The Teaching Centre in a conversation with Dr. Pei-Chun Hsieh, Assistant Professor in the Therapeutic Recreation program, on the pros and cons of teaching in the classroom and online.
TC: What motivates you to design and teach courses online?
Developing and teaching online courses is one part of my teaching assignment as Assistant Professor in the Therapeutic Recreation program. Our main intention in teaching parts of the program online is to reach more of our local and national students, but we have also had a lot of requests from potential students abroad, whom we would like to cater to in the nearer future as well. Our program is still relatively new as we are entering our fourth year. Since I started teaching at the U of L, I have taught courses in both modalities. That made evident to me quickly that I need to apply different strategies to engage students in both environments.
TC: Can you elaborate on the differences between in-class and online environments?
One major difference was the perception of and engagement in the group project that I designed for both course sections. Peer learning, in my view, can be a special avenue for students to close knowledge gaps and connect with others over common issues. However, in my online class, students were very resistant to group work. My motivation to design that group activity was to help establish a sense of community or cohort in the online environment. We do that on campus where group projects are a very successful way for students to work with each other and learn together. Out of the eight groups in the online course I taught last fall, only two groups reported that they really enjoyed the group project. The people in those two groups lived in the same cities, and so they got to actually meet each other to discuss their projects in person. Meanwhile the other six groups had trouble connecting with their peers, and they also struggled with time management issues.
I was surprised to have my assumption challenged because many of my students needed extra support in using basic communication tools and online resources. I still believe that collaboration, teamwork and leadership are very crucial for health care providers in the 21st century and would like to explore different ways to engage online students in group work.
TC: What kind of feedback did you get from the students in your online course?
Despite the mixed experiences, the overall student feedback was good. Apparently, most student valued the learning that had taken place as well as the rationales I had provided them with why we were doing specific class activities a certain way. On the flip side, a few students were saying that they hadn’t been prepared for the academic rigour in my course. That isn’t necessarily a negative comment, but it made me realize that students had clearly misunderstood what effort and time is involved in taking a 3-credit course. Some students were mistaken to think they only needed to put in 3 hours of study per week. In reality, they need at least triple the amount to cover all the content and activities designed for the course.
TC: Can some form of induction training help students in your program to develop a more realistic understanding for learning online?
Yes, it seems that this could be helpful. I had thought that my weekly communication relating to expected timelines was very clear. However, I still got a couple of emails during the semester stating students’ difficulties to adhere to those. Admittedly, this course was the first exposure to online learning for many of my students, and some stretched themselves thin working full-time while also taking 3-4 courses online. All things considered, that is really challenging and not to be recommended. To avoid misunderstandings of this kind in the future, we’ve strategized our communication for the program requirements in our program. Students have a total of 6 years to finish their 2-year degree and they all have the option to go slower if their life and work routine require them to. We also created a short video that introduces to the students the basics of studying in our program.
TC: What do you consider essential when planning an online course?
Starting early is crucial. I am glad that I had started planning for the Fall course in the summer preceding it. That allowed me to arrange some of the basic logistics like web-conferencing. Another big chunk of my time went into the preparation of materials that are also accessible to students with special needs. At my previous institution in the United States instructors were required to provide accessible learning materials. For that reason, I chose to use voice-over Powerpoint with the lecture notes directly under the slides. Students can choose to hear or read my lecture based on their learning needs. To write out my thoughts and then record them coherently turned out to be a huge time investment. In a classroom setting I would simply need some bullet points to develop the narration, but in an online setting that is not enough to help students understand the bigger picture.
TC: How much time did it take you to design that online course?
Since it was a new course, I needed to plan up to 20 hours to design all elements for a 2-hour lecture from scratch for every week of teaching. At times I felt like I was writing a textbook and if I look back I realize that I might just as well have been because I wrote everything out – from the instructions and examples to all the content and explanations.
TC: How did you design your online course?
I generally like to tell students what the topic of each week is. I also set-up collaborative activities, like simple forums where students can discuss content questions and thereby corroborate their understanding of concepts and ideas linked to the weekly themes. There are also additional activities for those students who wish to do more. Within the weekly theme modules, I explain the purpose of the activities and assignments that are linked to the learning objectives of each topic. Making those objectives clear yielded positive comments from the students who appreciated the fact that they knew what they were aiming for. Interestingly, when I delivered the exact same material to my on-campus class, not all students felt the learning objectives were so clear to them.
In the future, I will plan for more pre-assessments. This past year was my first year to teach in Canada and in this program and I must admit really misjudged the students’ abilities. So next time round, I want to readjust some of the content materials and activities to better match the background of the students.
TC: What kind of technology do you utilize to meet your teaching needs?
Apart from Moodle and WebEx, I use Skype to enrich the online environment. Video materials are another feature in my courses, because they show how specific concepts we learn about in class are practiced in the field. Students usually enjoy these because things become visible in context. As part of the course work, I also require my students to go to different websites to explore specific resources and materials for their fields and interests.
TC: What kind of support do your learners need to navigate your online course well and complete it successfully?
