The UK Higher Ed context

Shelleyann Scott and Kathryn Dixon (2008 ) in their edited book, The Globalized University: Trends and Challenges in Teaching and Learning, offer educational leaders a discussion about the changes information and communicate technology is bringing to their institutions.

Chapter 4: “Frequently, university-wide strategic decisions about technology are made without fully understanding the implications for resources, administration, teaching programmes, teaching practices and learning approaches, often resulting in technology-led course design” (p.83). There has been too much time and effort placed on the technology ICT infrastructures and improving instructors ICT skills, and not how teachers and students might benefit from it. Yet, a government initiative to increase institutions’ focus on student learning will provide a better focus. What is more, “many academic teachers lack a pedagogical understanding of the form of their practice” (p.89) increasing the frustration with using technology. As well, online courses are quite public accentuating port teaching practices.

What is more, professional development programs focus on how to use technology that reinforces current teaching strategies and not transforming them. Working in online courses and developing them requires instructors to think about their pedagogical views and beliefs and to understand them in the context of online learning. “Technology-led innovations do not improve educational practices in themselves – it is teachers who are the agents of change” (Kirkwood & Price, 2005). Barriers that cause faculty to revert to teacher-focused approaches were time to change practice and lack of systematic changes at the departmental level to enhance learner-centered practices as “their approach is mediated by their work environment” (p.92). Departments need to encourage the improvement of student learning.

As well, reflecting on the departmental and institutional contexts is important when designing PD frameworks as well as providing an academic rationale for using ICT.  And, besides the instructor, professional developers need to focus on the support staff and managers to ensure the proper policies, support, resources and infrastructures are in place. For instance, senior university managers work with policy and decision making about ICT use. By exploring the impact of these on students, staff and resources more strategic decision making will develop. Departmental managers can reflect on the same at the faculty and department levels. The need to make informed decisions, determine the time and money needed, and choose strategies to implement technologies in the programs with awareness of the organizational context. Whereas, individual teaching and learning staff must come to understand the pedagogical rationale of using ICT and its impact on students, staff and resources, encouraging a reflective practice and strategic choices.

PD also needs to include higher levels of pedagogy such as philosophizing about teaching, increased teamwork and collaboration than working with strategies and tactics. Students also need ICT and information skills training to use consistently throughout their degree programs. For PD to be successful there needs to be supports in place, consultations with faculty to implement innovation and follow up research on the impact of changed practice.

The review of teaching, as mandated by the QAA a quality assurance agency for higher ed, looks at curriculum, teaching, assessment, student achievement and support, resources and quality management. More so, quality assurance initiatives are needed to monitor and maintain quality student experiences, through quantitative surveys for instance. Evidence-based research is a way to examine teaching practices and assumptions.


Faculty perceptions on teaching

Shelleyann Scott and Kathryn Dixon (2008 ) in their edited book, The Globalized University: Trends and Challenges in Teaching and Learning, offer educational leaders a discussion about the changes information and communicate technology is bringing to their institutions.

Chapter 3: Faculty perceptions of learning and teaching with technology. They share seven principles for teaching and learning by Chickering, Gamson & Barsi (1987; 1989) as:


  1. For faculty and students to connect
  2. For students to work collaboratively and socially
  3. For students to actively engage in their learning
  4. To get prompt feedback
  5. To manage one’s time
  6. To set high expectations
  7. Be inclusive with diverse talents and learning styles


Also, adult learners have certain needs such as being self-directed, draw on life experiences, learning for social and work lives, problem-solving, application to their context, and are intrinsically motivated. They want a mutual learning experience with the instructor where their knowledge and experience are respected (Merriam & Brockett, 1997; 2006). Wlodkowski (2006) points out what motivates adult learners such as personal and professional goals, and are interested in learning that is relevant and applicable to their context. To feel motivated they need to feel included in the learning environment and respected and connected with others; relevant learning with choice; challenging and thoughtful learning experiences, and a feeling of success. However, instructors are concerned how to help students collaborate and discuss when there is so much diversity in the student population such as age, gender, ethnicity, and past experience. As well, adult students are motivated by their varied goals, financial incentives, status and recognition, interaction with others and the learning context. Thus, they need to have control with their learning (Knowles, Holton III and Swanson, 1997).


