Many institutions approached online and digital learning with a slow burn that the pandemic fanned into flame. Practically overnight, institutions had to re-calibrate and move instruction online, with 75 percent of undergraduate students enrolled in at least one distance education course—a 97 percent year-over-year increase (11.8 million versus 6.0 million students).
But students weren’t the only ones who had to adjust; the leap to digital learning also represents a change for instructional staff and professors who were accustomed to a traditional classroom. In fact, a 2022 Cengage survey of 641 US institutions found that 97 percent of institutions reported working with faculty who had no prior online teaching experience. This is a significant gap that, if left unaddressed, can limit student experience and success.
Fortunately, online teaching is a competency that instructors, faculty, and staff can develop over time with the right support. Here are creative and practical suggestions and ideas to help non-digital-native faculty and staff thrive in a digital space.
Beginner steps to smooth the transition from in-person to virtual instruction
- Provide educational materials about remote students. The best way to support remote students will differ from how you would best support students in a traditional classroom. Provide resources to instructional staff that cover what might change and what remote students need most while learning virtually.
- Analyze the accessibility and inclusivity of existing resources. The resources an institution provides lose value if instructors and students can’t access them. Early on, consider how accessible and inclusive your digital resources and educational materials are, and make sure they meet or exceed institutional requirements.
- Simplify paths to support. Create an online knowledge hub that brings all available resources for instructors into one place. Make it clear who instructors can reach out to with questions or concerns, such as specific contacts for technical support or instructional design support for digital learning.
Intermediate steps that set the bar higher and provide support
- Teach students how to make the most of their online learning experience. Create learning materials for students that explain the basics of succeeding in online classes. Videos might highlight good digital study habits, email etiquette, and other tips for success.
- Increase access to digital resources. How instructors teach isn’t the only aspect that will change in a virtual learning environment, as they’ll also need to point students to digital resources. Check the library and educational technology resources that are available to instructors, and make sure the instructors are able to share them with students.
- Equip faculty with technology and tools to improve student engagement and learning. Educational technology tools that remove barriers to learning in a digital classroom can give instructors an edge. Consider providing a tool like Grammarly, which coaches students on their written communication skills around the clock so that interactions with their instructors can be more engaging and effective.
Advanced steps that ensure a brighter future for student learning
- Provide or reimburse for additional educational technology and instructional design training. Encourage instructional staff and professors to pursue further education in remote and digital learning so they can build their expertise in this new way of educating. Training materials, online courses, webinars, and even certifications or degree programs will empower faculty to take charge of the online classroom.
- Build circles of peer support. Aid from instructional advisers is critical, as is support from peers like other instructional staff, faculty, and professors. Invite instructors to connect and share their experiences with online learning by hosting events or assigning peer groups for regular check-ins throughout the online teaching journey.
- Collect evidence-based lessons from your institution. Evidence-based learning helps instructors discover what works from what other instructors have done in real learning situations. While these lessons are available from various research bodies, institutions can also begin to collect their own and document the experiences of instructors who engage in online teaching over time.
Prepare faculty to meet the demands of online learning
Across the full landscape of higher education, online learning has transitioned from a nice-to-have to a mainstay. It’s no longer the pandemic that’s enticing students into an online educational path, but rather the powerful benefits of digital learning that the pandemic uncovered for so many people.
For instructors new to online teaching, however, this can be a challenging adjustment. And students—and institutions—can only rise to the level of their educators.
Help your instructors adjust to the digital learning space and become proficient in the technological and educational tools that make for effective online learning today. It’s a critical step in ensuring faculty and staff can meet students’ needs and improve student learning in the long run.