The Administration of a Higher Education Faculty Online Learning Community


Distance learning in colleges and universities is now recognized as more than an alternative to the traditional face-to-face classroom (Higher Ed Partners, 2021), which is how distance learning was largely viewed at the time that institutions turned entirely to virtual teaching and learning during COVID-19 (Suruchi & Dutt, 2021).  Distance learning is viewed today as a parallel learning modality, and is both valued and entrenched in higher education (Marcus. 2022; Nworie,2021). 

The preparation of faculty in online pedagogy and the appropriate use of tools for asynchronous learning to quickly build capacity was a start (Tucker & Quintero-Ares, 2021).  Transitioning to distance learning and teaching no longer needs to be the goal of higher education leadership in preparing and supporting faculty but, rather, the focus should be on investing in dedicated planning and installation of processes that support and sustain high quality online instruction (Gregory & Martindale, 2016).  Sustaining high quality online teaching and learning is best achieved through professional development derived from collegial relationships among online teaching faculty and high touch faculty support provided through an online mentoring model, the Online Learning Community (Pearson & Kirby, 2018).

An Online Learning Community (OLC) has proven to be incredibly valuable for faculty and the programs served (Pearson & Kirby, 2020). One of the key benefits of an OLC is that faculty are given the opportunity to collaborate and share their knowledge and expertise (Tuffnell, 2021).  The OLC also provides a place for programs to build quality teaching practices and create a culture of integrity and transparency in online education (Price, Lau, Goldberg, Turpen, Smith, Dancy, & Robinson, 2021). 

In today’s fast-paced, constantly-changing education landscape, it can be challenging for educators to stay abreast of the latest developments and trends in their field. Through online learning communities, consistent scheduled one-on-one support facilitates faculty’s ability to learn from each other and stay current in their subject matter (Bedford & Rossow, 2017).

Another benefit of an Online Learning Community is the mentoring provided to faculty that can improve teaching methods and strategies (Zhadko & Ko, 2023). Through interactive discussions and sharing of ideas, educators can learn from each other and develop new and innovative ways of effectively interacting with students, a significant component of student success in online learning (Jaggars & XU, 2016).  The OLC can also ensure faculty are prepared to provide regular and substantive interaction (RSI) between themselves and students, one of the determinants used to address student eligibility for the use of Title IV funds (US Department of Education, 2020). 

An important role for administrative leadership in online programs is the provision of resources that encourage faculty to commit toward their ongoing professional development (Schwanenberger, Dereshiwsky, & Sujo-Montes, 2021). To take full advantage of the benefits of an online faculty mentoring model, we have built a practical framework that guides the implementation of the Online Learning Community (OLC).  This framework is focused on facilitating collaboration, sharing knowledge and expertise, and providing support and guidance to faculty through the OLC.

The framework for our university’s OLC is derived from the following guiding principles:

A clear purpose: Based on the recognition that teachers are still at the center of teaching, the university’s Online Learning Community (OLC) aims to foster a collaborative and supportive environment for its online faculty by providing a forum for faculty members to discuss and exchange ideas, develop best practices, and investigate innovative teaching strategies in order to enhance the quality of online education.  As a result, the university’s online faculty are well prepared to provide the institution’s unique signature academic experience for its online students.

A commitment to high standards: By providing an Online Instructional Mentor, the university demonstrates its commitment to assisting online faculty members in their efforts to provide students with high-quality instruction.  It also sends a clear message to students that it takes online teaching and learning seriously and is dedicated to providing students with the best educational experience possible.

The Online Instructional Mentor is a significant centralized support in maintaining consistency in the quality of the university’s online courses.  This is especially important for universities that offer multiple online programs or courses through different departments.

A diverse and engaged membership:  The OLC is a community of educators who specialize in online education comprised of full-time and adjunct faculty members from undergraduate and graduate programs as well as academic disciplines spanning the university’s online programs. This membership diversity enables participants to share and gain knowledge from faculty with a vast array of perspectives and expertise in a variety of fields who are also familiar with the unique challenges and opportunities presented by online learning. 

