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Differential Skills and Competencies Required of Faculty Teaching Distance Education Courses

Regina Schoenfeld-Tacher, Colorado State University;
Kay A. Persichitte, University of Northern Colorado


The differential skills and competencies required of faculty teaching distance delivered courses within distance learning programs were analyzed in this study. A literature search revealed that teaching a distance education (DE) course requires faculty to: become proficient in the use of the chosen delivery technology, design lessons that are more student centered, adapt to teaching in the absence of nonverbal feedback from students, and develop methods of communicating their content without lecturing. Six faculty members teaching DE courses at a Doctoral I institution in Northeastern Colorado were surveyed about their experiences teaching in this manner and how those experiences differed from face-to-face teaching. All six used the World Wide Web as the primary delivery system, but each differed in (a) the use of synchronous and asynchronous tools, and (b) who was responsible for the design, development, and delivery of the course (e.g., supported by private online vendor, individual faculty). The faculty perceptions of the skills and competencies they had to acquire as a result of teaching in this medium varied greatly and were found to be primarily influenced by their prior knowledge of instructional design strategies and distance education theories.


This paper explores the differential skills required of faculty teaching distance delivered courses within distance learning programs. The first section is devoted to a review of the current literature, including a definition of the system under consideration, and an analysis of the differential demands placed on faculty in distance teaching settings (as compared to face-to-face (f2f) instruction). Different skills required for teaching with specific media are also examined in this section. A summary of perceptions gathered from surveys of faculty who have recently taught distance delivered courses via the World Wide Web within traditional academic distance learning programs is included. Finally, conclusions are drawn and issues for further research are discussed.

Literature Review

Definition of the System

Moore and Kearsley (1996) proposed a four-level typology based upon the work of Michael Mark (1990) to identify and classify the various levels of distance education (DE) determined by the scope and administrative complexity of each. The first of these levels is termed the Distance Learning Program. At this level, the program consists of

activities carried out in a conventional college, university, school system or training department whose primary responsibilities include traditional classroom instruction. In recent years many faculty have chosen to teach their courses off-campus by means of audio- or videoconferencing, simply adding the distant learners to their conventional class. This is sometimes referred to as the "craft" approach to distance education, since it usually consists of a single teacher working alone, as contrasted to working with a team in a systems approach. A distance learning program does not usually have its own faculty or administrative services. (p. 3)

This paper examines the differential demands placed upon four faculty having sole responsibility for the design, development, and delivery of their Web courses and two who received primary support in the delivery of their Web courses. These faculty were chosen as the subjects of this study since they fulfill a greater number of roles (instructional designer, technical support, student advisor/counselor, site supervisor, etc.) than their colleagues who teach in larger distance education systems where specialized support teams are available. While some authors propose that the development of online courses should be team-based (de Verneil, & Berge, 2000; Keegan, 1996; Lockwood, 1995), this paper focuses on what seems to be the more typical experience of higher education faculty today.

Two of the six faculty (Professors D and F) utilized a ‘quasi-craft’ approach for the development and delivery of their courses. They were mildly supported by staff from a private vendor of online courses, but were still required to: (a) make all decisions about the structure, sequencing, and linking of content, (b) develop alternative learner assessments, (c) become familiar with and make decisions about using the technological tools within the structure, and (d) use HTML. The strong support from the vendor was in the technical support and maintenance of the course Websites and in providing access to other learner supports (e.g., bookstore, library).

The other four faculty (Professors A, B, C, and E) used the ‘craft’ approach as defined by Moore and Kearsley (1996) receiving no support from internal University sources or external vendor sources. These faculty were fully responsible for the design, development, delivery, and technical maintenance and support of their online courses. In all six cases, the lack of access to specialized expertise in a variety of areas forced these faculty to hone their instructional and pedagogical craft in a non-traditional media.

Areas of Competence

In "Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education" (1989), the U. S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment proposes the creation of in-service programs targeted at providing assistance for faculty to modify conventional teaching behaviors and to acquire the skills needed to become effective distance educators.

The topic areas for these training sessions include: 1) the amount of time needed to prepare and teach distance delivered courses; 2) methods to establish and maintain effective communication with distant students; 3) experiences of other faculty members; strategies for adding visual components to audio courses; 4) strategies for increasing interaction both among students and between students and faculty; 5) planning and management of organizational details involved in distance delivery; and 6) strategies to encourage group cohesion and student motivation. (pp. 95-96)

Cyrs (1997) conducted a meta-analysis of the literature and identified four areas of faculty competence related to distance education that were mentioned in all of the studies analyzed. These areas are course planning and organization, verbal and nonverbal presentation skills, collaborative teamwork, and questioning strategies. Each of these areas is discussed in greater detail to provide a foundation for contextualizing this exploration of faculty teaching with DE technologies.

