Published on 2016/03/14

Engagement Inside and Outside the Virtual Classroom Critical to Success in Online Ed

The EvoLLLution | Engagement Inside and Outside the Virtual Classroom Critical to Success in Online Ed
Providing students an engaging online learning experience requires more than strength in programing and pedagogy; it requires relationship management both inside and outside the virtual classroom

As the non-traditional student demographic continues to grow, the demand for greater programmatic flexibility grows with them. Increasing numbers of colleges and universities have launched online programs, but what does it take for a program to truly be considered high quality? In this interview, Nancy Rubin shares her thoughts on what it takes to deliver a truly engaging experience for online students, both inside and outside the immediate learning environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the hallmarks of a truly engaging online program?

Nancy Rubin (NR): One of the most important aspects of an engaging online program is the level of support provided to faculty and students.

It is very easy for online students to feel disconnected from a course, their program, or your school. At Columbia Video Network, the online division of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, we use many different methods to connect and communicate with our online population, including social media, telephone, email, videoconferencing, an online help desk and regularly updating our website.

Online students, and faculty for that matter, often do work in the evenings and on the weekends. Providing support outside of regular university business hours (8AM to 6PM) is critical to success and plays a significant role in overall satisfaction with a program. Just-in-time support, giving people what they need when they need it, is a key component to our service model. We have put considerable effort into creating easily accessible online resources that anyone can access as needed.

Building an instructional design team is one of the significant commitments we have made to ensure the success of our online programs. The design team offers training and orientations for faculty and students, assists with content development, helps integrate new technologies, and offers support in real time. Faculty teaching online classes for Columbia Video Network have an instructional designer, a course developer, and multimedia specialist they can work with to build courses, develop content and experiment with new tools and teaching methods. Students have a dedicated team of experts who can answer questions or help direct them to the right people to get the answers they need.

Evo: What are a few of the most significant challenges to creating this engaging online educational experience?

NR: A significant challenge to creating an engaging online ecosystem at Columbia is ensuring the experience provided online is virtually (pun intended) the same as our on-campus experience; in quality of course content, level of interaction with faculty and TAs, and a robust set of course offerings.

Many schools use Learning Management Systems (LMS) for online courses, and properly training faculty and students on those tools can be critical to their ability to interact, access materials and communicate, and to their level of comfort and satisfaction.

An LMS with a mix of asynchronous tools, such as discussion forums, and synchronous tools, for things like live presentations, is important from a pedagogical perspective but also for communication.

Students often access resources on the go. As a result, having a mobile application to do their work is becoming increasingly important. Being able to use a cell phone or tablet to read, post, or send email is not something that we thought about a few years ago. Making sure you factor that into requirements for vendors is critical, as is designing content that can be viewed or interacted with on a mobile device. This is something faculty do not often think about.

Convincing faculty to adapt course material for teaching online can present a challenge. Working with instructional designers has made that process easier for many of our faculty members. Online content is usually consumed in smaller pieces. Taking a 90-minute lecture and breaking it up into smaller units is one of the first lessons faculty learn in our trainings.

Evo: How have you and your team worked to overcome these obstacles?

NR: One major change we made at CVN is building a new learning ecosystem, including a new student management system, implementing a new learning management system and choosing a new video-hosting provider.

There is a lot of talk in the eLearning industry about Learning Management Systems but not as much about Student Management Systems. Online students need to be able to access records, complete forms, and register for classes online. Easy access to those systems through a single sign-on process is something we have spent quite a bit of time working through with the information technology experts at Columbia.

Migrating to the Canvas Learning Management system has not been easy but the benefits outweigh any obstacles. The communication and notification tools in Canvas have improved interaction between students, between faculty and students, support staff and faculty, and support staff and students.

The conferencing tool is an easy way to hold office hours for online students and it is the way online students make presentations and share content and ideas with their on-campus classmates. We are even seeing more on-campus faculty take advantage of online tools for office hours and presentations.

Within the last year, we built two recording studios, a booth studio and a light board studio, both of which are used heavily to record content for online classes and to flip on-campus courses. Studio recording content allows us to create content that is higher quality than simply using a webcam or even using a lecture capture system. Our early experiments with flipped classes have been so successful we are already looking into building more studios.

Evo: Why is it so important for institutions to ensure their online programs are truly engaging?

NR: The success of an online program depends on a number of things, the most important being the satisfaction of the student. If the learning environment provided is not easy to access, if faculty are not comfortable with the modality they are teaching in or if support is not available when students need it, the program will not succeed.

Courses, course materials, library resources, advising, all need to be accessible online and in a timely manner. Online students should be able to solve their own problems with resources available to them 24/7, or receive a reply from someone they have contacted within 24 to 48 hours.

At Columbia Video Network, we ask faculty members to dedicate teaching assistants solely for their online students. The teaching assistant answers questions, holds virtual office hours, and provides feedback to online students so that they are aware of how they are progressing in each online class.

Providing online access to on-campus events is an area we have recently begun focusing on. With our new video hosting system, we are able to live stream events and have been making a concerted effort to publicize those events to our online students.

Creating a community of online learners, and connecting them to our on-campus students and events, is the best way to create engaging online programs and engaged learners.

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