A multitude of hybrid approaches, tweaked continually as a course progresses, is now the norm.
By Ronald E. Roel
On a cool spring afternoon, the computer laboratory in the Marshak Science Building at City College is crammed with introductory chemistry students sitting at long black tables. Grouped in twos and threes, the students peer intently at individual computer screens. There is no lecture today. Instead, the students are working online, trying to solve a set of problems.
The instructor, assistant professor Issa Salame, meanders through the room, occasionally stopping to answer questions. Salame started this technique four years ago, when he noticed that many students “got perfect scores” on written homework assignments, yet they got the same problems wrong on a test. Frustrated, he asked the students what was going on, and a few finally confided, “We hate to tell you, but we copy from each other.” So Salame decided to experiment with an online homework program that gave the same basic problems to a group of students, but with randomly assigned data for each student — which meant they couldn’t simply copy their neighbor’s answers.
For this recent in-class session, Salame was using the online homework program as an extra review session before their upcoming exam. The computer program prompts the students through a series of corrective steps until they get the right answer, although Salame encourages them to collaborate with others if they get stuck. Over the last few years, Salame has found that this “hybrid” approach — part face-to-face, part online education — has yielded significant results: Those students who completed online homework have had at least a 10 percent higher passing rate than those who did traditional paper assignments. “I’m always interested in finding ways to improve learning,” says Salame, himself a City College graduate. “I do not think of myself as a scientist; I think of myself as a teacher.”
•Today, about 5.6 million students — more than 29% of the students at 2,500 public, private and for-profit institutions nationwide — currently take at least one course online.
•Online enrollment in the fall of 2009 rose by almost 1 million students from a year earlier — the largest year-over-year increase since the survey was started in 2003.
Welcome to Online Ed — The Next Generation.
Since the first online courses were taught at CUNY in the late 1990s, online education has evolved through several waves of technology, branching out widely from the sedate “distance learning” model that began nationwide about two decades ago. Today’s online instruction comprises a dynamic array of approaches. Many courses are still “asynchronous,” conducted almost entirely online, with extensive student-faculty interaction, but not in “real time.” Other courses offer “live” virtual classrooms that use Web tools like GoToMeeting, Skype or Elluminate. New technologies allow students to leave comments in text, audio or video files and increasingly, faculty are designing courses that enable students to work from their smartphones, as well as laptops and desktop computers.
“It’s about using tools that students are comfortable with,” says Adam S. Wandt, an instructor and deputy chair of academic technology of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If students are constantly looking at their [mobile] devices, why aren’t we putting educational content on them?”
The epicenter of online instruction is the Online Baccalaureate program, launched in 2006 through the School of Professional Studies. The program, which now has almost 1,000 students, was started to help students who had “stopped out” — that is, students who were in good standing, but just couldn’t complete their degree because of personals issues, such as family or work demands. Starting with a B.A. in Communication and Culture, the SPS program now offers an online B.S. in Business and an M.S. in Business Management and Leadership. This fall, the school is launching two new undergraduate degrees, one in sociology and another in health information management, and plans to add an online psychology degree next year.
Outside the Online Baccalaureate, the only other fully online degree at CUNY is the Master of Public Administration-Inspector General Program at John Jay College. For the most part, online instruction at CUNY has remained largely decentralized, spread around the University among hundreds of courses like Salame’s chemistry class. But last year, at the urging of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, University officials launched the “Hybrid Initiative,” the first coordinated effort to promote cross-campus sharing of resources and the development of effective practices. As part of the initiative, the Office of Academic Affairs last year approved grants totaling about $325,000 to nine colleges for hybrid projects that could serve as successful models across the University. Still, efforts to build a broad online curriculum throughout CUNY face many hurdles, including the cost of technology, course design and faculty training. And what makes online degrees so challenging is the amount of administrative and academic infrastructure required to provide the wide range of services needed by students who never step foot on campus.
“It’s not hard to do an online course; it’s hard to do an online degree,” says University Director of Academic Technology George Otte, who is also Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the School of Professional Studies. “The heavy lifting is in the support services, everything from admissions to career planning; it’s the complete package.”
