Dog Introductions, Humanization and Other Ways Online Ed Can Better...

Digital Learning

Dog Introductions, Humanization and Other Ways Online Ed Can Better Serve Students

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 11, 2018

Dog Introductions, Humanization and Other Ways Online Ed Can Better Serve Students

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

Online education has been touted as a way to increase access to education. But it’s increasingly unclear if online learning is living up to its promise for students, even as digital learning makes its way into more institutions’ offerings. The quality of online courses still varies drastically, and research shows there are major racial disparities in digital-learning outcomes.

This has all left us asking: Who does online education really serve?

To help answer that question, we recently brought two online learning experts to EdSurge Live, a monthly video-based town hall event, to talk about their work and research in online education, and what’s needed to better serve students in the digital space. Our guests were Michelle Pacansky-Brock, faculty mentor for the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative and @ONE (Online Network of Educators), and Di Xu an assistant professor at UC Irvine School of Education.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: Di, I'd love to start off with referencing some of the research that you've done in this space around how distance learning students need additional support. Can you explain some of those findings around where online learning has fallen short in some cases?

Xu: In my previous research, I focused on distance learning at community colleges. Many of you probably are already aware that the online extension is happening everywhere. It's particularly pronounced in community colleges, because community colleges enroll a large number of adult learners. Many of these folks need to balance their working commitment, family commitment with their school work. We tried to understand who is enrolling in these [online] courses, and what is the course performance of online takers versus similar face-to-face takers.

Overall, what we found is as we expected, online course takers tend to be older students. We also identified a huge performance gap between online sections of a course versus face-to-face. More importantly this online performance decrement is even more pronounced amongst certain groups of students. This would be African-American students, students from lower-income families and students who tend to be academically underprepared prior to college enrollment. Then we tried to answer the question, why this is happening?

So we did a follow-up study, interviewing both online instructors and the students enrolled in online courses to understand why students are withdrawing from online courses in a massive way, and why students struggle in terms of their performance. Students complain that they don't always see their instructors. Many of the online courses currently offered at community college, it is simply PowerPoints, it's still the traditional format, instead of making the best use of the technology. And students don't see and interact with their instructor and other peers that much. They feel lonely, and they feel that the instructors don't care about their academic progress.

How have you seen these trends and equity gaps change over time? Has there been any significant progresses in terms of closing those equity gaps?

Xu: This is a great question. When I conducted the study, we compared students across cohorts—between 2004 and 2014. This is actually a 10-year span. And we found very consistent performance gaps over time. Between 2014 and now, I feel like many things are changing. People started to realize that we need to provide more support to online structures. We need to provide more support to the students, and Michelle may be able to speak more about the research and the work she is doing. I feel like a lot of efforts are actually happening to scaffold students and instructors in this new space of learning environment.

That's a great segue into the work you've done, Michelle. How are you approaching these gaps with the faculty who you work with, and how is the California community college system addressing these challenges that they are aware of?

Pacansky-Brock: We've seen a real shift in who is taking classes. It was just a few years ago that the average online student in the California Community College System went from being a white student to a Hispanic student. That's a really significant shift. We do have equity gaps, and all of those equity gaps have been improving year over year, but they are still significant, particularly between Asian students and our black and African-American students. That's the largest gap, and it's about 19 percent right now. We are very concerned about that.

We are doing a few things [to address those gaps]. We have an effort in place now, the Online Education Initiative (OEI), which is expanding access to high-quality online courses to students from anywhere in the state. That's an effort that my team, the Online Network of Educators, supports. We provide professional development for faculty who are part of OEI, but we also provide professional development to the entire state. Everything we do is very flexible and very low cost, or free. And it's all online.

We really believe in the importance of immersing faculty in a high-quality, high-touch online learning experience for them to understand how it can feel through the student lens in that type of learning environment. That's really a very important part of what we do. We offer online courses, facilitated online courses that are taught by our own faculty and staff in the system. We also do monthly webinars and one-day conferences.

All of this is anchored in course design and online teaching, not one or the other. Going back to what Di shared just a little while ago, that sense of students wanting to feel like someone cares about them. We are talking about underserved students who question their ability, who don't feel like they belong in an academic setting. Nearly half of our students are first-generation students. That social-emotional part that comes with it, that comes into the online learning environment is something that instructors really need to know how to nurture. We do a big push for humanizing online teaching and learning, and looking at it through a lens of culturally responsive teaching.

Michelle, a lot of your research has been around how to make online education more humanistic. What does that look like and why is that so crucial to ensuring that the online setting is serving students?

