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Outsourced Professional Development for Online Instructors: Recommendations from research

By Ling Zhao, Raymond Dixon, Tonia Dousay, Ali Carr-Chellman / April 2022

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How do university faculty experience an outsourced professional development (PD) program? The answer to this question provides valuable insight into how best to design PD for future online faculty to maximize the impact of training. In Fall 2019, the University of Idaho College of Education, Health & Human Sciences partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies to offer a formal certificate program to faculty and conducted a phenomenological study to investigate this question thoroughly. Seventeen faculty completed the PD program and eight of them shared reflections on their experiences engaging in learning through an outsourced PD provider. 

While pandemic responses continue to demand more online learning opportunities with additional attention to quality, faculty come to this task with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills for teaching online and a tendency to base their pedagogy on their own prior experiences [1, 2, 3]. Although we often say faculty teach the way they were taught, Oleson and Hora found faculty also use these experiences as non-examples of practices or behaviors to avoid [4]. There are also a variety of pedagogical/andragogical issues in teaching online courses in higher education related to online learners, content development, and instructors [5]. For example, learners’ expectations, readiness, identity, and participation; the role of instructors in content development, integration of multimedia in course content, and the role of instructional strategies in content development; changes in faculty roles, transitioning from face-to-face teaching to online teaching, time management, and instructors’ teaching styles [5]. The result is a murky portrait of what to prescribe for faculty PD.

To improve the quality of online teaching, institutions typically provide structured PD in the form of institutional teaching or learning center programming. This programming typically focuses on teaching and learning quality, transitions to online teaching, pedagogies, and new technologies [6, 7, 8] and is seen as essential to successful online teaching [7, 9, 10]. Faculty integration of these strategies includes changing communication strategies to meet student needs, presenting information in various accessible formats, or general perception of adopting responsive and student-centered practices.

Theoretical Foundation

The technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge (TPACK) framework and social learning theory form the foundation underlying this PD partnership study. TPACK addresses pedagogical, content, and technological knowledge in practice [11, 12, 13]. Within TPACK, trainers address pedagogy and the subject-area content knowledge during PD, rather than focusing only on technology [14]. Adaptations of TPACK help PD meet the needs of diverse organizations [14, 15, 16]. Social learning theory connects this PD work with communities of practice research. Bandura [17] and Wenger [18] established the area of social learning in which participation is an essential part of the learning process to include observation, imitation, and modeling. From transfer of learning to modeling, social learning provides a variety of contextual benefits and long-term outcomes. Because community of practice was applied as a PD design feature in this study, both TPACK and social learning theory support the study design and subsequent discussion.


This study took place at a land-grant university in the United States. The PD was designed and delivered prior to the COVID-19 pandemic response and the resulting pivot to emergency report teaching or increased online course offerings. Instead, the PD stemmed from the host university’s strategic plan to transform educational impact, explicitly addressing faculty exploration of new technologies to enhance teaching skills. Faculty had a variety of skills in online learning and the goal was to grow more interest in online learning. There was not a deficit in skills, but rather an opportunity for further professional development across the College. A brief pre-PD needs assessment survey was administered to any interested to ensure there was sufficient commitment from college faculty and to help give the outsourcing partner additional information about faculty learning preference. Some faculty participants had prior online teaching experience, but few had online learning experience as a student, which the PD provided. College leadership identified upskilling for online learning as a driver for further online program development, which informed the decision to contract with an external provider to deliver the PD. This decision attracted faculty interested in adding new institutional perspectives and a training credential to their curriculum vitae. Leadership engaged the PD provider in extensive planning and design discussions to tailor the program for advanced learners and educational faculty. For example, the provider typically addresses how to craft quality learning objectives but omitted this section given the advanced knowledge of participating faculty. Seventeen faculty completed the PD experience, receiving a microcredential in distance learning teaching, an opportunity paid for by institutional leadership.

