In his mid-year address on Jan. 21, 2010, President Larry Goodwin spoke about the increase in enrollments for the spring semester and intimated that at some point the numbers of nontraditional, online and graduate students would surpass the number of traditional students. In regards to the increase in online students and its impact on faculty teaching, we contacted Dr. Gary Boelhower, who is teaching three TRS courses online this semester.
Q: How did you come to teach three online courses this semester? In other words, were you involved in that decision-making? Did you volunteer?
A:I volunteered to teach three online courses this semester because there is a definite need for additional online offerings to meet the requests of students. With more and more students involved in significant off-campus clinicals and internships, there is a greater need for the flexibility of the online methodology.
Q: What are your responsibilities in managing online courses?
A: As with any course in any format, the ultimate responsibility of the instructor is to provide a learning experience that meets the outcomes or goals of the course. In my online courses, I provide that learning experience in several different ways. I provide excellent resources in book form, articles from professional journals, audio documentaries, art work from museums, professional websites and mini lectures during 3 conference calls. Each week of the semester, I provide a process for reflection on the resources and a process of interaction with fellow learners regarding insights and applications of the theories and concepts provided in the resources. I provide extensive feedback throughout the course on each posting, response posting, reflection paper, article synthesis, thesis statement, outline, research draft, and final research paper. I also engage with students through three conference calls during the semester. Finally, I am available to students through telephone, email and discussion thread.
Q: How is this different from the physical classroom and working with students face- to- face?
A: The major differences between online learning and in-classroom learning is that the interaction with students happens via email, discussion board and telephone calls. I do less lecturing in the online format but I do much more individual feedback. Another major difference is that in online learning everyone must be involved in the discussions and learners have a chance to craft their responses to each other, rather than speaking spontaneously. After teaching online for 5 years, I can honestly say that often the engagement between students is much deeper and more thoughtful in the online format. The negatives are that I can't see faces and read body language to help in determining if something is being understood or not.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages related to teaching online?
A: A major research meta-study done by the Sloan Institute published in 2010 that looked at close to a hundred research findings concluded that on average online learning is more effective than traditional classroom learning. In other words, students attain the defined outcomes of a course at a higher level in the online environment. Discussion tends to be deeper and broader in the online format. The disadvantages are the lack of physical presence. Another disadvantage is that the teaching process is more time consuming. There is more individual feedback and engagement from the instructor which takes a very significant expenditure of time.
Q: Have you had previous experience teaching online course? If so, could you describe what those experiences were like and whether or not they’ve changed as a result of changes in technology?
A: I have been teaching online for about five years. The course management system has changed several times. There are opportunities now to meet synchronously with students and control their computer screens so you can see a PowerPoint together or access a website together. I try to keep the synchronous aspect of courses to a very minimum and I find that the conference call is very easy for learners to manage. The extent and kinds of materials that are available online continue to expand so I constantly try to add new resources via the web--a piece of video or music or example of artwork that is relevant to the course goals.
Q: What, if anything, do you miss about the classroom?
A:I do miss interacting face to face with students. I do miss the "performance" aspect of teaching in the classroom. If you haven't noticed, I think there is a bit of the actress or actor in every teacher. However, I think the engagement and discovery and in-depth learning that is experienced in the online format far outweighs what I miss.
Q: What are the enrollment numbers for online TRS courses?
A:I teach writing intensive courses so the course maximum is 20 for each course. So far, my courses have always filled up to the maximum and there have been waiting lists.
Q: Have you had a higher dropout rate in these classes?
A: I haven't experienced a higher drop out rate in the online format; it is about the same as my classroom experience.
Q: A recent article in published in the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed professors who saw low retention rates as a drawback and felt that "students needed more discipline before they could benefit from online instruction." What are your feelings about student retention and effectiveness of learning online?
A: Perhaps because I deal mostly with juniors and seniors in my online courses, I haven't had any problem with retention. In regard to effectiveness, research clearly indicates that the online format is more effective for meeting the course objectives. (See question 4 above for research study.)