•In the spring of 1999, the Sloan Foundation provided a $300,000 planning grant to create CUNY Online, The following year, Sloan awarded CUNY a $2 million grant to broaden the initiative University-wide.
•In the Sloan Foundation’s 2010 Survey of Online Learning, one third of the chief academic officers said they still considered online to be inferior to face-to-face instruction.
* * *
Modern online education is usually linked to the explosion of the Internet, but its history goes back further than people might think. The first “virtual classroom” is generally considered to extend back to the 1960s, when a group of University of Illinois scientists created a computer-based learning system that enabled students to use linked computer terminals in a classroom.
Through this setup, students could receive individualized lessons from instructors whose lessons were brought in remotely, through some television or audio device.
As early iterations of the Web began to develop over the next two decades, universities and corporations began using computer networking systems to support distance-learning programs. By the mid-1980s, colleges were offering on-campus students online access to resources like course information, and in 1989, the University of Phoenix, a well-known correspondence school, became the first online school. A few years later, the creation of Mosaic, the first user-friendly Web browser to achieve mass appeal, helped propel the Internet boom through the 1990s — and with it the accelerated evolution of online education. In 1999, Jones International University, founded by cable-TV magnate Glenn Jones, became the first accredited college to exist only online; since then, more than 200 other accredited online colleges and universities have been established.
Today, about 5.6 million students — more than 29 percent of the students at 2,500 public, private and for-profit institutions nationwide — currently take at least one course online, according to a report issued last fall by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group of organizations that promotes quality online education. (Online courses were defined as those in which 80 percent or more of the course content is delivered online. Blended or hybrid courses were not included in the data that represented about 80 percent of higher education enrollment.)
The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that online enrollment in the fall of 2009 rose by almost 1 million students from a year earlier — the largest year-over-year increase since the survey was started in 2003. Although most experts agree that higher education enrollment often grows during tough job markets, “the increase was a surprise,” says I. Elaine Allen, a professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which conducted the survey in partnership with the College Board. “We thought the economy was coming back, but it wasn’t. More and more people are going back to school everywhere.”
At the same time, the survey found that virtually all recent growth in online enrollment has come from existing programs, not from institutions starting new programs. Online master’s degree programs — which are required for advancement in many jobs — had the biggest online gains. Community colleges showed significant increases in online courses, too, Allen says, perhaps because of budget pressures that forced faculty cuts.
* * *
While CUNY is among the major public universities that offer online degrees, its offerings do not match the breadth of more established online programs. Penn State’s World Campus, for example, has more than 70 online undergraduate and graduate degrees. The University of Massachusetts, UMassOnline offers more than 100 degree and certificate programs and the University of Maryland’s University College has 25 undergraduate degree programs, 30 certificate programs, and online programs for nearly all of its graduate degrees.
But unlike other institutions, CUNY has never viewed online education as primarily “distance learning”— a means of reaching students who lived too far from campus. The majority of CUNY students come from New York City and the surrounding area, “so from very early on, we realized the online environment was not just about distance; it was about time,” says Anthony Picciano, professor and executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the Graduate Center. “These [online] students were busy professionals, with families, jobs, trying to get a college education with busy days. We were in the vanguard of that model.”
In the mid-1990s Picciano was one of a handful of CUNY faculty, including Otte, who began experimenting with this “online education gone local” concept. “We started building a little community,” Picciano says, and with a few small grants they helped launch projects at colleges such as Baruch, Hunter and Queens. In the spring of 1999, the Sloan Foundation provided a $300,000 planning grant to create CUNY Online, a University resource that would provide hardware, software and faculty training support, focusing initially on graduate and professional programs. The following year, Sloan awarded CUNY a $2 million grant to broaden the initiative University-wide. Over the next several years, dozens of online and hybrid courses were created and hundreds of faculty received training and thousands of students enrolled in their online courses.
