Retro Approach to Training Online Teachers

After several iterations, a college at the University of Cincinnati develops an old-time concept -- a radio show -- to teach professors new techniques.

December 21, 2016
 

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Few topics generated as much discussion at the Online Learning Consortium's Accelerate conference here this month as the importance -- and, often, difficulty -- of helping professors teach online successfully.

There was widespread acknowledgment among the hundreds of instructional designers, technology leaders and instructors here that as more students take at least some of their courses on the internet, and more in-person courses incorporate digital elements, it is incumbent on colleges and universities to make faculty development not only available but effective. (Fewer than half of respondents to Inside Higher Ed's recent Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology said their colleges provide adequate support for teaching online.)

But if you provide it, will they come? Officials in the University of Cincinnati's College of Allied Health Sciences were confident that the answer was yes when they planned a series of faculty development events as they built out their online program.

"We thought, 'They’ll definitely come -- we’ll feed them,'" Dawn H. Clineman, associate director of online learning for the college, said during a session at the OLC meeting. "They want to come see us."

Um, not so much. "You get there, and a little piece of you dies inside," Clineman said of the underwhelming response of the college's faculty to many such events. "You’re expecting a packed room, and you’ve got two very eager faculty with you. You feel very good about those two folks, but you spent all of that time and energy hoping for a bigger impact."

A total of five professors attended the face-to-face workshops in 2012, said Don Hodges, director of the Center for Educational Technology and Instructional Support at the allied health college. That number rose to 21 in 2013 -- "but we had to pay them to come" -- and to 35 in 2014, "because we switched to a new version of Blackboard and they were in panic mode."

Rather than be deterred by their disappointment in the low numbers, Clineman and her colleagues sought to build a better mousetrap. It wasn't that professors weren't interested in learning how to teach better online; mostly, they're just too busy. "Faculty’s days are so jam-packed," said Carolyn Stoll, senior instructional designer in the Center for Educational Technology and Instructional Support. "It's hard for them to carve out time for a workshop unless they know it's going to help them do something they need to do immediately."

So building off a concept Stoll heard about at a previous meeting of the online consortium, she and her colleagues decided to go digital, but with a twist: creating an online training program, but with the flair of an old-fashioned radio show, like those Stoll -- who describes herself as a "pop culture nut" -- loves to listen to.

"We could have just created little videos and put them all on YouTube, but it was really about giving it a fun hook to hang it on and making it fun," Stoll said of the show, "Design Time."

Keeping in mind the reality that professors are too busy to set aside hours for a training seminar, Stoll and her colleagues sought to keep the episodes short -- no more than 30 minutes, including 15 minutes for Q&A -- focused and practical. Topics included "Content Collection: Where Does My Stuff Go on Blackboard?" and "Rubrics Cube: Using Rubrics in Class."

The most popular by far: the episode on exporting grades, a task that professors must do every term and isn't optional, said Clineman. "If I'm a professor, I need to know how to do that tomorrow, so I've got to watch."

"Design Time" episodes drew a total of 121 viewers in 2015, its first year. That's the good news, since it was up sharply from the number of faculty members the allied health sciences college reached with online training in the three previous years combined.

The bad news? Average viewing time was one minute and 23 seconds, which gave the team an "uh-oh moment," Clineman said.

Digging into the statistics, the Cincinnati team realized that people were almost never staying for the Q&A and usually dropping off after the key pieces of information were delivered. The 30-minute episodes were too long.

"We had broken our own rule out of the gate," Stoll said. So this year, the episodes were cut to a maximum of six minutes, which a 2014 study on the use of videos in massive open online courses shows is the optimal period of engagement for students.

The videos are all business now -- where there were originally two hosts, which allowed for interaction and humor, there is one now, and the focus is on delivering information. "People were essentially saying, 'You're funny, you're hilarious, but that’s not why I’m here.'"

The videos are also now appearing in the university's internal Kaltura system, rather than on YouTube, to better ensure that the videos reach their target audience -- professors at the university. Kaltura also provides better analytical data about how the audience is using the training, so Stoll, Clineman and their colleagues can continue to improve it.

"Nothing’s a slam dunk the first time you do it," Clineman said.

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