Quality Standards, Innovative Delivery Driving Southeast Online Coursework

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Oct. 31, 2013 – The quality of online courses at Southeast Missouri State University continues to improve this fall as faculty work judiciously behind the scenes to create a first-rate, rigorous virtual classroom.

Many Southeast faculty members are structuring their online courses using Quality Matters Rubric Standards, which certify the design of online coursework. Dr. Allen Gathman, associate dean for Online Learning at Southeast, says a concerted effort is under way to encourage Southeast faculty to have their online courses peer reviewed and to redesign their online coursework with Quality Matters standards “from the ground up.”

The quality standards initiative comes as Southeast Missouri State University celebrates the 10th anniversary this fall of its first online degree program. In celebration of this milestone, the Office of Online Learning will hold an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Nov. 6 in Kent Library Room 305. Light refreshments will be available, a technology-inspired art installation will be on display and a video montage made from clips of people across campus will be shown.

The celebration underscores an effort among faculty members to rethink how they provide an interactive meaningful learning experience in an online environment.

Dr. Janet Weber, Southeast professor of nursing, said all RN-BSN online courses developed have been reviewed by online teaching experts in Southeast’s Center for Scholarship in Teaching and Learning prior to being taught for the first time.

“We use the Quality Rubric to ensure that each online nursing course meets the criteria,” she said. “The nursing faculty often invites other faculty into their courses to share their teaching techniques as well as the course content. It is amazing what we learn from each other.”

Students also evaluate all online nursing courses each semester, and the evaluations of faculty teaching online nursing courses are shared with an RN-BSN Curriculum Committee. One of those faculty members, Cheryl Alberternst is studying to become a reviewer of online courses in the Quality Matters Program.

Dr. Wayne Bowen, chair of the Department of History, says history faculty members are beginning to participate in the Quality Matters initiative as well. The Department of History, he says, has just created a new Bachelor of Arts in Social Science program, which can be earned entirely online. It is the first and only Bachelor of Arts program students may complete online at Southeast.

“Our program is particularly useful as a degree completion opportunity for students who begin face to face, but then are in a changed situation, due to work, family or other circumstances,” he said.

Faculty say they are exploring and implementing innovative methods to effectively deliver course content online. According to Gathman, online forums, increased bandwidth and Moodle tools are allowing faculty to achieve what they want to educationally in their virtual classrooms.

Bowen, who regularly teaches WH125 Islamic Civilization and UI418 European Mind, is using Kent Library’s “Films on Demand.”

Weber says nursing faculty member, Madonna Weiss, uses Skype to observe, give guidance and evaluate registered nurses performing a physical assessment, such as listening to heart and lung sounds.

“She is able to guide them with their technique with direct observation, even though they are not on campus,” she said.

Dr. Erin Fluegge-Woolf, assistant professor of management, is currently teaching MG470 Leadership in Management online. She also is developing a new online course, BA664 Organizational Leadership, which she plans to teach for the first time next spring.

She said she uses unconventional forum posts to facilitate classroom discussion.

“Students are asked to share stories and interact with each other about their leadership experiences, for example,” Fluegge-Woolf said. “The personal approach typically makes for a lively and interactive discussion.”

Dr. Beverly Evans, associate professor of health, human performance and recreation, who has taught online for 12 years and is currently teaching the online course, RC260 Introduction to Therapeutic Recreation, says she uses YouTube videos and media resources to illustrate various concepts. She also has recently adopted the Moodle “lesson” feature to guide her students through online content.

Eric Sentell, instructor of English, says he has recorded several video lectures in which he reads a script while presenting a PowerPoint presentation.

“Videos aren’t necessarily innovative in general, but it’s not that common in English to record a video on a rhetorical concept, like audience, as a way to complement some assigned reading,” he said. “I think these videos help explain concepts students may not have ever encountered before, or that they may not understand intuitively or from reading alone.”

