Online learning, faculty development and academic freedom

May 5, 2014 Tony Bates

 faculty development word tag

The move to ‘professionalize’ teaching

One of the issues that came up at last week’s conference for university Boards of Governors was the growing need for faculty to be trained in teaching methods, if students are to be fully prepared for life after university. The argument goes something like this:

1. There is increasing pressure from employers, the business community and also from educators for faculty to set clear learning outcomes, and to develop in a deliberate and conscious manner high-level intellectual and personal skills in students, which requires moving away from a model of information transmission to greater student engagement, more learner-centered teaching, and new methods of assessment that measure competencies as well as mastery of content.

2. The move to online learning and a greater use of learning technologies offers more options and choice for faculty. In order to use these technologies well, faculty require not only to know the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of technology, but also need to have a good grasp of how students learn best. This requires a combination of knowing about the research into learning, different theories of learning related to different concepts of knowledge (epistemology), and instructional design skills. Without this basic foundation, it is difficult for faculty to move away from the only model that they are familiar with, namely the lecture and discussion model, which is limited in terms of developing what are often called 21st century skills.

3. Faculty are trained, through the doctoral route, to do research, but there is no requirement to be trained in teaching methods. At best faculty development is voluntary for faculty once appointed, and although post-doctoral students may be offered short courses or in some instances even a certificate in preparation for classroom teaching, this is again voluntary and minimal. Nevertheless teaching will take up a minimum of 40% of a faculty member’s time, and much more for many college instructors.

In effect, this is a productivity issue. The argument is that faculty will get better results, particularly in terms of learning outcomes, if they are professionally trained. Since professional training is exactly what faculty try to do for others, such as scientists, business students, pilots, doctors, health workers, teachers, and engineers, why is it not appropriate for faculty themselves?

Faculty development

The current professional development model is broken

I have argued many times that the current professional development model for faculty – and almost as much for instructors in colleges – is broken. The major problem is that for university faculty – at least in Canada – professional development is mainly voluntary. There is no requirement to take any faculty development courses for tenure or promotion, and faculty can choose to do whatever they think is most appropriate as professional development, such as attending conferences or taking sabbaticals that may have nothing to do with teaching the subject.

Professional development also is mainly focused on faculty once they are in service, rather than on training them before they have tenure or full-time contracts. But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Many people working in faculty development offices will tell you that professional development is like parents’ evening in schools: you never see the people who really need to be there. And faculty development staff themselves often carry very little clout or status with other faculty, especially outside their own subject domain.  Faculty development staff are often selected for their classroom teaching expertise but may know nothing about teaching online.

However, we don’t allow pilots to fly commercial aircraft without training, we place very high standards on doctors before they are allowed to practice medicine, and we wouldn’t tolerate engineers building roads, tunnels or bridges without very high levels of training. Then why is it OK for faculty to spend 40% or more of their time doing something for which they have had no or minimal training, and which for most students is the most important thing they are paying tuition fees for?

Barriers  to training faculty to teach

It is hard to explain to people outside the higher education institutions why this situation exists. There are many possible reasons that could be put forward, such as

  • faculty are too busy or overworked with research and administration, and actually doing the job of teaching, to find time for training,
  • the reward system grossly favours research over teaching, so it’s not worth the effort,
  • teaching is an art, not a science, so can’t be taught (so much for art schools)
  • senior research professors don’t want their grad students to waste their time being trained to teach instead of learning how to do research
  • being an expert in a subject area makes you an expert on how to teach it.

There may be an element of truth in each of these arguments, but I believe the main reason lies in faculty’s interpretation of academic freedom.

Academic freedom and teaching

Nothing is more sacrosanct in a university than academic freedom. The concept is critical, and no less important today than in earlier times, when it was a protection against the dogma of the church or the interests of the king. In today’s world, with incredibly powerful multinational companies, governments with narrow political agendas, and the pressure for social conformity, the ability of an academic to research and talk freely, rationally and with expertise about any topic is an essential pillar of democracy, freedom and the search for truth.  It’s one of the core values of a university.

Many academics believe though that academic freedom should apply not only to their choice of what they teach, but also to how they teach it. This stems partly from their expertise in the subject area itself: ‘Don’t tell me how to teach my own subject!.’ There is also some substance in that argument. Science should be taught differently from history: the subject demands it. The fear is that by being trained to teach professionally, outside standards or processes will be imposed on academics and thus force them into some kind of bureaucratic conformity that does not meet the needs of the subject or field of study.

However, I believe that this particular argument is false. The aim is not to restrict the faculty member’s academic freedom through training in teaching, but to widen it by providing more choice. The aim is to provide alternatives and to make what the faculty member wants to do more effective, by drawing on the best research in the teaching of that subject. If you want to develop in undergraduate students high level research skills, here’s what the research tells us and here’s how to do it effectively. Here’s how technology could help to deal with more students with just as good learning outcomes.

So what should be done?

I do believe that we know enough about effective teaching in post-secondary education (see for instance Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010) that we should require those who wish to teach in post-secondary education to be formally qualified and to keep current in new methods. This would mean providing post-graduate students with courses and modules on teaching as well as research, if they wish to get a job as a faculty member, and requiring college instructors to take a minimum number of courses on teaching before renewal of contracts.

However, if this is imposed from outside, by government or even senior administration, especially through the collective agreement process, faculty are likely to resist strongly such pressure. It would be far better if faculty push for this themselves. After all, who would not like to get better results for the same amount of work – or even less work? Many faculty currently live in fear of new technologies. We are like the generals at the beginning of the second world war, sending 18 year old pilots to fly fighters or bombers with almost no training – only we are taking mid-career professionals instead, and trying to make them fighter pilots. Proper training can help reduce that fear, and provide much needed confidence in knowing when and when not to use technology for teaching. But this needs to be done at the outset of their careers.

Government and senior administrators also need much more determination in insisting on proper training, while at the same time making it possible. This may mean finding extra money to support the training of post-graduate students in particular. However, this initial investment will pay for itself many times over in more successful students, better learning outcomes and less stress on faculty, freeing up more time eventually for research.

Getting your input

So here are some questions for your input:

1. Can or should we professionalize teaching in higher education? Or is it already happening?

2. Do you believe that the standard professional development model is broken?

3. Why do faculty resist attempts to provide training in teaching? (I’d love to hear from faculty on this).

4. Is this a threat to academic freedom – or is academic freedom being used as a smokescreen to avoid accountability?

5. If we need professional training to teach in universities, how can this best be implemented?

6. Where is faculty training being done comprehensively and well? Why?

Summing up

Of all the challenges facing online learning, I believe the need to train faculty properly to be the most difficult. Without adequate training in teaching methods, I don’t see how learning technologies can be used effectively. We cannot afford to go on creating a whole parallel industry of instructional designers to hold the hands of faculty who can’t teach effectively. Higher education is costing too much to have amateurs doing the teaching.

But I also believe that most faculty do want to teach well, and will respond to help in the right form. So I really look forward to your feedback on this.


Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal and  Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press

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