The posting below looks at some keys to success in doctoral online courses for mid-career professionals. It is by Michael L. Rodgers of Southeast Missouri State University and is based on a conversation he had with Dr. Carl Lashley, who teaches teaching students in a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. The article is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 24, Number 6, October 2015. It is #75 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327 ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.
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Summiting by the Online Route
Online education has made amazing strides since it first gained notice in the late 1990s. Early suggestions that online courses could be taught entirely by e-mail have given way to richly-enabled learning management systems (LMS) that support entire degree programs with high levels of automation and specialized support for both content and technology. Technology advances and, importantly, guidance from course developers and related specialists, expanded online courses into mass markets. MOOCs leap to mind, but at many institutions, undergraduates, and even K–12 students, no longer find online courses exotic: online courses are undoubtedly mainstream. But what of the low-enrollment, graduate-level offerings that early on typified online courses? The following piece arose from a conversation that I had with Dr. Carl
Lashley, whose teaching assignment places him in the position of teaching online students in a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Keep Your Day Job
Most, though not all, disciplines recognize the Doctoral degree as the terminal degree, the highest level in the academic track to which a student may aspire. But even with the crumbling of old patterns, the usual pathways to a terminal degree can differ significantly from discipline to discipline. In my discipline (Chemistry), students may pursue the doctoral degree immediately upon completion of the undergraduate degree, or not many years thereafter. Graduates with recent Bachelor’s degrees populate first-year medical school courses, and so on. Lashley’s students, though, are almost exclusively mid-career professionals who seek the doctorate for career advancement. Their Doctor of Education Program includes a strong research component, but graduates are far less likely to use the degree to build a career in education research, than to attain increasingly responsible administrative positions in educational institutions. For most of these students, stepping away from full-time administrative positions to complete a 3–4 year doctoral program is unattractive financially and professionally. Students want a program, but work and family responsibilities make traditional class meeting times and full-time student status difficult. Thus, a major motivation in the design of UNCG’s program was to make the program more accessible and convenient. Online courses were created for students who were “not very distant, but occasionally right down the street.”
UNCG’s doctoral program is attractive because it is sensitive to the needs of working professionals. The strong online component saves commuting time. From the relative comfort of home, students are fresher and more relaxed when it is time to log into the online course after a very busy day of work. Even so, most of Lashley’s students live relatively nearby (less than a 2 hour commute), which affords them the opportunity to come to campus from time to time for face-to-face courses, meet with faculty, and attend advising sessions and seminars. Lashley’s awareness of his students’ need for a sense of belonging motivates him to use the on-campus events to establish relationships that Lashley characterizes as “accidental cohorts,” which create connections and lend authenticity to the virtual relationships born of online interactions within discussion boards and group activities.
Time is the Most Valuable Commodity
Lashley’s doctoral students tend to be “incredibly pressed for time,” and it is time pressure that moves students toward online doctoral courses, on the expectation that distance learning uses time better. This argument bears some similarity to undergraduates’ belief that online courses are more efficient because they eliminate the need to go to class. Yet the perspective on time differs between the two groups. Doctoral students seek to avoid long travel times, but undergraduates often value the elimination of time in class even more than travel time savings. This difference moved Lashley to carefully consider course structure: what is the best use of time allocated for synchronous online class meetings? How can content be pushed to out-of-class coverage in a way that preserves class time for debating the most difficult issues? What is the best way to make time for small group projects? How can notices, announcements, and other administrative details be presented online to minimize the amount of class time devoted to parts of the course that, while very important, are not central to the course’s content goals?
Lashley has found it essential to build a high degree of organization into his class sessions, the course syllabus, and collaborative activities. His busy students benefit by very rapid reorientation
into the course when class begins, and Lashley benefits from his students’ good will, arising from awareness that their time has been respected. Time pressure also led Lashley to offer students more comprehensive advising than doctoral students often receive in face-to-face programs. His students have a traditional research advisor, but Lashey now includes individualized advice, via Facetime chats, on dissertation development, selection of course-work beneficial to career goals, and strategies for efficiently completing the program as a part-time student—important advice to doctoral students that traditionally would be absorbed on campus.
Don’t Take Readiness for Granted
The computer literacy movement has, like online courses themselves, become mainstream features of higher education. Because most of Lashley’s students are mid-career professionals, it is natural to assume a degree of computer literacy adequate to interact with clients and peers. However, high computer literacy cannot be assumed, and uneven levels of expertise threaten not only individual student performance, but also hopes of creating an inclusive learning community in the course. Thus, Lashley advocates a readiness program with the twin goals of ensuring that every student:
* knows how to use technology to do quality independent research, and
* can participate as a good citizen in a synchronous online class- room. Some of the effort must go to sensitizing students to the need. For example, many students come to the doctoral program with a belief that online research is performing a search in Google Scholar.
