Developing a Virtual Professional Learning Community for Online Faculty

Developing a Virtual Professional Learning Community for Online Faculty

Alan Belcher (University of Arizona Global Campus, USA), Jennifer Robinson (University of Arizona Global Campus, USA), Kelly Olson-Stewart (University of Arizona Global Campus, USA), and Allison N. Rief (University of Arizona Global Campus, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7331-0.ch016
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Remote, online, virtual, adjunct faculty face a number of issues in performing their duties. One of the most important is their feeling of disconnect, both from working remotely and from not having on-going interactions with their peers and with fulltime faculty. Three research projects were performed to identify the needs, values, and organization of virtual professional learning communities for remote, online faculty at one university. The research included one project of the value of having the opportunity for faculty, while two others targeted specific groups of faculty within the university to analyze the methods of organizing an online learning community for faculty. The results have informed professional development for adjunct faculty at the university. A review of the literature from previous research is included.
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Why A Virtual Professional Learning Community?

There are many challenges for adjunct faculty who teach in an online, asynchronous environment. The most challenging barrier to faculty is the lack of community that may result from remote teaching. In many cases, adjunct faculty are designated outsiders due to the inability to be involved in day-to-day business within the university (Kimmel & Fairchild, 2017). This perceived outsider status leads to continued disconnection, lack of belonging, and decreased production and contribution to the teaching and learning process (Dolan, 2011; Ferencz, 2016; Helms & Raiszadel, 2002; Morton, 2012). Yet, it is true that a strong sense of community leads to increased productivity, contribution, belonging, and engagement (Dolan, 2011; Ferencz, 2016; Fouche, 2006; Helms & Raiszadel, 2002; Morton, 2012; Schieffer, 2016; Schnitzer & Crosby, 2003). The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 illustrates the need for providing support to adjunct faculty around the globe, as the isolation and disconnect has additionally heightened (Gigliotti, 2020).

Wenger and Lave (1991) began describing communities of practice as the engagement between novices and experts. Through this engagement, new members to a community gain capacity and understanding of their current environment, as well as build personal identities within the community. In 1998, Wenger furthered this idea to describe three dimensions to the community of practice model: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and a shared repertoire. Through these dimensions, Wenger (1998) and Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) argued that the community of practice groups would develop relationships. Those relationships would create shared repertoires of process and procedures, increased communication, ongoing conversations, solution-centered problem solving, common definitions of belonging, mutually constructed identities, casual engagement such as jokes, stories, and jargon (both personal and professional). In addition to the community or practice model, the Professional Learning Community (PLC) is another strong model for ongoing development in academia, especially with dispersed academic groups (Brooks, 2010; Lewis and Ewing, 2016). The underlying goals of these two models remains drawing on faculty expertise in order to collaborate, share resources, and build community (Atkins, Koroluk, and Stranach, 2017). Ford, Branch, and Moore (2008) add that PLCs are able to leverage online technology to provide a space for faculty to engage and interact. Furthermore, online (or virtual) PLCs have the potential to reach faculty who might not be able to engage through face-to-face PLCs. The culmination of both of these models are the important community-building contexts, but it is increasingly salient as more academics find their industry moving online and facing the potential of workplace isolation (Brooks, 2010, McAllister, Oprescu, & Jones, 2014). Now, more than ever, PLCs leaders must become eclectic leaders (Deane & Guasch, 2015) to find ways to meet the needs of online faculty, most specifically adjunct (or part-time) online faculty.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Professional Development: Any type of continuing education effort that leads to improved skills for educators with the intention of boosting student outcomes.

Adjunct Faculty: Part time faculty who work remotely for the university.

Retention (Student): The ability to ensure students’ academic success, ultimately leading to completion.

Instructional Quality Review (IQR): The peer review process at UAGC by which adjunct faculty’s performance in the online classroom is evaluated.

PLC (Professional Learning Community): A group that is focused on student learning, reflective dialogue, colleagues, and collaboration.

Faculty Support and Development Associate Score (FSDA): A measure of faculty engagement within the online classes, performed for each class by a fulltime staff member.

Asynchronous: Form of education, instruction, or learning that does not occur in the same place or at the same time.

Gig Economy: Labor market with short-term contracts or freelance work, often temporary.

Retention (Faculty): The ability to keep faculty remaining in their roles.

End of Course Survey (EOCS): A survey of student perceptions of course and faculty, given at the end of each course.

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