Faculty Must Be the Disruptors of Online Education

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Monday, November 7, 2022
By Tawnya Means
Photo by iStock/kali9
As MOOCs and other virtual learning environments become more commonplace, instructors must engage learners in bold new ways.
  • The first consideration for online learning is access. How can professors provide opportunities for students to build connections in virtual classrooms?
  • The second consideration is environment. What steps can faculty take to create a welcoming and inclusive learning space?
  • The third consideration is engagement. How can faculty work with students to co-create meaningful activities?

Mark Peecher admits that his expertise in financial statement auditing is “critical, but sort of obscure.” Peecher is the Deloitte Professor of Accountancy and executive associate dean of faculty and research at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business in Champaign.

While Peecher’s highly specialized accounting discipline is vital for the smooth operation of capital markets, it’s not typically a degree requirement for most business school programs. In fact, although thousands of students come through Gies College’s residential programs each year, Peecher has spent most of his career primarily teaching small groups of traditional high-achieving accounting students.

Something changed two years ago, however, that dramatically increased Peecher’s influence: In 2020, he moved his auditing course online, leveraging the Coursera MOOC platform. Since then, he estimates he has taught nearly three times as many learners as he had throughout his previous three decades of in-person classroom teaching.

“That’s 30,000 people in a fairly niche subject,” says Peecher. “My Gies colleagues teaching more mainstream MOOC classes are reaching learners on a magnitude of five to six times more than that.”

Peecher’s situation illustrates the strict limitations of the residential model—and how it’s being disrupted. Today, we know that almost anything can be taught in a remote environment. Now that we’ve made this pivot, we must turn our attention to ensuring a high-quality online experience.

As university leaders, we need to realize that if we are not designing great online experiences, learners will find what they need somewhere else. Competitors such as Google, Amazon, and altMBA, just to name a few, already offer alternatives for learners. It is essential that academic administrators rethink everything we do to keep the university a relevant and viable option for learning.

The Role of Faculty

Faculty and staff within academic institutions can, and must, expand their pedagogical capacity to reach learners who have grown accustomed to—and welcome—new approaches to teaching and learning. This requires school leaders to think entrepreneurially and take bold action, primarily by using technology to engage learners and faculty in new, meaningful ways.

Faculty need to be disruptors and innovators who are highly motivated to create a teaching environment that engages learners in transformational and experiential learning. They must adopt an intentional process of course preparation and demonstrate a strong focus on the science of learning.

Faculty must expand their pedagogical capacity to reach learners who have grown accustomed to—and welcome—new approaches to teaching and learning.

In a recent white paper titled “Faculty as Disruptors: Leveraging Innovation to Enhance Quality in Online Education,” I explore the ways that institutions can build innovation into their online teaching. If you’re a faculty member teaching online classes, I urge you to keep in mind three main considerations: access, environment, and engagement.

Providing Access

How can you make your instruction more accessible to greater numbers of learners in a single course? How can you support more learners on your platform? As your enrollment expands, you will need to rethink the course and design learning activities that reflect the increased scale.

For instance, if you were teaching a small residential class, you might include an assignment where students write memos or essays. But it’s difficult to grade such an assignment in a very large or online setting because of the volume of papers. In addition, today’s students find it easier to cheat on writing assignments because there are so many sophisticated and widely available online tools that generate original content. These tools make it more difficult for you to identify which learners have completed the work and can demonstrate what they know.

Rather than requiring all learners to write their own memos, you can administer a carefully designed multiple choice quiz that is automatically graded and has built-in feedback. To identify why a memo is poorly written or to select the best phrasing among a set of options, students must have the same competencies they would need to actually compose a memo.

Another benefit of quizzes is that they allow students to learn from their mistakes more quickly. If you administer frequent quizzes during a course, the stakes can be lower than they would be for a single writing assignment, and students have more opportunities for learning.

When you’re teaching very large groups, you must do more than decide how to measure learning; you also have to facilitate learning at scale. One way to achieve this objective is by using technology that provides the opportunity for everyone in the course to have a voice, even when the course has hundreds of learners. At the Gies College, professors Ron Guymon and Michael Bednar recently adopted Yellowdig for social discussions. Like many other social media platforms, Yellowdig supports the creation of a community with a dynamic feed for learners to share articles, thoughts, and reactions on topics relevant to the course.

By using such technology, you or your support staff can configure scoring and model ideal behavior in the platform. This allows you to develop a culture built around conversations rather than grades.

