From Anxious Online Dean to Confident Virtual Instructor

Robert Ubell spent years encouraging professors to overcome their fears, try something new and teach on the web. Now he's trying to practice what he preached.

October 17, 2018
 

I'll confess the humiliating truth -- after nearly two decades of cajoling dig-their-heels-in, grumbling faculty to go online, I’ve never taught online myself. Now, it’s finally my turn.

As head of digital education -- first at Stevens Institute of Technology and then at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering -- my formidable job was to encourage reluctant professors to set aside their qualms, step away from their comfortably proud position at the front of the classroom and do what many thought was the repellent thing.

For years, I’ve led hundreds of professors to the virtual well, gratified that they’ve been responsible for instructing about 30,000 online learners, but I never got close to teaching on screen. I’ve been an online general who sent his virtual troops into battle but, shamefully, never fought in the digital trenches myself. Feeling like a fraud all these years, it was time to step up to the challenge.

Months ago, Ilan Jacobsohn, senior director for distributed education at the New School, asked me to lead a four-course online certificate, Designing Online Learning Programs, and as part of it, teach a course on online student recruitment, Finding and Keeping Online Learners. Happily, I enlisted three close colleagues to join me, all noted digital education experts. My course, on recruitment and retention, wraps it all up early next year. Each course runs for five weeks.

As I stepped down from my post as online dean at NYU’s engineering school, Ilan reached out, leading me from online administration to virtual instruction.

I hesitated. It was a terrific opportunity to practice what I preached, but I worried.

As digital learning dean, when I urged faculty members to teach online, I encouraged them with all sorts of positive academic inducements -- virtual classes give students unable to come to campus, owing to work, family and other obligations, perhaps their only chance to earn a college degree. Online, I advocated, is the perfect medium to move away from ubiquitous lectures, offering professors a pathway to introduce active learning pedagogy into the curriculum.

Professors often countered with the discredited belief that online was not as good as face-to-face. They also thought, mistakenly, that it was far more time-consuming than teaching on campus, distracting them from concentrating on their research. Still, the biggest justification for resistance was that most were quite happy continuing to lecture face-to-face. Why should they go online when they were entirely gratified doing just what they wanted?

One obstacle I’d never considered is faculty anxiety, especially feelings of technical inadequacy. Even though I’ve led high-tech academic units for years, I’ve never been a whiz at it. After dinner each night at home, for example, my wife and I sit elbow to elbow in armchairs facing our TV. Since I never got the hang of clicking from icon to icon, navigating from Netflix to Hulu to get to our favorite shows for binge-watching, my wife drives. At my office, too, I’m not all that swift when I perform more than the simplest tasks on my computer.

In my book, Going Online, I recognized that face-to-face faculty members are largely on their own. They walk into class with little or no support from either their colleagues or institution, preparing and delivering lectures autonomously. Lone academic wolves. In contrast, virtual instructors are part of a team, collaborating closely with instructional designers, program managers, videographers and others who help produce technically sophisticated and pedagogically engaging courses.

While I was prepared to teach in an entirely new way -- as I had advocated for years -- it turned out that New School faculty training staff ingeniously guided me in developing my course through the lens of active learning, an approach I had long championed.

My instructional designer, Shira Richman, assistant director of distributed learning, guided me through it all like a coach training a champion athlete for a big game, unknotting my fears, unraveling my anxieties. Best of all, Shira built my confidence week after week.

On Wednesday afternoons over several months this spring, in one of the city’s most glamorous, Hollywood-style landmarks, designed by the avant-garde architect Joseph Urban, Shira and I met for an hour each week in a back office, away from imagined smirks and snickers at my amateur skills. As weeks passed, she held my novice hand as we navigated together through what for me was totally unchartered territory.

Shira was especially clever about guiding me on how I might eventually deliver my recorded lectures, planned to run no more than seven minutes each. She shadowed me with probing questions, helping me tease out what would emerge as my most effective delivery. Does this concept go first? Or would another idea be better here?

As I jabbered randomly, exploring how best to organize my thoughts, Shira tapped away at her keyboard. Magically, she transformed my inchoate utterances into compact, arrow-sharp bullet points. Like a hypnotist, she rummaged through my mind to extract my most salient thoughts.

Here is one result from a planned lecture on retaining online students:

Video Lecture: How to view online programs strategically, integrating recruitment with student services

Lecture will discuss:

  • Conventionally, recruitment and student services are divided into two separate practices.
  • Historically, recruiters are judged on how many students they recruit -- a numbers game. After initial recruitment, the relationship between student and recruiter ends, with the student divorced from the recruiter, who goes on to recruit ever more students. The learner is then handed over to others -- advisers, faculty, student services.
  • The innovative strategy, a far more holistic approach, links recruitment with online student services and ultimately, student retention.
  • This is a mind-set that is not limited merely to recruiting numbers, but more broadly and more effectively as your final educational objective -- completion.
  • In the preferred model, staff involved in recruiting students should also be involved in retaining them.
  • Shift your focus from higher education as merely a business to a more ethical practice, where the ultimate goal is graduation, not the “churn.” In the best case, you as a recruiter go on to attend graduation exercises because you have been invested all along in student success from the very start.

