9 Strategies Online Faculty Should Demand in their Professional Development

If you’re a college professor today, then it’s highly likely that you’ll be asked to teach an online course or transition part of your instruction to an online setting.  

You may be asking, “How can I best prepare for teaching in an online environment?.” The reality is that the skills required at being an effective instructor in an online context extend beyond those required to be successful in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. As your college or university begins to ask faculty to teach classes online, make sure to advocate for professional development that includes the nine research-based strategies outlined below. And, to learn more about how you can prepare yourself to teach in an online classroom, please check out our companion piece, 9 Strategies To Support Effective Online Teaching.

1. Work from the ground up to obtain instructor buy-in

The success and effectiveness of any type of teacher professional development program depends on the buy-in from participants. Results from the Rhode’s (2004) study indicated that if instructors believe that professional development was being done “to them” rather than “for them,” they are less likely to benefit from the training being offered. As an instructor, raise your hand and raise your voice to make sure you and your colleagues are part of developing and conceptualizing any professional development being offered.

2. Offer high quality professional development opportunities

High-quality professional development, whether offered to instructors teaching online or face-to-face, has the same characteristics. It is ongoing, reflective, supports the construction of a professional learning community, is based in classroom practice, and grounded in current research (Cowan, Neil, & Windet, 2013; Gregory & Salmon, 2013). Advocate for best practices in high quality professional development to be implemented when training instructors to make the shift to an online classroom. The reality is that your professional development should be both rigorous and relevant.

3. Run the trainings on the same platforms that you use in class

A first-hand experience using the platform gives you an authentic experience and allows you to preview any potential roadblocks (e.g. signing onto the platform) or challenges (e.g. navigating a non-linear platform) that students in their class might experience. Training should also be authentic in terms of the content that you will be teaching in your course, and provide you with the tools to not only be able to teach your course, but also for you to be able to support students in learning the technology required. Advocate for hands-on training that includes your course materials, and leverage tech staff knowledge to simulate challenges that your students may encounter so that you are prepared to handle them later.

4. Differentiate instruction and use a wide array of resources unique to online learning

High quality online learning environments includes the use of different strategies and technology - videos, web-cameras, instant messaging, online whiteboards etc. - each used to support instruction and the delivery of content in different ways. Therefore, both synchronous and asynchronous discussion should be included in lesson planning, as well as the use of various resources that instructors will implement in their classrooms. Advocate for exposure to more strategies, not fewer, so that you become familiar with the options available to support your instructional practice and the delivery of your content (Storandt, Lacher & Dossin, 2012).

5. Online pedagogy and content are important, but an online training program should also focus on soft skills

Research suggests that the three most noted “soft-skills” that instructors will need to effectively teach an online course are:

  • administrative/organizational,
  • time management, and
  • self-direction.

Therefore, you need to know how to best organize this new mode of learning, when to be available for student inquiry, and when you are “out of class time.” Conversely, you should also be self-directed and self-motivated so that you know when you are “in class time” and monitor discussion, or grade assignments (Cowan, Neil, & Winter, 2013). Spend time in the training defining these with your community of online instructors, and try out different approaches in advance of teaching to see what works best for you.

6. Pair new online instructors with veteran mentors

Research shows that instructors new to teaching online can benefit from a mentor veteran instructor experienced in online teaching.

In research on an online teacher training program that paired new instructors with mentor veteran instructors, Smith (2008) found that the more highly engaged instructors found their mentors to be, the more prepared they felt to teach in an online environment following their professional development.

Advocate for a mentorship aspect to your own professional development; it will speed up your learning curve, increase your engagement, and, in turn, enable you to better support your students’ learning.

7. Develop a model for ongoing support

Training to shift into online teaching should be viewed as an ongoing activity. For example, a community of online instructors can maintain contact, share experiences, challenges and best practice over time. Such a group is best supported by a mentor (see #6 above) who can often pose discussion prompts to the group or help to resolve challenges new instructors face. As an added layer, online instructors in the community can leverage the new technologies that they’re using with students - discussion boards, video chats, virtual whiteboards etc - to promote their own ongoing community of practice - benefitting them as a community and as individuals still becoming familiar with new technology.

8. Expect that you will demonstrate mastery of the skills and best practices associated with online learning before you teach your own course

Don’t walk away from any professional development program designed to support the transition to online teaching without being fully prepared to teach your course. While this may sound obvious, advocate for lots of hands-on exposure to the technologies, time to incorporate each into your own instructional style, and a plan for how you will begin, and sustain, your online classroom community. In an online setting there isn’t time to “learn on the job” and both you and your students will benefit from your advance preparation.

9. Train to be aware of data security

Data security is a critical aspect of teaching in an online environment. For example, when all information in the course is being transmitted online it becomes easy to leave data vulnerable for security breaches. Also, often times Instructors have to be cognizant of housing student data. Ask for specific training on data security from your institution so that you’re prepared for this new context.

Some tips:

  • Teachers should ask students to reduce their transmission of personally identifiable information to times when it is necessary.
  • Similarly, when transmitting files, to the extent possible the files should be locked and/or transmitted through a secure file transfer site.
  • Student background, demographic, and identifying data should be housed in a secure file.
  • Additionally, to the extent possible performance data should be transmitted privately and securely.

By advocating for optimal professional development and support through these nine strategies, we hope that you will become part of a vibrant online instructor community who are fostering student success in online classrooms.


Cowan, P., Neil, P. S., & Winter, E. (2013). A connectivist perspective of the transition from face-to-face to Online Teaching in Higher Education. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 8(1), 1019.

Gregory, J., & Salmon, G. (2013). Professional development for online university teaching. Distance Education, 34(3).

Rhodes, C., Stokes, M., & Hampton, G. (2004). A Practical Guide to Mentoring, Coaching and Peer networking: Teacher Professional Development in Schools and Colleges. Routledge.

Smith, K.N. (2008). Examining the Efficacy of eLearning: The Importance of Training to Teach Online. Retrieved from the eScholarship@BC website.

Visit the eScholarship@BC website  

Storandt, B.C., Lacher, A.P., & Dossin, L.C. (2012). Toward an understanding of what works in professional development for online instructors: The case of PBS Teacherline. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(1), 121-162.