1. Thompson, Cathy J. PhD, RN, CCNS, CNE

Article Content

Distance educators, also known as distance faculty, remote faculty, or a faculty-at-a-distance nurse educator (FDNE1), may be an innovative solution to the current nursing faculty shortage,1-4 although convincing nursing administrators and individual nurse faculty members of this solution might be a challenge. This column continues the series on disruptive innovations in graduate education and begins the case for rethinking our traditional mindset regarding faculty presence on campus.


There is both a registered nurse4-7 and nursing faculty shortage1,4,8-10 in this country. By 2022, more than 1.1 million new nurses will be needed,4-6 and the number of nurse faculty will need to increase by 35% to meet the enrollment demand.10 Despite the increase in adjunct faculty being hired to fill course needs, there are almost 2000 full-time faculty positions that remain vacant.1 These shortages coupled with the Institute of Medicine's11 recommendations, that by 2020 80% of nurses should be prepared at the baccalaureate level and the number of doctorally prepared nurses should be doubled, will fuel the demand for increasing enrollment in nursing programs and the need for experienced nurse faculty.


At the same time, the demand for distance learning or online education is growing rapidly,1,12-15 and "there is every indication that distance learning in nursing will continue with unprecedented speed from basic through advanced practice, nationally and globally."1(p400) More than 7 million students in the United States have taken at least 1 course online accounting for approximately a third of the students enrolled in higher education.14


This increase in the demand for online courses translates to a need for faculty to teach those courses. Many faculty members thus find themselves teaching online courses, regardless of their personal teaching preferences, which may be at odds with their institution's view of the future. According to a national survey of online education,14 whereas 66% of chief academic officers believed that online learning was important to keeping their institutions viable in the long term, only 29% of faculty believed that online learning was a valid form of education.


There are many reasons for faculty to be skeptical of the validity of online learning; typical fears included distress over "faceless" teaching,15 a drastic change in traditional faculty culture, the lack of technical and faculty development, perceptual barriers, and little research on the outcomes of this mode of learning.1,2,4,12,15,16 This skepticism may well stem from the fact that faculty are still learning how to use information technology (IT) tools (eg, the Internet, Web 2.0 tools, suites of online software)4,13,15,17 in a "digitally wise" way.17 In 2009, only 45% of faculty reported successfully using online and Web-based strategies to enrich their courses.17


As faculty gain IT knowledge, confidence in their online teaching skills and a variety of course delivery tools are enhanced through technical support and professional development activities1,13,15; when choosing which IT tools and strategies to use, faculty should seek to gain "digital wisdom."17 The ability to teach from anywhere is attractive to many faculty members and affords new opportunities including continuation of one's career after retirement; as well as academic collaboration or research opportunities.1-3,13,18 Depending on the requirement to be present on campus, faculty who teach exclusively online may be referred to as distance educators.



Distance learning or distance education is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a method of study where teachers and students do not meet in a classroom but use the Internet, e-mail, mail, etc, to have classes."19 Pearsall et al1 cited Moore and Anderson's definition of distance education as follows:


All forms of education in which all or most of the teaching is conducted in a different space than the learning with the effect that all or most of the communication between teachers and learners is through a communication technology.1(p400)


Most nursing curriculum and instruction textbooks have more specific definitions of distance learning/education. Bastable20 defined distance learning as "a flexible telecommunications method of instruction using video or computer technology to transmit live, online, or taped messages directly between the instructor and the learner, who are separated from one another by time and/or location,"20(p623) and Holly4 described distance education as "[involving] learning that takes place when the teacher and the student are in 2 different settings, learning and teaching at 2 different times, perhaps even in 2 different countries and certainly with different aspirations in mind."4(p506) The separation of instructor and learner during the learning process and the use of communications technologies to deliver the course experience are key differences between the labels of "mainstream" or traditionally campus-based faculty and distance educators.


No universal definition for distance educator, distance faculty, or remote faculty was located. Indeed, as the roles for online educators evolve, articles specific to this topic have only recently begun to be published. A Delphi study by McLean16 described stressors and job satisfaction of distance educators and described a distance educator as a faculty member whose teaching is "geographically independent of students and colleagues."16(para1) Distance educators may be employed part time or full time.


Pearsall and colleagues1 conducted the first study on the FDNE role. Their definition of FDNE was as follows:


A nurse educator employed full time by an institution of higher learning, but not in the same place as the institution, having all responsibilities of instruction, governance, research, and student service. This can include contract or tenure/tenure-track faculty. The process may occur synchronously or asynchronously and may employ audio, video, or computer technologies.1(p400)


According to Pearsall et al1 approximately one-fifth of the 188 respondents responsible for hiring decisions (in 2008) reported having "employed at least one such faculty member."1(p404) However, the number of unique institutions these respondents represented was not reported.


