Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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As much as I liked incorporating new technologies into my courses, I was resistant to online education. Not only was I skeptical about whether online education could bring about good learning outcomes, I also recoiled at the thought of a technology that began to remove from my control many of the elements of teaching I had always known. Indeed, it became clear that since I did not possess all the competencies required to develop a good online course I would also have to open my teaching environment to “outsiders” like instructional designers and multi-media specialists. But at least online courses allowed me to maintain some synchronous teaching elements, a way of maintaining some control of the course information.
So, as a dean, sitting in a meeting where it was announced that we were going to begin converting synchronous online courses to a completely asynchronous format, I knew the anxiety this would foster among the faculty. Indeed, success with this new mode would depend on acknowledging the legitimacy of that fear and creating a process whereby the faculty voice would be encouraged, respected, and retained. We could not simply assume that just because online learning has become a ubiquitous element in American higher education, that faculty concerns (and resulting barriers) about the endeavor have been fully allayed. Lloyd, et al. (2012, P. 1) categorized them as: 1) interpersonal barriers; 2) institutional barriers; 3) and training and technology barriers. Our experience tells us that those barriers are real and must be taken into account.
So as we embarked on an expansion of our online programs to a fully asynchronous mode, we knew that we had to listen to faculty as they expressed apprehension about “simply creating electronic correspondence courses,” “lowering course quality,” “being asked to do something for which they have not been trained or compensated” and “silencing the faculty voice” in the teaching and learning process. Indeed, they echoed similar concerns noted by many researchers (see Berge, 1998, and Maguire 2005, for example), and most are still with us today.
Thus, as we embarked on this new endeavor, we used research as well as our experience to conceptualize a five-prong approach that we felt would not only keep us focused on our task, but one that would also indicate to others that we were taking an approach that respected the fears, concerns, and especially the expertise of the faculty. The approach was applied to more than 100 courses, including general education.
We began with the expectation that there would be a certain degree of distrust in the new mode of instruction. In most cases, that angst would be exacerbated by a lack of time on the part of faculty and staff. Thus, it was essential that the process began with a long conversation, a conversation about the goals of the initiatives, including expected outcomes, the role the faculty would play, and the support we would give to those taking part. This worked very well and gave the project valuable faculty buy-in and a strong voice in the process.
Guidelines and timelines are key to create a vision for the outcome and accountability. One can look to current and effective practices in online program design and development. Quality Matters and Online Learning Consortium provide useful tools to assess quality online programs. While institutions do not have to re-invent these guidelines, there may not be “off the shelf guidelines” that apply to the institution’s culture or values. Timelines should support the process and, in some instances, create a sense of urgency.
As the project launched, all the principal players, including faculty representatives, were kept in the loop via an Asynchronous Taskforce Course. Via this group which met (and still does) weekly, the goals, expectations, progress, issues, etc., were addressed quickly. The Taskforce was empowered to drive the work and efforts with clear expectations of supporting the goal. For our work, the goal was to develop asynchronous online course offerings that were student-centric in design. While there was not always a consensus about the process or steps, the Taskforce’s overall efforts aligned and supported the initiative goal.
The Taskforce sponsored two retreats (each lasting two days) at which the entire university community could see the progress being made. Faculty assigned to work with our Center for Innovation in Learning (CIL) would present at each of the retreats. The first presentation would revolve around a description of the existing course and the plans for converting it to the new format. The second presentation, six months later, would present the finished product. This continuing step in the shared governance process has worked well. We are able to hear from the faculty, staff and students how the process and the ultimate product, the asynchronous course, have worked. Lessons are learned, opinions are shared, progress and successes are celebrated, processes are improved, and rumors are put to rest. Not a bad way to spend the day!
The processes we used to convert online programs into the asynchronous format began with the 20 or so highest enrolling programs at the institution. Deans were included in the initial discussion. Then, Department Chairs, Academic Program Directors (APDs), and faculty discussed the courses and faculty members who would be doing the conversion work. Those decisions and the work that would follow were a team effort.
