Professional Development Opportunities for Online Instructors

by Kristina Wilson


You may be a seasoned online instructor or new to teaching online. Either way, you’re looking for a professional development opportunity: something to refresh your skills or spark new ideas, a way to connect with your peers, or a way to distinguish yourself in your practice.

Here are 8 professional development ideas, ranging from free activities you could start tomorrow through more considered options that require a significant investment of time and resources.

1. Join an academic community at Northwestern.

Northwestern has many different academic communities and fellowship programs that you may consider participating in, either from a distance or in the Chicago area.

Learning Designer Jessica Mansbach suggests applying for the Educational Technology Teaching Fellows program. If you have “project, challenge, or experiment in which educational technology or blended or active learning techniques are part of the solution,” why not put in an application? It does have a few in-person commitments, so be sure to check out the expectations. Applications are due this September.

Have you been thinking of experimenting with innovative instructional technology into your online class? Apply for the Provost’s Fellowship for Digital Learning by November 1st.

If you’re interested in the intersection of online learning and data, join the Experimental Teaching and Learning Analytics at Northwestern (ETLAN) workgroup for leadership seminars, a brown bag speaker series, and project assistance. However, most of these activities are in-person on the Evanston campus and may not be available to those at a distance. If you would like to join, let them know by filling out this interest form.

2. Take an online class or workshop.

Attend a free Faculty Workshop at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. Although these are predominantly in-person on the Evanston campus, some are offered online. Be sure to check back when the fall quarter starts!

Take a free Canvas Workshop offered by Northwestern IT. They offer many virtual sessions in addition to face-to-face sessions on the Evanston and Chicago campuses.

Check out the Online Learning Consortium Workshops and the Quality Matters Higher Education Workshops. Although these aren’t free, Northwestern is an institutional member at both organizations, so you can receive a discount. Some program directors may even offer stipends to attend. Be sure to get in touch with yours for more information.

And don’t forget about the always-available, recommended by Learning Designer Brian Runo. This database is available to all faculty, staff, and students for free! Pick up a new programming language or brush up on your business communication skills.

You might even consider earning an online teaching certificate. There are lots of these out there, and they range widely in cost, time commitment, and credential (credit-bearing vs. non-credit-bearing). To start your search, you might consider the Online Teaching Certificate Program at Rutgers University, the Fundamentals of Online Teaching Certificate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, or the Certificate in Online Teaching at the University of Iowa. If you are a full-time staff or faculty member, you may be able to use your Portable Tuition Benefit to pay for some or all of your tuition in these programs.

3. Attend course presentations.

At the end of each development cycle, teams consisting of the instructor, Learning Designer, and Instructional Technologist present their courses through public synchronous sessions. Typically, they walk through the course components, as if you were a new student logging in to class for the first time, going over the course structure and highlighting innovations.

This professional development opportunity pays you to participate! Faculty who attend at least two course presentations receive $250 for their service. An additional $50 stipend will be paid for two additional presentations, up to a maximum of four sessions total ($350). If you attended just one presentation in previous quarters, you can meet the stipend requirements by attending another one this quarter.

Keep an eye on your e-mail for a message from Soo La Kim, Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs. Fall 2017 presentations will occur toward the ends of August.

4. Attend and/or present at a conference.

There are lots of academic conferences that focus specifically on distance learning. Although it’s a little late in the year to send in proposals–most distance learning conferences take place in the fall–you may be interested in attending these upcoming conferences or keeping an eye out for spring conference Requests for Proposals.


TEACHx – This conference takes place at Northwestern each May and highlights innovating teaching and learning practices at the university, from the classroom through blended and flipped classes to fully online courses. Keep an eye out for the 2018 call for proposals.

Supporting Learning and Technology in Education (SLATE) – This conference is held at Northern Illinois University in Naperville each October and contains a variety of different session styles, from formal presentations and hands-on workshops through roundtable discussions and “birds of a feather” meetings.

Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Forum (TLAF) – Held at Northwestern each October, this one-day conference has a defined assessment focus. How is the university’s assessment framework seen in practice? What innovative assignments and assessment are happening in your course? There’s still time to submit; proposals are due in August.


UPCEA Central Region Conference – This regional conference is offered in the midwest every fall. Participate in the pre-conference Leadership Academy, nominate a peer (or yourself!) for an award, and see what other university, professional, and continuing education instructors are up to.

Distance Teaching and Learning Conference (DT&LC) – This is a big one! Just around the corner in Madison, Wisconsin, consider this conference for its high-profile keynote speakers, in-conference certificates, and research symposium in addition to the presentations. There is a virtual attendance option if you can’t make it in-person.


The Online Learning Consortium holds a national conference, Accelerate, each fall, and Collaborate, a series of regional conferences, at a variety of locations throughout the year. Each year, Quality Matters holds at least two conferences: Connect, a national conference, in the fall, and a regional conference in the spring.

Of course, there’s no way we can list every relevant conference in this blog post! Check out this blog post on 2016 Chicago-area distance teaching and learning conferences and this list of conferences that DL staff have presented at for a few more suggestions.

5. Speak as a guest in a peer’s class.

Instructors are always looking for ways to engage students in their online courses with synchronous sessions. Inviting guest speakers such as visiting scholars or professionals in the field is a great way to do just that, as well as help students create networking opportunities and hear about what it’s like to work in your position, in your field. Reach out to your peer instructors to see if they would like to join you in your course, and if you can return the favor in theirs.

In your session, you may consider:

  • Conducting an interview on an industry topic and sharing your opinion
  • Demonstrating a skill
  • Guiding a brainstorming session
  • Reviewing student project ideas
  • Providing feedback on student projects

6. Attend (or propose!) a webinar.

There are lots of free, relevant webinars out there that take up just your lunch hour and help expose you to current topics in online teaching and learning. Check out the topics on offer at Quality Matters, 3Play Media, and the Online Learning Consortium.

And then, there’s always us! Our team produces monthly webinars on online course development and teaching topics, typically held at noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Although SPS faculty receive e-mail notifications of upcoming webinars, if you contact we can send you a recurring calendar invitation. You can also check out recordings of past webinars on our Online Learning Webinars page.

Of course, you’re also welcome to propose a webinar of you own. We can partner you with a Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist to develop and deliver a webinar on an online learning topic. If you’re interested, reach out to Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham-Smith with a brief description of your idea.We typically schedule webinars a few months in advance of  delivery.

7. Share your experience teaching online.

There are many online teaching communities that welcome new and seasoned instructors to their conversations.

You might consider joining CORe (Collaborative Online Relationships), a University, Professional, and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) community where you can share what you’ve found or conduct research in the Resource Library, post a question (or answer someone else’s) in the open forum, or check the job board for new postings.

On Twitter, you can read up on current events (and squirrel some away to read another time), ask questions of your peers, and show that you are engaged in a critical discussion about online learning. And that’s saying nothing of the synchronous chat sessions on hot topics and current questions. Start by following other educators and seeing what hashtags they contribute to, or poke around on this list of education chats. A few of my favorites? As a starting point, you might consider checking out #edtechchat, #edtechafterdark, and #digped.

Also, keep an eye out for a forthcoming Distance Learning community specifically for SPS’s online instructors: the Community of Practice. If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to Director of Online Program Development, Reba-Anna Lee.

8. Write a blog post like this one!

Do you have best practices to share with other online instructors at the School of Professional Studies? Well, why not write a blog post? You might be interested in penning one on your own or partnering with a Learning Designer or Instructional Technologist to chronicle your experience in course development or revision.

If you’re interested, reach out to Content Editor Christine Scherer with a brief description of your idea. We typically schedule blog posts about a month in advance of publication.


If you’ve made it to the bottom of this post and still feel like nothing fits the bill, reach out to the Distance Learning team at for a few more suggestions. We would be glad to partner with your Program Director help you find the right fit!

Do you have another idea for professional development? Please reach out to Learning Designer Krissy Wilson, and we can add it to this list.

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