Although the definitions seem simple enough, there are challenges and nuances to the distance educator role that makes this role more complicated than it appears. First, there are no universally accepted parameters constituting what makes one "geographically independent" and therefore, according to McLean's16 definition, a distance educator. If distance is the defining factor, for example, how far from campus is geographically independent? If you teach solely online from your home, but you could commute to campus, are you a distance educator? What about the long-time faculty member who has always taught on campus, but now requests to teach online off-site?2,3,18 Or is the method of teaching the key difference? While the definition of distance educator implies an exclusively online presence, these faculty also may visit the campus at scheduled intervals throughout the year (eg, to onboard new students, teach hybrid or intensive classes, attend faculty events, etc). Does that on-campus presence change the role or responsibilities of the distance educator? Questions and decisions about the distance educator role and expectations need to be addressed at both an institutional and department level.



The employment and acceptance of distance faculty are a disruptive innovation in higher education. Disruptive innovation is a challenge to the status quo and is defined as "an innovation that provides a simpler, more convenient, more accessible, and more affordable alternative to traditional markets and/or products."12(p238) The convenient, accessible, flexible asynchronous (or synchronous) learning in an online environment is certainly a change to the status quo of scheduled, face-to-face, geographically dependent, classroom-based settings! The innovation of the distance educator, FDNE, or distant faculty models meets the needs of an underserved group (eg, faculty who want to teach, but may be geographically isolated) and can lead to positive outcomes for the faculty member, the institution, and the students.2,3,13 In addition, the innovation of distance faculty has the potential to change the status quo. The current paradigm of a traditional on-site, campus-based faculty model needs to change to accept an off-site, distant faculty model such as those identified in Goodfellow and colleagues,2 Wood,3 Hoffman and Dudjak,13 and Stewart et al.18


Halstead21 reported that the challenge to become a positive disruptor for innovation and change was "enthusiastically received" by participants at the 2013 National League for Nursing Leadership Conference. One strategy to role model positive disruption for students would be to "create an environment where students can observe faculty who are actively engaged as positive disrupters in leading change and innovation."21(p4) Positive disruption would occur as current faculty help to lead a mindset change of the traditional campus-based faculty structure to embrace a distance faculty model. Research has shown that if as little as 10% of the faculty could share their commitment and "unshakeable belief"22(para1)in the value of a distant faculty model, that could be enough to trigger the adoption of this innovation within the faculty.22,23



Employment as a distance educator is not for everyone. Experienced online educators are good candidates for this role as they not only understand the pedagogy of online education, but also can more easily navigate the academic responsibilities and institutional culture to be successful.2,3,13,18 Success in the distance faculty role requires good planning and good organizational, interactive, and communication skills to facilitate learning and engagement of online students.3,13,18,24


Using a qualitative case study methodology, Stewart et al18 cross-analyzed 2 cases of tenured, on-site faculty members who, because of personal circumstances, requested to teach from a distance. A checklist of considerations and benefits related to administration, curriculum and instruction, and faculty characteristics was developed upon analysis of the 2 cases. Stewart and colleagues18 specifically identified content expertise, technological knowledge and instructional design ability, time management, and collegial relationships with faculty and administrators, as characteristics to assess when considering faculty for off-site work. An independent and self-motivated work style, good work ethic, strong communication skills and follow-through, and a "proven track record of productivity and contributions"18(p24) round out the characteristics for an effective distance educator. Although this study was based on only 2 cases, the checklist is a good start to provide guidance to faculty and administrators considering the use of off-site distance education faculty. Many of the considerations and benefits acknowledged on the checklist outlined by Stewart et al18 are the same or similar to those identified by the research and case studies reviewed for this article. As evidence from focused research and personal experience accumulates, the considerations and benefits in this checklist can be expanded and refined.


There will be many challenges to the implementation of this role. McLean15 noted that, because of their isolation from campus and faculty colleagues, distance educators need to be internally motivated, self-regulating, and able to set boundaries for student, colleague, and their own personal expectations. The most frequently cited intrinsic motivators for faculty considering distance teaching include self-satisfaction, schedule flexibility, a more global audience, intellectual challenge, ability to work from anywhere, and the ability to increase their knowledge and use of technology to deliver online courses.15,25 The most requested extrinsic motivators include a monetary incentive, decreases in faculty workload, release time, and/or the lure of new technology.25 A variety of national surveys have demonstrated that while monetary incentives, workload adjustments, and additional training are requested by faculty asked to teach online courses, the reality is that provision of these external incentives is not the norm25; therefore, intrinsic rewards remain the major motivators for faculty teaching in distance education programs.15,25


Regardless of the label, distance educators are held to the same pedagogic standards as regular faculty. Whether based in the classroom or online, faculty need to be excellent teachers. "Excellence in teaching must be the first, because adopting technology will not improve poor teaching, and without excellent teachers, technology will not enhance learning to any degree."15(p103)


However, depending on their employment status and faculty rank, distance educators may not be held to the same service or academic expectations of "regular" faculty. Faculty-at-a-distance nurse educators, by virtue of the definition, are required to meet these expectations.1 Other than advising students in their courses, participating in faculty service (eg, faculty committees, general student advising) or meeting the other nonteaching missions of the university (eg, research, clinical practice, or scholarship) may not be an expectation of part-time distance educators. The teaching role is thereby "unbundled" from "roles traditionally associated with the professorate."16(Review of Literature, para2)