Since these early online years, the University has shifted much of its attention to developing hybrid or blended instruction models. “It’s very different from the distance-learning model,” says Picciano, who taught his first fully online course in 1997. “I stress pedagogy: What do you want to teach? And what best supports those goals?” Hybrid learning, he says, “has enabled us to make the best use of both worlds, the best of face-to-face and the best of online.”
•It cost about $12,000 to $15,000 to develop each hybrid course at John Jay,
•About 25 faculty signed on to Lehman’s Blended Online Initiative over the past year, which required
instructors to attend a minimum of five 2 ½-hour workshops, participate in an online Blackboard forum, and convert one of their classes to a hybrid course by the end of the workshop. Each participant received a
$1,000 stipend in cash and equipment.
* * *
Despite the growth of online instruction, skeptics remain. In the Sloan Foundation’s 2010 Survey of Online Learning, a third of the chief academic officers said they still considered online to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. And there was a decided difference between academic leaders at public institutions compared to those at private colleges — about 25 percent vs. 45 percent — who deemed online education inferior.
Critics say that the biggest problem with online education is a lack of consistent standards and policies to ensure quality. Yes, they say, online courses may delight students who want to listen to lectures without leaving their dorm and satisfy administrators who feel pressured to increase enrollment without hiring more faculty. But will students actually learn much if there is little face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?
Allen, the co-author of the Sloan study, notes that while online education provides opportunities to many more nontraditional students, there’s another downside: 10 percent more students drop out of online courses than face-to-face classes.
Nevertheless, one major study has sharply countered criticism of online instruction. In 2009, a U.S. Department of Education study, which reviewed more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning, found that “students in online conditions per-formed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” (The findings applied only to higher education students; there were too few rigorous studies of K-12 online instruction to generalize any conclusions, researchers said.) Furthermore, students who took hybrid courses performed significantly better than students who took either purely face-to-face or purely online classes.
The results were intriguing. Still, the learning conditions were too varied to pinpoint reasons for the different outcomes — other than they were probably not due to technology. “The observed advantage for blended learning conditions,” researchers wrote, “is not necessarily rooted in the media used per se and may reflect differences in content, pedagogy and learning time.”
Online experts at CUNY generally agree. “It’s difficult to isolate variables so that you have apples-to-apples comparisons,” says Joseph Ugoretz, associate dean of teaching, learning and technology at Macaulay Honors College, who has been teaching online since 2000. “Online students may perform better because they’re self-selected and more disciplined, motivated students.”
Jennifer Sparrow, academic director of general education at the School of Professional Studies, added that higher performance by online students could be related to “time on task”— that is, the greater amount of time online students spend working on problems, compared to traditional classroom students. Sparrow, the former dean of academic affairs at Medgar Evers College, notes that many CUNY faculty and administrators recognize the importance of establishing rigorous assessment of various approaches and outcomes to online instruction. “Pedagogy,” she says, “should drive technology.”
Many of the individual college projects funded by the first round of Hybrid Initiative funding are just now starting to assess outcomes. Whatever the eventual results, some faculty, like City College chemistry professor Salame, are already moving forward with their own smaller assessment experiments. But it hasn’t been easy. When Salame decided to give online homework five years ago, many of his colleagues told him it would be a waste of time. He was determined to try anyway, because it was clear that copying written homework assignments from each other wasn’t doing much to prepare students for their tests.
At first, he made online homework optional: If his general chemistry students completed it, they got three points extra credit. (Students, he discovered, “will do anything for extra credit.”) He chose a homework software program, in conjunction with a textbook publisher, that randomly assigned problems to each student. Each time students did a problem, they got immediate feedback. If they got it right, they got a green check mark; if they got it wrong, the program walked them back through the process, giving hints, including pointing back to sections in the online textbook that would help correct particular missteps.
