Sidebar: Enhancing faculty satisfaction through an integrated online faculty community

Award Winner: 
2015 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Student-Generated Content
Author Information
Nancy LaChance
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Online Services (Course Development, Innovation, and Academic Technology department)
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
DeVry Education Group
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Like many colleges and universities, the institutions within the DeVry Education Group have developed common course masters used by all faculty teaching class sections at the institutions. The master courses are developed in a strong collaboration between academic deans, faculty developers/professors, instructional designers, multimedia developers, and web developers. While the master course strategy enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of course development, it also poses the challenge of ensuring that all faculty teaching the course have a means for providing their unique input, suggestions for course improvement, and additional resources that could enhance the quality of a course, the student experience and student success.

There is an acute need for a teaching community of practice where faculty actively engage in discussing both course materials and teaching. How does an institution provide a collaborative space for faculty voices to be heard and a transparent means for addressing issues and concerns about the quality of the course materials being provided to them? How can that input be documented, reviewed, compiled, and assessed to ensure that courses are of the highest quality? How can we foster faculty collaboration and a robust community of practice?

Developing an area for faculty discussion outside of the course is a common practice, but given the pressures and demands of teaching, the participation has been limited. Voices of active faculty may be heard, but rich collaboration and universal participation has been minimal. How do we create a truly collaborative environment that is accessible by all faculty teaching a given course across our geographically disparate teaching community? How can this rich faculty input be captured and documented for continuous course improvement and to provide evidence of faculty involvement in these activities for accreditation purposes?

To address this issue, DeVry Education Group’s Academic Technology team developed Sidebar. Sidebar is a course feedback and collaboration tool that makes providing input about a course – whether discussing ideas and concepts with other faculty members or reporting course content issues – as easy as a few mouse clicks from within the online course itself.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Courses with Sidebar have a page called “Course Feedback” which contains two buttons on the right side of their main course home page – a discuss button and a report issue button. When a Professor clicks on either button, a new window opens to display current discussions or issues and gives each Professor the ability to add to those lists. Professors may keep this window open as they navigate through their course – even while reviewing exams or embedded documents – and provide feedback on the material side-by-side with the content itself.

The discuss button opens a small forum that enables professors teaching the course to make suggestions, provide teaching tips, or make comments about the course. Professors may view the comments left by other faculty and add their own. They may even upload an attachment to a comment, allowing Professors to share materials they use with students or share proposals for future revisions of the course. These discussions are also available independently of the course, so that - other members of the academic community may respond to comments and foster further discussion and participation in the dialogue.

The report issue button opens a window where Professors can view course issues that have been reported and their resolution status. If a Professor finds an issue with the course (e.g., a misspelling, an unclear exam question, etc.), a quick form allows them to add the issue to the course maintenance queue. Once the issue has been reported, academic stakeholders review the issue, provide any necessary information for a course change, determine the level of severity, and then immediately assign the change to the technical team for a quick repair. The report issue tab provides instant feedback to all professors on the status of the course correction (under academic review, in process, corrected, etc.)

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The results have shown the power of this tool in stimulating enhanced collaboration between faculty as well providing transparency in the reporting of issues and enhancing faculty satisfaction with the speed and effectiveness with which problems have been addressed as well as.

Facilitate Discussion and Faculty Input

In our initial implementation of this tool, 72 courses had Sidebar available. 28 courses used the platform for discussion, creating 92 topic threads, 141 total posts and involving between 2 and 10 faculty members in each course. Discussion posts generally fell into the following categories:

  • Content Discussion – including recommendations and critiques
  • Collaboration – Faculty members reaching out to one another to verify shared experiences, share instructional resources and pedagogical advice.
  • Questions – requests for clarification on executing course content or processes
  • Announcements – notifications of issue resolutions or content updates

By comparison, collaboration tools external to the course had an average of two participants with comments going unanswered for an average of one month. Importantly, the discussion items are archived and provide valuable input into the course development process as courses go into redevelopment.