Pacansky-Brock: Yeah. It's interesting. We have a course that we offer through the ONE called Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Interestingly, it's actually very much based on the work that Di has been discussing. We have her work cited in the foundation of the course. We really get our faculty to think about the student experience, who are we serving, and why it is so important to have the sense of caring or connections and sense of belonging in your class. And what we find is that for faculty, their self efficacy for using things like video is very low. Often times still when faculty think about using video, they naturally gravitate to thinking about online, one-hour online videos. We want to shatter that, and really create a safe place for them to experiment.

So we show them lots of examples about how different faculty are using things like video in their courses. We also in our courses really convey the importance of using very clear accessible language to students, and not using deficit language like, ‘Don't do this,’ and ‘You can't do that.’ Really kind of shifting the way that you communicate with your students. It is more inclusive. All those things are very important.

For instructors who don't use social media and who aren't used to being behind a camera or making videos, some of these ways of interacting with students could seem like a big deal. How do you begin to approach that with faculty and giving that sense of empowerment for the first time?

Pacansky-Brock: That's a really big question—because the same is true for our students. That is the first place we start is that you are feeling this way, and your students are gonna feel probably even more so. I think showing videos that aren't perfect, first of all, is very important. And it doesn't matter what they record. In fact, we tell them introduce us to your dog. You don't even have to be on the video that first time. We are just trying to warm them up to using the technology. We get a lot of dog introductions or tours of backyards, those sorts of things. And that's a great place to start.

Any time you are introducing a faculty member or a student to a new tool, you don't want there to be a high-stake assessment wrapped up in that. The content should be something that they know well, and that they feel really good about so they are not actually worried about being graded on something in that way. Also having a faculty and an instructor who is participating in modeling what you are doing is very important.

We have an audience question right now from Michael Greer.

Michael Greer: Hi everyone. I want to bring a conversation that we've had over in the chat into the main conversation. It goes back to a point that I think Michelle made: Faculty need to be immersed in a high-touch learning experience, so they can feel the experience from a student point of view. Can you talk a little bit more about how you do that and what you see as the result of faculty actually being in the student's perspective?

Pacansky-Brock: It's something that I would love to have us do some research on. We see a lot of transformation for so many faculty members. I was just speaking with one [instructor] late last week. She's about to learn her certificate in quality online teaching principles. She said, "I would never have thought I would be on the soapbox talking about how much more dynamic my online classes are, or can be than my face to face."

When you have someone new to online teaching, and I think when you start with humanizing, it can be really empowering. We see faculty with concerns about “how can I relate to my students?” That tends to be a fundamental concern. I think dealing with that one first can be a really powerful place to start.

Our courses are all facilitated by faculty and staff from our system. We do a co-design effort with them also. We really are the online network of educators. They are learning with their peers. And I will also just add one more thing, we still do far too much in-person faculty development to help faculty learn how to teach online. You can’t learn how to teach online in a face-to-face workshop. That’s something that I fundamentally believe.

We have another audience question from Jinjing Zhao.

Jinjing Zhao: In our institution we are really pushing toward scalability to reach more students for online education. I feel we have a tension between scalability and what we are talking about here, which is humanization of online courses, and building a high-touch learner experience. What has the California Community Colleges done to sort of stop this tension, or if there is any solution at all?

Pacansky-Brock: When I talk about humanizing, scalability often comes up. I think that there are certain ways that we can do that, but we don't want to remove that interaction. I have had faculty members with much larger courses. They go down the road of humanizing, and they get very excited. The more students you have, the more time consuming it is.

Different colleges have different policies about how they are structuring things like class size. For most cases, the conversations try to focus on keeping online class sizes the same as face-to-face class sizes. Then it becomes a matter of hiring more teachers.

Xu: I fully agree with Michelle. If you really want to guarantee the quality of online learning, there are certain characteristics that you definitely need to take into account. There has been a long line of research indicating that class size matters. The ratio of the instructor and student matters. Why? Because it gives the instructor the time and energy to respond to every student and the opportunity to interact with their students.

The same principle holds true with online learning. We often put too much emphasis on the scalability of distance learning while at a cost of thinking about how to best serve the students in terms of quality. [Students] want instructors to respond to their questions in a personal way, in a timely manner. When they submit homework they really want to have personalized feedback, on my work rather than simply a check mark that I have read your work. Especially lower-division courses, when students first come to campus, I feel the high-touch interaction between the instructor and the student is critical.

What is one line of advice that you would give instructors about how they can better serve students?

Pacansky-Brock: Be yourself. Be real. You don't have to be perfect. This isn't just one line, but know who your students are. Make an effort to understand what they are going through at the very start of your class because they are more than just words on a screen. Every single student has a story. When someone turns something in late, and our first tendency might be to just go to the late policy and apply that. There could be something tragic affecting that student's situation. Giving someone an F on an assignment could cause that one student to drop out. Know who your students are, and what they are going through, and have empathy when you teach.

Xu: I would say clarify your expectations in an online learning class at the very beginning. Try to actively reach out to your students, and get connected with them.

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