Jul 07 2022

Navigating the World of Online Learning in Higher Ed

Three leaders on our 2022 IT Influencer list share their challenges, successes and suggestions for learning online.

Bonni Stachowiak, dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University, host of the popular Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and one of 30 Higher Education IT Influencers to Follow in 2022, says colleges and universities have been adding to their lists of “dirty words” since the start of the pandemic.

Two of the latest, she says, are “new normal.”

In that spirit, if the 2022–2023 school year is not the start of the “new normal” featuring more online offerings along with a more robust mix of blended, hybrid and HyFlex learning, it must be an acknowledgement that the landscape has changed, perhaps forever, in higher education.

Students want continued access to online learning options, and instructors are, for the most part, more amenable to teaching online after having the requirement thrust upon them as a safety measure in the spring of 2020.

To find out how three leading universities are addressing this current state of play, EdTech: Focus on Higher Education talked to three members of our 2022 IT Influencer list: Tonya Bennett, director of educational technology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine; Tazin Daniels, associate director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan; and Stachowiak.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Check out this year's complete list of 30 higher ed IT influencers to follow.

EDTECH: To what extent are hybrid and blended learning going play into the upcoming school year?

Stachowiak: The thing about hybrid or blended learning is a problem of definitions. We all have this assumption that we’re talking about the same thing. Even at my institution, where we think we might have more similarity when we really dig in and start having conversations, we realize that we’re defining things differently. I’d say a big thing is having that shared understanding of what we mean when we say hybrid, or blended, or HyFlex, and how important that is, and then also having the people making those decisions actually know what they’re talking about.

I expect that at my institution, we will continue to have hybrid be an important thing for us, and continuing to shape those shared definitions is going to be really important to us and every institution that I speak to as well.

Bennett: I agree. The first thing we had to do at the start of the pandemic was define what was happening here, because people were saying, “It’s online learning,” and the online learning people were like, “It is not online learning.” So, the record was set very straight early on. They kept on trying to reiterate what the differences were, and it matters. It matters a lot. It was very interesting to watch all that play out.

We’re teetering toward in-person instruction this year because our administration at my school does want our students back in the classroom. But we’re a little different too, because we are a professional school and we do have clinical components, where we physically need our students on the ground to help animals. But that was a decision that we made administratively for this term, and it’s a term-by-term decision.

We had to choose one way. We just couldn’t do it all, even though, in the grand scheme of things, it would be wonderful if we could just say, “You can take any modality you want and go for it.” We really had to drill down and focus our efforts and our energy on what we could sustain that would be meaningful and good for our students and our faculty and wouldn’t drive everyone crazy.

MORE FROM OUR INFLUENCERS: How a TV host showcases the value of the college experience.

Daniels: At the University of Michigan, because we are such a large institution, there is a lot of expectation that each department will have autonomy on what they move toward. Where I sit, at the teaching center, our job is just to support what their decisions are. The people that come to me are the folks who still want to take some lessons learned during the pandemic and incorporate that.

There are some folks who saw the silver lining of the pandemic, and I hate to use that term. They say, “I would have never learned how to do X, Y and Z,” and “I never realized all the kinds of ways inequities shaped my students’ experiences.” They want to take some of those lessons, including cool technologies and new forms of pedagogy. Then, you have other instructors who just had such an awful time that they just want to put it behind them and move forward.

A lot of it has to be hand in hand with faculty development and going back to what good teaching is, and not worrying as much about the modality as about best teaching practices, because I think that’s what’s going to make the biggest difference.

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EDTECH: How do you see the split between instructors who have been flexible and come to embrace technology and those who are still reluctant?

Daniels: I definitely am reticent to label anyone as being flexible or inflexible. I think, at different moments, there are things that we all miss about face-to-face, traditional, “sage on the stage” lectures, but then you find out about active learning and you’re like, “Oh, wow, why did I never do this before?” There is a pain that comes with progress and breaking tradition and exploring the possibilities.

I think we also have to recognize that these things didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not like, as a society, we all decided to jump into hybrid teaching. No, we were forced into this, in circumstances that are very different across all of us.

MORE FROM OUR INFLUENCERS: Five higher ed technology podcasts to stream.

I’m reminded of when I was a grad student at Michigan State, and I got hired as the online course assistant. All of a sudden, I became the expert in my department, and I very quickly found out that my job was to be an academic therapist to these instructors, who felt like they were forced into doing online teaching, that we were taking their intellectual property and phasing them out, and this is just such blasphemy. I really had to listen and affirm some of their concerns and go back and talk to my chair about addressing them. That’s when folks started to open up and see the possibilities. It took that lesson to think through how we listen to those resistances and what they are larger markers of. That’s hard to do one person at a time, but that’s why folks like us are in this business: so that we can make bigger changes at multiple levels.

