Online Learning 2.0: It’s Time to Create Real Faculty Bios

Showing them the factory

In an age where a school’s web page is its most important information tool, most websites now include faculty biographies. But what do you find in those bios? The faculty member’s PhD- granting institution, publications, research interests, etc. In other words, nothing that is of any interest to a student. Nobody cares where a faculty member got his or her PhD. Did you pick your undergraduate courses based on where the professors received their PhDs? Of course not.

For some reason school websites are designed on a “show them the factory” mentality. It is akin to going to Amazon’s website to purchase a computer and being given pictures of their warehouses. Faculty bio pages are not for projecting a CV. They are for communicating with students. This is especially true when the bio is inside an online classroom.

Faculty need to create bios that speak to students by providing information that is relevant to them. Here are some types of content that could go into a faculty bio.

Teaching philosophy

What does a student most want to know when browsing for a course? Obviously, what it will be like to be a student in the course. That means that a great way to start a faculty bio is by describing your teaching philosophy. Do you spend class time lecturing or in discussion with students? Are you flipping the class by putting most of the content online and devoting face-to-face time to discussion or other student activities? Will students be expected to participate in every class, perhaps as a part of their grade? The bio is an opportunity to talk about your teaching style and how that plays out in the structure and expectations of the course.

The bio is also an opportunity to talk about how you will assess students. In order to succeed, students need to understand how they will be assessed and what the standards of excellence are that they will be expected to achieve. Is the class primarily focused on improving a student’s writing skills and thus heavily essay-oriented, with writing quality being the primary assessment criteria? Is the class focused on teaching technical knowledge, as demonstrated by weekly assignments that require students to solve problems? These are the sorts of questions that are relevant to students’ course decisions. The information may weed out students who would not do well in your type of course and will better prepare students who come in, thus producing better work.

Personal bio

The faculty bio is also a good opportunity to start laying the groundwork of the learning relationship by humanizing yourself. There is no law requiring faculty to focus on their professional achievements. Personal achievements are more important to building a relationship, and much more memorable. How many students tell their friends that “My engineering prof went to Cornell” rather than “My engineering prof spent three years studying Buddhism in Tibet.”?

Anything that makes you interesting is good fodder for a bio. The best faculty photo I’ve ever seen online showed the faculty member in a scuba suit with bags of golf balls in each hand. He explained that he dredges the local golf course pond for balls every spring. Notice how I remember that fact? How many faculty photos do you remember? A good rule of thumb when writing a bio is that we are interested in things that are interesting, not in things that are not interesting.

Now, you could include information about your professional life if it is tied to something of interest, such as your teaching style or beliefs. For instance, I would tell people that I was a business major in college until I spent a year studying in Rome, which transformed my whole outlook on life and turned me into a philosophy major. I would then go into what my outlook is and how that is reflected in my teaching.

This melding of the personal and professional also provides an opportunity to talk about why you find your subject interesting. Contagious enthusiasm is a powerful motivator, and we learn much better when we are given the significance of the subject matter. A civil engineering professor might talk about how he or she was drawn into the profession by the challenge of developing structures that are both functional and beautiful. He or she might say that many of our greatest cultural monuments, such as Hoover Dam and the Pyramids, are a result of civil engineering and that civil engineers get to work on things that will outlive them.

Also consider adding a video to your bio. (See “Start Your Class with a Video Welcome” in the December 2013 issue of Online Classroom.) Posting a video bio might encourage your students to do the same.

So start using your faculty bio to really communicate with students, and find out how it makes a difference to your students and in your teaching.

John Orlando has 15 years’ experience in online education, mostly learning by trial and error. He helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and he has taught faculty how to teach online as well as how to use technology in their face-to-face teaching. He serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board.

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