By Susan M. Bashinski, Ed.D.
My career began as pre-service special education teacher in the 1970s. I took lecture notes on paper. I used a manual typewriter to prepare class assignments. I fed punched cards into the campus mainframe computer to run statistics. And no, this really wasn’t more than 100 years ago! By the time I reached my Master’s degree program, I had moved on to my first personal computer (really only an electronic word processor), but in my mind I had joined the technology revolution. When I purchased an Apple IIc computer my fate was sealed (I just didn’t realize it at the time….)
As I look back on my lengthy career in special education, I see several key events that challenged me and forced me well beyond the limits of my technological comfort zone. Fortunately, the unimaginable change in the availability of communication media, new online learning tools and associated research shaped the skills I now need to use in my daily practice as a teacher educator. I could never have guessed, nor honestly, even believed, that technology would become such a central thread in my work.
Communication development and augmentative communication (AAC) have remained my passion ever since I began my doctoral studies in special education at The University of Kansas (KU) in 1992. My first experience with “high AAC technology” involved the ECHO communicator. This voice output variation required me to actually open the body of the computer and install an adaptive firmware card. Who, at that point, could ever have even imagined the technological capabilities of the iPad? It took me a while to “see” the broader technology in education picture.
I taught the augmentative and alternative communication class for the KU Department of Special Education (SPED) during my doctoral studies and for several years thereafter. For the entirety of these 16 years I delivered the class on campus—face-to-face with the graduate students enrolled. In my last year of employment at KU, the University issued an announcement, encouraging faculty campus-wide to apply to participate in training on how to effectively transition a face-to-face class to an online delivery format. I believed that KU SPED’s AAC course was a great candidate for this transformation, and so I applied.
I was accepted as a member of the first Lawrence-campus cohort—which consisted of eight to ten faculty members. Our small, innovative group spent one full week in day-long sessions learning Blackboard technology in the basement of Anschutz. I felt as if I had entered a foreign world populated with an entirely different array of variables…! I was overwhelmed initially. Though I was confident in my ability to teach, I found it incredibly difficult to figure out how to teach in this whole new context. Fortunately, however, I stayed the course.
Let me fast forward now…to the present. For the past three years I have worked as the director of graduate programs in the Department of Education at Missouri Western State University—where 100% of our graduate offerings are delivered online. I am an individual who spent the vast majority of her career teaching in traditional face-to-face public school and university settings. Now, I very rarely set foot in the same physical space as my students. What a significant evolution my instructional practice has undergone in the last decade!
Delivering online courses and teaching entirely through this new distance model presents many challenges for veteran faculty members, such as myself. Ever-present is the unchangeable fact that I (like many others) am now required to provide content, course activities, and feedback in a format different from anything I ever experienced as a student. These challenges are exponentially magnified by the reality that the vast majority of today’s students grow up with connectivity. They enter the learning context already incredibly comfortable with current technology and the online environment.
Learners in the twenty-first century have been Web consumers for much of their lives, and are now demanding online instruction that supports participation and interaction. They want learning experiences that are social and that will connect them with their peers (West & West, as cited in Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p. 1).
The current, extant literature base regarding distance education provides fairly extensive insights on several key challenges online course delivery presents. Some of the challenges this context generates for veteran faculty members include: ways in which to structure communication with students, ongoing technological advances, methods to promote genuine student engagement and maintain integrity in online coursework, professional development needs, and strategies to build a genuine online learning community. I raise these here to ideally promote discussion and to find at least partial answers to some of these needs.
Veteran faculty need guidance around questions as straightforward as how to structure their own personal availability? Will this schedule apply only Monday through Friday? What is the ideal response rate for emails, questions, and grading of assignments? Challenges relative to how to communicate with online students range from simple questions, such as how best to inform students to structure and submit their assignments for online grading, to how to determine the scope of information they will require? How much is too much? What should go in the syllabus? What should be detailed in each online page? A well-respected and very experienced university faculty member advised me as follows,
Give far more information than you think anyone in their right mind would ever want to know (S. Steinweg, personal communication, August 2009).
My personal experience has led me to some very effective strategies. For example, embed a hidden word (e.g., “hippopotamus”) in the middle of a teacher-made video students are requested to review; attach a letter to an email, prior to the semester’s opening to all students registered for an online course, and request students send an email to verify their receipt of the information; include virtual office hours in a course syllabus; and post rules of “netiquette” for the course. I have found the 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching, compiled from a series of columns in DISTANCE Education Reports “Between the Clicks” column, to be a succinct compilation of the core behaviors one needs to develop to become a successful online instructor (Hill, n.d.a). Some of the most essential elements I derived from this include: establish patterns for all course activities—and be consistent, think before writing, plan for the unplanned, and try to anticipate anything that might possibly “go wrong” (i.e., employ proactive practices) (Hill, n.d.a). My personal interpretation of the advice to be proactive involves extensive pre-planning and anticipation in order to avoid receiving 200+ emails from students every day!
