Work Activities of Faculty Support Staff
Age of online program
# online degrees
Level of Program
Length of courses
Maple State College
Grad and Undergrad
Grad and Undergrad
Willow Community College
3 weeks to 12 weeks
Course Expectations Prior to Teaching Online
Length of Training
Learning Management System
New courses per semester or term
Complete course online
Self-Paced Online Tutorial, one-to-one, asynchronous instructor led
1 week online
Asynchronous instructor led
Complete course online
6 weeks online
one on one and asynchronous online
Complete course online
Author: 4 weeks
Instructor: 8 weeks
One-to-one, online showcase & print manuals, group sessions
All 4 study participants were female, however, gender was not specified as part of the study criteria. All participants were Caucasian. Every participant had been working in their current position from two to four years. Three of the four participants had supervisory responsibilities in their current positions, supervising both full and part time staff and student staff
In regards to education, all four have Master’s degrees. Professional development of each participant takes various forms. All participants aim to keep up to date and current on trends in the field of online education by reading print and electronic publications, joining professional organizations, joining email list serves and attending conferences. None of the participants have ever contributed articles to any of the publications that they read on a regular basis. A few participants are active members within various professional organizations such as the United States Distance Learning Association and the North East Regional Computing Program
Table 3 provides details on participants work activities that reflect “somewhat typical” weeks as documented by 7 of the 8 activity logs.
Week of Semester or Term
Email replied to
Phone Calls received
Scheduled Meetings with Faculty
Unscheduled Meetings a
Mid to near end of term
In between terms
a Unscheduled meetings are informal meetings that take place in the hallway, restrooms or when someone drops into their office looking for assistance.
Five findings emerged as a result of the data analysis.
Faculty support staff work with many different types of faculty at any one time. In managing the course development process, they are managing, organizing, and keeping track of the progress of faculty who are at various stages of online course development.
The spectrum of faculty that the faculty support staff may work with or keep track of at any one time is very broad including faculty interested in teaching online, potential faculty
Various strategies are used to manage the logistical details that are inherent in such complex systems such as timelines, checklists and meetings.
Timelines and Checklists
It was very interesting to find that all 4 participants have created and use some type of timeline or checklist to share with faculty. Such tools are given to faculty to help them to better understand the various milestones or action items expected of them during the online course development process, and as a way for faculty to help manage and plan their own course development progress.
Meetings become an important way to manage the online course development process. Depending on the model of the online education program and the type of training that is offered, two different types of meetings were reported, 1) meetings with faculty and, 2) meetings with staff. The meetings that the faculty support staff have are not always in the traditional format of sitting down at a table and meeting. The visual data provided powerful images that allowed unique insights into the work activities of the faculty In managing the course development process, there is much technical and system administration work that happens, as Sally notes, “behind the scenes”. Faculty may or may not be aware of the work done behind the scenes, but it is a very important part of supporting faculty in their online course development process. All 4 participants report that part of their work involves managing relationships with Blackboard and/or in the case of Dina, she works closely with her technical team to improve, build and update their proprietary Learning Management System support staff. For example, Figure 1 shows a picture that Lisa took of a hallway and noted that a lot of her meetings, conversations and consultations occur in this hallway.
Working with such a diverse groups of faculty is not without its challenges. Early in the course development process Lisa finds that sometimes there is confusion about her institutions’ nine month timeline and expectations for developing an online course. During the training component of the online course development process, many challenges seem to emerge. Lisa shares that she has had problems with faculty retention in the online course because they may get discouraged while taking the online course. She is hoping that meeting with them one time during her newly revised six week training course will help address the faculty retention issue. It is challenging for Dina to work with difficult authors (faculty) who don’t follow the agreed upon course development deadlines. Lynn’s challenges are more around institutional policy issues. “We don’t offer development money, but at the same time it is a best practice to really have that class developed before” the term begins
In managing the course development process, there is much technical and system administration work that happens, as Sally notes, “behind the scenes”. Faculty may or may not be aware of the work done behind the scenes, but it is a very important part of supporting faculty in their online course development process. All 4 participants report that part of their work involves managing relationships with Blackboard and/or in the case of Dina, she works closely with her technical team to improve, build and update their proprietary Learning Management System.
The course evaluation process often takes place at the end of the semester or term, when online students have access to complete an anonymous course evaluation about the course they are completing online. A second theme that emerged, related to course evaluations, is the work that the faculty support staff do to solicit feedback related to the structure of their training approaches and training courses.
