Effective Online Teaching with Course Design Working Groups and Peer Mentoring

Author Information
Author(s): 
Cheryl Schauer-Crabb, PhD
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Elon University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Effective teaching online requires continuous assessment and improvement, leveraging the successful and challenging experiences of faculty, and reflection about student learning. Elon University’s Online Course Design Working Groups (OCDWGs) and Peer Mentoring program has evolved over the past decade to meet faculty needs. In meeting these requests and addressing pedagogical issues, we have developed a program that incorporates conversation, mentoring, a self-paced Moodle course, and a system of continuous feedback for improvement.

Faculty must successfully complete an 8 month blended training program that guides new online instructors through the steps of course development and technology mastery of the Learning Management System. Discussion among colleagues increases faculty awareness about successful online teaching strategies and methods. This peer-to-peer support expands their willingness to risk and experiment with teaching and communicating with students. Faculty consistently indicated during formative and summative assessment that learning to organize and chunk content, practice new strategies, and supportive mentoring, contributed to overall teaching effectiveness.

With increased demand from students to supplement standard curriculum course offerings on our residential campus, the registrar and disciplines across campus discussed methods to best serve student needs online. The Summer I Online pilot program began in 2002 with 12 courses. Since its’ inception, courses were, and are presently, offered once annually during June and early July for undergraduate participation. (The Summer II session, from July to August, is conducted face-to-face.) We offered 47 online courses in 2013 with a course cap of 17 students. The effectiveness of the OCDWGs and Peer Mentoring program is indicated by the 90% return rate of instructors to the summer online program and increased course enrollment.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Faculty who teach online for Elon University, regardless of previous online teaching experience, must successfully complete an 8 month blended training program and have taught the course previously in a face-to-face environment. The focus is on acquiring skills critical to online teaching through application activities, pedagogical exploration, and technology mastery. The OCDWGs and Peer Mentoring program has 3 parts: OCDWGs, a self-paced asynchronous Moodle course, and peer mentoring. Both the pedagogy of teaching online and Moodle training are combined into this comprehensive three-part program.

OCDWGs are co-facilitated by an experienced instructional designer with online teaching experience, and a veteran online faculty member invited by the instructional designer. Together they model effective methods of online facilitation for a cohort of approximately 10 faculty. OCDWG meetings occur from February to May, a timeframe suggested by faculty as most convenient. The OCDWG process discusses course development, design and assessment and compares traditional face-to-face teaching with online pedagogy. The most important aspect of the OCDWGs are the peer-to-peer conversations that occur during multiple lunch meetings. These collaborative cross-discipline conversations provide faculty with continuing opportunities to learn from each other. The partnerships transcend all aspects of pedagogy.

The OCDWGs discussions have a practical and application emphasis. Topics covered include: syllabus construction, writing effective quiz questions, best practices in design, implementation, interaction, assessment, creating appropriate assignments and activities, integrating web and library resources, classroom and time management, integrating guest speakers, effective faculty and student communication, organization of small group activities, integrating multimedia, and rubrics. Application and experimentation assignments in Moodle complement the face-to-face discussions so faculty can practice and experiment in their unique online environment.

The OCDWGs are supported by instructional technologists, multimedia developers, videographers, and e-learning specialists. This supportive infrastructure is a critical element of the training efforts by Elon University’s Teaching and Learning Technologies. The support team creates video and multimedia tools for course engagement and assessment. In addition, the support team trains faculty in new technologies for course integration, i.e., Screen-cast-o-matic, Wordpress, Audacity, PowerPoint.

All online courses are created through a course development process that ensures each aligns with the “Elon Way” of delivery. There is no standardization on campus for courses, but each online course meets benchmark standards in technology, interaction, and assessment. To celebrate teaching their first online course, the last OCDWG showcases the completed online faculty courses. The online community is invited to lunch and the showcase, as are deans and departmental chairs.

Moodle complements the learning experience outside the OCDWGs bi-weekly meetings. In this self-paced asynchronous site available October through June, in-depth discussions are facilitated on topics covered in the face-to-face OCDWGs. This virtual space discusses pedagogy as well as “how to” modules for novice, intermediate, and advanced Moodle users. The course illustrates, demonstrates, and discusses advanced teaching strategies, challenges, best practices, current research, and trends. Included are videos sharing how to use specific techniques in online teaching made by our Elon faculty.

The cohort contributes to lively discussions where they reflect on the relevance and application of the course material to their own teaching situations, and key issues about teaching and learning online based upon contemporary literature. Teaching Online: A Practical Guide, by Ko and Rossen, is one springboard for discussion in the Moodle forums.

Exercises related to software mastery and classroom design are completed monthly in the faculty Moodle practice classrooms. By the conclusion of the Moodle course faculty have the foundation for their online course.

