September/October 2000 // Faculty and Staff Development
Kindling the Fire:
How to Attract Faculty to Distance Education
by Nancy Levenburg and Howard Major
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Nancy Levenburg and Howard Major "Kindling the Fire:
How to Attract Faculty to Distance Education" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Few institutions these days are delivering courses and programs in only a traditional, face-to-face manner. Instead, new technologies now enrich and expand traditional offerings, as is evident in the explosive growth in the number of courses that institutions offer via distance education. Institutions launch new or modify existing courses and programs for distance delivery because new technologies enable them to tap new markets (learners) in a highly cost-effective manner. These institutions have also established faculty teaching and learning centers to encourage instructional improvement, including the use of information technology tools. Considering the strong advantages of technology-enhanced learning, how should administrators attract faculty members to these initiatives? What is the best way to "kindle the fire?"

According to Bates (2000), part of the problem in attracting faculty to programs advocating new technology lies with the traditional criteria by which faculty members are hired and evaluated: research, teaching, and service. He states that

research universities in particular have levered this to obtain the best research candidates, with a result that research publication is now in many universities and colleges (whether or not research is in their mandate) the predominant or even the only criterion for appointment, tenure, and promotion (p. 96).

As a result, explains Bates, many young instructors don't want to put in the effort required to develop technology-based teaching approaches. To encourage more faculty members to embrace technology-enhanced learning systems, there must be accompanying changes in the criteria used to hire, train, and reward them. This changed criteria could include previous online teaching experience or the degree of experimentation with and involvement in delivering courses via the Internet. Similarly, as Barr and Tagg (1995) have argued, there must be appropriate rewards and incentives to encourage faculty members to adopt learner-centered as opposed to teacher-centered approaches to education. An example of this kind of incentive is to adopt faculty evaluation systems that focus more on student learning than on teachers' classroom performance.

One way to encourage faculty involvement in distance learning is to offer rewards that motivate. For example, some institutions assign distance education courses to those who hold lower rank and/or are new. We think that a more effective strategy is to allow faculty members to self-select their involvement in distance education, and to offer appropriate support systems and rewards for those who choose to do so. Examples might range from internal recognition to laptop computers or release time, depending on the faculty members' needs and preferences.

Some research applies the "diffusion of innovation" literature (Rogers & Shoemaiker, 1971) to those who have become involved in distance or technology-enhanced education (Olcott, Jr., 1996; Jacobsen, 1998; Donovan, 1999). For the most part, the research seems to indicate that those faculty members who are "innovators" in online education (less than 5% of all faculty) tend to be people who are risk-takers, challenged by the "newness" of online education, and intrinsically motivated. They have forged ahead on their own (with little support), teaching themselves to write HTML and to use a variety of software programs. They may or may not be a part of the tenure-track process, meaning that they are either tenured already or outside the tenure-track system (visitors/adjuncts).

In addition to innovators, another category of faculty in the "diffusion of innovation" model is that of early adopters. These are faculty members who "share many of the same characteristics as innovators, but an important difference is their degree of concern for social acceptance, especially with regard to expressive products. . . . they also place high value on being in fashion" (Solomon, 1994, p. 562). Early adopters are motivated by their perception of technology as offering a relative advantage over current teaching methods and by the influence of innovators.

All in all, the long-term success of any teaching/learning innovation depends on the active participation of early and late majority faculty members. (The early and late majority are two of Rogers' and Shoemaker's’ adopter categories, each representing about 34% percent of the relevant population). According to Jacobsen (1998), when an innovation has been adopted by most or all of the members in a social system or adopter category, diffusion has reached the saturation point. This implies that widespread adoption will not occur until it has reached the early majority. Because early and late majority members are somewhat more risk-adverse than innovators and early adopters, they require more support in terms of the nuts and bolts of delivering instruction online. Unlike innovators, they cannot, for example, be counted on to learn CGI-scripting on their own. For early and late majority faculty members, the ability to integrate the innovation within the traditional system that already works well is critically important.

