Faculty unfamiliar with e-learning when a university or college is closed due to coronavirus can be brought up to speed quickly, says Tom Cavanagh, the vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida.
Not all faculty will be able to create highly interactive and engaging multimedia experiences on such short notice, as higher education shifts to online education en masse. So, Cavanagh recommends starting with the basics when giving instructors a crash course in distance learning.
“The faculty development course we usually put faculty through, if it was cooking, it’s like the Culinary Institute of America—we’re teaching them to be gourmet chefs,” Cavanagh says. “Right now, we’re trying to feed an army in a cafeteria a healthy, nutritious meal. It’s going to be a different experience.”
At the University of Central Florida—where 85% of the nearly 70,000 students take at least one credit online—staff and faculty now have two weeks to make the complete digital transition.
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Faculty unexperienced in e-learning should be introduced to the school’s learning management system and it’s basic functions, such as how to send out announcements, lead discussions, and set up assignments for submission, Cavanagh says.
Instructors can also be shown how to use a video-conferencing platform such as Zoom.
Central Flordia’s Division of Distributed Learning launched a new website, Keep Teaching, to provide video workshops and other resources for faculty as they begin meeting their classes online.
“Right now, it’s all hands on deck—we’re providing as much support as possible to faculty, Cavanagh says. “If faculty who haven’t been working with online instruction want to try something more than lecturing in a videoconferencing platform, we’re all for it.”
E-learning across the country
At Wheaton College, a much smaller liberal arts institution grounded in face-to-face instruction, administrators recently launched the Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning to help the Massachusetts school’s faculty flourish online.
Online education and accessibility
At the University of Central Florida, the instructional design team is prioritizing accessibility for students with disabilities, says Tom Cavanagh, the vice provost for digital learning.
The university’s director of student access services is part of the core team planning the online transition as in-person classes are canceled, Cavanagh says.
The team has made a list of courses that have students who need accommodations so, for example, captions can be added to online lectures.
Also, the university had already added a tool to its LMS to enables faculty to give students with learning challenges extra time on assessments, Cavanagh says.
The center has brought tech experts, faculty and students together to design courses and adapt learning goals to the virtual environment.
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“We want to foster a model of collaboration where students are brought into the educational process as partners from the start, not just in the classroom, but as partners in the design of the institution,” M. Gabriela Torres, a professor of anthropology and a co-director of the Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning, said in a statement.
To further assist faculty, The Council of Independent Colleges last year released “Teaching the Humanities Online: Lessons from a Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges.”
“Perhaps the most important lesson learned … is that online instruction can help small liberal arts colleges do what we do best, which is offering a relationship-based mode of learning ,” the Council said on its website.
Unexpected aspects of e-learning
A move online also requires a shift in mindset for faculty and students, says Michael J. Alleman, who teaches various online courses as an associate professor of English at Louisiana State University, Eunice.
“The virtual environment operates under a different set of rhythms and times,” Alleman says. “Students, particularly those who are coming out of high school, sometimes have a hard time staying focused and performing their tasks on a week-by-week basis.”
As for the educators, they have to be prepared to respond outside of traditional class hours to students working online late at night and on weekends.
This means that, as early as the creation of the online course, instructors should try to anticipate questions and pain points to reduce the chance students will become frustrated, Alleman says.
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“If students don’t understand the information, they’re just not going to understand it,” he says. “Some may send you an email but most will just plow forward.”
One aspect of online education that may surprise some instructors is that class discussions can be more robust than in face-to-face settings, he adds.
“Because there’s relative anonymity in an online class, students feel much more at liberty to just express their ideas,” Alleman says.
Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.