Peer mentoring and review parallel the pedagogical philosophies of online teaching and learning communities. Peer review of teaching is a widely accepted mechanism for promoting and assuring quality academic work. Annually the instructional designer identifies and invites two faculty members to serve as mentors to the online community. Invitations are extended to faculty based upon the online student feedback survey results, creativeness of technology usage, and success of the course as measured by student and faculty feedback data. Mentor responsibilities include:

• Contribute to the Moodle discussions
• Share resources and open online course for others to explore
• Facilitate one Online Course Design Working Group
• Serve as a point of contact for questions, advice about teaching, pedagogy, and Moodle
• Integrate a new technology tool into your course
• Review online courses and provide feedback

Peer mentoring is the conduit between the OCDWGs and Moodle course. Faculty are paired with an online mentor with whom they can confer and conduct course review. This third component to the OCDWGs and Peer Mentoring program affords faculty the opportunity to think thoughtfully about the best way to transform their face-to-face strategies and practices to the online environment.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Several mechanisms are used to ensure effectiveness: assessment in the Moodle course, individual faculty meetings to discuss and evaluate the training program and student assessment results, blog readership, the number of support calls the Technology Help Desk received, course offerings, and faculty retention.

Each section in the self-paced Moodle course is evaluated and the participants consistently score high on the assignments and quizzes. Evaluation questions assess course content, technology, design, specific exercises from the OCDWG meetings, and assignments.

Overwhelmingly, faculty report that the training prepared them “exceptionally well” for the experience and it changed the way they organize their face-to-face course. The OCDWGs are consistent in regards to content, requirement, deliverables and activities from year to year to ensure consistent outcomes. At the conclusion of the summer online courses, an instructional designer meets with each faculty member to assess their overall experience online, the effectiveness of the training, and the feedback from the student assessment survey. The feedback from students and faculty has been positive and consistent for the past 7 years.

Each OCDWG discussion is summarized and posted to the Technology Blog for future online faculty and those interested in blended their face-to-face courses. There are significant “hits” of internal and external readers following these posts indicating a growing interest in online and blended learning.

Faculty and students are supported through email, Moodle, and 24/7 assistance from the Technology Help Desk should any technologies issues arise during the summer online program. Faculty and students inquiries decreased significantly over the past decade. This year there were less than 8 support calls placed to the Technology Help Desk as compared to over 40 several years ago.

However, the true testament to our effectiveness and success is the continued expansion of the summer online program and the influx of new faculty applying to teach. In 2002 the program began a pilot with 12 online courses and in 2013 there were 47 offered. The effectiveness of the OCDWG and Peer Mentoring program is indicated by the 90% return rate of instructors to the summer online program.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Elon’s OCDWGs and Peer Mentoring program relates directly to Learning Effectiveness, specifically faculty development and course design. To support faculty with varying technology skills and comfort levels as they learn to teach online, acquiring enhanced pedagogical skills for online learning environments through a supportive infrastructure is important. Teaching and Learning Technologies provides extensive technical and supportive resources along with a continuous consultation and evaluation process conducted by an instructional designer to ensure mastery of skills required for effective online teaching. The same instructional designer facilitates continuing conversation between and among faculty and academic support personnel.

A key component of the asynchronous learning is to help faculty understand what it means to be an online learner. The online discussions are built around planning, communication, evaluation, and course management. As faculty progress through the Moodle course, they create components for their own courses and receive feedback from peers, mentors, and course facilitators. By sharing ideas and interaction with peers, mentoring, and discussions, faculty benefit from the sense of community and increased confidence.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The room used for OCDWG meetings is a part of the Teaching and Learning Technologies department. It is outfitted with whiteboards, a projector, cross platform laptop connectors, audio, wireless internet, and a Smartboard. Furniture is flexible allowing for multiple room configurations and lighting is adjustable for videography. Software used was free, i.e. Screen-cast-o-matic, Audacity, PowerPoint.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Training faculty of approximately 10 annually, is scalable and replicable. An initial investment of time and resources must be made to design and create content for the training program. All members of our team subsumed their online support efforts within their existing job responsibilities.

One criterion to teach online is that the course was previously taught in a face-to-face environment. This significantly decreases resources needed for course design. All OCDWGs meet over lunch to discuss their course development. Estimated on-campus, catered lunches annual cost for new online faculty participants and facilitators is $1,000. In addition, we periodically purchase contemporary literature for OCDWG discussions, estimated at $1,000 annually.

There is no faculty compensation or course release time for completing the OCDWGs and Peer Mentoring program. Mentors are not compensated financially, instead they are rigorously publicized in faculty lunch-and-learns and blog posts in the Technology Blog highlighting their strategies, technology, and Moodle design.

References, supporting documents: 

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2010). The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (1 ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

White, K., & Weight, B. (2000). Online teaching guide. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Cheryl Schauer-Crabb, PhD
Email this contact: 
ccrabb@elon.edu