The first semester, 120 out of 150 students opted to do online homework. Of those who did online homework, more than 90 percent passed the course; of those who didn’t, 90 percent failed. The second semester, Salame made online homework mandatory. The third semester he persuaded a senior faculty member to join his online homework experiment, and gradually began collecting data about student performance in the chemistry department, comparing his sections that did online homework, to other sections that did not. When he analyzed the grades for the departmental final, which was administered to all chemistry students, he found that his students had grades that were 10 to 15 percent higher than other sections. Similarly, Salame found that his online homework students in organic chemistry (a perennially brutal course for most students) also performed markedly better: They had a 29 percent failure rate, compared to a 60 percent failure rate for the other sections.
Salame acknowledges that online homework is time-consuming — his students spend about three to five hours a week on it — “but they’re involved, and they like being online,” he says. Now he encourages students to collaborate on homework, creating a social environment for learning: “That’s not cheating if you sit down and actually learn the stuff.”
At Salame’s recent in-class workshop, one student, Shaida Langtoo, a junior from Queens, acknowledged that online homework “keeps you on track every week. You get to practice problems; it helps you prepare for the exam.” Freshman Evan Azoulay from the Bronx added that reading the textbook online as an integral part of the online homework process was much more “motivating” than plowing through the 1,200-page print text. “I definitely like the online program,” he said. “It’s a constant way of studying — and I don’t feel like I’m studying.”
•In the 2010 Sloan Survey, 63% of all reporting institutions said that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy, up from 59 percent from the previous year.
•City College chemistry professor Issa Salame has been giving online homework assignments for five years. The first semester, 120 out of 150 students opted to do online homework. Of those who did online homework, more than 90% passed the course; of those who didn’t, 90 percent failed. The second semester, Salame made online homework mandatory.
* * *
While there is still much to learn about online learning, experts seem to agree on one thing: Its effectiveness is closely linked to faculty support and training. To produce successful online instruction, faculty need to know how best to design their courses; manage an array of technologies; collaborate with other faculty; and teach students how to succeed in these courses, from navigating Blackboard, the University’s course management system, to completing online assignments and participating in discussion boards.
“You have to be there to help faculty do what you’re asking them to do,” says Wandt, the John Jay instructor and technology expert who is also chair of CUNY’s Academic Technology and Research Group.
Around the University, dozens of initiatives have sprung up to train faculty in online and hybrid instruction. At Hunter College, for example, the FITT (Faculty Innovations in Teaching with Technology) provides small stipends for faculty training over the summer months, in addition to a series of regular educational meetings (“Tech Thursday” luncheons) and hands-on “Workshop Monday” sessions. At Hunter, as elsewhere, the goal is also to build a core of faculty who can share ideas, troubleshoot problems and provide mentoring support for new online colleagues.
Such efforts require substantial investments in time and money.
“The setup [for online instruction] takes a good number of hours if you want to get it right,” says Alyson Vogel, associate director of online education at Lehman College. “People don’t realize the burden it puts on faculty. It’s a lot of work upfront.” About 25 faculty signed on to Lehman’s Blended Online Initiative over the past year, which required instructors to attend a minimum of five 2 ½-hour workshops; participate in an online Blackboard forum; and convert one of their classes to a hybrid course by the end of the workshop. Each participant received a $1,000 stipend in cash and equipment.
Transforming a face-to-face class to an online or hybrid course can be complicated. It’s not just a matter of repackaging the same print materials from the classroom and uploading them onto the Web, or transferring faculty lectures into video lectures — what some pundits call “sage on the stage” courses. At John Jay College, for example, Wandt works with an instructional design team to provide faculty with special resources and materials they need to teach online. “You want to replicate the classroom experience and improve it with technology,” Wandt says, with materials that are “professionally prepared, not just a camera on your computer.”
It cost about $12,000 to $15,000 to develop each hybrid course at John Jay, Wandt says, mostly in labor for the instructional design team, plus faculty stipends. The costs are not insignificant, he says, but nowhere near the expense of online courses at large for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, where it could cost as much as $400,000 to $500,000 per course. At the same time, most online and hybrid instruction at CUNY is not designed for large numbers of distance-learners; they are limited to small classes, often fewer than 20 students.