Two other areas pertaining to distance education in general were identified by only one study in Cyrs’ meta-analysis (1997): basic learning theory and knowledge of the distance learning field. All instructors, regardless of the instructional medium, need an understanding of how human learning occurs in order to design effective lessons. When teaching at a distance, this becomes even more important because this knowledge will enable the instructor to adapt to varying learner needs and contextual situations (Chute, Balthazan, & Poston, 1988).

Much has been written (e.g., Cyrs, 1997; de Verneil, & Berge, 2000; Paulsen, 1995; Willis, 1994) about the importance of course planning and organization for distance delivery. These discussions encompass a variety of issues pertaining to professors’ understanding of how distance teaching differs from traditional, f2f teaching. Logistical issues, such as the effect of the delivery system on interaction and technical knowledge required to successfully teach with technology are included in this area (Chute et al., 1988; Moursund, 1999). The results of this study indicate that faculty must also have a firm understanding of basic instructional design strategies and learning theory in order to be able to design effective, interactive lessons.

The ability to construct an organized presentation, project enthusiasm for the subject matter, and appropriately pace a lecture is required of all teachers. In addition to these skills, faculty teaching distance education courses also need to be able to coordinate their presentations with the study guides or handouts being used by students at a different time and/or place". Distance instructors must accomplish this while operating under a severe reduction in the set of verbal and visual feedback cues received from their students as well as the inherent time delay with asynchronous systems.

"Teleinstructors need to know how to construct questions at a variety of intellectual levels and for a variety of instructional purposes and to move among these levels and purposes during a questioning interlude" (Cyrs, 1997, p. 16). While these skills are also necessary in a traditional classroom, DE instructors face the added burden of clearly cueing the individuals and/or sites they want to respond and they must interpret mediated responses.

Despite the common assumption that DE faculty will be familiar with a variety of delivery systems, one of the studies reviewed in Cyrs’ meta-analysis (1997) revealed that this is not always the case. Thach (1994) determined that an instructor’s lack of knowledge about the variety of delivery systems available and the capabilities of each (e.g., supporting synchronous vs. asynchronous communication, transmitting visual information) will limit the breadth of instructional options available to that person. Instruction is likely to be enriched to the extent that the faculty has in-depth knowledge of a variety of delivery technologies and respective capabilities and limitations for instructional purposes.

Distance instructors often need to rely upon other experts for technical support, which can be a very disconcerting experience for these content experts. Flexibility and creativity become requisite characteristics of DE faculty. In addition, DE faculty must be able to draw on multiple strategies for fostering successful interactions among members of student teams and within whole class communications.

Types of Interaction in Distance Education

Moore and Kearsley (1996) identify three types of interaction within distance education environments and describe how such interactions affect the distance learning process. A delicate balance of learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction is necessary for successful DE course design.

Learner-content interaction refers to the communication that takes place between the learner and the subject matter under study. Interactions with the content allow each learner to construct their own knowledge by integrating new information into their pre-existing mental structures. These changes in cognitive structures alter the learners’ understanding and are commonly referred to as "learning." DE instructors must facilitate the learning process by sequencing and presenting the appropriate content using the most effective delivery media. Recent technological advances, such as custom-created CD-ROMs, allow for combinations of delivery systems in which students can truly interact with the content. DE teachers’ understanding and knowledge of delivery media impact their decisions about sequencing, instructional strategies, communication, and formative feedback.

The importance of creating highly interactive, engaging distance environments cannot be overstated. Due to the nature of the media, online courses provide an ideal setting to take advantage of hypermedia and multimedia to support independent exploration of content in a truly individualized manner. Holmberg (1995) believes that effective learner-content interaction is dependent on the instructor’s ability to support study motivation and facilitate learning through guided didactic conversation. Online environments offer the opportunity to develop personal meaning, engage in reflection and deep processing. These higher levels of learner engagement with the content, while critical to learning and retention (Vygotsky, 1978), are typically inhibited in traditional, f2f settings.

Once the content has been presented, instructors need to assist students with their learner-content interactions. This requires learner-instructor interaction. Initially, student interest in the content and motivation to engage in it must be aroused. The instructor then needs to provide opportunities for students to practice what they have learned and provide feedback on student progress. Finally, the faculty member must conduct assessments to be certain that instructional objectives have been met. Throughout this process, instructors are also responsible for counseling their students and providing support and encouragement as warranted by the individual learner. Metacognition (Pressley, 1995) and the development of independent learning skills must also be scaffolded by online instructors. While these are standard instructional expectations, DE environments create substantial challenges for sustaining quality learner-instructor interactions to meet such expectations (e.g., Chute et al., 1988; de Verneil & Berge, 2000; Moursund, 1999; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2000).