Technology questions arise in regard to both hardware and software applications too. They range from simple questions such as how, where and from whom students can get help when needed, to which specific technology options are best-suited to delivery of a particular type of content. Options for student use of a university’s library and reference resources must also be clarified before a course begins. Personally, I struggle with the stress and anxiety I feel each and every time I am presented with a new piece of technology! How can I master this? What do I need to know? What do I do if the technology goes down? I believe sharing contingency plans with students is also an essential element of effective online teaching.
The importance of genuine student engagement in the online learning environment has been highlighted in research over the last decade (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011; Woo & Reeves, 2007). Students neither want nor deserve to be presented with a digital correspondence course; their learning will not be maximized just listening to an online lecture. One of an online instructor’s primary responsibilities is to establish a path that will guide students to actively engage with the content being presented. It is the faculty member’s responsibility to create course materials in multiple media formats (Wang, 2012). The most effective strategy I have found to meet this challenge is to include mandatory participation in synchronous video sessions, which are graded. Through Doodle polling, students determine the exact schedule for such meetings, and receive grades for their involvement in these sessions. Engaging students through synchronous methods is strongly supported through an aggregation of articles compiled from the ONLINE CL@SSROOM: Ideas for Effective Online Instruction (Bart, 2012).
Engaged learning does not simply happen. It requires ‘architectural engineering’ by the instructor (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011, p.14).
Closely related to the need to facilitate active student engagement is the challenge of building a genuine community online. Though I am never in the same room with the graduate students in the classes I teach, nor are the students in the same room with one another, we do see each other. In learning easy-to-use platforms like Zoom (founded in 2011), my students and I have the opportunity to engage in real-time video conferencing. We hold critical discussions, students present materials they have developed to one another and complete peer evaluations of others’ completed work. Zoom also offers the instructor the option of recording a session for later viewing by a student, as needed.
Students in Missouri Western State University’s graduate online programs are incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunities technology like Zoom offers for real-time, meaningful collaboration. These kinds of platforms enable the auditory and visual, synchronous experiences of genuine community membership. Samples of video testimonials, in which students share overwhelming support for synchronous video meetings, can be found here.
Integrity concerns in online coursework are directly associated with the instructor (e.g., what resources may be used without violating copyright?) and with students and the work they submit (e.g., who actually wrote the research paper that was turned in?). The challenge of academic dishonesty existed long before the online instructional environment first emerged. The online environment does, however, present distance instructors with a unique set of challenges, different from those encountered in traditional course delivery. In a compilation of nine articles from DISTANCE Education Report (Hill, 2010), the editor offers 91 Ways to Maintain Academic Integrity in Online Courses, which are presented in four primary categories (1) the “virtue” approach – motivate students to not be tempted to cheat (2) the “policing” approach – enforce consequences for those students who are caught cheating (3) the “prevention” approach – reduce both the pressures and opportunities for students to cheat, and (4) suggestions for inclusion in an online course syllabus.
The enormous need for professional development for university faculty, particularly for veteran, senior faculty members, brings this discussion full circle. As noted previously, delivering courses entirely through a distance model presents many, many challenges such as mastering the technology itself to transitioning sound pedagogical theory and practice to the online environment, or managing course structure and communication, and maintaining rigor in a distance course (Lorenzetti, n.d.). Effective, durable training for faculty members requires planning, pooling of resources, and most importantly providing on-going support for online instructors.
One of the many lessons learned from the early years of distance education is the fact that you cannot simply pluck an instructor out of the classroom, plug (her) into an online course, and expect (her) to be effective in this new….medium (Hill, n.d.b, p. 1).
Bart, M. (Ed.) (2012, February). Faculty focus special report: Online student engagement tools and strategies. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/FF-Online-Student-Engagement-Report.pdf
Conrad, R-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, Jossey-Bass.
Hill, C. (Ed.) (2010, May). Faculty focus special report: Promoting academic integrity in online education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/promoting-academic-integrity-in-online-edu2.pdf
Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.a.). Faculty focus special report: 10 principles of effective online teaching—Best practices in distance education. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/10-Principles-of-Effective-Online-Teaching.pdf
Hill, C. (Ed.) (n.d.b.). Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Lorenzetti, J. P. (n.d.). Four steps to just-in-time faculty training. Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Wang, H. (2012, February). Engage online learners with technology: A free tool kit. Faculty focus special report: Faculty development in distance education—Issues, trends, and tips. Retrieved from http://cdn.facultyfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FacultyDev-in-DistanceEd1.pdf
Woo, Y., & Reeves, T. C. (2007). Meaningful interaction in web-based learning: A social constructivist interpretation. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 15-25.