This conversation about the teaching, learning and outcomes issues at the center of the project continued via the symbiotic relationship between APDs, subject matter experts, and instructional designers. Developing and ensuring respect for each of the contributing team members really did work to alleviate anxiety about the faculty’s role. A memorandum of understanding to detail the responsibilities and contributing responsibilities can alleviate concerns. While the faculty members are content experts, empowering instructional designers skilled in universal design and Understanding by Design practices can result in an engaging, student-centric online course and program (McTighe, 2015).
As we began this process, we did not have to convince anyone that initial and continuing success hinged on high levels of faculty development and support. Professional development and technology support are essential. Even among the faculty members who are comfortable with the shifting role of the teacher in online education, and with concepts of course facilitation, there may be varying levels of comfort and knowledge of effective practices. We are convinced that a university-sponsored unit, like CIL, is essential in coordinating such development efforts. Our CIL employed a variety of methods for developing faculty members’ level of comfort with new technologies, including faculty-led sessions aimed at assisting colleagues to embrace their new role.
Consider opportunities for faculty to experience asynchronous professional development. Model and convey that an asynchronous online environment does not equate to less faculty-to-student interaction. On the contrary, it can be an increase in engagement. The how, what and when of engagement is key to support faculty development and ensure a student centric learning environment.
Include the concept of compensation in all conversations about faculty development and support. Out of respect for faculty time and expertise, we budgeted funds for faculty stipends. But, we also acknowledged that money does not buy time.
As Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” At all stages, we maintained that a strong focus on the online student population and on creating ideal learning conditions for them, would provide an engaging student experience. Online learners include the traditional, non-traditional learner—working adults, varying computer expertise and access, life commitment and competing priorities. In planning for these differences, including presenting information in multiple formats, developing assessment options, ensuring that instructions are clear, and creating learning opportunities that are delivered 100-percent asynchronously, we created learning opportunities and environments that meet students where they are. This should not only help bring about better learning outcomes; we also hope it will also increase retention and graduations rates. We have found that this process helped faculty members understand the changing student demographics of their program, and encouraged faculty to create learning experiences that match the need.
And finally, remember that all this effort is meant to improve student learning. So much time, effort, and institutional resources were expended in the conversion process, it would be beyond tragic to forget about assessing the degree to which our efforts affect the progress of our students. Indeed, we were able to draw on the good work done by our faculty in traditional courses, while also using technology to make the process of assessing student learning outcomes even easier.
For decades, institutional learning outcomes, program learning outcomes, course learning outcomes, and lesson objectives, have been woven into curriculum design, lesson oversight and student assessment mechanisms. All are faculty determined and driven. Assessment opportunities support student learning and can be the standard that leads to program and course development changes (Goe, 2009). Our institution takes that process seriously. While we address assessment last, the focus on assessment was at the forefront of the program design and delivery. The process of course conversion was a great opportunity to add frequent formative assessment, differentiated assessment, and embedded rubrics.
We must also acknowledge another benefit of using this technology to improve learning outcomes assessment. It may also address the skeptics who are convinced that online education, especially asynchronous online education is necessarily deficient. Our experience has shown that the process we have used places a completely fresh and new focus of the process of teaching and learning. We have seen many cases where online course learning outcomes were better than their traditional counterparts.
While we consider our initiative and work a success, there is still opportunity to improve communication and reinforce the faculty voice. We are offering over 100 online asynchronous courses to over 6,000 students. That conversion was done in only eight months. Faculty are invested in offering engaging, quality online courses. While the interactions may change, we hope the faculty feel their voice, value to the classroom and role is still present. We know the faculty-to-student interaction is key to student success. We will continue to foster this relationship and reinforce the importance of the ever-changing faculty role.
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Berge, Z.L. (1998). Barriers to Online Teaching In Post-Secondary Institutions: Can Policy Changes Fix It? Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 1(2).
Goe, L. and Croft, A. (2009). “Research -To-Practice Brief: Methods of Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness.” Washington, D.C.: National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality.
Lloyd, S.A., Byrne, M.M., and McCoy, T.S. (2012). Faculty-Perceived Barriers of Online Education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 8(1), 1-12.
Maguire, L.L. (2005). Faculty Participation in Online Education: Barriers and Motivators. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 8(1).
McTighe, J. W. (2015). ASCD Arias: Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Author Perspective: Administrator