Robust and user-friendly communication and collaboration tools: Through their regular OLC meetings, faculty gain access to the resources that are available for both their support and for the support of their students.  These resources provide the mechanisms for continuous improvement of content, instruction, pedagogy, and that faculty are comfortable and practiced in the effective use of technology that the university has provided for online learning.

Regular and engaging content: For each eight-week term, the OLC meets virtually two to three times for 30-minute sessions to provide professional development on best practices in online teaching, pedagogy, student academic engagement and student retention, and in creating a close connection to the university mission. These meetings establish a venue for online instructors to come together to discuss challenges and share best practices, a setting in which some of the best professional preparation takes place.

Facilitation and moderation: The OLC is administered by the university’s program directors who serve as Online Instructional Mentors offering unique collegial mentoring through high touch contact with faculty using individual, personal communication.  In addition, key faculty within academic disciplines offer teaching techniques and discipline-specific ideas and facilitate sharing of best practices through the OLC. 

Through this framework we’ve been able to develop a set of procedures that enable us to fulfill our OLC purpose and enhance the online academic experience of our students.

Conclusion and recommendations

Online learning communities are a valuable professional development resource for faculty teaching online. They provide a platform for collaboration, learning, and support, and are a source for improving teaching methods and staying current in one’s academic field (Gilpatrick & Vasquez, 2020; Price et al., 2021).  In addition, research has shown that online learning communities can positively impact teacher and student achievement, further evidence of the value of online learning communities for higher education faculty (Blitz, 2013).  

Since 2020, online teaching skills have developed significantly in higher education faculty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Masalimova, Khvatova, Chikileva, Zvyagintseva, Stepanova, & Melnik, 2022); however, to sustain the innovations in online teaching that have emerged, it is imperative that professional development opportunities are provided within higher education to sustain the expertise of faculty who were already skilled in online teaching and to ensure the continued growth of faculty who lacked online teaching experience prior to the pandemic (Nworie, 2021).  With the numerous documented benefits from faculty participation in an online learning community (Dancy,  Lau, Rundquist, & Henderson, 2019), it is vital that an online learning community is one of the components in the repertoire of professional development available to higher education faculty.

The development, implementation, and sustainment of an effective online learning community requires an administrative framework to guide detailed planning that is essential to its success.  The framework described here was based on six guiding principles: purpose, high standards, membership, tools for communication & collaboration, content, and administration.  Based on these principles, we have developed step-by-step administrative procedures that are derived from the belief that engagement with our students is crucial as high engagement with faculty is a predictor of persistence and retention in our programs. 

Dr. Andy Jett is dean of the College of Innovative Professional and Graduate Studies (CIPGS) at Avila University. He leads a team of faculty and staff to deliver industry leading practices in hybrid and online programming for adult degree completers and graduate students.  Dr. Jett has been in higher education for almost 30 years with roles ranging from bookstore manager to vice president of strategic planning. Having worked with and for faculty for many years his new role as a dean gives him the opportunity to use all of those past experiences and challenges to lead growth within CPS. Dr. Jett worked at institutions such as Hutchinson Community College and for College Bookstores of America where he managed multiple accounts across the western United States. Prior to coming to Avila, Dr. Jett worked for 15 years at Baker University where he was the Chief Information Officer, VP of institutional effectiveness, strategic planning, and academic resources.

Dr. Mary Jane Pearson is the executive director of online program development and support for Avila University. Her unique credentials as a teacher educator include chairing the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), the largest educator licensing agency in the U.S., during which she co-authored the signature study of beginning teacher support and assessment, the California New Teacher Project. This study, Success for Beginning Teachers, was the blueprint for BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) that has become the worldwide standard for the support of new teachers and is the basis of the California Teacher Induction program required for the Professional Clear Credential for all new California teachers. In addition, Dr. Pearson lead the development of a highly sought-after online master’s degree that features a concentration in trauma-informed practices and how to foster resilience in children who have experienced trauma and in teachers who have experienced both trauma and secondary traumatic stress.


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