Online Course Evaluations.
The work that the faculty support staff do related to online course evaluations is varied. The support staff role within the course evaluation process may involve managing the logistics in making sure that the course evaluation gets posted at the appropriate time in the semester or term, they may do the actual data analysis of the evaluation results, and/or they are involved in making sure the results get distributed to the appropriate campus administrators and to faculty.
The faculty support staff actively solicit feedback from faculty about how they can improve their training programs. For example, at two points during her online training course Lisa solicits feedback from faculty on the structure, assignments, readings, content of the course, the experience, the facilitators and the strongest and weakest aspects of the course. As a result of this feedback, in addition to her observations, Lisa is revising her current training course by shortening it two weeks and instituting a mid-course meeting with faculty.
Faculty support staff are very involved in discussions about teaching online including, 1) Initiating Discussions and, 2) Facilitating Discussions with faculty. While these conversations are happening at many levels with higher education, it is the faculty support professionals who work directly with the faculty who are prompting and having many of these ‘front line’ conversations, both synchronously and asynchronously, with faculty.
Interwoven within the descriptions of their work activities, each participant clearly described the importance of building relationships with faculty throughout the online course development process. The support staff clearly articulated some behaviors they enact when facilitating the support of faculty who are in the process of designing, developing and teaching online courses.
The professional relationships that staff develop with faculty is a delicate and negotiated role (Fredericksen et al., 1999), and the participants in this study recognize the importance of this role. There were two distinct points in time that are critical to the building of professional relationships with faculty. The first is the first contact with faculty and the second is all subsequent contacts with faculty. The first contact is defined as the first meeting or phone call that participants make with a new or potential faculty member who may teach online at their institution.
After the first contact there are many different types of behaviors that participants perform as a way to continue to build their relationships with faculty. Five categories were created “in vivo” which is defined by Richards (2005) as “categories well named by words people themselves use” (p. 95). The five categories include:1) make faculty feel comfortable, 2) listening, 3) meet faculty needs, 4) patience, and 5) follow through.
Three of the four study participants used the term comfortable during the first interview when referring to how they like to make faculty feel when they are working with them. In particular, the points in time when the support staff aim to make faculty feel comfortable is right before and right after the semester or term begins, particularly those faculty who are teaching online for the first time.
Listening to faculty’s needs and concerns around the development and teaching of their online course is one way in which the faculty support staff build credibility and rapport with the faculty. Lynn specifically identified various ways she builds credibility and rapport with both full time and adjunct faculty, “for full time faculty it is meeting with them on staff, it’s talking with them what they think, listening to them, for our adjuncts it is having that first interview call where we talk and I listen to them”
The data suggest two categories in which the faculty support staff work to meet the needs of the faculty who are teaching online. They strive to meet the learning needs and the technology needs of faculty. All 4 study participants aim to understand how faculty learn and will adjust their teaching style to fit the learning needs of faculty. For example, Dina may go to the office of a faculty member to help them since it is easier for the faculty member to work and learn from their own computer. Lisa talks about “meeting them where they are and bring them along”.
Another important consideration when working with a faculty member who is developing or teaching online is to be able to meet their technology needs. Participants often spoke about finding out what the faculty needs are in relation to technology and getting them the resources, tools and support they need to meet their needs.
One behavior mentioned by all participants is patience. Participants described how they use the virtue of patience in the many different spaces in which they work including in person, over the phone or asynchronously during an online training course.
The importance of having patience with faculty especially in relation to technical issues was commonly mentioned. Sally talks about working with faculty to post materials into Blackboard, the Learning Management System used at her college. She noted that “if it takes all day, to post an item, or it takes five minutes, I am going to make sure that when they leave they are comfortable with whatever it was that they were trying to achieve.”(Sally).
Follow through is defined according to specific words or phrases that the participants shared with me such as “always being there”, “getting back to them on time”, “delivering on what you say you will do”, and “follow through” . It is through such actions that relay to the faculty that their specific institutions are serious about providing them adequate support staff and resources so they can effectively teach their course online. Such interactions may result in what Fetzner (2003) calls the unanticipated impacts of faculty support in online programs which is the building of credibility and rapport between faculty and staff.