Holmberg (1995) argues for the use of guided didactic conversation in distance education environments to encourage elaboration of the content and depth of interaction with the instructor. He provides seven postulates upon which to build interactive distance environments that focus on elements such as establishing affective connections, inter-personal communication, trusting atmosphere, and facilitating organized study. In a study of faculty perceptions of distance education, Scott (1994) concluded, "…while interactive technology supports traditional communication patterns, the use of preprogrammed technology is associated with increased instructor efforts to maintain interaction" (p. iv). This philosophy is supported by Kearsley’s (2000) recent work with online education, "[A]n online class develops its own social milieu based on the nature of the online applications used and the way the instructor designs and conducts the course" (p. 67). Boaz and colleagues (1999) highlight the importance of learner-instructor interaction by urging instructors to "[G]et beyond the technology and humanize the distance by focusing on the students rather than on the delivery methods" (p. 42).

The value of interactions among learners is frequently overlooked in even the most traditional educational settings. In addition to the practical and financial reasons frequently cited for grouping learners, this type of organization also allows students to interact with each other. Learner-learner interactions are desirable for pedagogical reasons (Slavin, 1996), as they provide more opportunities for students to discuss the content with others, resulting in quantitatively and qualitatively improved cognitive processing. During these interactions, students are able to negotiate the meaning of particular concepts with their peers. Such interactions aid in the construction of new knowledge, and are central to the theory of social constructivism (e.g., Harasim, 1989; Holmberg, 1995; Kearsley, 2000; Scott, 1994). In DE environments, learner-learner interactions are increasingly viewed as critical to learner success and the development of an active learning community (Lowell & Persichitte, in press; Simonson et al., 2000).

Online environments can capitalize on a finding that students bond with each other in DE more than in traditional settings (Souder, 1993). Instructors can use that propensity for electronic bonding to foster friendships and communication among the learners. Scott (1994) found that the key value of learner-learner interaction was the feedback that provided a feeling of institutional integration which, in turn, contributed to a reduction in the learner dropout rate. DE literature reports many examples of learner dissatisfaction due to feelings of isolation. Integrating a variety of communication activities and media within online courses can help decrease those feelings of alienation from the group. As online courses become more prevalent, faculty must become skilled in the creation of constructivist learning environments and the development of virtual learner communities.

Medium Specific Issues

Although it is the technology that removes barriers and expands opportunities for learning, it is the teacher who teaches. In distance learning, teachers find that they are required to change their method of teaching and give more attention to advanced preparation, student interaction, visual materials, activities for independent study, and follow-up activities. (U. S. Congress, 1989, p. 11)

Each type of delivery medium (print-based, audio-conferencing, video-conferencing, Web-based, etc.) requires specific instructional skills for its effective use. For example, faculty who teach in video-based courses must learn on-camera behaviors and adapt to the complete lack of learner feedback, while instructors using Web-based technologies must adapt to the absence of nonverbal cues from their students and the interpretation of online communication.

Gunawardena (1992) published a paper describing her personal experiences teaching a distance delivered graduate course using audiographics conferencing and computer-mediated communication (CMC). This environment utilized an audiographics system including a graphics tablet allowing for synchronous screen sharing, in addition to CMC via Bitnet and Internet. She stated that "one of the most important skills I had to develop as a distance teacher was the ability to use the technology to effectively mediate the communication process" (p. 59). The author describes how the use of this technology represents a marked change from communications in f2f classrooms, particularly due to the absence of nonverbal cues from students that typically allow instructors to monitor, pace, and adapt each instructional interaction. Gunawardena argues that competency in the use of communications media requires that faculty: (a) be capable of interfacing with the technology (e.g., push the right buttons), (b) understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of each technology in order to use it appropriately, and (c) possess the ability to use the media to communicate with distance learners. Of these three requirements, the first is absolutely crucial for the technology to become transparent allowing faculty and students to engage in meaningful interactions. Gunawardena and others (e.g., Bates, 1995; Paulsen, 1995; Simonson et al., 2000) also identify three areas in which teaching through telecommunications places different demands upon the instructor than teaching in a traditional situation. These are: 1) the need to understand the technical and communications problems faced by students and to assist in solving these problems; 2) the need to create back-up plans for coping with technical failures; and 3) the need to prepare course materials and activities far in advance of the time they are to be used.

