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Distance Learning Workshop Explores Tools For Teaching Online Courses

April 15, 2015

According to Inside Higher Ed, one of the greatest challenges of distance learning is keeping students engaged. Distance learning, or online classes, allows students to complete coursework without physically being on campus. While the majority of classes at Texas Lutheran University are taught in a traditional classroom setting, several faculty members have implemented distance learning into courses.

Through the collaboration of an Academic Council subcommittee and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), TLU faculty began looking at various options to bolster summer programming. Recently, the CTL group, chaired by Math Professor John Sieben, had several faculty members share tips and techniques about teaching online courses with others interested in taking that approach.

Pam Johnston, associate professor of English, teaches a four-week food writing course online. She said the key to making distance learning work is active interaction from both the students and professor.

“It’s important to establish a class dynamic and communicate with students,” Johnston said. “In the beginning, I ask everyone to share something about themselves and to post a photo they don’t mind sharing. One of the obstacles in teaching online is that it might be hard for some students to remember it’s a real college class, so the professor has to keep it structured. I use a class blog to organize assignments using clear time frames and make sure to post feedback or comments every two to three days. Students taking online courses should understand they need to be present online just as they would be in an actual classroom.”

In addition to teaching online classes, Instructional Technologist Rodrick Shao leads workshops for faculty interested in learning about the various types of technology and tools they can use when teaching online.

“I’m here to help professors understand there are other resources and third-party tools available to help them teach,” Shao said. “It’s very helpful to hear from faculty what they need in order to better teach their online course. I can take those needs to IT and we can brainstorm ways to support them. If a professor understands the platform they are using to teach their class, they can be more comfortable teaching and more clear to students about how the class works.”

Associate Professor of Math and Computer Science, Sam Hijazi, uses various resources to share and collect information including e-Racer, Microsoft Publisher, Excel, etc. In some instances, mostly in advanced online courses, Hijazi asks students to record their explanation for certain business strategies and submit them. This, he said, allows him to see if students understand the assignment and keeps things interactive and verbal like a normal classroom setting.

And while some forms of technology might sound intimidating, Communication Studies Professor Steve Vrooman—who’s teaching an online social media course this summer—said faculty should find fun ways to incorporate things like having students do an oral interpretation of their paper on YouTube or Instagram a page of marked-up text.

“I use an acronym called CATs, Content Applied through Technology,” Vrooman said, “We disrupt their [students’] sense of control with surprising or de-centering moments in high impact classes. E-learning makes that harder. A professor can use technology applications in surprising ways to do something similar.”

Vrooman also uses Modular Asynchronous Jobs in Collaboration (MAJiCs) and Laterally Rewarded Competitions (LaRCs).

“An example of MAJiC would be a discussion board debate where there’s a ‘reward’ for winning but up to the students to decide how much to collaborate before they start posting,” Vrooman said. “LaRCs can be structured ‘games’ which have non-graded rewards like a late pass on an assignment or I can choose the best post on a debate board and they get to pick the next debate topic.”

Ultimately, Vrooman said it all comes back to how a professor regularly interacts with students and making sure the instructor doesn’t fall behind.

“IDIGs, or Interactions Daily, Individually and Grouped, means giving them some individual feedback and some collective comments daily,” Vrooman said. “Have them work on multiple assignments at the same time including individual and collaborative ones. The more feedback a professor can provide will really make a difference.”

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