PD Implementation and Findings

Eight faculty members participating in the program provided feedback on their experiences. The researchers selected participants through a purposeful sampling method, collecting narrative data using in-depth, semi-structured interviews [19]. Then, researchers coded the transcripts to identify categories and themes [20]. The findings indicate increases in pedagogical and technological knowledge to implement this knowledge into practice. Results also highlighted mixed learning experiences and the importance of community learning for engagement and retention. In cases where participants had greater previous knowledge, the PD reinforced good uses for tools and strategies. While faculty shared mixed feelings about their learning experience, some faculty expressed concern for repetitive content. This particular finding disappointed stakeholders given close attention to faculty members’ prior experiences in the PD design. Interestingly, participants reported a community bond that played an important role in their online teaching development. 

It is important to reiterate, given the findings, that college leadership provided an outline of topics that they wanted to have addressed, and PD designers implemented this outline. Stakeholders spent approximately six weeks reviewing faculty participant backgrounds and the kinds of skills and experiences desired. Learners wanted to focus on implementing advanced technologies and did not want to spend a great deal of time focused on defining learning goals or objectives or how to use them. An insistence on this type of design often poses a challenge for PD providers because faculty all too often do not understand or appreciate the importance of goals, objectives, learning approaches, and other facets of online learning. Many faculty focus on technology tools, whereas instructional designers and educational technologists recognize how this approach creates lower quality online learning in the past [21]. Thus, carefully balancing a focus on pedagogy with requests to address technology presents an ongoing challenge. 

The resulting PD provided a high-quality experience integrating technology in online environments to enhance student-to-content, student-to-instructor, student-to-student interaction. Faculty engaged in an eight-module program delivered using the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). Table 1 summarizes training themes.

Table 1. Program Modules (two weeks each)




The Online Teaching and Learning Environment


Course Planning




Instructional Materials


Course Activities & Interactions


Universal Design, Intellectual Property, and Accessibility


Managing Your Course


Wrap Up, Lessons Learned & The Future of Online Learning

Interviews conducted after completing the PD showed that faculty engaged in the program to acquire technological information and skills. Participants reported learning about multiple new technologies, including Canvas LMS, Google Docs, Padlet, and Flipgrid. For example, one participant pointed to Google Docs as an important tool,

“For the Google Docs the instructors shared, it was a question-answer page. Everyone could see it. And in my online class, I typically teach it asynchronously. I am thinking to embed a document into all my modules where students can ask questions, and then I will make sure to write the answers to those questions. That way, everyone gets the benefit of the questions versus just getting a ton of emails.”

Many participants indicated Flipgrid and Padlet were new to them, reporting an interest in trying these tools in their courses. Further, participants generally found that offering the PD in the Canvas LMS had a very positive outcome. Approximately two years following the program, the institution adopted Canvas, aiding participants in transitioning platforms.

Pedagogical impacts took on both positive and negative dimensions. For example, the three faculty participants from non-education disciplines (art/architecture, engineering, and science) indicated an appreciation for the basic pedagogical information included in the PD. Unfortunately, the education faculty found this content repetitive and demotivating. One explained, “as educators, we learned from our previous certification classes that we had,” and this PD was “very elementary,” “not suitable for us who are educators, who have already learned all these in our classrooms, and even teach them.” This finding supported stakeholders’ initial design concerns but minimizing the pedagogical content still did not satisfy all participants.

Nevertheless, most participants found their online learning experience was more experiential and hands-on than anticipated, with learning activities that modeled recommended practices. For example, when presenting information about reflective teaching and learning strategies, faculty used tools such as Flipgrid to consider implications for practice. Faculty expressed consensus that good online learning goes beyond taking tests online, learning ways to make grading more manageable and interactive, and how to increase useful structures in their courses. In particular, one participant found value in how the PD provider presented the content, saying that she plans to make her courses more “fluid” rather than procedural. This finding results from a modeling practice where the PD content demonstrated the same recommended integration techniques. Being enrolled in an online PD helped participants see how experts design and develop an online course.