Other areas of adaptation identified as important by Gunawardena (1992) include the need to teach students the communication protocols necessary for "media-based social interaction" in the absence of nonverbal cues. Gunawardena also notes that traditional instructional design models do not provide much guidance for the development of two-way interactive DE courses. All six professors involved with this study agreed there was a need for training, but they found little or no such support. Lack of preparation in new pedagogies for distance delivery is a topic of recent concern in the literature (e.g., Green, 1999; Rao & Rao, 1999; Rogers, 2000). Though experienced in instructional design, Gunawardena was left to develop new paradigms to deal with the interrelationships among content objectives, media attributes, and learners’ cognitive processes. Professor A echoed this sentiment. The greatest change faculty members need to make when teaching via DE relates to their role as instructors. Gunawardena states:

I had to change my role from that of teacher at the front of the classroom and the center of the process to that of facilitator who is one with the participants and whose primary role is to guide and support the learning process. The result was a course designed as a learner-centered system based on dialogue and cooperation among students. (p. 61)

Before the World Wide Web reached its current popularity, computer-mediated, "electronic correspondence" courses were delivered by moving files via modem. While some of the interface issues have changed due to the evolution of Web browsers and other telecommunications tools, the underlying principles are the same as those involved in our current, Web-based delivery system. Thus, many of the issues raised by Boston in his 1992 article, "Remote Delivery of Instruction via the PC and Modem: What Have We Learned?" are still relevant to current faculty members teaching online courses.

Boston (1992) mentions the need for faculty training because "faculty have the same learning curve as do students in learning to send and receive files and messages using the host system and its software. However, they have the added responsibility for designing the asynchronous learning experience and preparing the materials" (p. 46). Boston also notes that there are more interactions between students and instructors involved in modem courses than in f2f courses. This increased quantity of interaction encourages fast and frequent feedback to students in the course (Grabe & Grabe, 2000; Simonson et al., 2000), and correspondingly requires faculty to spend considerable amounts of time responding to students’ messages and clarifying responses. Such additional time commitment was mentioned as a concern by Professors B, D, and E in this study.

When preparing courses for distance delivery, faculty members are forced to reorganize their lecture materials and compress their thoughts into document files for distribution to the students - also a time intensive requirement. Boston (1992) reports that this ‘forced discipline’ has led to an increased clarity of thought on his behalf and a more concise expression of ideas in his f2f lectures. Professor A made nearly identical comments during this study. Another positive aspect of teaching in this medium (as noted by Boston) was the ability to travel while maintaining classroom presence. Negative aspects described included the amount of time – up to three semesters – required to develop materials for Internet delivery and the lack of financial or professional incentives to reward such substantial investments of time and effort.

Faculty Perceptions

Individual perceptions and experiences among faculty participating in Internet delivery of instruction vary greatly. Six faculty members teaching distance education courses at a Doctoral I institution in Northeastern Colorado were surveyed (see Appendix-Survey Questions) about their recent experiences teaching in this manner and how the online teaching experience differed from f2f teaching. All six of the participants responded to an open-ended follow-up survey (see Appendix-Survey Questions) investigating instructor satisfaction after completion of teaching at least one DE course. The open-ended survey was followed by brief individual conversations to confirm or clarify the survey data. While actual names are used in the reference section, faculty are referred to only by pseudonym in the narrative, in order to provide some measure of anonymity. Analysis of these data reveal that the extra amount of time required to prepare high quality DE courses is a major source of concern regardless of prior experience with DE environments. A secondary finding is that the impact of faculty preparation and/or background with basic instructional design principles also influences their summative satisfaction with teaching online.

Two participants (Professors A and B) had sole responsibility for designing and developing their course Websites. Professor C participated in a grant-funded initiative that provided support for faculty to integrate technology into their classrooms. An external vendor, selected by the university, was responsible for providing development support, web delivery, and technical support for the courses taught by professors D and F. Professor E’s course development and delivery was supported by two doctoral students in Educational Technology working to convert an entire Master’s degree program to distance delivery. A summary of this data can be found in the Appendix-Faculty Descriptions.

The participants in this survey represented a variety of subject areas and course levels. Professors B and F taught freshman level Science courses (Fundamentals of Chemistry I, Oceans and Humankind, respectively). Professors A, D, and E taught graduate level courses in the College of Education; two in Special Education (Transition Planning and Service Delivery, Technology for the Blind and Visually Impaired) and one in Educational Technology (Distance Education Theories and Principles). Finally, Professor C was responsible for a graduate course in Visual Arts (Women Artists and Artists of Color).

Although all participants surveyed possessed above average technical skills and computer experience before teaching their Web-based courses, their knowledge of distance education theories and principles varied widely. The extremes were represented by a professor of Educational Technology (Professor A) who was teaching a graduate level course in distance education, and a Chemistry professor (Professor B) who had no formal preparation in the areas of distance education or instructional design. Two of the participants (Professors D and F) had some previous experience with distance education – either as a program coordinator or having previously taught another online class. The remaining two participants (Professors C and E) had no previous experience teaching at a distance, but had spent several months reading about distance education and consulting with peers in preparation for teaching their Web-based course. The six professors represented three colleges at the university.

