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A Guide on the Side to Online Learning

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My blog has moved!


Hello everyone. Thanks for all your comments and follows to date. My blog is moving to Hope to "see" you there!

My latest post, by the way, is:

"International Interest in Our Virtual College’s Use of OER"

Excerpt: I was interviewed a few days ago by Dr. Robert Farrow, a Research Associate from the UK’s Open University, on our Virtual College’s use of open educational resources (OER).  He is part of a research study, dubbed the OER Research Hub, whose mission is to understand the impact of open educational more.

The Dalai Lama and Learning Management Systems


Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible
- Dalai Lama 

flickr 2540776757 original resized 600

Over the fourth of July weekend, my family went to Glacier National Park in Montana.  Our drive from Seattle, WA to Whitefish, MT took us straight through the Silver Valley in northern Idaho, where I grew up.  My boys are now eight and ten, so I took the opportunity to show them how I grew up. 

We drove by the silver mine where my father worked for most of his career and where my brother recently worked until the
mine was shut down by federal regulators due to safety violations which had resulted in miners’ deaths.  Fortunately, my brother has found safer work elsewhere in the Silver Valley.

We drove by the log house where I grew up.  I pointed out the glassed-in back porch, which served as my bedroom as the small home had already been filled up with my parents and my two older brothers when I came along.  We drove along my old newspaper route, a job I started when I was eleven and loved because it entailed walking outside and seeing my neighbors.  During the summers, when I was a college student, I would work in a silver jewelry shop during the day and then at a friend’s restaurant at night.  I visited these places with my kids and explained how fortunate I had felt to be able to *get* two jobs during the summers, so I could pay to attend college.

I asked my kids what they thought. The oldest said, “Good” and left it at that. I asked if that really was what he thought and he said, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” I told him it was fine to be honest, but to do so in a respectful manner.  What followed was a constructive conversation about the differences between the childhood my sons are experiencing in Seattle and my working-class childhood in rural Idaho.  We came away from the conversation, I hope, with some mutual understanding and appreciation.

I am bringing up this personal story here, on my professional blog, because I believe this ethic of being open and honest, but doing so in a respectful manner, is just as important in our professional lives as it is in our personal lives.

Recently, at my college, there was concern expressed about some changes our learning management system (LMS) vendor made to their product.  (We spent the last two quarters moving over to this new LMS and are in the process of understanding how this new vendor does things.  This vendor changes its product continually and makes the process very transparent by allowing all willing users to test the upcoming changes and give feedback, which actually impacts the final changes that are pushed out to the entire LMS community.)  While the changes had been communicated to our LMS user community ahead of time, the experience of having those changes made so close to the start of our summer quarter proved very concerning for some and the fact that the changes introduced a new bug in the software compounded the frustration.  

One of my colleagues came to the eLearning Office seeking technical assistance around a very specific issue that seemed to have resulted from those changes and the colleague ended up yelling about broader LMS concerns and questioning my professional response to the situation.  The outburst, which took place in the main entryway to our office area, was so loud that a student who was being helped by a staff member via the phone asked the staff member if she was ok because the student was concerned about her safety.

I have had time to reflect on what stirred such strong behavior.  I know it has been challenging for my college to move to a new learning management system this year and has taken the time and effort of many to make that change happen.  I cannot see the future, but I do think it is reasonable for us to expect more changes in the arena of teaching and learning with technology.  We will not weather change in that arena, or any other, through drama or by demonizing me or anyone else.  We will weather change, and even rise to it, when we can treat each other with respect as human beings and have reasoned, respectful discussion, where we can constructively come together for the betterment of all, in service to our students.  This is the approach my office earnestly took during the process last fall of deciding if the college would move to a new LMS and we received much praise at the time, which helped confirm to us that it was a successful process.