In terms of support, I do list all the things in my syllabus that need to be in place before the course. The course syllabus also provides relevant information relating to student support (e.g. the University Library, Writing Centre, etc.). I really think that student support is an area that needs to be addressed on an institutional level if we want to provide enhanced online learning experiences to our online student population. Many online students work full-time during the day, so they are confined to studying in the evenings. Although I will do whatever I can to make the online experience a smooth one for my students, there sometimes is an element of frustration related to the obvious the lack of after-hour support from IT, the Writing Centre or the Library. Currently, our online students don’t get the in-time support they need and pay for.
As far as technical support is concerned, a good way to prepare the students to work with Moodle and other technology would be tutorials. I know that a few generic tutorials already exist (like on Moodle Answers for instance), but these resources are still very limited. Building courses from scratch takes so much of my time, that I cannot do much more than focus on my content. I really don’t have the time to learn and teach all the technicalities around online learning that students will need.
Besides the basics in the technologies used in an online environment, students also need to know when to ask question or communicate struggles to be successful. I care deeply for my students, but I really cannot check in on all of them all the time. I make the effort in the first few weeks to encourage the students to not be shy and contact me whenever they need assistance, but the reality is that not all students take me up on that offer in due time.
TC: Can you elaborate on the technological challenges your students faced and tell us how you addressed them?
I was a bit aghast at first when I learned, for instance, that some students had never used Skype before. It changed things up quite a bit. Originally, I had planned multiple avenues for students to show me their learning, like video presentations for instance. But when I realized that students are not tech savvy, I didn’t feel that’s the best way for them to showcase their learning. Therefore, I had to employ other learning activities. It made me think harder about the strategies and techniques that I wanted to use to teach the class more efficiently. While I would have liked to be more innovative, I have become hesitant.
TC: How did you manage your time while teaching the course?
Because I wanted my students to feel my presence, I made myself available to them at all times. Although I told them that my response time was 2 days, I would get back to students much sooner than that. I work from my office on campus as to separate work from my private live, but there were a few instances when I had to also work from home on the weekends. Without any restrictions for my correspondence with students, the communication with them quickly got so intense that I couldn’t spend as much time on research as I would otherwise have. I hope that ratio will improve over time as I teach more rounds of courses online.
TC: What kind of support do instructors need from the university or their department to do their jobs well?
It would be very helpful to know what resources are available to us as instructors and to the students as well. To cite a simple example the university WebEx conferencing subscription is really not ideal because every individual meeting with 25 or more participants has to be arranged through a third person. I’ve used the same conferencing tool in the past where the whole set-up was actually a very simple process that didn’t need the involvement of an additional staff member at all.
Another issue is the onboarding process for incoming faculty. From my previous posting I know how helpful it is to get a more profound orientation session relating to the learning management system and other technology that the university supports. So, I would suggest that the Teaching Centre and IT work more closely with newer educators to help them get started in their course planning processes. I appreciated the Orientation to Teaching Session I attended when I came on to this campus in the Summer of 2017. My only suggestion for improvement was, and I am happy to learn that it has since been implemented, an add-on Moodle workshop on the same day.
I am probably not the only one who would like to learn more about new teaching technologies as they emerge. I would really appreciate more training offers for those. Considering my teaching and research load, I have limited time to keep track of new technology developments, although I am sure that some of them can help us enhance our teaching in specific ways. Hands-on workshops would be ideal to catch up with new trends and make more sound decisions for implementations into my teaching.
The best thing for me as an instructor to learn about teaching methods and strategies would be through showcasing what other educators on our campus do. If I know how someone else applies a specific teaching strategy, technique or tool, I can make better decisions as to what would work in my setting as well. When I planned my online course, I was using a template I found online to guide me in structuring my course. An exchange among peers could help create more consistency in planning of online courses, which in turn, provides a sense of familiarity to our students in online learning environments as well. By that I don’t mean that all instructors should work by the same book, but guidance for effective online teaching principles would help create online learning environments that students can easily navigate through.
Overall, I think I was very lucky because in my first semester I had support from my colleagues and I also only taught two classes. Those classes turned out to be the two sections of the same course; one online and one in the classroom, so when I prepped for one of my courses I was automatically working towards teaching the other class.
TC: Which aspects of flexible teaching and learning would be worthwhile of a more empirical investigation? Which (research) questions would you be curious to get answer to?
When I taught the same course in the two different modalities last fall (online and in the classroom), I got curious to compare the student outcomes in both course sections as a measure for the quality of my teaching. I, of course, want my students in both environments to get the same results and so I wonder if that comparison can help guide me in providing the highest-quality teaching to my students.
Another area of interest is of a very personal nature. It evolved while teaching in Canada last year. Back in the United States, I never felt reminded of my racial background the same way I am made conscious of it here. What I found interesting was the fact that despite me using the same materials and methods in both my learning environments, the students reacted so very differently to them. I assume it has to do with the implicit assumptions they had about me and that includes my racial background. I noticed that in the online environment that appeared to have been somewhat remove from the forefront of the course. At the same time, it seemed that face-to-face students had biases towards me as a female Asian instructor. Thus, I am curious to explore the topic of culturally biases further to understand what I can do to address challenges that might arise relating to my teaching.