While many instructors use traditional teaching strategies, over half wanted to try new methods such as problem-based and cooperative learning, and to incorporate technology. Yet, short workshops proved to be ineffective for transferring skills into regularly teaching behaviours and improved student outcomes. Taking professional development to another level that is organizationally wide and transcends boundaries is more effective. This would promote multidimensional approaches to teaching and learning, resource sharing, evidence-based reflections and action planning. Another issue is workloads with faculty becoming overwhelmed with teaching assignments, conducting research, administrative tasks, high student numbers, and monitoring teaching assistants, all inhibiting their ability to find extra time and energy to engage in professional development, and reflect on teaching practices. Furthermore, faculty are frustrated with governments push for increased teaching quality and research output, drawing on their time to produce good work. There seemed to be more time in the past for these activities and to produce quality work.

Top Teaching and Learning Challenges of 2009

The EDUCAUSE teaching and learning community devised a list of challenges to current teaching and learning endeavours. They see the need for learning environments that are engaging, and promote critical thinking, collaboration and knowledge creation. They also see the need for faculty and students developing 21st century literacies as with information, digital and visual.

They also see the challenges like advancing innovation within financial reductions and constraints. How do you scale innovation for a large institution? Is integrating technology throughout the institution a way to address this? What is more, how does Web2.0 tactics integrate into learning management systems? How can we assess the use of technology through research and evaluation?

Another main challenge is getting faculty to adopt IT in their teaching. A concern is if they have core competencies. Some solutions for this are rewarding faculty for being innovative, support them in their innovations, and help them discover best practices and integrate theory into practice. In fact both students and faculty need training in using technology, to assess digital-based work, and understanding student needs. There needs to be a discussion about this to learn from collective experimentation.

Online community important to learning

In an article in the International Journal of E-Learning (vol7, issue 3), Ni and Aust (2008 )also study the affects of teacher verbal immediacy and a sense of community on undergraduate and graduate students who studied online. They, too, measured student satisfaction and perceived learning as Gallien and Oomen-Early (2008).

Interestingly, the sense of classroom community online seemed to be the only significant factor that affected satisfaction and learning, whereas the presence and verbal immediacy of the instructor helped increase the frequency of online discussion. Conceptually, sense of community can be explained through Moore’s theory of transactional distance promoting three types of interaction: learner-instructor, learner-learner and learner-content. Added to this by other theorists are learner-interface (Hillman, Willis & Gundawardena, 1994) and vicarious interaction (Sutton, 2001) through active observation of others online. In this study, students felt they needed more instructor-learner and learner-learner interaction. Anderson and Garrison (1995) saw the positive affects of community on learning.

More important, a sense of community online requires a feeling of “belonging, trust, and commitment in the interaction between and among students” as well as assuming the obligation to each other and sharing goals; whereas “spirit denotes recognition of community members, the feelings of friendship, cohesion, belonging, and group identity” (p.481). This is a tall order for an online instructor and students alike.

As well, teacher verbal immediacy affected the frequency of online discussion postings by students, and their perceptions of teacher immediacy. Working with another distance education theoretical concept by Holmberg (1960) called the Guided Didactic Conversation theory, this study assumed that feelings of belonging, cooperation and exchange of questions and answers through text-based communication helps motivate learning, and creates what he deems as ‘real’ learning. Additionally, seeing non-verbal immediacy (nodding and smiling) is less likely to be seen online, verbal immediacy actions such as praising and using personal examples can be used to reduce the psychological distance of between teacher and student. As for its less effect on student satisfaction and perceived learning, it might be due to the fact most participants were adults over the age of 30 and are more concerned about the content than the teachers’ interactions. And adult learners tend to take online courses for the chance to collaborate with other online students (Bischoff, 2000).

There is an evolving discussion about online pedagogy. Distinguishing features of online learning are its potential for interaction and collaboration, and the access to vast resources.

As a recommendation, Ny and Aust suggest “teachers should develop communication behaviours that reduce social and psychological distance in the online learning environment” (p.477). It is also important to design online classes to promote interaction and for instructors to facilitate a sense of community. Like, Gallien and Oomen-Early (2008), there is a call for a change in pedagogical practice, and perhaps faculty development.

