindered her ability to author course
materials that anticipated the needs of virtual students.
mentioned previously, online course development constitutes a new genre
of writing for most academics – both the process and the product that
differ from their previous experiences authoring books, scholarly
articles, book reviews, or even email messages and PowerPoint
presentations. The text Vicki produced for the pilot version was
skeletal. The outline was explicit, but the narrative that helps
students connect the dots was noticeably absent. This is not
unusual for a first time online course author. All three faculty
members interviewed for this article mentioned that translating
"lecture notes" into a coherent online learning experience for students
was one of their biggest hurdles.
the course debuted with a bumpy start. Course modules pointed
students to articles, case studies and lecture notes, but failed to set
the context for learning. Participation lagged – students
submitted the required work, but the learning and level of engagement
stagnated. Vicki expressed frustration that the students were
failing to "take it to the next level." She was concerned that
these students’ discussions, reflections, and questions were not
indicative of the type of learning she usually observes in her classes
- conceptual understanding and insight did not seem to build from one
module to the next.
formative assessment, gathered through WebCT surveys, confirmed what
was already evident; students were not engaged, they didn’t come away
from the modules having grasped the key concepts, and they were often
confused about what they should be doing.
Intervention and Revisions: Fortunately,
as these challenges unfolded, Simmons College was increasing its
infrastructure for faculty support. As the newly hired
instructional designers, one of our first tasks was to provide Vicki
with the guidance and support she needed to succeed. In addition
to face-to-face consultation and coaching, we also introduced her to
the literature about best practices in online teaching.
The Evolution of an Activity:
The following example presents the evolution of one assignment,
illustrating how we worked with Vicki to turn it into a successful
experience of learning through inquiry.
The genogram assignment required students to use Inspiration
software to construct a diagram of their own family’s roles and
dynamics. The purpose of this assignment was to help students
examine their family history and reflect on potential "hot buttons"
that might impede their ability to work with a client.
Pilot Version: Directions for the assignment, in the first iteration of the course, read as follows:
should complete construction on your family genogram this week. In the
discussion forum, first post about your experience developing your own
genogram. Given your experience, what do you think is the genogram’s
value for client assessment? Then, review your classmates’ posts and
post at least one reply to another thread.
formative assessment and implementation of that plan quickly revealed
that students were struggling. Because there was no on-site
demonstration, it took students longer to learn how to use the
software. Because students weren’t explicitly told to attach
their genogram files to their posts, they couldn’t understand details
in peer comments on the experience and had no basis for comparative
discussion. Because this was the first week of the class and
community norms were still in flux, they felt awkward sharing personal
details about family dynamics. Finally, because the assignment
guidelines and discussion prompt were vague, the discussion fell
The following are typical student comments from formative assessment surveys conducted during the pilot:
are too scattered around." "I was confused with this module." "I tried
to develop a conversation … and until the last day received little to
an "on the fly" change in response to formative assessment, Vicki
decided to extend the discussion into a second week – this time
encouraging students to post their genograms. But at best this
was damage control – before the course was offered again, Vicki worked with
Deborah Cotler to revise and reformat the entire course, including the
Online Course Revised:
After analyzing students’ formative feedback, Deborah and Vicki
realized that the goals for the assignment were unclear – both for the
students and for Vicki. For example, the stated goal was for
students to identify prior life experiences that might affect their
ability to work with clients on certain issues. But the
assignment’s discussion prompt also asked students to consider the value of using client genograms as a tool for assessment.
asked Vicki to describe how she would teach the assignment in the
context of a face-to-face class. Vicki said that she would
probably begin the discussion by focusing on what students learned by
doing their own genograms and then ask follow-up questions to extend
the conversation to cover the value of genograms in a sports psychology
context. But in the online context, absent facilitation in the
moment, presenting both discussion topics at once resulted in confusion
about the assignment.
worked with Vicki to hone the assignment to make the rationale, process
for implementation, and expectations explicit. They also
moved the genogram assignment to the third week of the class, allowing
time for community-building before asking students to disclose personal
family information. Comments made during the second round of
formative assessment indicate dramatic improvement:
learned to look at the possible conflicts I can have with patients
because of their beliefs and lifestyles. I did realize this before, but
this module made me focus and think about the possibility of this
happening in my clinical practice."
great application of our learning to real life. It’s great to apply
this knowledge to a real person and see how it actually fits in real
time. My confidence about applying this to my patients outside of this
class is growing."
