Forum Addresses Future of Online Learning
Contact: Jeff Murphy
WARRENSBURG, MO (Nov. 14, 2012) – Standing before a crowd of about 60 University of Central Missouri faculty, staff and administrators in the Ward Edwards Building, Art Rennels, associate professor of communication, holds up a $20 bill. “Every time we don’t take a course and turn it into an online class, we might as well do this,” he said to the audience as he proceeded to tear the currency in half.
Rennels’ colorful illustration emphasizing the importance of online courses and their financial impact for the university was part of an afternoon program Nov. 8 that was sponsored by UCM Provost and Chief Learning Officer Deborah Curtis and the staff of the School of Graduate and Extended Studies. The Provost’s Forum on Best Practice and the Future of Online Learning at UCM was one of several events planned during National Distance Learning Week Nov. 5-9 that also included a proclamation signing by UCM President Charles Ambrose, webinars, Blackboard training, and more.
During the Forum, faculty members, including Rennels, addressed different aspects of online learning, ranging from new online tools to the challenges that go with preparing distance learning courses. Faculty members from each of the university’s four academic colleges were among the speakers.
Ron Woolsey, faculty member in the College of Health, Science and Technology, spoke about online course delivery for programs such as the Master of Science in Industrial Management, the Master of Science in Technology, and the cooperative Doctor of Philosophy in Technology Management degree. He emphasized the value of professional development for faculty members so they will understand how to make the best use of distance learning tools. He also stressed the importance of incorporating opportunities such as group projects, simulations and assignments to enhance online study.
Woolsey said he and other faculty members are currently looking into the possibility of obtaining a grant to purchase “Echo 360,” a product which will allow them to flip online course content, making pre-recorded classroom video more quickly accessible online, while also providing opportunities to host virtual office hours, repurpose course content from year to year, and enhance feedback to students.
Gene Bonham, faculty member in the Harmon College of Business and Professional Studies, echoed Woolsey’s comments on the need to stay up-to-date on online technology. He said most of the major classes in the Department of Criminal Justice, where he teaches, are online. He noted, however, a number of challenges that educators still face in an online educational environment.
“How do we provide online students with the experiential benefits of college life,” he asked the group. “How do you get an online student to feel like they are part of our campus culture? How do we handle increasing demand for online education? How do we maintain quality with increased class size?”
Although the answers to these questions are still topics to be addressed in the future, Bonham said he continues to look at literature regarding the best practices in online education, including the ideal class size. He added “When it comes to online education, one size does not really fit all. We need to have a flexible approach…In one class it may be okay to have 50 students, but in another you may only want 15.”
Shantia Kerr, instructional technology faculty member in the College of Education, offered advice on how to make online learning more effective. In addition to tips like providing real-world relevance, offering online chat sessions for students, prompt and consistent feedback, opportunities for student collaboration, and multiple sources of content, she said it is important that the online environment be easy for students to navigate.
“It’s better if the environment is well organized. We want to minimize the number of clicks it takes for students to get to an item,” she said.
Some discussion following the presentations focused on possibilities for growing the number of students who are enrolled in online courses at UCM. Lynn Lowder, director of military and veteran services, said there is strong potential for attracting military students. He pointed out that 80 percent of the money active duty military personnel spend on education goes toward online courses, and much of that goes to for-profit institutions.
“We must create online courses and market them in a strategic way. With state revenues dropping, dropping, dropping, state-funded universities must wake up and smell the coffee,” Lowder said.
Based on interest for additional discussion, Curtis said she will work with her staff to help plan additional forums to talk about online learning issues, which will help answer some of the questions posted by faculty presenters and those in the audience.