A Journey Toward Online Teaching and Learning

April 27, 2017 No comments exist
Dr. Tracy W. Smith is Professor and Assistant Chairperson in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University (ASU). She is also a faculty development fellow for ASU. In 2017, she was awarded the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2005 and 2015, she was the recipient of the Reich College of Education Outstanding Teaching Award. In 2005, she also received the Appalachian Student Government Association Outstanding Teacher Award. She was the recipient of the College of Education Outstanding Mentor Award in 2014. In 2001, she received the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). Her research interests include performance-based middle level teacher preparation, the history of the middle school movement, the relationship between teaching expertise and student learning, and evaluating the depth of student understanding. She has had articles published in journals such as the Middle School Journal, Journal of Teacher Education, Clearing House, and Teacher Education and Practice.
Tracy lives in Boone with her husband, Tommy, two daughters, Ellary and Cora, and their dachshund, Raney. She and her family sing and perform as Smithfolk. They sing folk, bluegrass, and acoustic worship music.

Tracy Smith, Appalachian State University

I had to do it. Enrollments in teacher education were dwindling, and as program director, I was feeling the heat: increase enrollments or risk administrative program cuts. I was told that delivering the program online might be the answer. The emerging business model for higher education asserted that online degree programs increase enrollments and reduce costs (Bach, 2007; Davidson-Shivers, Savenye, & Rasmussen, 2012; Rubin, 2013).

Still, I was reluctant. I knew how to teach in brick and mortar classrooms, with movable furniture, white boards, handouts, projectors, and the occasional shared snack. In my view, I used technology to enhance my teaching, not replace it. My teaching evaluations showed that my students appreciated the interactions, the sense of community, the relationships built and the learning enjoyed in physical classrooms. Online teaching was a new frontier for me. I was uncertain that I could be effective or that students would learn as much. I was skeptical that the relationships I could build and facilitate in online classrooms could be as rich. In my teaching, I depended on students’ reactions, body language, nuanced cues, and sentient facial expressions. I needed to be in touch with their humanity. And yet, I was also worried about dwindling enrollments and the implications of those decreasing numbers. We might lose faculty positions. We were definitely facing a statewide teacher shortage. Who would teach the next generation of public school students if teacher education enrollments continued to decline so rapidly at institutions across the state? How could we invite more great people into teaching? Maybe we could leverage online spaces to make our program and our profession more accessible. I was willing to try.

Trying to be proactive, I wrote a small grant to get support for my program faculty. What was proposed and then implemented was an example of experiential learning (see Kolb, 1984). Only one of my program colleagues had ever taken an online course before, and I believed that having the experience of being an online learner might help us all to become more effective online teachers. I worked with our learning technology specialists to design a learning experience for faculty who taught in the same academic program. Over the summer, program faculty took a hybrid course about teaching hybrid courses. In the course, we read Jay Caulfield’s How to Design and Teach a Hybrid Course (2011) as our central text. This book provided common themes and ideas for an ongoing discussion among program faculty that was conducted both online and in face-to-face sessions. Later, faculty members commented that the discussions they had in this course were richer than those they had in previous face-to-face meetings about the “online issue.” During the course, each faculty member also designed as the “capstone assignment” a hybrid course to be taught in the program. This faculty development initiative has been described elsewhere in more detail (Smith, 2013; Smith & Maiden, 2015).

For me, hybrid seemed like a giant step on the way to online teaching and learning. Caulfield’s (2011) book was conversational, and she had shared some of my skepticism, but she also claimed that many of the outcomes in her hybrid courses were even better than in face-to-face classes. Caulfield’s (2011) characterization of hybrid courses appealed to my social constructivist sensibilities: “A well-designed hybrid course is a joint and provocative exploration of the discipline by teacher and learner in which the roles of teacher and learner are fluid – sometimes the teacher takes the role of learner and sometimes the learner takes the role of teacher” (Caulfield, p. 4). I designed and taught a hybrid graduate course in Curriculum and Assessment.

