Technological innovation in online learning can continue to flourish despite shrinking budgets, time constraints, and learning management system limitations. Faculty, subject matter experts, and instructional designers can look to the wealth of free resources available on the Internet to continually improve the learning process and use their limited time and resources efficiently and effectively.
At Deltak, we work with hundreds of faculty members across over 20+ partner institutions to adapt their on-ground programs for the online environment. Our numerous and diverse partners provide a wealth of perspectives on learning, allowing for successful emerging best practices in technology to scale easily and spread quickly.
In our recent experience, we have found that faculty members recognize the role that online learning plays in our educational system. Yet, teaching online requires specific instructional strategies for assessing student performance and creating engaging learning experiences that are often overlooked during online training opportunities. However, it is not sufficient for faculty to simply log into a learning management system (LMS), assign grades, and consider it a successful online learning experience. Students have several choices on where to earn their online degree, so an element of uniqueness must be included in the learning environment that differentiates the university from the competition and encourages students to remain in the program until completion.
When a college or university decides to offer an online program, a significant amount of support must be developed and provided to those instructors who are just entering the medium. Typically, instructors are given a LMS credentials, perhaps some optional training on the LMS, and told to login when the term begins. Some institutions go further and provide a brief amount of pedagogical and andragogical insight into online teaching. But overall, we have found that there is a specific need to demonstrate to faculty how they can turn an online classroom into their own personal teaching space and truly connect with their students.
Program leaders, instructional designers, and faculty compete for time and attention along with other important tasks, such as research responsibilities and the instruction of residential courses. The fictitious perception also lingers that online instruction is easier on instructors and necessitates less effort to implement, consequently requiring no need for faculty to exceed minimal expectations.
Students have choices for where they continue their education. Switching costs are nominal for online students compared to the costs to the university to recruit potential students. It is vital to the overall long-term and financial success of the program for students to have a positive online course experience in each course taken for the duration of the program.
Establishing instructor presence and developing an online student community is crucial in order to define the standards of a program and distinguish it from the multitude of other choices that students have in the online world, however very few universities provide the instructional resources to faculty to show them how to do so.
Faculty members are very busy and their time is extremely valuable, so our methods and practices are inspired by helping instructors develop creative and effective uses of technology that they can refine and reuse for future iterations of their online classroom. Our technological suggestions are often free or very low cost and our instructions are designed to make repeated use of the tools involved, saving time that could be spent connecting with students.
To serve our faculty, we have prepared a vast collection of tools that can be easily setup and reused multiple times based on need. We are also inspired by the fact that technology is always changing; therefore there are always new opportunities to connect with faculty and students.
Examples include the following:
· Wikispaces, Google+, and Skype are all solutions to establishing student communities. Students can collaborate and share ideas outside of the limitations of the LMS and continue participating in their community after the end of the course.
· Diigo and Google Alerts both provide the collection of current events and other topics that can be inserted as supplementary material in the course. This is very useful when an instructor would like to augment existing teaching material without changing the curricular integrity of the course.
· Voki is an excellent tool for inserting personality into a classroom. An avatar can be created and serve as a “teaching assistant” for the course.
· Screencast and Audacity allow for instructors to place audio into a course. Whether it is a reminder to post to the discussion board or customized audio feedback on a specific assignment, students can hear directly from their instructor – just as they would in an office hour session.
· Join.me and Jing provide great opportunities for screen sharing. These are particularly relevant when instructors need to help students with assignments involving math or learning new pieces of software.
· iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, along with most smartphones, allow instructors to record video of themselves and insert it into the classroom. Keeping the videos to a few minutes adds instructor personality and presence, without overwhelming students with information.
· Applications on smartphones have also had numerous advantages to our effective practices. Instructors can send Twitter updates while traveling, post current events using Google+ or a web aggregator, and even post impromptu pictures of campus events to keep building their online community.
We consider effectiveness to have taken place when students respond positively to a technological personalization as well as when faculty are involved and pleased with the results of their endeavor.
