From our Academic Dean: Reflections from Fall 2012
by Jake Clapp, Academic Dean
As our fall semester came to a close last month, I had the opportunity to reflect on this past semester. On a personal level – I can look back and be grateful for the chances I’ve had to work with exceptional teachers, dedicated and inspiring administrators, and some of the brightest and most creative students I’ve ever worked with. As Academic Dean, I am charged with the profoundly interesting task of seeing to it that our classes are as engaging and academically rigorous as possible. This means staying abreast of trends and emerging pedagogies in online education; gathering feedback from our most valuable critics – our students; identifying the many examples of excellent online teaching that are the product of our teachers’ creative minds; and describing how these examples can be reworked and applied across multiple disciplines. So – in response to the question ‘What insights did we glean this semester?’, rather than overwhelm you with the exhaustive list of shoulds and should-nots, I’ve whittled the list down to four excellent practices for facilitating small, teacher-paced, and intellectually engaging online courses:
1. Course design consistency: It is important that students taking an online course gain a sense of familiarity with what serves as a proxy classroom, the course’s website. Students should know, for example, where to look for assignment descriptions, where to find resources, where to submit their work, etc, and these features should be found in the same place from week to week. I will take this one step further and say that while consistency is important, course design should also be consistently intuitive and user-friendly (not consistently messy and disorganized). There are several ways teachers can keep their classroom portals user-friendly: Avoid excessive cross-linking; keep pages uncluttered and avoid overly verbose descriptions; keep the current unit as the top page. In an effort to make course navigation and assignment management even easier for students, GOA teachers have used visual representations of their weekly syllabi (like Gantt charts), which provide clear and concise instructions for students.
2. Facial presence every week: A hallmark of success in a Global Online Academy course is that it feels, throughout its 14 weeks, like a living organism. In other words – while it is encouraged for teachers to plan and structure their course in advance, the best online teachers will respond to the inner workings of each group of 18-or-fewer students in a way that acknowledges and leverages the unique makeup of that group. One of the best ways for a teacher to manifest this vitality is to show her face often. This can be a weekly introduction video; a summary of a discussion; a bit of feedback; a real-time Skype or Google Hangout session, etc. A teacher should have video-presence every week, so that students can hear her voice and see her lips moving. In addition to keeping students engaged, it sends the message that the students’ work and contributions to discussions matter. As one GOA student said, “the most striking thing to me throughout [my GOA course] has been the depth of the relationship I have been able to form with [my teacher], despite us having never met face-to-face. I feel that I know her as well as I do most of my teachers [at my school], and I feel that she truly knows me.”*
3. Planned and structured use of synchronous conversations:. Almost all brick-and-mortar discussions occur synchronously, and we are well aware of the virtues of real time discussions: they are highly interpersonal; they allow teachers to give and receive instant feedback; the cadence of questions and responses is more spontaneous. Real time discussions can be difficult to facilitate in an online course, particularly when students are spread across nine time zones, however, there is great value in the planning and implementation of occasional virtual discussions. Students want to get to know the personalities and perspectives of their peers, and while there are an abundance of asynchronous opportunities to build community, nothing can replace the interpersonal richness of a face-to-face conversation. With technologies like the Doodle scheduler, Skype, and Google+ Hangouts, we are making every effort to get students talking.
4. Prompt and regular feedback: It is easy to take for granted the myriad ways that brick-and-mortar teachers give students feedback: a nod of the head, a crook of the eyebrow, a pat on the back. Classroom students don’t always need words to tell them that they are on the right or wrong track, because we’re so adept (albeit unaware) at giving non-verbal cues. In the digital realm, where we cannot simply nod or crook or pat, teachers must be intentional and disciplined in their delivery of feedback. This can’t be emphasized enough. GOA teachers offer feedback in a variety of ways – a couple of sentences with suggestions for improvement; a 30-second mp3 clip highlighting the strengths of a student’s assignment; a numerical rubric attached to an email…the possibilities are endless.
All of these suggestions stem from observations I’ve made of Global Online Academy teachers over the past semester, and students’ responses to these teachers’ imaginative curricula. As we move forward, it will be imperative for us to expand this list, and to find efficient ways for teachers, both experienced and new, to access and implement these practices. I cannot wait to see what new insights the next 14 weeks will provide. And with that – here’s to another great GOA semester!
Last Updated: January 14, 2013