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The Revolution in Higher Education and the Needs of the New Academic

By Alison Carr-Chellman / June 2014

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As I think about my own work in the academy and I compare it to what I did even 10 years ago, I've seen such dramatic shifts. I thought it was important to share some thoughts on the impact eLearning is having on academic life today, and address some of what eLearning means to the daily rituals of the ivory tower.


The traditional rhythm of teaching a course face-to-face dramatically changes when a course goes online. To this point, we have tried to largely replicate the face-to-face experience online. As eLearning matures, we have begun to see more innovative and divergent designs for courses that depart from the traditional content dispensation models we've used in the past. A possibility for a true shift in teaching identity is open to the faculty member who deeply engages in the creation of new ways to teach online. The way I feel about my online teaching is captured in two words: "exciting" and "relentless." I am excited to be teaching something I know so well in new and different ways, forging new pathways and reaching new audiences. I love the excitement of helping teachers who are in their classrooms on a daily basis. So much of the traditional university teaching experience tends to circle around residential students who are removed from their work contexts and come to the university for a sabbatical learning experience. Even as they take a course they are currently practicing, learners tend to see their face-to-face experience as a retreat from their busy non-stop workday. By integrating the experience into convenient anytime, anywhere learning, I find learners are more in the moment of their context than when they come to campus. This is exciting to me; I feel the experience of impacting real world settings and real practice so much more directly.

The experience of online teaching for me is also relentless. When we offer anywhere, anytime convenience, we also create an expectation on the part of the learner that we'll be available to them immediately rather than only during office hours as with traditional face-to-face courses. At Penn State, there is a clear expectation that an instructor will reply to an online learner within 24 hours even if just to acknowledge the message. Discussion forums in my courses run every week with a new topic that contributes to the learners' assignments, and thus they need constant attention. Assignments build one upon another, and require rapid feedback on each step due weekly. This sort of rhythm feels relentless. I am checking emails, discussion forums, and assignments on a daily basis; I am looking at the course outcomes to determine what needs to change the next time I teach the course several times a week. Typically in a face-to-face course I might examine a session at the conclusion of the session (often once a week at the graduate level) and determine if there is anything that needs to be changed. Really the experience feels like it's a constant niggling away at my time in a very different way. This is not a complaint; indeed the excitement I feel when I teach online outweighs the relentless nature of the experience. But without a doubt, there is a clear difference in the way the experience feels, and it does have dramatic impacts on what I'm able to accomplish in my writing, research, scholarship, and other areas that demand large chunks of uninterrupted time that allows for deep thought and reflection. This is a big part of the change in what it means to be a faculty member at an institution that values eLearning as an important strategic initiative.

Professional Development

In the past, professional development in the university environment focused on mentoring, the processes associated with promotion and tenure, and perhaps a few seminars or workshops from time to time. When we first rolled out online courses at Penn State, those pioneer faculty who took on the tasks of designing, developing, and teaching a completely online course had little or no significant professional development. Often, instructional designers were available to help create course content, but little support was available otherwise. Sometimes graphic designers and programmers could help manage the new LMS/CMS systems. But as time has gone by, and the eLearning enterprise has matured, more and more professional development opportunities have emerged to help faculty members take on new tasks such as administration or new technology use. Among the most impactful of these is the experience of taking an online course about online teaching, which allows the faculty member the first-hand experience of a first-time online learner. This is a rather unique and exciting opportunity for those who are gaining professional development experiences within the maturing online university. With that new opportunity also comes new time demands. To learn to teach online effectively and keep up with current technologies and their affordances for course design and development, ongoing professional development is demanded for good eLearning instructors. The down side to these opportunities is time demand.

Course Design

Online courses require a significantly more structured approach to design and development than traditional face-to-face courses. Adult learners have very different needs and taking a course from a distance has specific implications for the process of course creation. In traditional face-to-face courses, the typical course design process is highly fluid and open with changes happening on the fly as needs emerge from among the group of learners. But with increasing pressures to have clear expectations and graded assignments for all learners, online courses require much more planning, specific structure, and pre-constructed content. While the upfront commitment to the design and development process is high, the ongoing commitment is a bit less in that once the course is up and running online, the course usually doesn't require excessive preparation. In some ways, this process tends to compartmentalize the design/development and the delivery stages of online courses. Ultimately, the course design process is quite different from traditional course design and this also contributes to the feeling that an online academic is a new kind of academic.

