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The Team Behind Your Next Online Course

Growing demand drives growth in online courses. Here are the people and tools helping faculty cross the digital divide.

Campus News  |  Oct 16, 2018  |  By Juliet V. Casey
five people holding laptops up to faces

UNLV online education office offers a team of people to help faculty make their online courses interactive. From left: Benjamin Root, instructional applications programmer; Swasati Mukherjee, instructional designer; Elizabeth Barrie, director of online education; Doris Ostrander, professional development coordinator; and Patrick Rios, instructional artist. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Just as recent years have ushered in a new kind of student — the “mobile” digital native — UNLV has brought in new tools and resources for the modern instructor.

This fall, UNLV's online education launched Teach Online for academic faculty who want or need to transform their classroom courses into online or hybrid versions. But the new resources go beyond tech tools; they also get a hands-on team to help with every step in the process. Faculty members work with an instructional designer, an artist, and a programmer.

“We want to make sure instructors taking their courses online or adding online components for hybrid courses are really well prepared to teach in that environment,” said Elizabeth Barrie, director of online education.

The new website offers an overview of the steps it takes to transfer course content to the online platform. It also includes an orientation to the team approach to planning and designing; information about evaluating students and how to proctor exams; and a schedule of professional development workshops.

More than 90 percent of last year’s graduates took at least one online course on the way to completing their degrees.

The extra focus on equipping faculty with the tools and support for launching online classes comes as UNLV sees record numbers of students relying on online courses to meet graduation requirements.

More than 90 percent of last year’s graduates took at least one online course on the way to completing their degrees.

This fall, UNLV offered 958 online or hybrid courses taught by 427 instructors. Although the numbers represent just a small portion of UNLV’s 5,256 courses, proponents of teaching online say faculty should take notice and start considering a foray into online education, especially since demand for such courses will continue to grow.

“Students today are just different,” said Christie Batson, a sociology professor who five years ago was among the first to develop online courses for her department. “This is a generation that engages with technology differently. They’ve been using online resources and tools and programs since they were toddlers. We need to acknowledge they are a different type of learner, and we have to adapt.”

Lori Candela, a nursing professor, helped develop the online graduate nursing program that has appeared in the top 20 of the U.S. News & World Report rankings since 2013. The School of Nursing’s success is indicative of the effectiveness of online education and of the direction in which traditional universities are moving to stay competitive.

“Our peer institutions are moving aggressively to meet the demand for online education,” Candela said. “Students today are very busy people. Many of them already have jobs — they might be professionals looking to advance their careers. If they are looking for a program, UNLV has to be in the mix and offer quality courses online, otherwise, how will we remain a vital force?”

According to Barrie, online education works with 45 to 50 faculty to develop online courses each semester, but she hopes to see that number grow.

Beyond Lectures and Videos

Economics professor Constant Tra is among those building a hybrid course for the spring. He taught his global economics class online for the first time this past summer, and is currently teaching it in the traditional classroom this fall.

Tra said his first attempt at online teaching was trial and error. He had independently built his online course. While his overall experience was positive, he said, he found it challenging to track how his students were following the lessons or making progress in between exams.

So, he decided to take advantage of the online education training and resources to build his spring semester hybrid course.

 “They showed me so many more tools to help gauge where students are in understanding a concept,” Tra said. “The team is made up of experts who can offer you effective advice and tools to meet your goals.”

The course-building process is paying dividends in his traditional classroom too. “So far, I’m finding that this is helping me in my regular classroom. I am starting to integrate more online tools, with little online surveys students can take during class.”

Patrick Rios, an instructional artist, has been part of the online education team for six years and has worked on hundreds of courses.

 “Online teaching is really expanding. It’s not just lectures and videos,” Rios said. “We can do so much more that’s relevant, like 3-D modeling, interactive hotspots, simulations, and animations. Our technology is constantly improving, and it’s helping us with accessibility in every sense, including (American with Disabilities Act).”

Worth the Effort

Benjamin Root, an instructional applications programmer at online education, has helped develop dozens of online and hybrid courses for UNLV faculty. He usually spends about 12 weeks with each one.

Root and his team develop simulations, class assessments, virtual field trips, and animations to help faculty convey course material in a stimulating online format. The team helps optimize PowerPoint presentations so they translate better on the platform. Part of the programming includes creating analytics based on student interaction, which helps faculty track whether students are engaged and keeping up.

“It takes a lot of work on the part of faculty members,” Root said. “They have to envision every part of the course and then work with our artists, who create graphic elements and animations; with our programmers, who develop any interactive elements; and with our instructional designers, who integrate all the content into the course.”

But the faculty who’ve taught both online and in person say the rewards as a teacher are worth the effort to initially build the course.

Nursing’s Candela noted that the growth in understanding how students learn online is now being with met understanding how best to support faculty.

“The staff in online education understands you need to have a solid alignment of course objectives, content, learning experiences, and evaluations,” Candela said, adding that online interaction requires faculty to be mindful of preparation and of how students will interact with the material.

Most important, she said, online teaching requires faculty to be responsive to student feedback. “If you as the instructor aren’t ‘present,’ the students will get frustrated,” Candela said. “I try to be very clear about what is going to happen, what I want students to know, to look at, or read to be prepared. I tell them exactly what they can expect from me so there are no surprises.”

Tra said the experience for faculty can be surprisingly rewarding. For instance, Tra had thought the written interaction of online teaching would dampen student engagement compared with the face-to-face interaction in a classroom.

“Instead, I found that in reading their written responses and comments, you get to see them thinking, you get to see more clearly how the whole class is doing,” Tra said, adding that in a classroom discussion, instructors typically hear from only a handful of students per session. “Also, I was surprised the online students were so motivated. Most of the class was really on track. Their mindset was geared for learning online.”

Batson said her online teaching experience has helped her recognize and adapt to students’ learning styles.

“Teaching online requires you to be willing to think outside the box of how you were teaching in the classroom,” she said. “It forced me to try new things, like peer-to-peer evaluation and more collaborative written projects, where you have multiple people working on the same document. It’s made me a better instructor altogether.”