In addition to building professional relationships between themselves and the faculty members, faculty support staff spoke frequently about and provided evidence for how they promote and create networking opportunities, both asynchronously and synchronously, among faculty who teach online.
All 4 participants facilitate and/or provide access to some type of self-paced or instructor led asynchronous online training course which is required for faculty to complete prior to teaching online. Each of the training formats include samples and models of relevant course materials that have been developed by faculty at their respective institutions.
Lynn affirms the importance of connecting faculty with other faculty, especially “if an instructor is teaching face to face and needs to start developing and teaching online, the most powerful way for them to really start grasping it is to see what their peers are doing”
Even though a lot of the work that the support staff do with the faculty are online in the training courses or via email, there is still a strong existence of working one-to-one and face-to-face with the faculty. Participants often spoke about various workshops they have for faculty. Common characteristics of these workshops are they are informal, offer refreshments or lunch, and they are created so that faculty have an opportunity to talk and share their experiences. If the workshops are technology related they may be led by one of the support staff since it is more of a technology “training” session. If the topic of the workshop is pedagogy focused, the faculty support staff will often have faculty develop and/or facilitate the workshop. These may take the form of a show and tell, sharing a success story, or a specific topic related to online teaching, such as building interactivity into an online course.
Lynn and Dina both mentioned that if a faculty member is “having trouble grasping”
Three significant outcomes resulted in connection to my inquiry. The findings show evidence that the nature of the work of faculty support staff occurs at three distinct levels: 1) at the course level, 2) at the program level and 3) within an institutional environment.
Figure 2. Space within which faculty support staff
conduct their work activities
Figure 2 depicts an image that was constructed to visually represent the space within which the participants conduct their work activities, and also to represent the cyclical nature of their work.
The core of their work, as depicted by the inner most circle, takes place at the course level, providing support to faculty during any and all phases of online courses including training, planning, designing, development and delivery. The faculty support staff keep track of various nuances of each course and/or how each faculty member teaches their course. It almost becomes a type of customized support for faculty and this becomes a critical element in supporting the necessity of faculty support within online education programs. It is the faculty support staff who are the individuals who become most familiar with the courses, how they are set up, how faculty members teach their courses, and what tools they use. In another cyclical, but related, space is the cyclical nature of course development and evaluation process. Participants manage the online course evaluation process as a way to constantly strive for continuous improvement of their institutions online courses and program.
The middle ring of the circle depicts another layer within which the support staff work - promoting quality at the program level. The faculty support staff work at various levels to promote quality in areas such as promoting online interaction, having comprehensive approaches for evaluating courses, providing appropriate learning management systems, building in opportunities for faculty to share their experiences, practice and knowledge, and providing technical support and training.
The five types of data collected in this study provided clear evidence that the faculty support staff promote quality in three of the Sloan Consortium five pillars of quality including, 1) learning effectiveness, 2) access and, 3) faculty satisfaction (Moore, 2005).
The outer ring of the circle depicts the academic environment within which the faculty support staff work. The work of the faculty support staff ebbs and flows within the cyclical nature of the semester or term, and meeting faculty needs at various times throughout the semester or term. In talking about the cyclical nature of her job, Sally refers to the type of questions she handles depending on the time of the semester “that the type of questions may change, but the activities still need to keep going,” and “it just keeps going round and round and round.”
The work of the faculty support staff has far reaching implications within their respective institutions as they work closely with not only faculty, but with colleagues, administrators and students to build and grow the number of courses and their respective online education programs. The individuals who occupy the roles of faculty support staff in this study understand online education. They are in unique roles that require an understanding of the broader issues related to online education and the data suggests that they do understand the complexities inherent in online education. Parallels can be drawn to what Gornall (1999) identified in her research on new professionals in higher education, that their roles can be regarded as marginal, yet powerful, in they can be associated with institutional change and long term institutional strategy.
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Carolyn Siccama, RD, Ed.D., is the Distance Learning Faculty Coordinator in the Division of Continuing Studies and Corporate Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. While in this position she assisted in the initiation of the University’s Online Teaching Institute, which provides higher education faculty with an orientation to teaching online. In 2005, Carolyn was part of the Continuing Studies team which won two awards from the Sloan Consortium in recognition for excellence in online teaching and learning for their Online Teaching Institute and Institution-Wide Online Teaching & Learning Programming.
Dr. Carolyn Siccama
Distance Learning Faculty Coordinator
University of Massachusetts Lowell