Based on the early success of the tool, Sidebar has now been added to every course offered by two of our institutions, with ongoing project work to add it to courses in a third institution.

Enhance transparency and accountability for course corrections

Sidebar has provided absolute transparency into the issue reporting and correction process. Unlike the previous system, in which tickets could get “stuck” in hidden queues waiting for action from a stakeholder, Sidebar provides full transparency to the process and allows us to track and report on status fully. Of the 93 issues reported, 55 issues were corrected within two days. But all issues were immediately triaged, assigned, and accounted for through the enhanced visibility and tracking provided by Sidebar. This visibility has gone a long way to enhance faculty satisfaction with the speed and effectiveness of the course correction process, as evidenced by faculty comments such as the following (from September 2014 faculty survey):

  • I like this tool and appreciate the opportunity to make suggestions/report issues during the teaching session.
  • I like the immediate response for course problems...
  • I believe that the sidebar capabilities are indispensable for course redevelopment and maintenance.
  • Thumbs up! I continue to look for tools that are relevant, easy to find and use that help me to teach and be successful in my class. I like the collaboration and insight that I can gain from others.
  • I've found this tool very effective. The response feedback is very quick and the issues are resolved in a timely manner. Thank you for implementing this tool!
  • This was 100% better because I got almost an immediate response.
  • This has been an awesome tool to use. I have been at DeVry for many years now and there was a problem within my course and I would forget to call someone but now I am able to report immediately and this is what is so great about the option. Recently, my course had a few updates and I saw a problem and within 24 hours it was corrected. Excellent idea--thank you!
  • How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

    This practice relates to the pillar of Faculty Satisfaction. Because faculty teach from common course masters (rather than developing their own course materials) and because they are geographically disparate, it is critical that they have a voice in the continuous improvement of those courses as well as knowing that issues with the course will be addressed in a timely manner. Sidebar has acted as a form of crowdsourcing content development and course improvements as well as creating the foundation of a community of practice that gives faculty a venue for improving their ability to work effectively with course materials and with students.

    In essence, Sidebar is growing as a means to create a virtual faculty learning community (Roth 2014) and to lessen the depersonalization and lack of recognition experienced by online faculty in a geographically disparate teaching and learning environment (Bolliger and Wasilik 2009). It has become a seedbed for course improvements and for increasing faculty efficiency by sharing best practices for teaching a specific course.

    Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

    Sidebar was built by integrating multiple existing systems together. Faculty discussions are provided by a customized Drupal CMS through an existing custom integration from our LMS to the Drupal CMS. Issue reporting and tracking is provided using Trello, a collaborative task management tool, and integrated using their APIs. The academic technology team developed these integrations and customized the interface so that the experience across all platforms became a coherent single application.

    Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

    The application was developed in approximately 80 hours of development time. Critical to adoption, however, is ensuring that academic partners effectively promote faculty communications, manage issue resolution, and broker conversations. This academic investment is the most critical component. In order to support our academic partners, we have provided ongoing reporting (monthly) to ensure that faculty who participate are recognized and responded to. (See Facilitator Guide for information about how we train Sidebar facilitators.)

    References, supporting documents: 

    Introduction to Sidebar (1.29 minute animated video)

    Bolliger, D. U., & Wasilik, O. (2009, May). Factors influencing faculty satisfaction with online teaching and learning in higher education. Distance Education, 30(9), 103-116. Retrieved from

    Roth, S. M. (2014). Improving teaching effectiveness and student learning through the use of faculty learning communities. Kinesiology Review, 3(4), p209 8p. Retrieved from

    Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
    Effective Practice Contact: 
    Karen Evans, Sr. Director, DeVry Education Group Online Services Course Development, Innovation, and Academic Technology Department
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    Effective Practice Contact 2: 
    Zoaib Mirza, Director of Academic Technology
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    Effective Practice Contact 3: 
    Stephen Grigalunas, Sr. Instructional Technologist
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