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Promoting faculty commitment to distance learning.


Despite the rapid growth of distance learning programs, faculty are often resistant to moving their courses into a distance learning format. This manuscript synthesizes the sources of concern among resistant faculty as identified in the literature, the common mechanisms to bridge those concerns, and evaluate the effectiveness of the administrative solutions that have sought to address them.


Web-based distance learning is transforming teaching and learning in higher education. As the long-standing tradition of the physical classroom as the embodiment of higher education changes, new perspectives on what education "looks like" are emerging. Although distance educators and administrators frequently comment on their struggles with skepticism among university faculty about distance education, there is little systematic exploration of the issue (Kirby, 1988; Dillon & Walsh, 1992). Case studies flourish in the literature, yet little synthesis of these isolated explorations has been conducted. This paper examines common barriers to distance learning among higher education faculty, discusses intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors, and examines the role of incentives in promoting participation. Considerations for program planning in support of distance learning initiatives are presented.

New Roles and Expectations in Higher Education

As with anything new or different, many faculty have greeted distance education with skepticism and occasional disdain. Ultimately, the success or failure of distance education lies largely with the faculty, and it is the faculty who play an essential role in its implementation (Betts, 1998). Though reasons for resistance vary, certain themes emerge. The central controversies surrounding distance learning are the cultural implications it has for traditional higher education. Shifts in culture, new roles and expectations, and concerns about how distance education will ultimately be regarded are all sources of anxiety for faculty immersed in this changing environment. "If there is a true crisis in American higher education today, it is a crisis of purpose" (Lucas, 1996, p. xiv). Though this crisis is not a direct result of the recent explosion of distance education, the most pressing aspects of this crisis are both exemplified and exacerbated by the competing priorities that emerge when the development of an instructional web presence emerges at an institution. Changing roles and responsibilities are an inevitable result of innovation, and having so many people undertaking change simultaneously can create a climate of unrest.

Both faculty and students face the significant challenge of retooling their minds to fit the medium of web-based instruction. The instructional pattern of speaking and listening in face-to-face situations is an internalized cultural pattern. Converting the speaking and writing process to one of reading and writing is comparatively more difficult, It cannot be performed subconsciously, but must be planned, designed, constructed, tested and evaluated with full awareness of our goals and means. This is quite a different approach, and it is more or less a scientific process for both faculty and student (Peters, 1998). The ability of faculty and students to negotiate the transition and embrace the new roles and responsibilities within the medium will determine success for both teachers and students, It is a process that has to be highlighted in faculty training and modeled for the student. The effective management of the transition is both a function and reflection of program quality.

As most distance learning programs market themselves heavily to the non-traditional student in need of flexible delivery, distance programs must walk the line between meeting the needs of these students while maintaining standards of excellence for instruction. The challenges presented by less than conscientious "educational" providers are difficult to control. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge to circumvent, as many faculty fear a "guilt by association"--worrying that they will be professionally associated with questionable educational providers even if they are working within an educationally sound program. The perception of quality as it relates to an instructor's time and effort is also a potential barrier. Faculty want to feel that their investment of time is viewed as having high value. If the pursuit of distance education is not perceived as an endeavor of merit, faculty may be hesitant to invest the time and energy.

Reformers have urged a realignment of priorities to emphasize a more learner-centered reward structure, but "institutions have been slow to change well-entrenched practices" (Wolcott, 2003, p. 550). Reminders of this fact permeate the literature (Beaudoin, 1990; Dillon & Walsh, 1992; Olcott & Wright, 1995). Until technology integration and distance learning are internalized within the institutional reward structure and not treated as "extra" tasks, the use of technology will remain inconsistent and limited (McNeil, 1990). Reward structures must be re-evaluated to reflect the changing culture of instruction, but change in this area of higher education has been slow. This is one of many barriers faculty interested in undertaking distance learning encounter.

