Key concepts which create for effective departmental practices in regard to online learning in the Master of Science in Human Services Program were explored. The concepts of 1) virtual anonymity, 2) leveling the playing field, and 3) promoting learner and faculty social networking were identified as key elements of success within the program. These practices were also examined in regard to contributing to an optimal online learning environment as compared to the Sloan-C’s Five Pillars of Quality (Moore, 2011).
As a fresh faced psychologist with a newly minted Ph.D., it was not uncommon for me to hear one of my new clients say to another, “That is the psychologist?” I could hear it running through their heads: “What does she know? Look at how young she is! She does not look old enough to be out of college!” While it is true that father time had been good to me in terms of the aging process, it seems to be more of a drawback in terms of “visual credibility” when it comes to being perceived as an “expert.” I had endured 10 years of higher education and been working in the helping professions for several years but my professional experience, thankfully, had not yet “shown on my face.”
As I changed hats and entered academia teaching both online and on campus, many of the students in my face-to-face courses also had the same reactions. More times than not, I was immediately viewed a peer versus the professor of the class. While as flattering as it can be, my youthful appearance also seemed to have a similar impact on my students just as it did my clients. I was often asked, “How old are you? Did you skip a few grades?” The students would start each semester with their flurry of questions.
However when logging for the first time with my virtual students, this experience was completely different. I was asked initial questions about my professional work experience, best practices, and job outlook-related questions. From the start of the course, it seemed my “virtual anonymity” alone did not provoke the same questions. As opposed to my clients and students, I was inherently and automatically viewed as the “expert” in the course in my role of professor. Due to the inherent differences in a virtual learning environment than a face-to-face, it seems that the physical first impressions of the professor do not seem to come into play in the same manner.
Equally important as recognizing my own virtual anonymity, I started to think more about my students in a virtual learning environment. The vast majority of my students have worked for years in the field of human services. Just by the nature of their role as the “student,” it is easy to think that many learners are unknowledgeable. To assume this would be to make a drastic error. In many regards, students are what bring true “life” to the course and make it fresh, creative, relevant, engaging, and insightful. In each course, I learn a tremendous amount from my students and anyone who does not recognize this phenomenon is committing a Type II error.
In keep these principles in mind, I have worked with my direct colleagues (Dr. Danielle Williams and Dr. Cheryl Braxton) in our Master of Science in Human Services program to examine and identify several key concepts which we ask our instructors to utilize when working with students in our program. We were able to surmise several key concepts which we found crucial, such as virtual anonymity, both in a review of the human serviced-based literature in addition to our student-based data. Additionally, we feel it is valuable to work with each professor under our supervision to keep these points below in mind while instructing to promote an optimal educational experience online. Here is what we determined after our meta-analysis:
Decide the level of virtual anonymity – Our courses within the department, by design of the learning management system, possess some inherent level of virtual anonymity. As stated previously, our students do not have access to a great deal of demographic information about the instructor after the professor shares a required “skeleton sketch” of professional, biographical information. However other than this basic information, and that which is provided by the student, the course is “ripe” for active, engaging, and thought provoking discussions under the guise of virtual anonymity. The hierarchy of the cyber classroom has a different dynamic and individuals who might be shy or reserved in a face-to-face course often light up the discussion boards with contributions.
In this process, the students and instructor alike are allowed the opportunity to be seen as experts in the course subject matter. For example, a discussion about alcoholism would allow for the instructor to share about his experience working in a community mental health setting and the treatment modalities which are employed. In the same regard, the students are likely to be working in other settings such as inpatient hospitals, college counseling centers, or state funded grant projects and can share more about what “works” in terms of their settings. As the name implies, preconceived notions about the instructor and learner vanish and the learning experience is heightened under the concept of virtual anonymity. This is something we as a department we truly believe is one key to success in making our program effective.
At the same time, we want to mention that virtual anonymity can also be viewed in a different light within the helping professions. Each instructor is encouraged to share relevant details with the students in the course as applicable as they are working in the field helping people each day. For example, a professor could report case studies from their private practice and talk about the clinical implications involved in regard to the topic(s) of study. However, it is not required for the professor or students to “overly disclose” information which might put him or her in a compromising situation. The field of human services has solid footing in terms of ethics and professionalism which does value confidentiality (American Psychological Association, 2002). This is important to remember as creating a safe learning environment and respecting virtual anonymity in regard to the level of disclosure by all parties involved is critically important. Both the students and instructors should be able to share real-life clinical experiences in the course but at an individualized comfort level so that privacy and integrity is kept intact.