Despite these initial differences, most instructors reported facing similar challenges, such as a lack of support from their colleges. They were forced to find alternative sources of technical support, either from other academic units or technologically proficient students enrolled in their courses. Teaching in this medium required the faculty to spend substantial time reviewing their content and reorganizing it in advance of course delivery. As a result, they reported developing an increased depth and breadth of understanding of the content.

All courses were developed on a pre-specified syllabus, including specific reading assignments and learning activities scheduled on particular dates. Professor C identified the need to post all the details she would normally communicate orally to students in her classroom in written form on the Website as the main difference involved in online teaching. The least experienced faculty member (Professor B) felt constrained by the initial parameters she set for her course and reported being unable to make changes in the distance course "to accommodate a class that needs more help in one area and less in another." Professor C also felt constrained by the pre-determined nature of the course. She reported being unable to discuss current events as easily as she could in a f2f setting. In contrast, Professor A clearly stated for the learners that the syllabus was subject to change and did in fact modify several due dates and activities as the course progressed in response to student needs and technological mishaps.

When asked to describe how teaching their course at a distance was different from teaching the same content f2f, instructors reported differences in: student motivation (Professor D), levels of reflection and depth of thought (Professors C and D), differences in their interactions with students (Professors A, B and C), and the need to develop new skills for facilitating these interactions (Professor A). For example, Professor D volunteered that the online course offered "[M]ore time for student reflection." She felt that "students in DE are more motivated for the most part." Professor C commented, "The level of discourse was higher from the students online, and I did find I spent more time in person with each of them doing e-mail correspondence than I did with them as a group online." Professor A noted, "Student expectations for ‘instruction’ are different (and evolving) in these environments" and Professor B stated that she "found the interactions with the students to grow closer to the kinds of interactions in an on-campus classroom over time. As the students started to get to know me better, and to know each other better communications increased." In addition, the chemistry instructor (Professor B) was forced to develop a new method for communicating content information (e.g., use of keyboard symbols to denote superscripts and subscripts in chemical formulas, use of a shared code involving dashes and vertical lines to represent chemical structures).

When asked to describe how teaching their course at a distance was similar to teaching it in a traditional format, two of the instructors gave almost opposite responses. The chemistry professor stated that the amount of time required, at least for the first time teaching a particular course, was similar to that required for a f2f course. She also found student achievement to be similar to an on-campus class, despite complaints of increased difficulty from the DE students. As the semester progressed, and the students got to know her and each other better, she found the interactions with students to grow closer to the kinds of interactions in an on-campus classroom. The distance education professor began by stating that the distance delivered course required at least four times the amount of work compared to the start up of a traditional class. She identified high-level instructional design concerns, such as content and learner analysis, as similarities between the two courses, and attempts to apply/adapt her knowledge of traditional instructional design principles to accommodate the demands of a distance environment. Over the course of a semester she experimented with a variety of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools and methods (e.g., MOOs, listservs, chat rooms). Professors C and D stated that academic outcomes were the main similarity between their f2f and DE courses since they expected, and obtained, the same learning outcomes from all their students. Professor E felt that teaching in a DE situation bore more resemblance to teaching in a f2f situation than it did differences. It is important to note that because of his discipline (technology for the blind and visually impaired), his f2f course includes a substantial amount of hands-on practice with a variety of adaptive technologies, all of which were also used in the DE course.

Coping with technological issues, such as helping students access the online materials, was the most commonly reported adaptation required of faculty. Professor A reported having to deal with approximately 75 technology related issues per week. Professor F described in great detail the challenges he faced in trying to determine why his students were not responding as he had hoped they would. He was unable to determine if it was because they did not understand the assignment or because they could not access the materials and instructions. Another theme related to the feeling of being constrained by the limitations of the technology (or an incomplete understanding of its capabilities) in their teaching. Professor B typifies this concern by stating that the greatest adaptation she had to make was teaching a course without using cooperative learning groups. Further conversations with this instructor revealed that the use of cooperative learning groups plays a central role in her repertoire of traditional teaching techniques. She was unable to use this strategy in her DE course because she could not establish a means of communication that would allow several groups of students to carry out separate but simultaneous conversations. In a follow-up conversation, when asked why she had not used chat rooms, the reply was "because they said our server couldn’t handle them." She was unaware of any option to use an outside server to provide such communication and interaction opportunities.

As a result of teaching in this medium, faculty reported a need to acquire new skills in two areas – technical and pedagogical. Five of the six faculty members reported a need to acquire or expand their skills in the areas of HTML coding and Web page development. Even though an outside vendor provided server space and "user-friendly" course management software to both Professors D and F, Professor D reported a need to acquire computer skills, especially HTML coding, while Professor F only reported a need to master the software provided by the vendor. Professor E did not explicitly mention acquiring any new technological skills.