At the end of the semester, course evaluation comments were equally gratifying:
Bacon was the best facilitator in my entire Simmons College online
experience. She was extremely insightful and provided food for thought
in several of the modules. It was encouraging that she responded to all
the modules. This gave us a feedback as to that we are on the right
Support for Developers of Online Learning: What’s Helpful?
get a better understanding of what we were already doing "right,"
during faculty interviews we asked which aspects of our support had
been most helpful (see "What Helped?" video). Based on this feedback and our own observations, we offer the following suggestions:
Establish optimal conditions for dialogue. Before
you begin working in depth with a faculty member, point them to a copy
of the literature that informs your approach to online pedagogy. We
find that when faculty members come to the table with a foundational
understanding of the principles that guide your approach, the dialogue
starts at a much more productive level.
Articulate goals for student understanding and skill development. By identifying learning goals at the outset of the project— and
frequently reassessing these— you will ensure that course materials and
activities support the desired learning.
Clarify how students will learn. Brainstorm ideas for what students will do or experience
to further their understanding of course concepts. Identify, in
advance, the artifacts of learning (discussion posts, work samples,
chat logs, etc.) that will provide the professor with insight into
students’ learning needs and progress toward goals. Help faculty
keep cognizant of the fact that, in the online environment, you can
never be too explicit in writing up assignment directions – but that
doesn’t mean that assignments need to take an objectivistic approach to
learning. The assignment tasks need to be crystal clear, but the process of enacting those tasks – projects, research, discussion, reflection, etc. – will ideally engage students in constructivist meaning-making.
Work with faculty as writers. The
most critical turning point for many faculty members is the moment they
recognize this effort as an act of authorship. Suggest a process
for authorship and help them develop a consistent format for session
modules. Model a sequence for authorship that begins with
analysis of students’ ideas. For example, instead of beginning
with "what I want to say," begin with "what are common student
misconceptions, where do the students tend to struggle?" Then develop
the course with these patterns of need in mind. Help them reflect
on the desired class culture, or sense of community, and what needs to
be included in the course to achieve that dynamic.
Work with faculty as revisers. Just
as an author would never write an academic paper without multiple
rounds of revisions, a course author must be prepared to revise the
course based on feedback from others. Offer to be a
reviewer. Encourage the faculty member to solicit peers as
with course authors can be an immensely satisfying experience. When the
pieces fall into place and an online course runs well, the
result is intensely generative. Rather than increase the distance
between faculty and students, faculty are discovering that web-enhanced
learning engenders the type of personalized learning that is at the
heart of Simmons’ mission. According to Mary Jane Treacy,
have never learned as much about a group of students in all my years at
Simmons College. I am just amazed by what I know about them – and
also amazed by how they’re coming together, getting close, but also
bumping elbows, and how they’re getting closer to me. It feels
very, very good. It’s the right thing to do.
Simmons, we have had the pleasure of enjoying many such positive
partnerships. It is our hope that the suggestions and experiences
we have detailed will assist you in your own consultative work with
liberal arts faculty.
 Paul Hagner, "Faculty Engagement and Support in the New Learning Environment," Educause Review (September/October 2000), 31.
Though beyond the scope of this article, a set of suggested guiding
questions we developed for administrators and faculty involved in
developing online programs is available at
Video clips from interviews we conducted in preparation for this
article are available online at
 Doug Brent, "Teaching as performance in the electronic classroom" in First Monday 10, no. 4 (2005):60, http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_4.