Of course, there is much more: subscription databases, VPNs, digital storage, online privacy, use of Ever-note 1, etc. Good practices for online civility, when and how to use video, images, and text online should also be taught: osmosis and innate social intelligence are not always enough. Lashley’s first-year classes include purposeful training in basic tools, such as Track Changes and APA formatting; the tools are subsequently scaffolded, with topics such as data security for dissertations added later in the program. Even the process for admission to the program can play a role. Applicants must now include something digital that introduces them to the Graduate Committee, perhaps a video, a PowerPoint show, or a Prezi link.
Socratic dialogue is, in Lashley’s view, the graduate education model. Unless students are comfortable with the online environment, Lashley cannot use Socratic dialogue online. He uses, and requires students to use, audio and video to create a sense that the website is an extension of the classroom. In general, the approach must be explained and justified to students, as many expect a traditional reading course, unaware that the course actually entails much personal and dialogical reflection. Moreover, busy students may find that the synchronous multimedia approach restricts opportunities for multitasking while class is in session: it is difficult to fully participate in the course while attending Thursday evening’s JV football game! Given that students will have to do more than they expected to do anyway, a high level of technology readiness can ease frustrations and refocus students away from workload and toward learning.
Readiness also encompasses faculty technology proficiency. Student technology readiness may be wasted if the faculty teaching online courses lack the level of sophistication needed to teach online. The institution’s imperative for the online program may be to put people in courses, but without quality, students will eventually decide to go elsewhere. The risk to the program is all the more serious because the community of career educators— the applicant pool—is fairly small, and the program’s reputation will surely become well-known. To avoid potential adverse
effects on perceived quality, the institution should determine which of its faculty members can teach online, and train them very well.
Modeling Technology Use
Lashley’s institution supports all of its online courses with a robust LMS, and Lashley’s standing as a technology early adopter puts him in an especially strong position to make full use of the LMS’ features. Nevertheless, Lashley knows that his students will be working professionally with collaborators and stakeholders who are not standardized around a single technology platform. Upper administration must routinely work across multiple organizational boundaries. Consequently, Lashley prefers to use stand-alone tools, even when a tool with an equivalent capability is present in the LMS. For example, he encourages students to use file-sharing tools like DropBox2 and Google+,3 instead of setting up a dropbox within the LMS for workgroups in the course. He is also aware that his students are aspiring to higher positions that involve significant public and political scrutiny. This awareness shaped his decision to design his courses to use public blogs and discussion forums, rather than blogs that are protected behind LMS’ passwords. Using public blogs trains his students to practice “appropriately careful” communication styles and wording.
On one occasion, Lashley’s use of stand-alone tools resulted in a somewhat unexpected, but very welcome, result: Lashley introduced one of his classes to Learnist,4 an educational resource gathering, organizing, and collaborating tool,5 for the purpose of gathering and sharing lesson plans and content for a unit of instruction. A typical package in the assignment was a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation, converted to a Learnist deck. Lashley’s students liked the functionality of Learnist so much that they began to promote it to fellow students in the program. Eventually, the fellow students appeared in another of Lashley’s courses, where they discussed ways that they had used Learnist in their other courses. Thus, the students had experienced using the application in a peer-to-peer manner, and not merely as an academic exercise. Learnist was not a new tool at the time that Lashley introduced it to his students, yet the students were unaware of it prior to Lashley’s course.
For Students at the Pinnacle
Being mid-career professionals, students in Lashley’s doctoral program may not fit the tech-savvy, 24/7 social media profile—real or imagined—that we associate with millennials. Yet, online doctoral students can be motivated to take on technology that will help them academically and professionally. And significantly, doctoral students’ academic and scholarly objectives can be met in online courses, provided the instructor and the institution remain sensitive to student needs. We can’t merely take a package approach to course development. Instead, success comes with readiness, appropriate pedagogy, and deep knowledge of the students that are served.
Dr. Carl Lashley is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has been a general and special education teacher, an elementary school principal, Director of Special Education, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction in public schools in West Virginia. Dr. Lashley’s primary intellectual and advocacy interests in equity, justice, and community come from his career-long concerns about poverty, equitable opportunity for all children, and the power of schooling as a mode of social change. His research interests are in education law; special education law, policy, and practice; technology; and school leadership preparation. CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org
Endnotes: 1. https://evernote.com/
5. See, for example, http://www.educatorstechnology.com/2012/05/learnist-new-learners--pinterest.html