The Dalai Lama is in India right now, a country I had the privilege of visiting for the first time a few months ago while representing our college.  Unfortunately, security has had to be increased for his visit due to the recent bomb blasts in Bihar.  We are living in hostile times, which should underscore for us the importance of each and every one of us keeping our local campus communities respectful and safe.  The Dalai Lama asked those he met in India to be warm hearted and “when faced with challenge and anger please be reminded of [his] message.”  Let me leave you with a final quote from him:

We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. We always have the choice

- Dalai Lama

The Importance of Being Connected in the Online Classroom


Conversations on the faculty listserv at my college recently have focused on what students say they need to succeed in college.  The research that was shared shows that students are more likely to succeed if they feel directed, focused, nurtured, engaged, connected, and valued (here’s a nice graphic and literature review).  I would argue that these “success factors” are important for any modality of learning--online, hybrid, or face-to-face--but feeling connected and engaged are of particular importance in the online learning environment because it sometimes can be challenging to achieve.

Shoreline Community College uses the following three strategies to encourage student engagement and connection in the online environment:

1. Encouraging online students to be prepared: Being prepared and suited for the online environment is key, which is why the first two resources on the eLearning Support Services site ask students if online learning is right for them and how to succeed in an online class.  We offer short workshops for students on how to use our online learning management systems and are developing a more comprehensive orientation not just to the learning management system, but to online learning in general.  Look for that to launch by fall 2013.

Betsey Barnett teaching online on her boat in Seattle.

2. Engaged and present faculty:

Betsey Barnett, one of our veteran online faculty members, articulates the following best practices to ensure student engagement and connection in her online classrooms:

  • I try hard to set up a class that is warm and friendly, has accurate information, and is not confusing.

  • I show up every day, engaged and participating, in the discussion, laughing and nudging and smiling.

  • I set it up so students have to show up every day and DO something.

  • I grade regularly, and give students feedback on their work in rubrics and comments, at least in the beginning 5 weeks.

  • I give a 24 hour grace period that helps students deal with the demands of daily online activities.

3. Providing easy access to support services:  Online students, like their face-to-face counterparts, need easy access to all of the support services outside of the classroom that a college provides.  That’s why Shoreline Community College has eAdvising (staffed by specially-trained faculty advisors), eTutoring, technical support, as well as many other services including a new pilot program of eLearning peer mentors that is making a difference.  On a recent quarterly student satisfaction survey, one online student responded: “I appreciated the initial phone calls from the Student Tech Support to make sure I had their contact information if I did have any questions. I thought that was very thoughtful and professional.”

While it’s not a comprehensive list of what we do, it’s the beginning of a constructive conversation around this issue.  I encourage you to share your techniques for ensuring student engagement and connection in the online environment.  I hope to hear from folks including online faculty, advisors, student service and support staff, as well as others since students have told us (see pg. 10) that everyone at an institution has a role in advancing student achievement and success.

Student Success in Online Classes: The Shoreline Way


describe the image  Recent news articles and editorials on the efficacy of online learning at the college level sparked considerable chatter within the higher education community.  Shoreline Community College (SCC) was no exception to the discussion, but let’s take a deeper look at the numbers. 

While Shoreline isn’t yet the largest public provider of online education in Washington, it is arguably one of the fastest growing. The most recent published study from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC)  shows that the state’s system of 34 community and technical colleges has seen an aggregate online enrollment growth rate of about 2 percent, in contrast to many prior years of substantial growth.  Recent signs at Shoreline reveal an upward trend again.  SCC’s online enrollments this academic year have increased by 11-15 percent; that increase is attributable primarily to the 2010 launch of the “Virtual College,” a strategic initiative that included increasing the number and quality of online course offerings, offering significant faculty training opportunities, adding more robust online student services, and implementing targeted marketing efforts.

A recent New York Times editorial cites a study of the Washington CTC  system’s online experience from 2004-09. The study, by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), concludes: “Overall, our findings indicate that the typical student has some difficulty adapting to online courses, but that some students adapt relatively well while others adapt very poorly.”