Bennett: We generally have mostly opt-in programs, and online learning was not opt-in; it was like, “You’re in and we’re doing this.” That approach was a bit jarring to some of the faculty, but they had no way to back out; this is moving forward, this is the modality, this is what we’re doing.

I felt like some of our resistances came from faculty who didn’t want to make mistakes, because they had a fine-oiled machine, and they had been doing the same thing for 30 years the same way, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But when it was broke and we had to fix it, they were all in it together. Everyone was making mistakes; we were all learning. Some of our more resistant faculty were like, “Nobody knows what they’re doing, so I don’t feel so bad.” I think that helped a lot.

It was really a community effort, and it pulled a lot of people together. It came down to support: They could do it if they just had support. And I’m like, man, maybe we just need to be a little heavier-handed on the support. What can we actually do to help you do it? To get you there? To be right there with you every step of the way? It made me think about the way that we actually support our staff when we are adopting, because maybe if they do have that swoop-in support with them, they’ll be able to adopt with fewer problems.

READ MORE: Why technology-based teaching requires a new approach to faculty support.

Stachowiak: So many of those conversations got down to questions of identity and questions of one’s teaching philosophy. What they associated so much with what it means to be a teacher really had to be questioned and broken down during that time. So, we didn’t resolve to do quick-fix solutions.

I see people even now thinking there’s some magic-sauce answer, like, if I just had this golden fairy dust that these other people seem to have then everything would be OK, and not recognizing that a lot of teaching and a lot of learning is about experimentation and about failure and about trying again, getting feedback. This is a very normal process that, as Tonya said, becomes not normal when you fall into the traps of perfectionism and having unrealistic expectations for yourself as well as for your learners.

EDTECH: One of the challenges institutions are facing is creating a sense of community in hybrid courses. How do you suggest instructors work to create that?

Daniels: I think that the secret ingredient is the same, regardless of whether you’re face to face or if you’re hybrid, and it’s about relationships. You hear a lot of people talking about relationship-rich teaching and learning, and to me, it comes down to how you get students to invest in each other’s learning. How do you get them to know each other, how do you get them to understand each other as full human beings, how do you get them to trust you as an instructor? And using everything from a good icebreaker to intake surveys and using technology to leverage connections where people can start to invest that emotional connection into the material and into each other.

In terms of how to do that campuswide, we’ve all got to work together. It can’t just be the teaching center, because students are also involved in cocurricular activities, there’s a residential experience, and so I think it’s important for the university to send a message that we want you to have the campus experience, we want you to be connected to one another. If you want to do it in person or online, the key is to be intentional and be transparent about what your goals are.

For example, you can’t just put students in a group and expect them to all become best friends. You have to tell them, “One of the reasons we’re doing a group project is because we’re in isolation.” You have to create the structures for it. The key is to let the students know that this is a part of the experience that I’m trying to create, and I want you to meet me where we’re at. Intentionality, I think, is a big piece of that.

Tonya Bennett
It came down to support: They could do it if they just had support. And I’m like, man, maybe we just need to be a little heavier-handed on the support.”

Tonya Bennett Director of Educational Technology, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine

Stachowiak: I got to interview Stephanie Moore on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and she said that saying you can’t build relationships in an online class is like standing next to an engineer and saying humans can’t fly while a plane flies right there in front of you.

That really is often where the conversation is ultimately rooted, and we treat it in this dichotomous way that doesn’t make sense. So, I think it’s important for us to be thinking about what the experience of college looks like. Even at a tiny college like mine, it needs to look a lot of different ways. We need to be intentional and purposeful and ask who is getting left out by the way that we’ve designed things by default? What about our disabled students? What about our students who are needing to work three jobs in order to be in college? Let’s build this ideal experience, but let’s also build an experience to ultimately fulfill our mission and the mission of institutions of higher education around the world, which is to have more people be able to thrive in this educational experience.

EDTECH: Any final words of advice to your fellow IT and higher ed professionals for the upcoming school year?

Bennett: Utilize your learning management system and also the LTI integration tools, because it really does help. We use Canvas as our learning management system and then we had Panopto, which is where we store our lecture recordings. We also have Zoom, which is where we were capturing our lecture recording, and that all worked seamlessly behind the scenes. Using those LTIs and that automation made the load of managing those things so much lighter. For any system administrators or edtech technologists in that regard, use those LTIs and those integrations and build that ecosystem, because it really does save a lot of work and it makes things way more efficient — not only for us as techs but also for the students.

Stachowiak: Ask more than you tell, and specifically be asking the “why” questions: What is it you’re hoping to accomplish with whatever it is that we’re providing to you in terms of technology, and how? How do you use this? They can help educate you about their unique context.

Daniels: This is an ongoing conversation, and the importance of connecting with other people who are having these conversations, who are approaching with that attitude of curiosity. It brings that human factor into IT decisions, because we’re out here, and a lot of us have been screaming on our soapboxes for a long time into the void.

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