Barriers to Faculty Participation in Distance Education

There are predictable barriers to distance education initiatives, some driven by perception and others by institutional reality. The effective management of these barriers can be a predictor of faculty receptivity to new delivery methods. Faculty support is largely determined by the perceived compatibility of distance education with their beliefs and values about university education in general (Black, 1992). The effective implementation and expansion of quality distance education must extend beyond planning for new technologies; the success of any distance education effort rests primarily on the commitment of the faculty (Gottschalk, 1997). To gain their committed participation, faculty need to have their initial fears addressed and overcome. From there, identifying what motivates faculty to move toward action is the key. In addition to the disincentives that have characterized the traditional reward structure of higher education (Olcott & Wright, 1995), other factors have been identified as obstacles to participation in distance education in particular. Faculty fears related to distance learning itemized by Berge & Muilenburg (2000) included:

1. "faceless" teaching

2. fear of the imminent replacement of faculty by computers

3. diffusion of value traditionally placed on getting a degree

4. faculty culture

5. lack of an adequate time-frame to plan, evaluate and revise online courses

6. public ignorance of the efficacy of distance education

7. increased time required

8. the more technologically advanced the system, the more to go wrong

9. non-educational considerations take precedence over educational priorities

10. lack of technological assistance

These perceived barriers signal obstacles directly related to rapid changes in organizational culture. Administrators face the challenge of weaving solutions to those challenges into the organization. (Berge & Muilenburg, 2000). Regardless of institutional context, faculty developers and program administrators must be aware of the fears their faculty face. Consideration of how these perceptions will be addressed and how fears will be eased should be part of the collective vision for the distance learning program.

Tapping Faculty Motivations

Faculty support is one of many factors that will provide incentive for instructors interested in distance delivery. If this is not provided, its absence can be the disincentive that prevents their pursuit. Support must be tied to motivation, and motivation to incentives. Identifying barriers to participation is fruitless unless incentives that capitalize upon faculty motivation are established. While the previously discussed Berge and Muilenberg's (2000) study spoke specifically to the perceptual barriers that prohibit faculty from embracing distance technologies, other studies have examined perceptions and motivations that incline faculty toward distance education. As with most human behavior, faculty motivations for engaging in distance learning stem from both internal and external motivational sources (Wolcott, 2003). Overall, research supports the conclusion that faculty are initially drawn to distance education more by intrinsic than extrinsic factors (Taylor & White, 1991; Betts, 1998; Rockwell, Schauer, Fritz & Marx, 1999). Betts' (1998) study of faculty motivation indicated that intrinsic motivators such as intellectual challenge, personal motivation to use technology, the opportunity to reach new student audiences and the chance to develop new ideas were all relevant factors in faculty adoption of distance technologies. Similarly, Rockwell, Schauer, Fritz and Marx (1999) noted the appeal of reaching students beyond their grasp in the residential environment.

Motivation is the path to influencing change, and faculty developers and program administrators must be cognizant of motivation in promoting change. Institutional vision must reflect awareness of motivators and provide a plan for systematically promoting factors to promote receptivity to distance initiatives. Motivation resides largely in the realm of psychology. An effective distance learning administrator must think about how to move the largely theoretical construct of faculty motivation into the practical realm of developing faculty in the area of distance education. As motivation is driven by incentives, the provision of incentives and the minimization of disincentives are crucial to planning faculty development activities for the newcomer to distance education.

Administrative Incentives and Disincentives

The purpose behind examining barriers and motivation is to identify strategies that will attract and retain faculty. In the move to action, program administrators must address the affective factors that influence faculty participation and then outline a system of support that begins with recruitment and continues throughout the life of the program. Underlying these efforts should be a reward structure that recognizes the significant effort it requires to be a skilled distance educator. Faculty developers and program administrators must be aware of the affective factors that influence decision-making both to embark on professional preparation for distance education and to persist in it. Developers must provide not only the content-driven information faculty may seek, but also recognize that faculty are often predominantly focused on psychological factors in their teaching (Cravener, 1999). Effective distance delivery requires both mastery of the technology and an understanding of basic instructional design principles, It also requires a reexamination of pedagogy. The goals connected to the design of distance instruction are often the same widely accepted goals in residentially-based instructional development (Kussmaul & Dunn, 1996). To this end, the differences between residential and distance instruction are not so great and should not be exaggerated, but must be noted.