I’m not sure it’s overstating it to say it felt “magical.” Challenged by Caulfield, I didn’t just convert my face-to-face lessons to online delivery. Instead, I redesigned everything. Caulfield (2011) said that hybrid courses require not just putting some content online but also reconceptualizing how we spend our time face-to-face. What is it, she asked, that is so powerful, experiential, and meaningful that it requires physical presence, that it cannot possibly be done online? So, I changed everything. In our face-to-face meetings, I lead Paideia seminars, hosted guest speakers, structured curriculum mapping workshops, and facilitated World Café Conversations. The online time was spent in student collaboration, asynchronous discussion, intensive writing and feedback, and independent research. The students, mostly online learning novices and also skeptical at first, loved it, too. They reported appreciation for the flexibility of the Saturday course meetings and online components which made their participation in the program possible, alongside their personal and professional responsibilities. They commented on the importance of organization in the course and said that their anxiety about online learning had been relieved. They raved about the hybrid model, noting that it facilitated better communication and enhanced their sense of professional community. They, like many students that Caulfield interviewed, called it the “best of both worlds.” Two years after completing their program, they continue to use social media to maintain their professional and vibrant community.

Over the two semesters that I taught this hybrid cohort, I grew as a teacher, expanding my technology skills, forging new collaborations with like-minded colleagues, and spending a lot of time facilitating online conversations with students. I created spaces for them to share and exchange curriculum ideas and frameworks, helping them integrate scholarly perspectives into their own visions for curriculum reform. It was an incredible experience – and yet, it still required having a critical mass of students close enough to drive to a single physical location. Hybrid delivery wasn’t enough to get the enrollments where they needed to be. If my program was to survive administrative cuts, we would have to commit to deliver it 100% online. Thankfully, I’d had a taste of the possibilities. I was still a bit skeptical, but now I had developed some solid skills and positive dispositions toward teaching in virtual spaces. I took the plunge.

Since that time of forced entry into hybrid and then online teaching, I have come to enjoy my online teaching. I have become an online teacher, perhaps with some degree of success. I have also begun to expand my own research agenda to include both personal SoTL and institutional online teaching effectiveness research. Last spring, the focus of my research sabbatical was related to online teaching and learning. Drawing on research related to effective college teaching (see, for example, Johnson, 2010; Young, 2006), I wrote about how I use discussion forums to cultivate teacher presence, instructor immediacy, classroom community, and most importantly, deep student learning. In addition, I have been working with colleagues to collect student survey data about their experiences in online and hybrid courses at our university – so that we can use those students’ voices to inform our faculty development offerings. It has been gratifying work.

I am not sure that online teaching and learning is the answer for every institution, program, or teacher. In fact, it is not reversing the teacher shortage in my state or bolstering the enrollments in my program to the degree I had hoped. However, I have seen firsthand its power to bring together and raise up communities of learners from geographic and demographic expanses. I have observed prospective and novice practitioners become advocates and activists as they have shared and co-constructed ideas and meaning in online discussion. I had to do it, but now I can say that I would do it all over again.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you feel is the major concern for most faculty when first moving from purely face-to-face courses to online or hybrid courses?
  2. Many individuals who teach online courses comment that community in those courses is often better/closer than the typical face-to-face course.  Why might that happen?
  3. What is one aspect of a face-to-face course that you feel would be missing or muted in the online environment? What would you consider to be one advantage to the online course format?

References

Bach, S. (2007). Drivers to online learning. In S. Bach, P. Haynes, & J.L. Smith (Eds.), Online learning and teaching in higher education. (pp. 5-31). Maidenhead, England: Open University Press. Retrieved from http://mcgraw-hill.co.uk/openup

Caulfield, J. (2011). How to design and teach a hybrid course: Achieving student-centered learning through blended classroom, online, and experiential activities. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Davidson-Shivers, G.V., Savenye, W.C., & Rasmussen, K.L. (2012). Higher education and technology: Future forecasts and best practices. In T. Amiel & B. Wilson (Eds.), Proceedings of the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, and Telecommunications 2012 (pp. 2617-2622). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning : Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rubin, B. (2013). University business models and online practices: A third way. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 16(1). Retrieved fromhttp://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring161/rubin.html

Smith, T.W. (2013). Hybrid and sustainable: An Appalachian model for developing online teaching and learning. North Carolina Middle School Journal 27(1). Available athttp://www.ncmle.org/journal/PDF/Feb13/Final_edit_Smith.pdf

Smith, T.W., & Maiden, E.V. (2015). Cultivating community in online and blended learning environments. In J. Keengwe & J.J. Agamba (Eds.), Models for improving and optimizing online and blended learning in higher education (pp. 83-105). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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