Navigating the World of E-Learning in Higher Education

EDTECH: How do you see the difference between instructors who have been flexible and embraced technology and those who are still reluctant?

Daniel: I’m definitely reluctant to call anyone flexible or inflexible. I think at different times there are things that we all miss about face-to-face, traditional, “stage-wise” conferencing, but then you discover active learning and you’re like, “Oh, wow , why have I never done this before? There is a pain that comes with progress and breaking with tradition and exploring 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’ve all decided to go into blended learning. No, we were forced to, in very different circumstances from one to another.

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It reminds me of when I was a grad student at Michigan State and got hired as an online course assistant. Suddenly, I became the expert in my department, and I very quickly discovered that my job was to be an academic therapist for these instructors, who felt obliged to teach online, that we were taking their intellectual property and phasing them out, and that’s such blasphemy. I really had to listen and affirm some of their concerns and go back and talk to my president to address them. That’s when people started to open up and see the possibilities. It took this lesson to reflect on how we listen to these resistances and what they are the biggest markers of. It’s hard to do one person at a time, but that’s why people like us are in this business: so we can make bigger changes on many levels.

Bennet: We usually have opt-in programs for the most part, and e-learning was not opt-in; it was like, “You’re in and we’re doing this.” This approach was a bit shocking to some faculty members, but they had no way to back out; it’s moving forward, that’s the modality, that’s what we’re doing.

I felt like some of our resistance came from teachers who didn’t want to make mistakes, because they had a well-oiled machine, and they had been doing the same thing for 30 years in the same way, and if that ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But when it broke and we had to fix it, they were all in. Everyone made mistakes; we were all learning. Some of our toughest teachers 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 brought 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 on the rack. What can we actually do to help you do this? To get there? Be there with you every step of the way? It got me thinking about how we actually support our staff when adopting because maybe if they have that quick support with them they can adopt with less hassle.

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

Stachowiak: Many of these conversations resulted in questions of identity and questions of teaching philosophy. What they associated so much with what it meant to be a teacher really needed to be questioned and broken down during this time. So, we didn’t decide to do quick fixes.

I see people, even now, thinking there’s an answer to magic sauce, like if I just had this golden fairy powder that these other people seem to have, then I’d be fine, and not recognize that many teaching and a lot of learning is about experimenting and failing and trying again, getting feedback. It’s a completely normal process that, as Tonya said, becomes abnormal when you fall into the traps of perfectionism and have unrealistic expectations for yourself as well as your learners.

EDTECH: One of the challenges institutions face is creating a sense of community in blended courses. How do you suggest instructors work to create this?

Daniel: I think the secret ingredient is the same whether you’re face-to-face or hybrid, and it’s about relationships. You hear a lot of people talk about relationship-rich teaching and learning, and to me it comes down to how you engage students in the learning of others. How do you get them to know each other, how do you get them to understand themselves as whole 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 investing that emotional connection in material and each other.

In terms of how to do that campus-wide, we all have to work together. It can’t just be the teaching center, because the students are also involved in extracurricular activities, there’s a residential experience, and so I think it’s important for the university to send the message that we want you to have the campus experience, we want you to be connected to each other. Whether you want to do this in person or online, the key is to be intentional and transparent about your goals.

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 do a group project is because we’re isolated. You have to create the structures for that. The key is to let students know that this is part of the experience I’m trying to create, and I want you to meet me where we are. Intentionality, I think, is a big part of it.