For all groups, Rogers' and Shoemaker’s (1971) "Characteristics of Successful Innovations" are applicable. Faculty members’ support of and interest and involvement in distance education depends upon the extent to which they perceive it as offering what Rogers and Shoemaker call the characteristics of successful innovations: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. The following are examples of these characteristics:

  • Relative advantage. If faculty members perceive that innovation such as distance education offers a strong and easily recognizable advantage over existing alternatives, they will adopt an innovation faster. For example, a key advantage of holding discussions online instead of face-to-face is the learners' ability to engage in research and/or reflective thinking before posting responses. Other advantages of distance education are convenience, attractive format, small classes, and guest speaker opportunities.
  • Compatibility. Compatibility refers to how well innovation matches prevailing philosophies, lifestyles, etc. When faculty members perceive distance education as compatible with their ways of teaching, they adopt it more quickly. For example, if an institution’s mission is to provide more convenient access to instruction, particularly for returning adult learners, then online courses are highly compatible with the institutional mission. Similarly, to the extent that faculty members’ instructional mission is to improve the quantity and quality of class discussions, online discussions are more attractive.
  • Complexity. Ideally, distance education should not be hard to understand or use. If faculty members perceive a technology to be too complex or cumbersome, they will show little interest in using it. For example, we recently conducted a faculty training workshop for a school district that had newly installed interactive television equipment. Unfortunately, the instructor had to push five separate buttons on the touch-screen in order for the home site audience to view projected materials (e.g., via computer or document camera). This procedure could hardly be described as "easy" and could dampen interest in using the system.
  • Trialability. According to Solomon (1994), "Since an unknown is accompanied by high perceived risk, people are more likely to adopt an innovation if they can experiment with it prior to making a commitment" (p. 565). As a result, "open houses" in interactive television classrooms may be advantageous because they allow faculty members to experiment with equipment. Similarly, incremental (rather than all-or-nothing) migration from traditional delivery to distance education may enhance trialability.
  • Observability. For innovations to take root, potential adopters must be aware of their existence. Therefore, marketing and communicating new technologies to prospective faculty members is important. Simply put, prospective distance education instructors must be aware of new technologies and their benefits before they can be interested in them.

The bottom line requirement, therefore, is to communicate to faculty members the idea that distance education courses are successful and that the institution's training program can help them be successful distance teachers. If adequate support is not offered, distance education initiatives may not yield desired results, no matter what reward is offered. Support may include workshops on developing classes for distance education and incentives for participation, whether these incentives are internal (e.g., recognition) or external (e.g., money). It is critical that faculty members view workshop facilitators as credible; faculty members are more likely to be motivated by peers who are successfully teaching at a distance.

Another critical factor for success is the presence of support services and technical support personnel for faculty members and other learners, wherever they are located (e.g., counseling and other student services, library, financial aid, academic advising). Unless these services are visible, faculty members may expect to be assigned the task of providing technical support for students and will therefore worry that their courses will suffer. In this situation, they will become reluctant bystanders in the process of infusing new technology into the traditional classroom structure.

There is no magic formula for enlisting faculty members’ support and involvement in distance learning initiatives. But the following strategies may be helpful:

  • offering incentives that are aligned with the institution’s mission, vision, and goals;
  • providing adequate support systems for faculty members who are integrating new educational technologies into their courses;
  • communicating the relative advantages of technology-enhanced educational processes; and
  • creating an institutional climate that respects the willingness to take risks, try new things, and follow "the road less traveled."

When institutions apply the characteristics of successful innovations, they kindle the fire of technological innovation in faculty members.


Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27 (6), 13-25.

Bates, A. W. (2000). Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Donovan, M. (1999, September/October). Rethinking faculty support. The Technology Source. Retrieved 10 August 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Jacobsen, D. M. (June, 1998). Adoption patterns of faculty who integrate computer technology for teaching and learning in higher education. Paper presented at ED-Media and Ed-Telecom 1998: World Conference on Education Multimedia and Hypermedia & World Conference on Educational Telecommunications, Freiburg Germany. Retrieved 10 August 2000 from the World Wide Web: ~dmjacobs/phd/phd-results.html.

Olcott, D. J. (1996). Aligning distance education practice and academic policy: A framework for institutional change. Continuing Higher Education Review 60 (1), 27-39. Retrieved 10 August 2000 from the World Wide Web: sped997/unit1/readings/olcott1.html.

Rogers, E. M., & Shoemaker, F. F. (1971). Communication of innovations (2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Solomon, M. R. (1994). Consumer behavior (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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