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Four Essential Tips for Professional Development Success

By Heidi Schroeder / November 2016

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The term "faculty professional development" elicits excitement from a few. For most, this term elicits some form of dread. Many of us have completed professional development sessions or activities that felt as though they were thrown together for the sole purpose of serving as a "hoop" to be jumped through, rather than true learning experiences that encourage growth and improvement. As professionals in the world of eLearning, we are often called upon to develop and deliver effective professional development opportunities for staff and faculty who will engage students in online learning. However, the elements that set apart effective professional development from mediocre "hoops" can elude us.

Recently I had the opportunity to develop a certification process for faculty interested in developing and teaching courses online at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM). My department, E-Learning, had undergone a re-design and we were tasked with identifying or developing a set of standards we could use to evaluate and improve our online courses, and to ensure that our instructors received the professional development opportunities that they need in order to excel in teaching online courses. We reviewed various online learning standards and identified "quality matters" as the rubric and standards that we would adopt for online teaching and learning. Certifications that E-Learning staff earned through Quality Matters allow our staff to offer professional development opportunities that focus on online pedagogy and general best practices for online course design and development. This was a fantastic start, but we found that we still needed a way to personalize our professional development sessions and target basic technology skills, which faculty would need to master in order to be successful in a USFSM online classroom.

We set out to develop a certification process for faculty who were interested in teaching online courses. Our objectives included both development of technical skills in the learning management system (LMS) utilized by our institution and development of online pedagogy. The process we developed included options; one of which was an online professional development course that faculty could complete in a two-week time frame. This course was well received by faculty. Faculty shared feedback in a final survey indicating they had met the intended learning objectives. Beyond this feedback, the course opened dialogue between faculty and our E-Learning team. The communication we received during and after the workshop allowed us to continue working with faculty for course improvement and instructor development. The workshop itself was simple but it included not only the basic elements needed for effective course design such as measurable outcomes, engaging content, and relevant assessment, but also four essential elements that you may want to include in your professional development options. These elements will help faculty stay engaged throughout the professional development course and walk away with tools and tips that they can use in their future courses.

No. 1 Show As You Tell

Effective teaching strategies incorporate multiple methods of presentation and evaluation. Rather than simply talking about effective teaching strategies, share course design and delivery best practices by modeling those practices in the professional development course. This doesn't mean you cannot include engaging information to describe best practices for course design and delivery. However, descriptions fall short if you are not practicing the methods throughout your course.

In order to do this effectively, provide your professional development opportunities in the modality that your faculty use for teaching. We could have developed a one day workshop for new faculty that introduced the basics of the LMS and online teaching techniques along with opportunities to practice these skills. This would have allowed faculty to gain needed information and build skills, but it would not have allowed them to engage in an effective online learning experience. We instead chose to give participants the student experience in a multi-week online course. Through a two-week, facilitated, self-paced online course that includes instruction in how to use the LMS, faculty members also practiced using the LMS. We chose not to include online teaching pedagogy in the traditional format of written pages or video content, but instead modeled best practices for faculty through the design and facilitation of this course.

Faculty participants experienced the online course as a student from day one, receiving a welcome message from the course facilitator, engaging in discussion forum conversations with their peers, and receiving feedback from the course facilitator on a regular basis throughout the course. We gained faculty attention through solid online teaching practices, and found many faculty went on to emulate the teaching strategies they learned as a student in the certification course.

No. 2 Use the Tools You Recommend

This idea of showing as you tell can be incorporated in the elements that are implemented into the course. At our institution, we recommend faculty include a welcome message and clear instructions for getting started, as well as information about student and academic support. It is also recommended that they provide their course syllabus in a consistent format. In our professional development courses, we use the tools we recommend. There is a home page with a welcome message presented via captioned video. And we also include a "getting started" module that is designed to share student and academic support information.

The getting started module shared in each course is customized with information appropriate to the professional development course, so faculty can see and experience how resources can be implemented for student success. We recommend faculty use the institution's syllabus template and share their course syllabus in a uniform location within the online course. In our professional development sessions, we are careful to customize the syllabus template in a way that is appropriate to the course and to place it in the recommended location for ease of access. By using the home page, getting started module and syllabus templates in the recommended way for credit courses, the professional development offerings further emphasize how these tools can be used effectively.

No. 3 It's All About the Experience

How often have you attended an informational event and left with a clearer memory of who you met and the personal interactions you experienced, rather than recalling the information that was shared from the speaker or course facilitator? Personal interactions are inherently gratifying for most people. Be sure to incorporate the opportunity for mingling and networking in your professional development offerings.

For online professional development courses at our institution, we do this in a few ways. An introduction discussion forum is a great opportunity for faculty from various areas of the institution to learn a bit more about one another. We generally ask faculty to share a favorite course they teach, or have taught, as well as an interesting fact about themselves. We encourage faculty to respond to at least one other course participant. This encourages them to read what others have shared and look for common personal or professional interests.

Similarly, we like to include a summary discussion forum for the course. In the summary forum, we ask faculty to share a few ways they can begin to use the information and skills they've gained from the course. This does two things: It encourages faculty to reflect on their experience and information gained from the course, and it allows them to see ways that others in the course will begin to implement their new skills. The interaction in this forum can be fantastic as faculty identify ideas learned by others and converse about how their experiences relate and how they can possibly work together to implement their new skills and strategies. We've found faculty consistently continue conversations that they started in the professional development discussion forums beyond the course, as they formulate ideas for collaboration within their credit courses and university projects.

No. 4 Incorporate Active Learning

Active learning is more than just a fad in education. Active learning allows participants to use the skills they've observed and read about in the professional development course. It allows participants to see the usefulness of the skills they reviewed, and to develop deliverables that they can incorporate into their own courses. We keep our professional development sessions as practical as possible by presenting new content and skills and then allowing faculty the opportunity to use those skills.

For our online certification course, this means faculty learn about how to set up a module and include various types of activities and assessments. Then they are asked to create a sample course and use their new skills to develop a module that includes each type of activity and assessment. Faculty members are encouraged to develop sample items that could be useful in a course they teach. This active learning allows the participant to practice what they've seen and easily connect new information to their classroom experiences.

Motivation is Key

Each tip that I've shared is consistent with the ARCS model of motivation that was developed by Dr. John Keller. This model identifies four categories that summarize the elements involved in student motivation to learn: attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction [1]. Engaging faculty in a course facilitated in the modality in which they teach helps to gain their attention. Active learning keeps their attention and provides opportunities for faculty to see the relevance of their new skill to their daily work. Faculty gain confidence in their abilities with the new skill set as they develop deliverables that could be useful in a course that they teach. Opportunities for faculty interaction with one another through discussions and reflection provides intrinsic reinforcement and personal satisfaction. As you engage participants in activities and experiences that motivate them to learn, you'll find what was once a "hoop" to jump through becomes a worthwhile professional development opportunity that exceeds faculty expectations and provides an authentic learning experience.


[1] Keller, J. What are the ARCS Categories? September 30, 2016.

About the Author

Heidi Schroeder is an instructional designer with E-Learning Services at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM). With more than 14 years of experience in the field of education, Schroeder approaches course design and development with a focus on the student experience. Her professional interests include faculty professional development and the integration of support services for online students. She earned her Masters of Science in instructional systems with a focus on open and distance learning from Florida State University and her Bachelor of Arts in communication from Wheaton College. She is a certified Quality Matters Peer Reviewer and online facilitator. Schroeder also serves as an adjunct faculty member at USFSM in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education.

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