Feedback is essential online

In an article in the International Journal of E-Learning (vol 7, issue3), Gallien and Oomen-Early (2008 ), studied whether students were more affected by personal or collected feedback from instructors in the online courseroom. She studied student satisfaction, academic performance and perceived connectiveness with the instructor considering the type of feedback.

Results showed that indeed students who received personal feedback on their assignments were more satisfied and performed better academically. Feedback is seen to provide both verification or elaboration of understanding. Students also showed satisfaction with the course design and the availability of the instructor.

As well, studies have found a connection between instructor-student interaction and satisfaction. As well, social presence of instructors and peers is also desirable and deemed as “the degree that individuals perceive others to be real in the online environment” (p.466). The term teacher immediacy is also used in this study indicating the enhanced “closeness by reducing the psychological distance between individuals”  through non-verbal language, praising, using humour, sharing one’s story and asking questions (p.467).

In short, the study shows that online students need frequent interaction, support and feedback from instructors, and want a sense of community with the instructor. This might be needed more  online requiring faculty to engage more than in face to face classes. However, considering the resistance of some instructors, the challenge is mandating this interaction and helping develop the skills through faculty development.

Instructors affect online students

Arbaugh in his article How Instructors Immediacy Behaviours Affect Student Satisfaction and Learning in Web-Based Courses, shares a study he conducted to investigate whether the instructor’s classroom behaviour affected their satisfaction and learning.

Other studies determined time and place flexibility, patience with new online learners, and student interaction increased student satisfaction -but are considered endemic and repeatable by any institution. The engagement of the instructor was seen as a added value and worth exploring.

Immediacy refers to” communication behaviours that reduce social and psychological distance between people” (p.43), and includes nonverbal and verbal behaviours such as using personal examples, inviting responses, being humorous, making eye contact and smiling, body position, addressing students by their name. These are associated with increased student motivation and learning.

Arbaugh found that appropriate immediacy behaviours were essential and requires more than generating class discussion through questions. It requires the strategies indicated above.

Furthermore, the instructors experience with online learning was not a predictor of learning. Again, strong classroom skills are essential and transferable online. Other factors affecting student satisfaction was students in the program longer are less satisfied which might be due to burn out or higher expectations, students might feel intimidated by technically advanced instructors but see them as better teachers online, and students are more satisfied if they can choose their courses.

Shifting faculty

Online learning is being embraced at a faster rate within community colleges and non-top-tier universities in the US, stated Ruth, Sammons and Poulin (Educause Quarterly, Number 2, 2007). With the volume increase in students choosing online learning, it is wondered if the quality of elearning will be improved and sustained. For instance, it was found many future online learners will be between the ages of 35 and 55 – individuals who will judge and choose programs based on quality, cost, accreditation, and technology use.

Apparently, top tier universities may not see full-scale online programs as a strategy for their institutions, leaving this type of programming to others. Thus, one half of enrolments in elearning are in community colleges, 1/3 at doctoral and masters granting institutions, and the remaining at undergrad and specialized schools. 

One main factor affecting the quality of online programs is faculty. Three million, of the 17 million postsecondary students in the US, are being taught via elearning programs by 100,000 full-time and part-time faculty members (10%). What is more, over half of faculty are part-time at community colleges and universities, and it is these non-permanent staff that are teaching in the online programs. This raises questions about quality, more namely affects on graduation rate (part-time faculty are found to have a negative impact), professional accreditation of courses, and status of the institution.

The authors predict that full-time tenured faculty members will not and are not that interested in teaching online courses. In fact, they state these faculty sense of the legitimacy for online courses are decreasing over time. If this is the case, it is argued to increase the involvement and commitment of part-time faculty through pay incentives, long term contracts, and to fund premier online programs regionally, first, as examples for others.

The main argument of this article is if online learning demands are increasing, and part-time/adjunct staff are negatively affecting program quality but are the main teaching staff, then invest in the structure as it is. That is, heighten and enrich the part-time faculty position by making them a valuable resource, improve their pay and working conditions, provide them more visibility in the institution, and allow them into the governance of the institutions. This focus is thought to  be less costly than the cost and overhead of full-time staff.

As a future instructor destined for academia, I am aware that part-time positions might be more prevalent, yet will struggle to have a significant status compared to tenure. This article makes the argument that increasing the commitment, involvement and work of part-time, or non-permanent, staff has many benefits for the higher education institution.