How Faculty Adapt their Practices to Teach Online – An Interview with Donna Murdoch


Donna Murdoch: Digital Learning and Online Teaching Specialist

Donna Murdoch is a Digital Learning consultant who is currently working with UNICEF to build an architecture that embeds digital learning into the organization. She also teaches educators how to integrate online and blended instruction into their practice at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in the new VOLT program (Virtual and Online Teaching.)
As part of her doctoral dissertation, Donna Murdoch investigated the incorporation of online learning into faculty’s regular practice. She surveyed 20 faculty members from across the U.S. who had been face to face instructors in higher education for at least 3 years prior to teaching online, and were currently teaching at least two course per semester, with at least one of them online. Her interviews focused on faculty’s perception of their own experience as adult learners during the transition, the challenges they faced, how they overcame them, and the perceived quality and value of the online courses they taught.

How do traditional face-to-face teachers become e-teachers? What are challenges and milestones in the transition process? It was my pleasure to talk to Donna about her research project.


Online Learning: From enigmatic phenomenon to everyday practice (Adapted from algogenius Flickr collection, creative commons, some rights reserved).

Donna, can you sum up your findings in a few headline-grabbing sentences?

Headline grabbing –

Adults don’t like the change they encounter when new technologies are introduced – and you won’t believe the reasons why!!!

Faculty member stays up all night answering email from students doing online work at 2 a.m. – find out her 10 secrets to napping during the day!

All kidding aside, I did have three distinct findings, and they were almost unanimous. First, the vast majority of participants expressed concern about the quality of online instruction. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman also found this in the 2014 Babson Survey “Tracking Online Education in the United States.” The difference in my survey was that most participants expressed more concern about the quality of their colleagues’ courses. They perceived they had overcome most obstacles, but that others at their institutions had not.   They did not believe that others were teaching courses that were on par with face-to-face classes in terms of quality. This is because of findings 2 and 3. The second finding was that the overwhelming majority did not feel support from their institutions when transitioning to online modalities, rather they indicated that experiential learning in the form of mentorship, learning by doing, and dialog with peers were most critical when overcoming the challenges. The third finding was that the majority of participants indicated the time required for preparation and intrusion of time on an ongoing basis during the course of an online class were significantly greater than time requirements of a face-to-face course.

What gave you the idea for this project?

When I began developing an online program at a very large university, I experienced a phenomenon. Highly educated faculty members, popular with students and/or dedicated to research and well respected in their field were reluctant to teach online. Not only were they resistant to online instruction – I should not limit it to one modality. Many were resistant to any kind of change to what had traditionally worked for them, and emphatically so when it came to change that meant they would need to use technology. I was fascinated. These super intelligent people were overly resistant – there seemed to be something more to it. There were so many different reasons stated, but I sensed it was about something more overarching. I was often successful in “convincing” them, but when I did, it was not very easy!   When I did work in corporate education, I saw the same resistance. Very few people like the change that accompanies technology integration, whether in an academic setting or a corporate university. I wanted to know why this was happening.

What challenges did you face during data collection and analysis?

Interestingly, the only challenge I faced during data collection was not putting enough time on my calendar for each interview!   People who had been through the transition really wanted to talk about it, more so than I had anticipated. The parameters of the study included “must teach at least two classes online” so if we refer to the results of the study which highlight the time that is devoted to online instruction, it is easy to understand why they wanted to talk about such a big part of their lives. Analysis was not too difficult – I’m really infatuated with a new cloud based analysis tool called Dedoose, which can replace some of the traditional software programs – it is quite magical.

How can your results benefit faculty development initiatives?

The focus of technology, e-learning, or blended learning initiatives is often the shiny toys. It frequently involves working with the platform and perhaps some “training” on the tools themselves. Technical support is common, but technical competency is a very small part of what it takes to be successful in online instruction. The results showed that we really need to view the adoption and acceptance of e-learning in a more systemic way that educators will feel is supportive. This is change management, but it seems many experience support by means of an IT hotline number, LMS instruction, or a quick lunch and learn. Faculty are adult learners, and my research showed that they don’t feel IT oriented support is giving them what they need in order to feel confidence in the process they go through to build and sustain a high quality online course. We need to assess them in advance to find out what they need to know and how they will learn best. The benefits will be clear when the most common challenges are addressed via adult learning methodologies.

What are your next steps?

I will be defending my dissertation in the spring at Columbia University Teachers College. I got so much unanticipated data, there are a number of papers I hope to publish. Everything I learned was so worthwhile! That will come next. I also really enjoy applying research to practice, and I’m excited about PennGSE’s new VOLT graduate certificate in online learning, as I’ve been part of it from the beginning. I think it will be different than anything we’ve seen before. I enjoy my corporate work, and have been helping corporate universities (and NGOs) build digital learning that works for adults. And I really enjoy working with education entrepreneurs, especially when they are working to build tools for adult learners.

Did you know?

Donna and I met through the AACE Special Interest Group on ‘Assessing, Designing and Developing E-Learning’ (ADD E-Learn). You do not have to be an AACE member or an attendee of previous AACE conferences to join an AACE Special Interest Group– simply connect on Academic Experts.

Are you currently conducting a research project that you would like to share with the AACE community? Let us know! Contact us via FaceBook or Twitter @AACE.

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