Injecting the Instructor's Voice Into Asynchronous Courses

Online courses aimed at adults sometimes lose the personal touch. Academics at two institutions discuss how to use short, informal videos to bring the courses alive.

April 17, 2019

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. -- Two years ago, National University recognized that its primary approach to online education -- largely mirroring its in-person courses, creating set times at which instructors and students were expected to log in -- wasn't ideal for its typical student, a 29-year-old working professional.

"A 5 p.m. synchronous lecture just didn't work for a lot of them," said Shannon McCarty, associate vice president for National's Center for Innovation in Learning. "Given their busy lives, it wasn’t ideal for them to have to log in at a certain time."

So the institution decided to transform about 20 of its most heavily enrolled programs (about 180 courses) into an asynchronous format that would give students more flexibility to engage with the courses when and where they wanted. Instructional teams including academic program directors, adjunct subject-matter experts, instructional and multimedia designers, and open educational resources curators revamped the programs to create "master course" shells that could be taught by multiple instructors.

That created significant flexibility for students but anxiety for many instructors, said Dan Donaldson, dean of National's School of Professional Studies. "I couldn't list all the questions and concerns we’ve heard: Is this becoming just a canned, electronic course? Is my voice going to be heard? Is it my course?"

How National and other institutions that offer asynchronous courses build courses that maintain the "faculty voice and presence" was the focus for a session last week at the Academic Resource Conference, the annual gathering of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.

Officials at California Baptist University's online and professional studies division asked similar questions as they sought to build "greater engagement between us the professors and the students" in the mostly text-based online courses they provide to working professionals.

Cammy Purper, an associate professor of education at California Baptist, cited studies showing that students prefer and respond to video feedback more than to written analysis of their academic work. For Greg Bowden, an associate education professor there, the goal was simpler: "Video lets them know we're humans, actual people."

Not everyone is comfortable making such a shift, said Jeanette Guignard, an associate professor of organizational leadership at California Baptist. Many cite time concerns, and others say they "hate listening to my voice, seeing myself."

But the payoff is worth it, the instructors agreed. The California Baptist professors walked through several types of videos they use to build connections with students from the start and throughout a course: a welcome video that hits the high points of the syllabus and sets a personal tone; weekly "engagement" videos that explain forthcoming assignments or explain concepts that multiple students are struggling with; short videos that give individual students feedback on assignments; or, if individual videos are not practical, "assignment debrief" videos, which can "highlight big-picture opportunities for improvement, common areas of strength and clarifying challenging aspects of the assignment," the presenters explained.


The California Baptist presenters emphasized the individual feedback videos, which can be especially useful for students who don't write well. "Listening to you verbally explain assignment feedback can be more productive for students with a range of learning styles," said Bowden. And, he added, while creating individual videos for each student can seem daunting, "it can be less effort than composing a detailed written comment or instructions." (A sample introductory video is at left.)

Video Is Key at National

National's wide-scale course redesign largely replaced lectures, but videos play a key role in helping to connect faculty members with students, McCarty said.

Typically the academic program manager who helped design the course creates an introductory video explaining the class's goals and how it fits into the student's overall program.

Individual instructors -- many of them adjuncts -- design the rest of the student-faculty interactions in their own courses, she said, "creating space for faculty expertise and creativity."


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