6 Ways to Gain Faculty Support for Online Learning

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I have the unique privilege of viewing the development of online learning from three different lenses — as former faculty and program head at the Michigan Ross School of Business, as former dean at Babson College, and now as Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine.

I have had many conversations with many institutional leaders, and I hear too many complaining about how their faculty get in the way of their plans for online programs.

Recently, a case at Eastern Michigan University came to light in which the administration and faculty had very different relationships with online efforts. Unfortunately, given my viewpoint, most situations that I’ve encountered are more similar to this than they are different.

The following is about the specific ways in which this situation can be changed, what results from changing the mindset, and how your school can undertake an effort to make all of this possible.

Changing the mindset

Faculty are often seen as barriers to change, the “opposition” of administration in leading a school to greatness. I feel like this doesn’t have to be the case but the mindsets of many administrators aren’t where they need to be.

Let me point out a few changes that would make the process more successful.

1. Start with the faculty’s vision of the program

Faculty are the core resource of any school; their very presence defines the areas of expertise of the school. It is only faculty who can gain lifetime employment security.

Given both of these facts, it is counterproductive to start anywhere other than with the faculty’s vision for what a program might become and should be. Certainly, the administration is a vital part of the process, but they need to think of themselves as enablers of and partners of the faculty rather than something that is burdened by them.

A faculty team’s vision might entail several dimensions. First, the faculty will have some notion of how much they are willing to be involved in the creation and delivery of a course.

You will need to have conversations and presentations about different models and the level to which the school is willing to support various models. Doing this early in the planning phase is vital to keeping these issues from overwhelming the process later.

Second (and last for now), the faculty will have some insight into typical pedagogies that they might want to employ in the program. Again, you will need to have conversations and presentations about different modern online pedagogies and research into learner engagement.

You don’t have to make any final decisions here, but preparing faculty to think about pedagogies appropriate for online learning (and differing from traditional face-to-face learning) would be a useful step to take early in the process.

2. Build the course for the individual faculty member

Faculty typically think of having “ownership” of a course. This is not necessarily right or wrong—it just is.

If the new online program is going to change this perceived relationship, then many long discussions will be in your future. The school will have to be clear from the very beginning about how individual courses are created and managed as well as who has the right to change the course going forward.

It is probably easiest, as a first step, to assign the responsibility to one faculty member with a supporting team of faculty members contributing to its creation and management (just as is usually done with a large, multi-section core course).

While a course is built within a program, and the program has a faculty that has defined appropriate pedagogies and learning approaches, it is still the case that specific faculty members and specific courses will require additional specializations and additions to the platform over time. 

It might be the case that these additions are built into the platform and course over time, or that simpler and less expensive substitutions are used to begin with; however, faculty should feel that they can create and teach a course to the best of their abilities (within an expense budget, of course).

3. Don’t start with credit-bearing programs

Faculty are most, and appropriately, protective of credit-bearing programs.

Given their risk averse nature, this alone will keep an online program from ever seeing the light of day unless the faculty are fully supportive of it. And, recognize this to begin with: it is difficult to get faculty support for anything that requires changes in their behavior. You can’t just say that it will be a good experience; you need to prove it, most of all with experiences that they themselves go through.

If your school wants to move into online education in a big way (eventually), then you need to think “small” to begin with. Think about which faculty group you want to build support with, and then figure out how you might create a certificate program, or an alumni outreach program, or a pre-matriculation focused program.

These all provide great places for the faculty to gain experience with online learning. They provide value to the school in and of themselves while also providing environments in which faculty feel more free to experiment with new pedagogies and course-delivery modes.

4. Recognize the work required to create a course

Creating an innovative, effective, and engaging online course requires a lot of effort on the part of faculty (and instructional designers, among others).

Treating this effort as similar to what faculty might do in order to create a new in-person course significantly understates the effort needed. Word travels fast among faculty, so indicating to them in some way that creating a new course is somehow not that much work (a notion that will soon be exposed) will backfire quickly.

Administration should recognize this initial course creation with pay and time — maybe an additional 50% pay for a course or reduction in load for that semester.

Note that delivery of a course is another issue altogether; it might take more effort or it might take less, all depending on the pedagogies used, the size of the classes, the support personnel available, etc.

5. Don’t move too fast

This one isn’t specific to faculty but it generally fits their worldview. Moving into online requires a broad organizational commitment, and doing it well requires expertise and insight within each group.

Further, it requires cooperation among the groups and mutual understanding of the point of view and expertise in each of the groups. None of this happens quickly, and it can’t be forced.

Also, leadership and faculty time is limited and the demands on their time is significant. You should plan to implement new programs one at a time

6. Create something great

One of the biggest concerns from faculty is many think that great online learning doesn’t exist. Well, it does.

Take a look at what Harvard Business School is doing with HBX. They’ve transformed their renowned case study method into an interactive learning experience through modern online technologies.

And take a look at Notre Dame’s first online master’s program, which, in their words, is “‘authentically online; designed for online, and not simply an upload of existing face-to-face graduate courses in applied statistics, applied and computational mathematics and predictive analytics.”

Unfortunately, what is true is that most of online learning — and by most I mean like 99% — is not great. It’s boring, antiquated, and it doesn’t utilize the pedagogies we know are effective. Your faculty vision of online learning might be skewed by the limited tell-and-test approach some traditional learning management system (LMS) offer.

But online learning has evolved significantly, and we’re now at a point where institutions can create effective, engaging learner-centric, and faculty-approved Custom Learning Experiences. Great online learning exists. But don’t think small, think big. Create something great.

(A small disclaimer, I am a bit biased because this is what we do — we help universities create exceptional online learning. But we do this because it works, and it changes the mindset of faculty, not to mention students and administration.)


None of this is going to be cheap; it will eventually require less investment, and it will end up contributing more to the school’s bottom line, but you have to be willing to spend some money.  

It will be more successful and more sustainable because of these leadership and managerial efforts. And it’s not going to happen quickly, but it will happen.

This level of investment of cash and human capital is why the school’s and university’s top leadership — both staff and faculty —needs to be fully involved in and supportive of an online learning initiative. I have yet to see a successful move be headed up by a technical or instructional design team.

If you keep all of the above in mind, and work with faculty throughout the creation of your online programs, then you will be in a more sustainable and defensible market position. You will also be bringing more revenue into the school than you would have otherwise while also reaching more students on their terms instead of yours.

Need help with faculty buy-in?

None of this would do anyone any good if there wasn’t a way forward that helped schools make all of these moves.

Well, not coincidentally, Extension Engine specializes in supporting schools in their online learning efforts. Contact us and we can schedule a consultation to talk about strategies for building your online programs and how we can support both your faculty and your administration as you make your move to create outstanding online learning.

Keep learning

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[WHITE PAPER COVER] A Financial Model for Online Programs: Revenue Sharing vs. Fee-for-Service (Higher Ed)*


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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