The Higher Ed Podcast Series: The Benefits of Multiple Modalities

On this latest episode of the Higher Ed Podcast, Kamaar is joined by Lori Anne Shaw, Executive Director of Abilene Christian University’s (ACU) Duncum Center for Solutions and Academic Services. As a leader in her institution, Lori Anne oversees both student and organizational development through academic operations and instructional design. The concept of online learning is nothing new to her- in fact, her university has been offering online courses for nearly a decade- so Lori Anne had some valuable insight that may help other universities as they navigate online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having had such a long and drawn-out time period to adopt and approve an online model, Lori Anne and ACU were able to navigate many problems that many universities today may be facing because of the short time that COVID-19 left them to prepare for. Although we’re already a semester into the pandemic, there is always room for improvement, and making the appropriate adjustments can help create a solid online learning platform that could continue to serve students once the pandemic has subsided.

The Opportunities of Online Learning

Perhaps one of her greatest insight was the fact that residential and online modalities do not have to compete with one another. In fact, they can really work to strengthen a university presence and bring in more opportunity for the institution itself and the students it’s trying to serve. Lori Anne remembered a key moment that helped decision makers feel comfortable with increasing their online presence: “…another thing that I think helped them want to make that investment is that they realized it wasn’t going to be a competing modality. And I think that’s often where small residential universities feel scared. Like, if we launch these programs online, will people not come to our campus. And what we learned is that was not true. But that we were able to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t come to our campus, which is in rural… a mid-sized town in West Texas. And so a lot of folks can’t just up and move there. And so for grad school, for example, I think when they saw it wasn’t an online versus residential, but more of an online and residential strategy.”

The Students it can Best Serve

As Lori Anne mentioned, online models are often ideal for graduate students who are straining to fit higher education into their daily lives. Between work, family, and other life events, there are many distractions and detriments to obtaining a master’s degree. Those who are willing to put in the work, however, are likely to be dedicated learners. Lori Anne confirmed “Because of their professional work lives, and the skills they had there, and they really had learned everything they needed to in the online classroom.”

Students in different age ranges have different needs. Young undergrad student who are just stepping out of high school and their childhood homes for the first time may need the structured and social environment can bring, but that isn’t necessarily the case with grad students. As they get older and their responsibilities shift, they require different kinds of learning that may be more conducive in an online environment. As Lorie Anne mentioned before, online and in-person modalities do not have to compete with one another. Having faculties to serve both kids of student can allow universities to expand and serve a wider range of services.

The Importance of Quality Instruction

Regardless of which programs students are taking, it is important to serve each mode with authenticity. Kamaar asked Lori Anne if there was anything specific that ACU did to allow faculty to translate ACU’s mission in the online space.

Lori Anne’s answer proves that a university’s mission can be carried out in the online space, but it takes diligence. She herself was a residential student at ACU and is familiar with the kind of connection that students and faculty often have there. She remembered being invited to professors’ homes for dinner, going to church with faculty, and the university’s open-door policy. While teachers can’t carry out this kind of connection in an online space, there are ways to connect: “I know for me, when I sensed anxiety… in a grad student, for example, about writing, it wasn’t enough just to shoot an email back. It wasn’t enough just to give some feedback. You know, in the learning management system, we needed to have a phone call, I needed to connect with that student, hear what they were experiencing. Very common as an online instructor [is] for your students to experience some sort of crisis while they’re in their program- loss of job, divorce, loss of a parent, caring for an aging parent, having some sort of difficulty with a child. It’s the life stage that the typical adult online learner is in. And in those moments, online faculty get to choose whether or not they’re going to really connect and show that they care about the student. Or maybe they’re going to be a little more removed. And the ACU culture…is that you connect. And we replicated that in the online space- you connect to your faculty; faculty connects to their students.

 The Inevitable Roadblocks 

No transition is easy, and despite Lori Anne’s enthusiasm about online learning she wasn’t hesitant to share obstacles that she’s experienced. Pain points that take time and experience to develop are the key to sustaining long-term, successful online programs.

Most of the difficulties of online learning had to do with class structure. Creating online courses can be difficult for educators who feel trapped by the modality: “I was kind of surprised to receive resistance in that residential faculty member [weren’t] really used to working with an instructional designer. And rather than viewing the instructional designer as a support, they view the instructional designer as maybe a hindrance even. And so in talking to more faculty and understanding, why was that? It had to do with why, you know, I feel constricted, you guys have a template you want me to design into, this instructional designer is, you know, may box me in rather than help and support me. And so, so I’ve talked to a lot of traditional residential faculty about the role of the instructional designer. …And then at the same time, you have to hire instructional designers who understand how to have a good experience for your faculty members.” Other times, the institution creates master course models for adjuncts to use, and educators struggle with the slower improvement processes that come with pre-established master courses: “And anytime a faculty member says, I feel constrained by this master course model, I wish I could edit this course, it’s an opportunity for us in instructional design to say, well, let’s have a conversation with the program director. I bet they would love your feedback because, embedded in that frustration is magic for our learners like that. That faculty member has a brilliant idea in there. And most often, the program director will take it, make sure it gets in the process for course design. And now we have better courses. But if we shut that faculty member down, we’re losing something. And it’s really to the detriment of our students.”

As Kamaar and Kate’s discussion with Lori Anne revealed, there are pros and cons to online learning. As educators run into these issues in the COVID-19 era, it’s important to remember that smoothing them out can create positive long-term effects from everyone involved, from the educators to the students.

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