[horizontal ellipsis]It is important to recognize that distance educators view themselves as dedicated almost exclusively to instruction. The traditional triad of higher educators sharing their time between teaching, service, and scholarship is not perceived as applicable to most distance educators who consider themselves first and foremost teachers.16(Implications, para1)



Teaching at a distance presents the faculty member with both perceived and real barriers.1,26 The lack of technological infrastructure and/or technical support is an obvious barrier to a quality distance education program. Administrative support, essential to most innovations, is also key for the distance educator.1-3,13,15,18 Nursing programs with organizational cultural norms and shared vision embracing distance learning and innovation will present an easier transition than those without.26


McLean16 studied faculty who taught entirely at a distance who, because of stressors such as being isolated from colleagues, are at risk of becoming "forgotten faculty" by their peers. Essentially, these faculty existed only in cyberspace-technology has enabled them to be virtual faculty, "out-of-site, out-of-mind,"16(Findings, para9) rarely or never coming to campus. Conventional faculty may therefore disregard these virtual faculty, adding to the distance educator's impression of being cut off from the faculty as a whole.16,27 Onboarding or orientation experiences for new distance educators,27,28 ongoing communication, and attempts to create collegial and collaborative interactions and teaching community between mainstream and distance faculty could help to increase mutual respect, effective working relationships, and engagement among the faculty.1-3,13,18,27


Pearsall and colleagues'1 descriptive, exploratory study surveyed 2 separate samples of experienced nurse faculty: (a) those responsible for hiring decisions and (b) certified nurse educators. The respondents were asked their perspectives of the barriers and strategies of implementing the FDNE role in their institutions. The National League for Nursing's 8 core competencies for the nurse educator provided the conceptual framework for the questionnaires and the study as a whole. The predominant responses to the perceived barriers questions were related to attitudes and infrastructure. Tradition topped the list of perceived barriers to implementation; the "visibility" of faculty on campus and a perception that faculty physical presence was needed for a strong team connection were examples of this barrier.1 Faculty culture, philosophical differences about the validity of online education, fear and skepticism, and resistance to change trigger these perceptions.1,13,15,16


The academic culture that sustains the belief that faculty need to be physically present on campus to be effective in their roles is the model many faculty "grew up in."2 This view even extends to faculty who may teach all of their courses online! Pearsall et al1 reported that according to their survey faculty who taught online still spent 35% of the work week, on average, on campus. Decades of tradition, beliefs, and values of academic life can be hard to overcome,15 but faculty presence can be accomplished virtually with very good results.2,3,13 Philosophic acceptance by faculty and administrators of the value of distance faculty to the institution and faculty as a whole will require a significant cultural shift and time.27


We know that faculty support of their colleagues is a major factor in sustaining faculty involvement in distance education,2,15 so faculty who are resistant to the distance educator or FDNE role could derail innovative faculty (ie, positive disruptors) attempts to change the system. "Changing roles and responsibilities are an inevitable result of innovation[horizontal ellipsis] [that can] create a climate of unrest."15(p100) Pearsall and colleagues'1 study and other descriptions2,3,13,18 of the distance faculty role are building evidence that the faculty-at-a-distance model is a viable and innovative solution to decrease the effects of the nurse faculty shortage.


The move toward an increase in the number of online nursing courses and programs is a reality. Students are looking for flexibility in scheduling and course formats to meet their personal, professional, and educational needs; higher education is struggling with funding challenges and fewer resources to recruit and retain students; and faculty are finding that online education offers location-independent flexibility and more teaching autonomy.2,3,15


As a fairly new faculty category, advice in the form of policies or recommendations on how to implement the distant faculty role successfully has been hard to find. Clear expectations, policies, and processes need to be developed to smoothly integrate this evolving category of educators into existing faculty structures.2,3,18 The good news is that guidance for administrators and would-be distance educators is starting to build.1-3,13,18 Resources from professional organizations also can help to shape institutional and departmental policies, such as a report on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities in Distance Learning from the American Association of University Professors29 and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing's statement on distance learning.30


Distance education demand is expected to continue to rise,1,3,27,28 and the nursing faculty shortage will adversely affect the quality and quantity of nursing programs across the country. It is time to rethink our traditions and perceptions about the ability of distance faculty to be fully engaged with their colleagues, students, and the missions of the nursing program. There are many questions that need to be answered for this newly evolving category of faculty, but embracing distance faculty may be one strategy to change the professoriate for the better. As Stewart et al18 identified, "A distance education model where only the students are distant may be considered only half a model. Teaching from a distance completes the scope or picture."18(p20) In the next column, I'll review the benefits of distance faculty and offer suggestions for how to integrate distance faculty into the faculty as a whole.


A case study originally published as a blog post entitled "How I Became a Distance Educator (AKA Distance Faculty, Remote Faculty)" can be seen as Supplemental Digital Content 1, It is printed with permission from the Nursing Education Expert Web site at




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