Sentell also encourages interaction among his online students by requiring they write blog entries and to comment on their classmates’ posts. Bowen uses forums for this purpose, and Weber provides a forum section called a “Chat Hallway” to talk about course concerns or questions students typically would talk about on break in the hallway in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

“I use discussion forums that require RNs to describe how they are applying the theoretical content learned in class to enhance their own professional nursing practices,” Weber said. “Then other students describe how they might use the theory.”

Through this interaction, professional relationships are formed among students and faculty, she said.

Evans acknowledges that “student to student engagement is a little tricky in an online course.”

Bruce Miller of Farmington, Mo., has been enrolled in online coursework at Southeast since 2009, taking a couple of classes each semester as he works towards a bachelor’s degree in general studies. He plans to complete his journey towards a bachelor’s degree in December.

Miller says the biggest disadvantage of online coursework “is missing the personal interaction in a class. There have been a couple of classes in which the mix of people in the class would have made it wonderful to take in person. There’s no way you can do the give and take of a face-to-face class discussion online.”

Online courses are “not perfect,” Miller acknowledges, “but there are disadvantages to taking classes in the classroom also.”

Sometimes, students must accommodate the situation, said Nick Hendricks of Marble Hill, Mo., who is taking 12 credit hours online this semester as a business administration major.

“You do not have to be face to face to establish strong relationships with professors, peers, or co-workers,” he said. “In fact, some of my strongest work related relationships are with people who work in different locations and whom I rarely see. The ability to interact and form relationships is there, if you are willing to put the working into establishing it.”

Hendricks said his online instructors have used YouTube videos, professor-recorded video lectures and companion websites to enhance their courses.

“For the most part, professors of online courses strive to provide a quality learning experience and find unique and interesting ways to accommodate what is missing from the face-to-face class,” he said.

As work advances to improve virtual interaction in classes, Gathman says he believes “we will see more and more demand for online education.”

Fueling that demand are area high school students. Southeast launched a new online dual credit program for high school students this fall with 156 enrolled in coursework, Gathman said.

“It’s been very successful so far,” said Rick McClard, director of Southeast dual credit. “It’s been even more successful than what we thought at first.”

Under the new program, Southeast faculty members offer online dual credit courses with the assistance of area high school teachers. The new program has given the University, McClard says, the opportunity to expand dual credit offerings in additional subjects previously not possible because of an emerging shortage of high school teachers qualified to teach dual credit courses. With the new collaborative teaching arrangement, expanded course offerings, in classes such as psychology and sociology, are now possible.

While the market continues to grow, all involved in the delivery of online coursework at Southeast say the future is bright.

“I love the opportunities that online learning – when done well – provides to students and faculty,” Fluegge-Woolf said. “I enjoy the flexibility that online coursework provides to both my students and to me. People who take my face-to-face courses know that there is no ‘park and learn’ in my classes, and I hold that same view for online courses. I enjoy the fun challenge of trying to make the topics we cover as experiential as possible.”

Evans says advancements in technology will continue to allow faculty to make online learning more interactive and engaging. Blended course formats, she predicts, will become increasingly popular “as they offer the best of both face-to-face and online flexibility,” she said.

“Properly done,” though, “online coursework gives faculty new ways to engage students and provide a quality experience,” she said.

Weber said Southeast should continue to make more degree programs available online.

“Younger students are coming to us who have used online learning in their homes and elementary classrooms to learn and communicate daily,” she said. “Our local elementary schools have implemented the use of Moodle. Trying to reach these future students by traditional teaching methods will be like speaking another language to them.”

Bowen tempers that thought, concluding that online education will be part of the future, but not exclusively so.

“What we are seeing is not necessarily students embracing a college experience that is entirely online, or entirely traditional, but instead a blended experience, with some courses in each of the available formats.

“I think in a few years, we won’t necessarily talk about online versus face to face, but instead will just talk about courses – with the format being important, but not so much at the center of the discussion,” he said.