Our evidence is empirical in nature as we are directly involved with the development and deployment of these tools at our partner universities. We have escalated our efforts for the past two years in order to determine if there was validity in our work.
A few recent examples of our successes:
· At Benedictine University, instructors who use additional technological tools consistently score higher on course evaluations than their peers who teach the same course during the same session.
· At Purdue University, students gave an overwhelmingly positive response on course evaluations to a faculty member who consistently held virtual office hours and recorded summaries on the weekly content of the course. As this activity was met with such enthusiasm, other faculty followed suit in order to earn equally positive reviews from online students.
We have found that building strong, respectful relationships and creating open lines of communication with faculty have proven invaluable in our efforts to expand technological reach. Continually encouraging faculty to develop stronger connections with their online students often starts with a single suggestion and flourishes over time into a well-developed course experience.
Maintaining contact with our faculty and suggesting quick and easy concepts that would apply to their class, we have seen a dramatic growth in the number of instructors who are willing to use our ideas. We have also seen a significant increase in the instructors who are exploring additional technological enhancements on their own time. In a growing number of circumstances, we are starting to learn from them as much as they learn from us.
Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (2000) Community of Inquiry (COI) framework is an excellent model for illustrating how purposeful faculty engagement positively influences student learning experiences. The COI framework asserts that “learning occurs within the Community through interaction of three core elements...cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence” (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2000). As a result, increasing instructor presence within the online community must be a priority in order to connect with students.
Using the COI framework as a model, we set out to simultaneously increase cognitive, social, and teaching presence using technology as we are dedicated to online learning. The COI framework has been implemented on top of the standards established at each of our partner schools and faculty are free to incorporate our ideas into their residential classrooms.
We regularly hold faculty focus groups and webinars at our partner schools in order to obtain the opinions and thoughts of faculty members. These sessions are highly beneficial as constructive feedback is shared across instructors and staff members at the school.
At Benedictine University in particular, instructors eagerly anticipate new ideas and suggestions as to how they can continue personalizing their online environment and extend their reach to students. Once instructors experience how effective a short Screencast on APA standards can be, they are motivated to find new ways to use the same tool or to find another tool that will have an equally dramatic impact on student performance. Some strategies, such as welcome videos, have been so successful that they are now mandated by the university as part of the course facilitation process.
Throughout our continuous improvement strategies, the instructor retention rate at Benedictine has stayed well above 95%. The school receives a steady stream of referral resumes each day and has a wealth of qualified individuals from which to select when staffing their online courses.
Several Benedictine faculty members have even increased their instructional capacity by asking to teach in both the undergraduate and the graduate programs. We have found that faculty members welcome our efforts, do not feel burdened by the additional technological requirements, and are open to our endeavors to keep innovating.
Every course that we offer at all of our partner schools culminates with course evaluations. The data is examined internally as well as sent to individual instructors for review. In addition, students are given open forums in which to communicate to peers as well as their instructors. Through the analysis of the survey data as well as the anecdotal evidence in the open forums, we have seen marked improvement in student satisfaction of our courses as well as increases in retention rates.
As we work with such a large and diverse number of institutions, scalability is a key aspect of our design. We train instructors on how to record a video to be reused, instead of recreated for each course. We work with instructors to help them create podcasts that are relevant to the course content so that they can be used until the information becomes outdated.
Another advantage of instructors personalizing the course experience is the appeal to different types of learners. If a student prefers to read about their instructor, they can review an uploaded biography via PDF. However, if the student wants to identify a face and a name to their instructor, they can watch a short welcome video. Instructors can personalize the course to appeal to everyone and encourage students to participate according to their strengths.
Our goal is to require very little additional equipment than is already necessary to teach online. If an instructor has access to basic computer equipment (desktop/laptop with hard drive space, webcam, and microphone) and a broadband internet connection, they can immediately start utilizing our ideas.
The only costs associated with our ideas are time and patience. We operate under the assumption that faculty are not given additional funding to transfer their class into the online environment, so we have become creative in finding free ways to build community and customize the course.
Some technological tools do have costs, but we make every attempt to find a free solution before using a costly piece of software.
Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer
conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.