Level the playing field – To brag again for a moment, as mentioned previously, our professors are extremely accomplished professionals in the field of human services. Their real world experience is invaluable in helping to meet the goals and objectives of instruction. At the same time, this also creates an implied learning-centered “power differential” in that they are placed in the role of the expert automatically in the course (Johnson, Chanidprapa, Seung, Berrett & La Fleur, 2002). As a result of this perceived difference, our professors actively encourage the students to share case studies, theoretical concepts, and practical skills from their clinical work experience and reinforce the expertise of student in these cases. As a result, our instructors are “leveling the playing field” which we have found leads to robust and profitable learning-related discussions. Our students are directors, supervisors, and leaders in their communities with priceless knowledge to share. The field of human services is also fast-paced and rapidly changing and our students are often “on the pulse” of current trends and practices which is crucial for up-to-date knowledge in our learning atmosphere. Additionally and more importantly, our students have reported that they feel a sense of investment and increased self esteem when the power differential in the course is restructured and the words of each person in the course are highly valued.
Learner and Faculty Networking – Networking of our students is something that is encouraged by our department. We recognize that whether we formally establish this important aspect or not, our students develop a bond that extends beyond the virtual classroom. It is not uncommon for students to report that this is one of the most important parts of their educational experience. They often have reported that their satisfaction with their learning experience is heightened if they also feel a professional (and at times even personal) connection with the faculty (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman & Witty, 2010). Sites such as LinkedIn, Google+, Academia.edu, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are often used by our students and faculty alike to stay connected both during and after the course ends. Our students often report that there are tremendous benefits from staying connected with instructors and peers which has lead to employment and valuable advancements, etc. (Bryant, 2006).
In examining these ideas further, we closely reviewed the student survey results in our Master of Science in Human Services degree program. During the summer of 2013, we closely scrutinized the data of twenty five courses to evaluate the perspectives of students in regard to our professional learning environment, perceived expertise of the professor (by the students), in addition to ability of the instructor to create a positive learning atmosphere which promotes the key concepts as discussed above. Seventy four students responded to the survey (2013, N=74) and the data was evaluated in regard to Five Pillars of Quality and is explained below (Moore, 2011).
Faculty Satisfaction - In discussing the feedback of students with our instructors, it was evident that professors also enjoyed sharing their professional experiences in a virtual environment utilizing the key concepts discussed as a critical part of the learning environment. One hundred percent of professors (2013, N=18) had accepted teaching contracts for the module in which these survey results were generated. The faculty shared that they enjoy engaging with our students and sharing their expertise online in regard to the 3 key concepts discussed (Moore & Shelton, 2013). As many instructors teach for other institutions, feedback that they provided about the 3 discussed departmental concepts was that it heightened the learning environment more so than basic learning practices encouraged at other universities. The level of engagement is something that they reported “keeps me interested in my courses and makes me truly feel like part of the department.” We value the feedback of our instructors and believe the 3 discussed concepts are extremely effective in our learning-related culture.
Learning Effectiveness - In thinking about learning effectiveness, 80% of students reported that they either “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that the course expectations had been met through the approaches taken by our instructors. An overwhelming majority of students reported that they believe that the goals and objectives of the course were met which is important in becoming competent as a provider in the field of human services in addition to meeting best practices (Moore & Shelton, 2013).
Furthermore, not only did 89% of the students report that they “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that the instructor promoted a professional learning environment, but also 87% reported that they “Strongly Agree” or “Agreed” that the professor was knowledgeable in the course materials. These results are of the upmost importance as we want to graduate qualified, competent professions who can make an immediate impact in their present of future roles in the field (Jones, 2012).
Access – Approximately thirty two percent (6.7 million) of higher education students have taken a course online (Allen & Seaman, 2013). This is an increase of over half a million students from the previous year (2010 to 2011) and a noted 9.3% increase in enrollment which is evidence that more and more individuals are seeking online educational experiences (Allen & Seaman, 2013). It is vitally important that all learners who wish to learn online can access a wide variety of programs and courses. As a result, further exploring the 3 key concepts employed by our program should be examined in further detail.
As with any online learning course, the student (and faculty) should have access to technology to engage in the learning management system, etc. Those who participate in learner and faculty networking should have suitable technology which allows access to these venues.
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