However, The New York Times then mixes apples and oranges by referring to numbers for the more recent phenomenon of massively open online courses (MOOCs). Generally free and offering no credit, MOOCs have very low barriers to entrance and exit. The biggest MOOC classes have tens of thousands of enrollees and similarly high non-completion rates. The editorial, however, ignores the nuances outlined in the CCRC study, inferring that all online education looks and acts alike. The resulting overly broad conclusions do no favors for those trying to achieve exactly what the paper exhorts colleges to do: improve.

While the editorial cited the CCRC study of Washington state’s online students, let’s look at Shoreline’s specific numbers.  The most recent published report we have from the SBCTC on pass rates goes only through fall 2011, so we looked back four years.  From 2008-11, our aggregate pass rates for online and face-to-face students are *exactly* the same at 70%. Our students in hybrid classes show a 1 percent higher pass rate of 71%.

The Seattle Times also used the CCRC study as the basis for a recent news report. That article outlined the CCRC conclusions from the 2004-09 data, but then also included a chart using only a snapshot of fall 2012 numbers.  We haven’t been given fall 2012 numbers from the SBCTC yet, but the numbers reported in the article should not be a surprise.  Fall 2012 is just one data point and there is variability from quarter to quarter and year to year.  We should concern ourselves with trends and working to address the factors that affect those trends.

I’m not surprised that Shoreline online students are performing well. Our numbers reflect the fact that the Virtual College is one of Shoreline’s top strategic initiatives.  Our faculty and staff have worked hard to make the virtual experience for students the same or better than the face-to-face experience.

That is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement.

I note that in the aggregate from 2008-2011, SCC’s online students withdraw or received an incomplete at a 4 percent higher rate than their face-to-face counterparts  (11 percent vs. 7 percent).  While the discrepancy isn’t huge, the college is looking into that.  Also, just as the CCRC study indicates for the statewide results, Shoreline’s passing rates aren’t uniform across all programs.  We’re looking into that too.

I ultimately agree with the CCRC study,  The New York Times, and The Seattle Times when they say there is work to be done.

That’s exactly the direction we’ve been moving at SCC with the Virtual College Initiative.  For instance, we piloted an eLearning peer mentor program and are now analyzing the results.  We plan to make adjustments to the program for summer quarter so that it is more responsive to targeted students who typically withdraw from online classes.  The data we’ve compiled allows us to see exactly who those students are.

But, the key is to realize that modality is not the sole determinant of quality teaching and student success.

And, we need to remember that online learning helps bring education and training to people we otherwise could not serve and it improves their lives.  A variety of approaches can meet the needs of a variety of students.  As a college, SCC needs to make sure we keep our eye on meeting those needs.

Top 10 Things I've Noticed On My First Trip to India


1. Indian men wear more rings than men in the U.S. Interesting gold rings with various-colored stones.

2. The wedding that was held in our hotel last night must have been spectacular, judging from the flowers I saw in the hallway and the the late-night fireworks.

3. The staff at my hotel, including housekeepers, are men. I've only interacted with two women who work here, who functioned like a concierge.

4. Everyone in my conference has a cell phone; most are smart phones. I am the only one using an iPad.

5. I am enjoying the Indian food, but also would very much enjoy some American food right about now.

6. It has been foggy and rainy. Apparently, it hasn't rained this much at this time of year in Delhi for 40 years. Just my luck. Coming from Seattle, I was looking forward to warmer February weather and maybe a little sunshine!

7. Katrina is the "most beautiful" actress in India. Many men at my conference testified to that (her face and website, , were on the pens included in our conference packets).

8. Folks are passionate about finding ways to educate the 600 million Indians under the age of 25. Yes, that number is correct . . . and staggering.

9. 70% of Indians live in rural areas, so that is where the education needs to happen. I am hoping that some will see distance learning as a strategy that would make sense.