As we continued laying out what each week would cover -- market research, websites, digital recruitment and so on -- Shira and I tossed ideas back and forth, suggesting active-learning challenges I would pitch to remote students. Which ones would be reserved for synchronous delivery and which would I offer asynchronously? Following my retention lecture, Shira and I devised this active-learning challenge:

Active Learning: Retention

Assignment details:

What techniques and strategies would you use to retain your students? Please share your conclusions with the rest of the class and engage in a discussion on whether your selections are likely to lead to the results you aim to achieve.

In line with active-learning theory, ideas I had considered earlier in my research, I proposed that in each of the five weeks the course ran, I’d open an hourlong, real-time discussion session to allow participants to ask questions about the week’s topic or engage in peer-to-peer discussion, giving students the chance to explore with one another what they had discovered from open-source documents, research reports and readings I’d recommended. It was reassuring to learn how very familiar my pedagogical strategy was since I’d written and lectured about virtual learning theory over the years in a number of books and articles.

Now, at last, I was turning theory into practice -- actually doing what I had only imagined. In one of Yogi Berra’s inimitable, but surprisingly insightful, contradictions, he’s quoted as saying, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

On my own -- because I’ve always been pretty good at preparing slides -- I submitted my results to Shira for her review. Here is a sample from a module on branding.

One day, as we came close to filling in the last color on my planning charts, showing completed drafts of my lectures, active-learning challenges, resources, slides, readings and syllabi for each week, Ilan wondered whether I was all set for my first recording sessions.

“I’m not at ease,” I acknowledged. “I worry about my confidence. When I listen to tapes of webinars I’ve delivered, I often cringe hearing my hesitations and repeated ‘uh-uh,’ put-putting like a failing car engine.”

Ilan listed closely. “Everyone is worried about how they will perform. Most faculty are not trained, but you’ll be in a very supportive environment during your video sessions,” Ilan reassured me. “Just a few students in the studio.”

“Between takes,” he continued, “students usually carry on lively conversations with the faculty. They are very interested in what instructors are saying. It’s very intimate. Quite relaxing.”

Ilan relieved me by saying that if the first recordings are not up to standard, they do get progressively more polished. “Occasionally,” he predicted, “at the end of a session, if your first videos are not at their best, and if there’s still time, the crew goes back to re-record them.”

The night before my first lecture, I awoke at 2:30 a.m. from a nightmare, unable to return to sleep. I slipped out of bed, careful not to disturb my wife, burrowed in her duvet, and took off to the living room sofa, awake until 4:00 a.m. Consciously, it was not the video session the next morning that kept me awake, but the bubbling dailiness of my life. Doubtless, I was suppressing my anxiety over my first-ever video lecture.

The next day, I arrived as directed at 9:00 a.m. at a very professional-looking studio, equipped with giant stage lights and video cameras resting on tripods like tall, steel insects. A long, paper-covered table at the side displayed breakfast goodies -- bagels, cream cheese, sliced meats and cheeses. Coffee was served in large cardboard dispensers, supplied by Murray’s, a local Greenwich Village institution nearby. It felt thrilling, as if I had wandered into a sophisticated film shoot. Red Dot, the school’s video production staff, consists almost entirely of students, going about their various tasks like Hollywood crew.

As I sat in front of the cameras, as if I were a newscaster on TV, I thought of the weeks that Shira and I had devoted to this moment. At first, it all seemed so fragmented, but as the bullet points scrolled up on a screen in front of me, suddenly, it all came together, finally making sense.

Filming at first was bumpy as I stumbled over words and phrases, struggling to deliver the points I hoped to make. The crew was very patient.

“You’re doing fine,” they encouraged, running another take. As we progressed, and as Ilan had predicted, I felt more comfortable, delivering a string of sentences without stumbling. At the end, as I unbuttoned the top of my shirt to unhook my microphone, I felt I’d done reasonably well.

Later that day, viewing some of the clips from the session in his office, Ilan called excitedly. “You were fantastic!” he exclaimed.

Afterward, I reflected on just how remarkable and unexpected my experience turned out to be. All the preparatory work Shira and I did last spring was surprisingly transformed from random notes, jottings and bullet points -- accompanied by serious jitters -- into a sustained and logical script. Later, the crew will edit it, add my slides and marginal text, and merge it all into a five-week online course.

Bio

Robert Ubell is coordinator of the four-course New School online certificate Designing Online Learning Programs.

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