Two faculty members (Professors A and E) noted the need to develop new pedagogical skills in order to be able to effectively interact and communicate with their students. Professor A learned how to "lead" discussions in synchronous and asynchronous media. She found that extensive familiarity with the content was critical and that prior preparation of structured inquiry activities for both synchronous and asynchronous discussions was essential. Issues of classroom management (e.g., controlling off-topic conversations, scheduling of synchronous sessions, access to ancillary materials, designating office hours) in online environments were intertwined with pedagogy for Professor A. She reported using asynchronous discussion areas to promote reflection and elaboration of content material. Professor E reported learning how to communicate with his students in the absence of body language. He relied heavily on alternative media (e.g., e-mail, listservs, telephone) to communicate personally and individually with his students. The lack of verbal and visual feedback not only forced him to alter his preferred teaching style, but also led him to develop alternative methods of interpreting and inferring meaning from these exchanges.

At the completion of the first survey, all faculty members were given the opportunity to list what they wished they had known prior to teaching their courses. Four of the six faculty members (Professors B, C, D and F) expressed a desire for more time to prepare their courses. Professor E felt that his lack of knowledge of distance education theories allowed him to be more creative and accepting of change. Professor A wrote that she felt she possessed the necessary prerequisite knowledge prior to teaching her course but needed to "experience it to make it real." In the follow-up conversation, she attributed this feeling to an extensive background in teaching and formal training in the theories and principles of DE, yet she lacked experience as an online instructor. This is in sharp contrast to Professor B’s second wish – she would have liked to know "how to better teach with multimedia using a computer and the Web." The reader should note that Professor B has no formal preparation in pedagogy, which may have amplified her discomfort with teaching in an unfamiliar medium. These faculty struggled to adapt their f2f skills for online settings, but lacked authoritative sources of information and direction for those adaptations. The complexity of these environments makes a "one-size-fits-all" set of recommendations difficult to specify. The synergy and interrelationships of subject matter, context, delivery medium, learner variability, teacher preparation and experience in both content and pedagogy allows for the identification of broad patterns of skills and competencies as summarized in the Conclusion section.

A follow-up survey was conducted a semester after the initial inquiry. This inquiry was aimed at assessing instructor satisfaction with their courses and experiences after they had taught at least one complete course via DE. All participants responded to the second survey. Three faculty members (Professors C, E, and F) reported a high level of satisfaction with the final outcome of their courses, and two (Professors A and D) were moderately satisfied. Professor A explained that while she was quite satisfied with certain aspects of her course (e.g., effective use of asynchronous communication tools, quality of student participation), there were other areas (e.g., use of synchronous discussion tools) that she felt could be improved upon. Professor B did not directly address this question in her reply – she wrote about the financial cost to her department and how the experience benefited only some students.

Both the initial and follow-up surveys addressed the issue of teaching future courses via DE. Three instructors (Professors C, D and E) remained consistent in their responses. They responded to the first survey by stating that they would definitely enjoy teaching another course via DE, and both are doing so now. When the first survey was sent out, Professor A was undecided as to whether or not she wanted to teach another DE course because of the tremendous time commitment required both in preparation and in delivery. During the summer immediately following the survey, she taught three DE courses (two Web-based and one via compressed video). In addition, she was in the process of teaching yet another DE course (mixed format) at the time of the second survey. Professor B said she would consider teaching another DE course when the initial survey was conducted. However, at the time of the follow-up, she stated she probably wouldn’t be interested, unless all the problems she had previously mentioned (original survey) were resolved before she began.

All participants responding to the follow-up survey indicated they had learned much as a result of teaching an online course. The most commonly reported pedagogical learning revolved around communication and interaction with students. For example, Professor E mentioned realizing the need to keep communication lines open with his students and to establish a sense of community. Professor B learned how to be creative in corresponding with students (e.g., communicating chemical structures via e-mail). Professor A’s answer to the question encompassed a variety of areas, ranging from the need for extensive prior planning, to issues concerning media selection and unintentional learning. Professor C reported two types of learning – the first relating to instructional design issues and the second pertaining to social, learner community concerns. She learned to use redundancy in her site design as a way of communicating administrative information she would have conveyed orally in a f2f class and the experience of developing an online class helped her define her course content and message more clearly. In terms of personal growth, Professor C reported developing awareness of how the Internet can be used as an equalizing force to give people of all backgrounds equal access to information. Professor F stated that "I LEARNED THAT ON-LINE STUDENTS REALLY GET INTO IT!" [emphasis in original]. Professor D’s response, however, was the most expressive. She began by writing about her need to learn more about the technology itself and about working to maintain communication with each of her students, but her final remark really summarized her experience. She concluded by writing, "I need to teach differently."


