Consider Faculty When Choosing an Online Course or Program

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As you go about selecting an online degree program, or even just a course, it’s important to base part of your decision on who your instructors will be. Although you may never meet them in person, instructors are more than mere vessels or facilitators to get you through the course.

In my experience as both an online instructor and online student, I have come to realize that the quality and nature of the online learning experience is heavily influenced by the personality, education, and experience of the person teaching the course.

I thought about this recently, when I was offered the opportunity to revise and redefine the online version of a corporate and professional communications course I teach. I have taught the class for several semesters now, and as I reviewed what I included in the curriculum — the activities, the textbooks, the assignments — I am surprised to see how much my personality, research expertise, and personal experience is scattered throughout the material. Here are a few examples:

  • Students are required to engage with popular culture (e.g., the TV show Parks and Recreation) throughout the class. I love comedies!
  • Students are required to read the book Message Not Received, which challenges the idea that one communication technology (typically email) is appropriate for all workplace communication. One of my research areas is media selection.
  • Students are offered the opportunity to schedule a telephone conversation with me at key points throughout the semester. As an online student myself, I have found such telephone conversations with my own professors to be incredibly helpful.

In other words, the course does not simply involve cookie-cutter material that could be created by anyone. Instead, it is a learning experience that is highly personal and deeply influenced by the instructor’s personality, education, and experience.

So what should you look for when learning about your instructors? One best practice is to carefully evaluate their background (most schools and departments post a link to faculty members’ CVs and published research). Look for what types of journal articles they have written, what and where they have taught, and what other experience they have outside of academia (industry-specific or otherwise). All of these things can be indicative of how they approach their teaching.

I can attest to how my own research has influenced my teaching. As a Ph.D. candidate in a public communication program, I study communication technology use in distance education. I have studied the technology acceptance model, which suggests that if people believe that new technology is useful and easy-to-use, they are more likely to use it. Therefore, in my classes, I purposefully select certain technologies to communicate information based upon if I believe students will perceive these technologies as useful.

I suspect that nearly all instructors find some relationship between their area of expertise and their instruction. I challenge you, as a student, to ask your current or potential instructors how their practice and research influence their teaching. I suspect that you will be surprised by their answers and will be reaffirmed in your decision to continue (or start) your education.

What qualities in faculty do you look for when considering a program? Let us know in the comments below.

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