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Teaching and learning online: a “3-D interaction”

Posted on Nov 20, 2013
Part of a 35th anniversary series of interviews with alumni, faculty and staff.
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Senior Lecturer Cindy Graham in UW-Superiors Communicating Arts Department

Senior Lecturer Cindy Graham in UW-Superior's Communicating Arts Department

We sat down recently with Senior Lecturer Cindy Graham to talk about her experiences teaching online. She says knowing your students and being responsive are keys to success.

How long have you been part of the UW-Superior Distance Learning faculty
I was the first person involved in teaching online courses in the Communicating Arts Department in 2005. I'm currently assistant vice chancellor at UW-Parkside, so I teach my UW-Superior class from my Kenosha office.

What led to the decision to move the program online?
UW-Superior already had a fairly robust Communicating Arts distance learning program, but it was a correspondence course. At the time, demographics were showing that the numbers of future high school grads were falling, therefore, colleges would be seeing fewer enrollments. We needed to position the department in the online world - it made tremendous sense to me.

How did you learn how to teach online?
I learned by doing it; and certainly had a great deal of help. Tom Tu, our instructional designer, assisted me in getting new classes online and made sure they ran smoothly.

How does a class in the DL program work?
We use software called "D2L," an acronym for Desire to Learn. The software is used throughout the UW System. Many who teach on-the-ground classes also use this program to post grades and other data - the online learning component is a part of this software program.

What kind of support do students receive?
They have so many resources and support: our online writing center, online math tutoring, and a DL librarian. I also make myself available to students - I'll arrange to meet them for coffee or lunch.

What is it like to teach online? Is it difficult to not be able to see your students?
People often have two assumptions about online learning: "Online must be a lot easier for the students," meaning, it's less rigorous, and "It must be difficult to teach when you really don't know your students." I actually know my students much better online; I know when their kids are sick, if a student's husband has lost his job. I can get more of the rhythm of the class and where they're at online - where the stressors are, if they're getting the material or we need to slow down. DL demands that the instructor has more communication with students, not less. For students in an online class, you can't really hide! I know which students are logging in, participating in discussions, posting, etc.

What are the benefits to the student?
An online class encourages more participation, because it's easy to notice if someone is hanging back. Students seem to like online classes because they can craft their posts, think about their responses. Students also say that they like the higher level of instructor presence and accessibility online, in fact that's the most important aspect for students.Online, they see that the instructor is responsive, pays attention to their questions, their posts, and they can receive a timely response. We're actually more in contact with our students than in a classroom, because they can be in class on their laptops, home computers, phones and other devices all the time.

How do you stay on top of changes in technology and distance learning strategies?
I like to use a lot of different approaches to online learning; "lecture capture," video clips, audio clips - that's changed since I started. It's a 3-D interaction. Those of us in the UW system are lucky because the National Distance Teaching and Learning Conference has been held every year in Madison, WI. Our software company also provides trainings. I belong to a group of online instructors and participate in online meetings which include instructors from the Netherlands, Australia, and elsewhere. It's really fun for me. Canada, Europe and Australia have participated in the Open U concept for 40 years, and there's so much to learn.

As a UW-Superior instructor, how do you keep in touch with your colleagues?
I Skype into the UW-Superior Online Department meetings; I even have a chair at the table!

What's the future of online learning?
One of the downsides for universities is that due to the nature of online learning, it doesn't engender a love of bricks and mortar; it can be difficult to garner alumni support. That's something we're thinking about. The female/male and age breakdown of our students is changing. When I started, we saw 70% and more students as 30 years and older female; now the breakdown is 60% women, 40% men, ages 25-45 years. And we're seeing that more students are enrolling in DL right out of high school.

News Contact: Mary Zimmerman | mzimme11{atuws}
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