Comprehensive training and ongoing technical support are critical factors. "If the institution does not have a commitment to enhance technological literacy ... there will be too many disincentives for a faculty development program to succeed" (Padgett & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000, 331). Instructors need training to ensure a strong start, and continuing support and services throughout their distance education experience to promote maximum quality and satisfaction in the online courses they teach (Lieberman & McNett, 2000). The maintenance of seamless technology and the availability of knowledgeable individuals who can assist is a reflection of administrative commitment to the distance education initiative. The assurance implicit in the provision of sound infrastructure and ongoing support can ease faculty concern about the logistics of distance learning and provide reassurance that their efforts are valued and will be rewarded.

Sustaining Faculty Involvement

With all of the stated barriers, motivations, incentives and rewards, it seems that promoting faculty participation in distance education is a perpetual battle. Fortunately, the battle eases once faculty overcome their fears and are supported through their early experiences. In general, distance educators show positive attitudes toward distance teaching, and faculty attitudes improve as experience with distance education increases (Dillon & Walsh, 1992). Just as lack of familiarity with distance education is a predictor of resistance, increasing experience with the medium is a predictor of support for it (Black, 1992). As faculty find their skills improving, concerns are reduced and the intrinsic rewards of online instruction begin to show themselves more fully and more frequently. Some faculty also find the quality of their residential instruction improving as their distance instruction skills improve (Rockwell, Schauer, Fritz & Marx, 1999), thus promoting further personal and professional satisfaction within the medium.

This realization should indicate the implicit value of peer support and peer mentoring within distance education training and support plans. Experienced peers have the potential to play an important role in motivating reluctant faculty. Once faculty members experience success in the medium, they are likely to stay with it. In practical terms, it is easier for a distance program to retain faculty than it is to attract them, and this should be considered when deciding where to allocate resources and time. If the pursuit of quality distance education is truly a prized institutional goal, administration must first recognize that to drive change, the investment in human capital and potential is at least as important as their investment in technological infrastructure. The technology serves no purpose if it is not being employed in meaningful ways, and nothing of sustainable value will be achieved without significant investment in the human infrastructure (Foa, 1993). Too often, the failure to provide human infrastructure in favor of the technological is made, and this limited approach leads to proportionately limited success.

Faculty must be reasonably certain that their efforts will be regarded similarly among their colleagues and across campus units. To entice faculty toward distance learning, successful integration should be showcased throughout campus, illustrating the positive results across the organization while emphasizing incentives, training, support and reward structures (Foa, 1993). As faculty realize that their efforts are valued, their willingness to engage in distance activities will increase along with their confidence.


Just as faculty must support their students, institutions intending to be successful in distance education must support their faculty. "To remain at the forefront of higher education, faculty development initiatives need to broaden their focus, utilize more diverse methods and formats, focus on providing more learner-centered instruction, and consider positive cultural impact that electronic technologies make possible" (Kolbo & Turnage, 2002). The benefits of promoting innovations in teaching, both in the classroom and at a distance, offer direct and indirect benefit to the institution and the individuals that comprise it. "Institutions committed to encouraging innovative teaching practices are far more likely to attract and keep students, faculty and staff," (Kolbo & Turnage, 2002). Faculty developers are central to the promotion of innovative and effective teaching, both in the classroom and at a distance. Success is dependent upon identifying the needs of faculty and supporting their movement through the stages of implementation (Cavener, 1998).

Excellence in teaching must be the first, because adopting technology will not improve poor teaching, and without excellent teachers, technology will not enhance learning to any degree (Kearsley, 1996). Faculty and administration have both a mutual goal and a mutual dependence, and it falls to the faculty developers to mediate between these two bodies to promote the objectives of the administration while addressing the needs and motivations of faculty. Faculty participation hinges on being intrinsically motivated and equitably rewarded (Wolcott, 2003). Designing a system of faculty support that leverages motivation through the provision of attractive incentives is requisite to the success of any distance learning program.


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Jennifer McLean, Pennsylvania College of Technology

Dr. McLean is the director of instructional technology and distance learning at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA.
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Author:McLean, Jennifer
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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