Creating a Welcoming Environment

How can you welcome all learners and provide an inclusive, diverse, and active learning space? As you increase your reach and your enrollment, you must ensure that students feel a connection to you and to their peers. You also must ensure that you have created an environment that is responsive to students’ needs and conducive to learning.

Demonstrate the relevance of your course by creating asynchronous assignments that give students opportunities to apply concepts they learned in class to real-life situations.

You can set the tone of the class and encourage student retention by using welcoming language in the syllabus. To provide students with ways to connect with you, record a video introduction, offer synchronous live sessions, and schedule group office hours. Use breakout rooms and hold synchronous discussions to enable students to connect with each other and experience the power of interacting with a diverse body of learners.

It’s also important to demonstrate to students the relevance of your course to their own lives. If you’re teaching an online class, you need to create asynchronous assignments that give students opportunities to apply concepts they learned in class to real-life situations.

As an example, have learners go to three separate establishments that they frequent and conduct “flash interviews” by asking proprietors two or three questions. This flash interview activity can take place anywhere around the world. Provide a template to help students craft questions, reflect on answers, and write up their responses to what they’ve learned. Through asking questions and noting the different answers, students discover how managers and business owners make decisions. If students share their interview results over social media, they all will gain additional insights by reading comments from managers in other industries and establishments.

Another way to show students the relevance of their coursework is to use simulations in which teams and individuals must use the knowledge they’ve gained to make decisions in a business context. When students make decisions as individuals, they see the impacts of their choices. When they then participate as teams that are facing the same situations, they not only must defend their actions, but also must learn to listen to teammates, acknowledge different perspectives, and recognize the skill sets and knowledge of others.

You can use simulations to help students learn skills beyond decision making. Taking data generated from the activity, you can build out additional assignments that focus on the important concepts that have been presented in this simulated but realistic environment.

Encouraging Engagement

In what ways can you partner with learners to co-construct meaningful course activities, assignments, and assessments? While you must guide and facilitate the learning process, you should design courses so students have opportunities to interact with both the content and their peers. Placing the responsibility on students will help build their investment in the learning process.

Designing an intentional learning environment that focuses on engagement requires you to carefully consider all course activities. Months prior to the course launch, decide how to set up authentic and meaningful assessments that have rigorous but manageable requirements for learners. If you base your course on good pedagogical evidence—and you receive the support of the learning design staff—you will be able to create a balanced, well-organized, transformational, and learner-centered course.

Design courses so students have opportunities to interact with both the content and their peers.

At the Gies College, we recognize that, while all learners are responsible for mastering the content of the class, not all learners are available at the same time. Therefore, we offer each of our online iDegree programs in primarily asynchronous formats. Every course is held live multiple times a week to accommodate a variety of schedules, and sessions are recorded for those who cannot attend or want to review the content later on their own. We also build in various types of flexible and asynchronous interaction. Projects, assignments, and peer reviews provide learners with valuable engagement opportunities while allowing them to learn on their own schedules.

As a result, many of our iDegree learners report high levels of connection with their peers. As recent iMSA graduate Mario Elizalde put it, “I didn’t expect the technology to be so flawless and to have such a direct connection with so many people—you really develop a feeling of community.”

Disrupting the Bonds of Space and Time

COVID-19 caused significant shifts in teaching and learning experiences for everyone. While some learners have been disenchanted by their educational experiences during the pandemic, others have realized the myriad of opportunities for learning when the limitations of space and time in a physical classroom are removed.

Throughout its history, the educational sector has proven to be remarkably resilient. In a time of significant change and uncertainty, perhaps a renewed effort by the academy will bring innovation, vitality, and a new era of relevancy to teaching and learning.

Online and blended education provides a rich environment for transformation, and it offers opportunities to a wide variety of learners. Some are from populations around the globe who historically have been unable to engage in formal higher education. But they can join online classes, bringing with them a broad diversity of experiences and ideas.

Others are workers and executives who might not have time to attend on-campus courses, but who want to advance their careers and challenge themselves intellectually. These learners are looking for flexible educational options that they can tailor to the parameters of their demanding and complicated lives.

The bold call to academic institutions is to fundamentally reimagine and rebuild our processes and practices. It is time for us to provide life-changing access to an inclusive, diverse, and active environment where learners engage in meaningful and transformative experiences.

Tawnya Means
Assistant Dean of Educational Innovation and Chief Learning Officer, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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