Preparing for the return to a virtual teaching environment


One online higher education leader’s tips for preparing faculty for the possibility of all-online or hybrid instruction this fall

3.59 min read

Caregiver holding a senior woman's hands

By Tahnja Wilson, Director, Faculty Training and Development

As the start of the 2020-21 academic year approaches, colleges and universities are unveiling tentative plans for what teaching and learning will look like in the fall. Even as announcements are made, institutions know they need to be nimble enough to shift strategies to hybrid or all-online education models should the need arise.

For traditional universities, this means the continuation of a drastic shift in the way instruction has been delivered and received in the past. Faculty, who are novices at online instruction or who are disheartened at the thought of nixing face-to-face courses again, can be overwhelmed by this news.

Preparing local campus faculty for the fall Covid-19 environment and whatever that entails means taking a critical look at how you communicate and provide faculty preparedness. Below, I’ve framed how University of Phoenix’s Faculty Training and Development has accomplished this to ensure that our faculty who taught at our physical campuses – or those new to the University – are completely prepared for the synchronous learning environment.

As your faculty prepare to potentially return to virtual instruction this academic year, here are a few best practices to consider:

Be as transparent as possible

When decision-makers keep employees from the top-down apprised of facts, it offers a level of comfort and stability, even when things are uncertain. Focusing on explaining what is happening, why it is happening and how it is impacting them will help faculty understand the decision.

In mid-March, our leadership followed the what-why-how approach when communicating with our physical campus instructors as states began announcing social distancing restrictions:

  • The what: We closed physical campuses on a specific date and time, moving all classes online synchronously via the University’s learning management system.
  • The why: We followed guidance from appropriate entities and chose this for the health and safety of our faculty, students, their families and their communities.
  • The how: We supported faculty with internal guides, including an overview and resources geared toward an entry-level online instructor, step-by-step instructions on basic tasks, such as recording attendance, and basic functions of our real-time engagement platform built into the learning management system.

Communication and resources should be ongoing, offered in bite-size chunks starting with the basics, then introducing layers of information as they are determined. But letting people know what is happening up front lets them know you are working on a blueprint.

Meet faculty where they are

When faculty are used to teaching face-to-face, a sudden shift to virtual learning can seem daunting. It may even be that they’ve chosen an in-person course to teach to avoid an online environment. Even with the prior semester under their belt at this point, they still need to know that they are supported.

Make use of instructional and support videos, infographics, how-to readings, FAQs, best practices and testimonials. Keep the resources on an easy-to-access faculty page, refreshed and up-to-date, and provide lines of communication to answer questions or direct faculty to other resources.

Live webinars are a great, interactive way to share information and encourage questions. In the spring, we held weekly webinars tailored specifically to our local campus faculty-turned online instructors, knowing that the types of information they may need was different than our seasoned online instructors.

One session per week was dedicated to technical questions, like how to connect to the LMS, preferred browsers, bandwidth, sharing a presentation, sharing a video and allowing students to present. We also had a session dedicated to incorporating the various integrated tools — like polling, whiteboard and breakout groups — into a synchronous course session to encourage student-to-student and student-to-faculty engagement.

Maintain the support

Ongoing levels of support should increase in complexity as faculty become more comfortable with the technical aspects of the system and facilitating their sessions.  Introduce and emphasize additional resources with a pedagogical slant. In addition to weekly webinars, continue to provide resources as you did at the beginning, so faculty know who their points of contact are and where to find information either internally or externally. We have a best practices and testimonial readings section on a Resource Center page that is sourced and curated by faculty.

This is an excellent time for educators to learn from one another. The key is to offer communication about the impact COVID-19 continues to have on our institutions and offering the resources and support for our educators to benefit our students. As we say at University of Phoenix, together we rise.

After years in the healthcare field, Wilson earned her elementary education certificate and designed and taught her own technology curriculum to K-8 student. Additionally, she developed more than 30 professional development courses for K-12 educators on personalized learning, gaming, student agency, etc. Since joining University of Phoenix in 2019 as the Director of Faculty Training and Development, her focus has been on enhancing faculty performance to realize better student outcomes.