Related to learning design, the importance of universal design emerged as a specific emphasis area for one participant. While he strived for student-centered designs, he realized his courses might not be universally accessible to all because of different disabilities or limitations. The PD experience exposed him to the reasons why and tools to address this weakness in the future. He also stated concerns about teaching large classes and indicated how the group strategy he learned in the program could be helpful.

“One of the things I learned was that if you do more group assessments and allow students to work in groups, that will take off a lot of effort on your part. Especially when the class is large, you have to grade maybe 80 to 90 papers. But if they’re in groups, the groups can read each other’s papers, and then you assign grades for the groups.”

While some faculty reported obtaining new knowledge from the PD, other participants confirmed their prior knowledge. One participant expressed advanced technological knowledge, reporting that she already uses most of the tools taught in the PD. This participant observed, “there wasn’t anything new there for me.” While she saw the benefit for others, she hoped for more new tools and found instead “reinforcement of those ideas” she already used. Other respondents had a similar experience saying, “I did take one online class in 2016, so nothing much new going on when it comes to new tools.” Some experienced faculty did not feel they learned anything that was really “insightful.” The course affirmed what they already knew for these faculty. Still, the PD was disappointing for participants with high prior knowledge and experience, given the time commitment.

Despite this issue, several respondents felt the PD helped them improve efficiency and quality and gave them more confidence in their online courses. One participant reflected,

“From last semester to this semester, I reorganize my courses from how I have due dates structured to the days when things are due… I’ve created some more visual aids on the flow of the course. I think other things are making it better. I’ve changed the way I do discussion boards. And I’ve made some learning activities a little more interactive.”

Another said,

“I think my online class will definitely be more organized and more structured. I would have told you that it was organized before taking that class, but I realized that it could be better now, and having consistent communication times can be helpful and not too overwhelming to the learner. I think my class would be more structured. I’ll definitely try some of the new technologies. We have something called VoiceStream in BbLearn that I’ve used in the past, but I think I’m going to try Flipgrid this time because I’ve had students really struggle with VoiceStream, and I have, too. So, I can see improvements there.” 

Participants saw the PD overall made them better learning designers with flexible skills and competencies. They generally felt the program positively impacted their work and developed confidence in their designs. In one case, the PD alleviated worries that the online environment could never be as good as in-person classes. 

Finally, participants felt that the community nature of the PD provided the most significant benefit. When asked about how the cohort influenced their learning behaviors, faculty particularly noted how the design allowed them to learn from one another. While most of the participants come from an education subdiscipline, three came from other colleges, revealing common interests across disciplines. Further, faculty shared their struggles with online teaching and connected with new colleagues while doing so. This community built strong university-wide relationships and facilitated new collaborative opportunities. While faculty experiences varied in intensity, participants emphasized the importance of the community of practice. The experience provided insights into their practice and those of their peers, fostering reflective practice [22, 23].

Implications for Research to Practice

This study examined an outsourced faculty PD designed to target online learning technological and pedagogical skill development. Stakeholders struggled with the decision to outsource this PD beyond the internal center for teaching and learning, where such PD is typically delivered. They sought to engage faculty who had, to that point, decided not to engage in PD through the traditional university outlets, and there was demonstrably more interest from faculty by creating an opportunity to list PD from another institution to their vita. Stakeholders viewed the financial cost associated with the decision as an investment to integrate outside perspectives into the overall online teaching and learning system at the host institution. The high completion rate demonstrated faculty engagement in the program and supported stakeholders’ decisions. Fourteen faculty from education and three faculty from other disciplines formed a community cohort, completing online modules designed and developed by a professional continuing education provider. This target population led to paying careful attention to tailoring the PD who already enjoyed deep familiarity with learning goals, performance objectives, instructional activities, and evaluation tools. Naturally, each participant in the PD had their own learning experience, contributing to positive and negative outcomes. However, interviews revealed common elements across faculty members’ acquisition of new knowledge within the PD program, including specific tools and pedagogical practices to maintain or adopt. These findings are consistent with prior studies supporting the critical role of PD activities in preparing faculty to teach online [24, 25]. 