Based on these six experiences and responses, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. First, although prior levels of technical expertise did not seem to play a role in faculty perceptions of teaching in DE environments, prior knowledge of DE theories and principles did seem to influence how these professors conducted their courses. The more experienced faculty member was not afraid to experiment with new types of technology and did not feel constrained by a syllabus or the delivery technology. These findings may have been influenced by the amount of prior teaching experience held by each of the instructors, as the chemistry professor was at a fairly early stage in her career and the distance education professor reported over two decades of traditional teaching experience.

Professors B and F reported a reduction in the amount of student interactions as one of the major differences between f2f and DE instruction. This observation is difficult to interpret because both of these faculty members were teaching introductory level science courses. Two inter-related variables are apparent: learner characteristics (learner autonomy and metacognitive skills) and content discipline. Was this "lack of interaction" due to undergraduate students’ relative inability to engage in meaningful dialog at a distance? Alternatively, did the instructors feel this way because they were accustomed to having more control over students’ learning than their counterparts in graduate education? It is important to note that Professors D (graduate) and F (undergraduate) also reported increased levels of analysis and discourse by their online students. On the other hand, might these differences be a result of the content discipline? Science content is objective and typically much less subject to multiple perspectives and interpretations than content disciplines such as art and education which tend to lend themselves to elaborated discourse and divergent perspectives.

Faculty who teach in online environments must rely heavily on traditional pedagogical methods without expectation that these methods will transfer directly. Specifically, faculty must demonstrate these skills and competencies:

  • Familiarity with basic research on the characteristics of DE learners, their needs, and how these differ from those in f2f settings
  • Application of basic principles of instructional design (e.g., congruence of content, activities, media, assessment; selection of appropriate media for the content)
  • Thorough knowledge of subject matter and common misconceptions
  • Deep understanding of the necessity of learner centered environments in online settings
  • Ability to design constructivist learning environments
  • Practical applications of adult learning theories, self-paced instruction, and computer-mediated communication
  • Appropriate selection of online strategies and tools that promote reflection and deep processing of content (e.g., synchronous discussion, asynchronous discussion, alternative assessment)
  • Use of strategies that promote interaction among learners, instructor, and content
  • Fostering a sense of community among learners
  • Adaptability and flexibility with the capabilities and limitations of the delivery media
  • Sufficient familiarity with the delivery medium to provide basic trouble shooting
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Time management (e.g., respond to students in a timely manner, extensive advance preparation and planning)
  • Professional characteristics (e.g., motivated to teach, self-confident, articulate, good writer).

This paper has described a variety of skills and competencies that faculty teaching DE courses must develop to be effective online instructors. A case is made that the degree to which expectations are met in online environments, skills are developed, and the perception of relative importance of concerns and barriers is largely dependent on the prior background and experiences of the individual faculty member. The review of the literature and the analysis of these data suggest that differences are influenced by factors such as amount of teaching experience, knowledge of instructional design principles and understanding of distance education theories. Further investigation of these variables and Web-based instruction, in general, are essential for this delivery medium to support effective teaching and learning.

Data for this study were provided by following faculty members: Dr. Diane Bassett, Dr. Lynn Geiger, Dr. William Hoyt, Ms. Virginia Jenkins, Dr. Kay Persichitte, and Mr. Chuck Wright.


Bates, A. W. (1995). Technology, open learning and distance education. New York: Routledge.

Boaz, M., Elliott, B., Foshee, D., Hardy, D., Jarmon, C., & Olcott, D. (1999). Teaching at a distance: A handbook for instructors. Ft. Worth, TX: League for Innovation in the Community College & Archipelago (Harcourt).

Boston, R. L. (1992). Remote delivery of instruction via the PC and modem: What have we learned? The American Journal of Distance Education, 6(3), 45-57.

Chute, A., Balthazan, L. B., & Poston, C. O. (1988). Learning from teletraining. The American Journal of Distance Education, 2(3), 55-63.

Cyrs, T. E. (1997). Competence in teaching at a distance. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 71, 15-18.

de Verneil, M., & Berge, Z. L. (2000, Spring/Summer). Going online: Guidelines for faculty in higher education. Educational Technology Review, (13), 13-18.

Grabe, M., & Grabe, C. (2000). Integrating the Internet for meaningful learning. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Green, K. C. (1999, March/April). When wishes come true: Colleges and the convergence of access, lifelong learning, and technology. Change, 11-15.

Gunawardena, C. N. (1992). Changing faculty roles for audiographics and online teaching. The American Journal of Distance Education, 6(3), 58-71.

Harasim, L. (1989). On-line education: A new domain. [Online]. Available:
http://www-icdl.open.ac.uk/mindweave/chap4.html (May, 2000)

Holmberg, B. (1995). Theory and practice of distance education. New York: Routledge.