Research and Service

While most academics understand their primary roles within the university to be focused on research, teaching, and service, as online learning has become more and more successful, we find a certain segment of research and service activities are increasingly related to eLearning. eLearning research within a given discipline area, cases, design prototypes, and uses of new technologies is ripe with opportunities for sharing scholarship within discipline areas. There are many service opportunities within eLearning as well, chances to help others learn to teach online, to serve on various committees for curricular development or approvals, to work with online agencies to best meet needs of adult learners, and to mentor new online teachers or student groups. This means the traditional roles of research and service, which were more compartmentalized in the past, have begun to stretch out to include broader concerns that can connect faculty across fields of study. Once again, the primary downside to all of this connectivity is the time needed to make it happen.

Marketing and Recruitment

This is perhaps among the most significant differences between traditional faculty positions and the new academic who is affected by market needs. This is a really thorny issue because learners are not really our customers, but eLearning creates circumstances, which that make many academics feel that their curriculum must be market driven. Sometimes the eLearning arm of an institution will pre-approve new programs based on marketing assessments. This can be a real wake-up call for academics who have strong feelings about the success of their current residential programs, which come into question during the marketing process. In addition, in order to get a successful program off the ground with all the needed financial implications, there needs to be a strong and ongoing market need that will drive future investments in course updates and ongoing development. It is atypical for most faculty to consider ongoing marketing and recruitment of new students a part of their job. Students have always, in the old world of higher education, simply come to us. We have not had to go to them and try to convince them that they need what we have. Sales and marketing are not things that we prepare our new faculty members to do in graduate school.

For many academics, finding relevance and practical application for what we teach may take a back seat to theories and research of most interest to individual faculty members. In some cases this can be seen as esoteric scholarship, but it is of great importance to the scholar who has focused their academic life on this particular field. Indicating that this area, while of interest to the discipline as a whole, may not be of keen interest to large numbers of practitioner-learners, creates confusion for the academic. Without the tools, interest, or significant motivation, this kind of new academic is rare indeed. And rewards in the university remain within the relatively narrow confines of research, scholarship, and traditional forms of teaching and service. So the new academic who can market and recruit for their program is likely to always have a job, as long as they're not tenure track, even if they do not do much in the traditional realm of university life. The issues arise when a tenure track faculty member is asked to teach online, conduct service and research online, as well as market their programs and recruit new students. All of these are additional tasks that intensify the life of the academic. This new academic has to balance all of these demands, which help ensure the viability of their program overall, with their need to publish, present, and secure grant funding—all of which are rewarded with promotions and tenure for those on the tenure track. This delicate balance becomes a significant shift from earlier conceptions of the identity of an academic and creates a tension for the faculty member who continues to be placed in the middle of this tension until programs are up and running, faculty resources are properly balanced, and demands of individuals are rewarded and recognized.

Searching for New Academics

As a result of all of these kinds of shifts, the way we search for faculty has changed. Not only do we make sure that our search processes are connected via all kinds of appropriate social media, and reach out to as broad and diverse a candidate pool as possible. But we also are beginning to specify the need for our new academics to be prepared to teach online, and do research and scholarship in the area of online learning in particular disciplinary fields. In most of our job advertisements for new faculty to teach online, we now specify a requirement to teach online, with experience teaching online as a preferred qualification. We want to be sure new faculty members are prepared enough to recognize that a normal part of their teaching load is likely to include at least one online course per year. Because of course demands in online teaching, our university has hired many fixed-term faculty with express interest and intention in online learning. They may be more adept at marketing, student recruiting, research in online learning, and course design. Currently, Penn State has around 50 percent of its faculty on fixed-term appointments. While most are not working in the online space, there has been a proliferation of this kind of appointment focused on very different skill sets because of the success of online learning in our institutions of higher learning.

In the end, our universities are beginning to change dramatically as a result of eLearning becomes becoming integral to most strategic plans. This has impacted the routines and rhythms of academic life as well as expectations of faculty members. We are beginning to recognize these diverse needs and recruiting with these changes in mind. Ultimately, the new academic will live in an intensified university with as much interest in marketing programs as scholarship in the discipline area. It is important to recognize the university is changing, and the people inside of the university have to change with it.

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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