While every teacher has a distinctive teaching style — and that style is reflected in their online class — it’s still important that online courses have a certain consistency, no matter who’s teaching them. Wandt calls it a “common look and feel.” It’s important, he says, so students can go from one online class to another with some sense of familiarity, knowing standardized formats and procedures for various tasks like finding assignments, downloading materials and participating in discussion boards.
Jennifer Sparrow, who was dean of academic affairs at Medgar Evers before moving to the School of Professional Studies, agrees: “You don’t want to produce a cookie-cutter course, but also not be so idiosyncratic that it can’t be taught by more than one person.”
Many veteran faculty, like Barbara Walters, a professor of sociology at Kingsborough Community College, started their careers teaching traditional classes, learned how to do online and hybrid courses — and now do all three. Walters, who has taught hybrid courses since 1999, was instrumental in developing the CUNY Online Baccalaureate at the School of Professional Studies. She has taught various face-to-face and hybrid courses at Kingsborough and is now taking a leave of absence from Kingsborough to oversee the new online B.A. program in sociology debuting at SPS this fall.
“I’ve become a much better teacher after teaching hybrid or online classes,” says Walters. Online instruction has forced her “to be much more organized in advance and very clear about my expectations for student learning,” she says. “You see the world not so much in terms of what I ‘covered,’ but what do my students create in response to it, and how their work relates to the course’s objectives.”
Howard Wach, who has taught both hybrid and online courses, believes that hybrids may actually be more difficult. “Hybrids are more challenging because you need to decide what you’re going to put online vs. teach in class,” says Wach, director of the office of instructional technology at Bronx Community College. “It’s simpler online; you’re dealing with only one modality.”
Still, fully online programs have unique challenges — and sometimes unexpected benefits. To be successful, an online degree needs not only a cadre of courses, but a slew of support services, says SPS’s Sparrow. “How do you do things like advisement if you never see the students?” she says. “How do you do office hours, library access, bookstore capability? You need to develop a robust student support services system.”
There are also some curious issues, like administering finals. Sparrow encourages faculty to give low-stakes quizzes online, but not major exams. “Final papers or projects work better in the asynchronous environment,” she says. “With online multiple choice tests it’s difficult to verify a test-taker’s identity, and sometimes professors have to cope with requests for exam do-overs because of problems with Blackboard or Internet connections.”
But asynchronous or fully online classes also “structure time” in ways that can provide advantages to students, says Macaulay’s Joseph Ugoretz. Online students “don’t have barriers or accents that keep them from talking,” Ugoretz says. And students often perform better in online discussions, he adds, when they can think about what they say first, as opposed to coming up with immediate comments in “live” classes.
Ugoretz, who spent 20 years as an English professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College before coming to Macaulay in 2007, now teaches two online courses at the honors college. One seminar is called “Alternate Worlds: Imagining the Future of Education,” in which his students use online resources and texts, including science fiction, to envision how the educational system will look years from now. It’s an interesting twist, he says. “They’re using tools of the future to analyze the future.”
* * *
Just as faculty support and training is important to effective online education, so is student preparation. “Students need to understand the amount of time required to do it successfully,” says Brian Peterson, associate dean for administration and finance at SPS. Students have a 24-hour day to get work done, he says, but online courses often take much more time than students realize, particularly when they’re required to participate in online discussions and group projects.
“Some students can easily learn to do it, some can’t,” says Walters. “The difference between success and failure has less to do with technology than time-management and discipline.”
BCC’s Wach, who was also part of the “hardy band” of faculty who helped launch CUNY’s Online Baccalaureate, says that student preparedness is an acute issue at community colleges, where incoming students often need some remedial instruction. These students need more preparation for completely online education, he says, when they’re on their own, organizing their time, without the structure of coming to class.
After focusing intently on training for faculty, “the student side now needs equal attention,” Wach says. That means creating a more systematic process to assess what’s known as “the disposition to be a student” — whether someone is prepared to take on the responsibility of an online course. BCC is working on developing better self-tests that students can take to assess their readiness for online courses, in addition to strengthening their advisement system and perhaps creating more systematic eligibility standards. “The goal is to provide a filter to prevent students from failing when they have little chance of success,” Wach says.