Kearsley, G. (2000). Online education: Learning and teaching in cyberspace. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Keegan, D. (1996). Foundations of distance education (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lockwood, F. (Ed.). (1995). Open and distance learning today. New York: Routledge.

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Mark, M. (1990). The differentiation of institutional structures and effectiveness in distance education programs. In M.G. Moore (Ed.), Contemporary issues in American distance education (pp. 11-21). London: Pergamon.

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Moursund, D. (1999). Will new teachers be prepared to teach in a digital age? [Online]. Available: http://www.mff.org/edtech/publication.taf?_function=detail&Content_uid1=154 (May, 1999).

Paulsen, M. F. (1995). The online report on pedagogical techniques for computer-mediated communication. [Online]. Available: http://www.nettskolen.com/alle/forskning/19/cmcped.html (May, 2000).

Pressley, M. (1995). More about the development of self-regulation: Complex, long-term, and thoroughly social. Educational Psychologist, 30, 207-212.

Rao, P. V., & Rao, l. M. (1999, March). Strategies that support instructional technology. Syllabus, 22-24.

Rogers, D. L. (2000, Spring/Summer). A paradigm shift: Technology integration for higher education in the new millennium. Educational Technology Review, (13), 19-27, 33.

Slavin, R. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21(1), 43-69.

Scott, P. J. G. (1994). The effects of distance education technology on faculty perceptions of teaching. Published Doctoral Dissertation, Eugene, OR: University of Oregon.

Simonson, M, Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2000). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

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Thach, E. C., & Murphy, K. L. (1995). Competencies for distance education professionals. Educational Technology Research and Development, 43(1), 57-79.

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Willis, B. (Ed.). (1994). Distance education: Strategies and tools. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Appendix-Survey Questions


Dr. ________,

Thanks for agreeing to help with my latest project - a critical analysis paper of an important topic in distance education. I'm writing about how distance ed requires different faculty skills than traditional instruction. I have a bunch of references, but would like some "survivor's stories" to illustrate the paper.


  1. How would you describe your technical (computer) skills and experience prior to teaching the distance ed class?
  2. Did you have any prior knowledge of distance education theories and philosophies? If so, how would you rate your knowledge? Expert, intermediate, novice?
  3. What kind of support (if any) did you have from your department/college/outside vendor to teach this course?
  4. How was teaching this course at a distance different from teaching it face to face?
  5. How was it similar?
  6. What was the greatest adaptation you had to make?
  7. What new skills did you have to acquire?
  8. What do you wish you had known before you started preparing/teaching this course?
  9. Would you teach a distance delivered course again? Why or why not?
  10. What advice would you give to another faculty member about to embark on this redesign process?


Dear Dr. _____,

Thank you so much for your help with my distance education survey last semester. The project turned out to be more successful than expected, so I was wondering if you wouldn't mind answering a few follow-up questions:

  1. How satisfied were you with your courses after they were done?
  2. Based on this experience, would you/did you teach another course via DE?
  3. What did you learn while teaching your on-line course?

Thanks again. I really appreciate your input.

Appendix-Faculty Descriptions


Professor A

Professor B

Professor C

Professor D

Professor E

Professor F


Course Taught

Educational Technology – ET 615: Distance Education Theories and Principles

Chemistry – CHEM 108: Fundamentals of Chemistry I

Visual Arts – ART 680: Women Artists and Artists of Color

Special Education - EDSE 504: Transition Planning and Service Delivery

Special Education – EDSE 544: Technology for Blind and Visually Impaired

Oceanography - OCN 110: Oceans and Humankind


College of Education/ Graduate level

College of Arts and Sciences/ Lower-division undergraduate

College of Performing and Visual Arts/ Graduate level

College of Education/ Graduate level

College of Education/ Graduate level

College of Arts and Sciences/ Lower-division undergraduate

Type of Support / Responsibility?

Designed and developed own Website. Minimal technical support from a doctoral student in ET.

Designed and developed own Website. Logistical advice from continuing education division, authoring software provided by the college.

Faculty development and course re-design series of workshops.

Private online vendor provided technical support for development and full student and technical support for delivery.

Design, development and delivery support provided by two advanced doctoral students in ET through federal grant funds to deliver a Master’s degree program.

Private online vendor provided technical support for development and full student and technical support for delivery.

Prior knowledge of DE theories & philosophies




Advanced/ Intermediate



Prior teaching experience & pedagogical preparation


Over 20 years experience; MA (Curr & Instr); PhD (Educational Technology)


Under 10 years experience; no formal coursework in education


Over 10 years experience; MFA (Art Education)


Over 20 years experience; MA and PhD (Special Education)


Under 10 years experience; MA (Special Education)


Over 10 years experience; no formal coursework in education

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