The benefits of forming a community of practice reinforce the need to consider cohort faculty PD models seriously. Poyas and Smith found team-based PD contributed to a deeper understanding for participants [26]. The current study benefited from having participants from different disciplines, expanding their awareness and practice. Additionally, outsourcing the PD design to a professional online continuing education organization provided a unique but powerful benefit. Expertly designed online learning modules modeled the technological and pedagogical content presented. Shifting roles, taking on the part of a student, and seeing things through peer eyes leads to better understandings, confidence, and innovation [23, 27].

An important lesson from this study is the complexity and struggle associated with explicitly tailoring PD for faculty with high prior experience. Most introductory online learning PD targets the introductory to intermediate learners, aimed at new faculty and those transitioning teaching modes. The mitigation efforts attempted for this study highlight the difficulties associated with effectively meeting the needs of advanced learners. While leadership in this case explicitly requested a PD solution to meet the needs of education faculty with deep pedagogical knowledge, there remained faculty who did not feel the program was sufficiently novel. That said, it is important to note that the relationship built between the requestor and outsourcing provider was outstanding and highly collaborative throughout the design and implementation of the PD. The University of Wisconsin, Madison did a remarkable job of working with very busy faculty on their development as online learners and instructors. Designing PD to meet introductory and advanced needs proved a significant challenge in the current study. Future designs might offer different content for introductory, intermediate, and advanced versions of the training. Alternatively, designing PD for a community of practice context, in conjunction with opportunities to personalize the content, may help mitigate negative experiences. This type of approach respects advanced knowledge by providing an opportunity to near-peer mentor, build relationships, and benefit from a learning community. 

Based on the data generated by this study, we have a few specific suggestions that we believe should guide those who seek to design externally sourced PD experiences:

  • Be explicit about the level of prior knowledge that faculty participants bring to the PD experience. Ensure this is communicated to the PD provider, requesting personalized approaches targeting introductory and advanced learner needs.
  • Design the PD experience to integrate a community of practice. Create roles within the community to recognize the expertise of advanced learners.
  • Review all materials before launching the PD to verify design alignment and ensure a quality experience for all participants.
  • Make sure participating faculty can review PD design and choose the content appropriate for their prior knowledge.
  • Conduct formative and summative evaluations of PD programs to determine effectiveness. Evaluations should consider learner perceptions, learner analytics, and content review for current and emerging practice and innovation.

This small phenomenological study confirms prior research on delivering PD for online faculty, contributing recommendations to conceptualize personalized student-centered designs integrated with a community of practice. Continuous PD is necessary for high-quality online teaching and learning, but we must respect the prior knowledge of advanced learners and consider how to differentiate for their needs. Given the proliferation of PD targeting online teaching practices in the wake of the COVID pandemic, we will see more intermediate to advanced online faculty in the academy. The lessons learned from this study will become increasingly relevant as these faculty continue to refine their pedagogical and technology knowledge.


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About the Authors

Ling Zhao obtained her Ph.D. in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. Her research interests include professional development, online learning, open education, and STEM education.

Dr. Raymond A. Dixon is department chair and associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Idaho. His main research areas include STEM integration, Workforce Development, and Design Cognition.

Dr. Tonia A. Dousay is a K-20 educator and researcher, encompassing K-12, higher education, and continuing education. She is an Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and serves as Associate Dean of Assessment & Accreditation for the University of Idaho College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. As a Google Certified Innovator with 20 years of distance learning design and education project management experience, Dr. Dousay designs and studies a variety of learning environments and activities with emergent and established technologies, focusing on instructional and multimedia design, creativity and collaboration, learner engagement, and distance learning. Her goal is to help others better design learning to foster interdisciplinary understanding and help learners take control of their own learning experiences.

Ali Carr-Chellman is the Dean of the School of Education & Health Sciences (SEHS) at the University of Dayton. She is a graduate of Indiana University in Instructional Systems Technology and has written numerous books, articles, and chapters on topics ranging from change, diffusion of innovation, gaming, instructional design, cybercharters, and online learning.

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