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Leading the Online Movement: How CE Can Help

The EvoLLLution | Leading the Online Movement: How CE Can Help
Leveraging resources and expertise within the online and CE divisions can help the broader institution serve and adapt programming for remote learning.

As universities and colleges face the remote environment, they’ll be faced with the greater challenge of adapting these practices back into their traditional infrastructure. Establishing a strong foundation now will not only help faculty but learners as well as they become more familiar with what they’re working with. The broader institution will need to take a page from CE and online divisions, since they hold the playbook to this environmental shift. In this interview, Gayla Marie Stoner discusses how we had already been seeing a shift before the pandemic, how Northern Arizona University (NAU) Online has been leading this shift for the broader institution and how to prepare for the inevitable shift in workforce education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role has the NAU online team played in helping the rest of the university adapt to remote teaching and learning?

Gayla Marie Stoner (GMS): NAU online has helped the university across the board, transitioning all of our traditional on-ground instruction to remote for the remainder of the spring semester. That’s about 8,000 classes. There are very strong collaborations across the NAU online unit–instructional designers who have the expertise of working online in particular, as well as our information technology services. So, we all came together and collaborated quickly to identify the resources that we could use to scale up.

NAU has been a leader, even a pioneer, of distance and online education for over 20 years in the state of Arizona. We have some very unique paths that we do quite well. Helping faculty who have never taught online do so in a short time period is where we saw the major advantages of working diligently across the university. We wanted to ensure that the students receive the highest level of service that they possibly could and that we could help them complete the spring semester.

Collaboration is where we have been thriving, along with building on our existing knowledge as a pioneer in online education.

Evo: How important is it to clearly differentiate to students and faculty, the differences between what they’re engaged in and what online learning is?

GMS: That element is critical; it’s a key point of our conversations, and we are very careful to point that out. When this charge came forward, we quickly reassessed and found that more than 50% of our faculty who are now teaching online remotely had already taught at NAU in an online format within the last year.

Our strategy to figure out what faculty will need for support services in particular and volume to scale as well. We were very careful to ensure that students and faculty understood the difference between remote and distance instruction. We also focused on making delivery as synchronous as possible, like using the scheduled class times that were already blocked out on the students’ schedules.

We have to be aware that not all students have access to the Internet or then necessary equipment. So, how do we continue to deliver education within remote instruction, with synchronous delivery during regular scheduled class times? That was the start of our conversation. What’s the difference between remote instruction and synchronous versus asynchronous learning and which types of tool should we use? What kind of activities do we recommend faculty members use for students to gain alignment with their learning objectives?

Evo: How has the shift been for your faculty and learners?

GMS: The learning venue has changed, but the courses themselves go on much as before. We’ve become more aware of our students’ needs and home situations. There have also a lot of challenges with loss of income, layoffs in particular. In this new reality that everyone has been thrown into, we’re seeing what impacts learning and student success.

We’ve been very much aware that communication is critical, and we’re trying to encourage it. Some of that peer communication can happen synchronously but not always. Sometimes those synchronous class times could be used for large group discussion. There are opportunities to bring everyone together to have engaging high-quality discussion about content in particular.

One thing that we do quite well is competency-based education. We’ve been serving students in a very different way for a significant amount of time. Being able to leverage those strengths and expertise to bring them into the remote classroom has been extremely helpful as well.

Evo: What role does CE divisions need to be playing to prepare for that increase in demand and the need to be serving more folks with workforce-oriented offerings?

GMS: The first thing we have to remember is that learner success is the number one priority. It’s about figuring out the value of the degree paths we are providing to our learners, and their value within the workforce. Are degree programs aligning with emerging shifts that we see within the workforce?

We started that work early before COVID-19, so it’s been a great opportunity build on demonstrated success with the alignment of workforce education, especially as we design programs to align real-time labor demands. We also need to look at being flexible but substantive. How can we continue to have a nimble infrastructure and support our teams to ensure they have all the resources they need? That’s the responsibility we have–seeing if our end value aligns with industry because they’re part of the value add here. That’ll be critical to think about as we’re adapting for the future and the probable recession we’re heading into.

Evo: Do you think some of these remote learning tactics and approaches will be adopted by more traditional faculties as we enter a new normal?

GMS: Absolutely. We’ve even seen some of that happen before COVID-19. I think that it’s going to be expedited, and we’ll see more blended learning — more tools and technology platforms in particular. Whenever we are able to resume our traditional on-ground classrooms, we’ll likely see more technology and services put in place for our students.

We have a phenomenal online peer mentoring program for students enrolled in online degree programs. We’re leveraging some of that effort right now to support students with online services, like advising or tutoring. Traditional on-campus students are getting the opportunity to work with our advisors online. The more exposure faculty and students have to the tools to support their learning, the more their success will increase.

Evo: What role do you think divisions that have historically focused on serving adults, play in helping their institutions become aligned to serving non-traditional students in the future?

GMS: Continuing education divisions historically have adapted themselves to meet students’ needs. Serving them in a flexible manner, understanding that they have life challenges that impact their learning experiences. That’s critical for continued education. We want to give them a prescriptive plan to complete their programs. Students need to know their paths, which continuing ed and online divisions do very well. We’ll see more of that leveraged with what we would call traditional learners.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the changing role of continuing ed divisions, and how that shift might be accelerated by the pandemic that we’re currently adopting to?

GMS: Within higher education, we were already seeing online leaders and decision-makers at the table. That’s going to continue to increase as we move forward. We need to own our experiences and leverage them as much as we can for the rest of the institution, recognizing that student success must maintain our first priority. We must demonstrate value to learners, thinking about how to best support faculty along the way, and make sure that that never leaves our minds.

Online leaders are seeing more opportunities to leverage their knowledge and experiences, which is part of the result of this unprecedented situation. And in that way, it’s a very positive result. There’s opportunity to grow and serve students even better and stronger.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 16, 2020.

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