10. I've been told several times that I cannot come to India and *not* visit the Taj Mahal, so I hope I will have time to do so.

A Distance Educator in a Distant Land: What a Difference a Decade Makes


I just arrived in New Delhi, India for the first time. I haven't traveled this far from my home in Seattle, WA to a developing nation for a little over a decade. (My oldest son is 10 years old, which explains why.)

LeePodiumCloseCaption resized 600My last trip like this was to Ethiopia to work with Alemaya University on a distance-education plan to help educate farmers who were far away from the University. The trip was challenging in many ways.

Now, more than 10 years later, this trip half way around the world to India has been especially easy. I traveled coach, as the U.S. State Department has given me a travel grant, to participate in an international conference to share best practices with the Indian government on how community colleges work in the U.S. India will be piloting 200 community colleges by June 2013, with hopes of many more after the pilot phase. There are 600 million Indians under the age of 25 and the government recognizes that it must scale up its higher education options ASAP to meet these folks' needs.

Back to the trip: even in coach, I had access to as many movies, TV shows and music that I could digest in 20 hours of travel and I got to choose them for myself. My neighbor in seat 21C likewise got to choose when and what he wanted to watch. I did not expect this and came prepared with an iPad loaded with new movies and TV shows that could entertain me for far more than 20 hours and that doesn't count all the hours of reading on eBooks and listening to podcasts that were ready to me, if I were in an edifying mood.

My mobile devices also provided customized assistance with apps for the travelers every need. FlightTrack helped me track my flights and the Clock app has a world clock feature that helps me remember what time it is at home as compared to where I am now. MyDataUsage will help me track the data I am using on my iPhone to ensure that I am not racking up large expenses while abroad.

The most important for me, of course, are the social and communication apps like Skype, Facebook, Twitter and Linked In that will allow me to stay in touch easily with my family, friends and colleagues, not to mention the ability to use my cell phone to call whenever I am prepared to pay a lot of money to stay in touch with those I love!

My travel experience now vs. a decade ago is customized to my needs and I am empowered to satiate those needs how and when I want. No more waiting for the airline to serve up a movie that I may or may not want to see at a time that I may or may not be interested in watching.

This last decade has seen similar changes in education. I work in distance education and online learning and have been part of these changes first-hand. Learners in the 21st Century want access to an education that is flexible to their schedule; empowering them to learn when they can (whether at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m.) and where they are (whether on their lunch break at work or at home after they've gotten their kids to bed).

Students even as close as a few miles from my campus in suburban Shoreline, WA may not want to fight the traffic to physically get to campus and many have jobs and families that would prevent them from accessing an education if it were only available Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 9 a.m. The world has changed profoundly in the last decade and, sitting half way around the world away from my family and friends, I am so appreciative of those changes.

Is Online Learning Right for You?


Online education is a great option for students who might have difficulty attending classes on campus, or who enjoy alternative learning environments.

Shoreline's online courses have start and stop dates, regular assignments and project due dates, but students can work at the time and place most convenient to them. These features make online courses more convenient than regular courses, but they are not easier.

Being successful in most online courses requires a level of self-discipline and commitment that many students may not anticipate. Many online classes are reading- and writing-intensive. Even though attendance is not required at a specific time of day or night, students will need to spend time in the virtual classroom nearly every day.  Plan on being in the virtual classroom five out of every seven days and for 12 to 15 hours of class work each week for each 5 credit course.

Although technology becomes easier to use all the time, eLearning courses do require a minimum level of computer competency. Review the list below to see if you have the computer skills to take an eLearning course.

  • I know how to connect to the World Wide Web using a Web browser.
  • I can navigate around the Web and know how to use search engines.
  • I know how to send and receive e-mail using the e-mail system of my choice.
  • I know how to do basic word processing, including cutting and pasting.
  • I know how to open, save, and manage files. I have access to a computer 5 - 7 days per week
  • The computer I will use meets the technical requirements for eLearning classes.
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