At Lehman College, Alyson Vogel stresses the importance of faculty establishing a “social presence” online, to promote an interactive learning environment. She provides faculty with an online “toolkit” that includes techniques such as “ice-breakers”: Facebook-type settings, or games, for example, that give students and faculty an opportunity to meet each other and show who they are. “Teaching online means more than providing access to excellent content,” Vogel says. “The learning level is correlated to the level of interaction with the instructor.”
Pamela Ansaldi, an adjunct lecturer in English at Lehman, agrees. “You have to have a personality, otherwise it [online instruction] can be cold,” she says. “You have to humanize it. Do little things, like stickers, cartoons, smiley faces. It’s time-consuming, but you have to give it a personal touch. They need that very much.”
Ansaldi, who is also a playwright and screenwriter, recently taught one hybrid class, Women in Literature: From Ancient to Present Time, in addition to three face-to-face classes.
“I like the production part of it, making it multimedia and visual impact,” she says. At the same time, she acknowledges, “it’s triple the amount of work.” She constantly has to deal with computer glitches; cajole students who are surprised by the amount of work
(“I have to push too many tabs for your course”); send emails to verify directions and deadlines; and teach them how to have formal online conversations.
“They love communicating, but you have to teach them how — otherwise they just text each other,” Ansaldi says. “Once they know what to do, it’s surprising how well they work with each other. They go back and forth and talk; the quiet students speak up quite a bit online. They can be very controversial. It’s nice to see.”
Jose Vega, a computer information systems major who took Ansaldi’s women in literature course, recalled that online education has been “a good experience” for him. The junior from the Bronx says that online instruction “isn’t that different [from face-to-face], as long as you put in the same effort.” But online classes had some unexpected freedoms. When he got assignments, he was expected to find information from other sources to support his position, not simply rely on class notes. “I had to look into the assignment myself,” he said, “but then I got to see what others did and voice my own opinion.”
In many classes, sharing of such opinions is being taken to the next level: group projects.
When Robyn Spencer, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, decided to convert her African-American women course into a hybrid format, she decided that her previous discussion boards had worked so well that she could branch into small-group assignments. So Spencer, who had never heard of “hybrid instruction” until last fall, broke the class into five groups and gave each group a weekly assignment that would require historical research, but often with a pop-culture twist. Example: Create Facebook pages for major figures like Rosa Park and Martin Luther King and create a dialogue of posts between them.
“That created a whole new dynamic,” Spencer says. Overall, it worked well with her 20 students, but probably would have been too hard to manage a larger group. “You end up managing personalities and that requires a certain level of commitment and proactivity,” she says. “There were some students who didn’t ever want to engage.”
* * *
In the years to come, most experts predict that online and hybrid education will continue to flourish, particularly if job growth stays slow and the economy uncertain. In the 2010 Sloan Survey, 63 percent of all reporting institutions said that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy, up from 59 percent from the previous year.
At CUNY, the hybrid model is likely to predominate. “It makes a lot of sense, especially for students who commute and have other challenges in scheduling their time,” says Otte, the University director of academic technology. But enrollment at SPS is also likely to grow 10 percent to 20 percent over last year, partly the result of the three new online baccalaureate degrees. The new students are expected to remain mostly “stop-outs,” Peterson says. “This is not a program for incoming freshmen.” The current enrollment consists of people mostly in their 30s and 40s, and to scale out the program to traditional freshmen would simply cost too much in support services, Peterson says.
At the same time, Sparrow and others believe that the online programs at the School of Professional Studies can become a greater resource for the entire University. By taking online general education courses at SPS, many students at other campuses may be able to decrease the time it takes to get their degrees — especially if the general-education courses at their own colleges are full or scheduled at times that conflict with work or family.
The divisions between online and face-to-face learning are gradually dropping, says Picciano of the Graduate Center, who last year received the Sloan Consortium award for outstanding individual achievement in online education. “Eventually,” he says, “we will just end up having…classes.”
But what is fundamentally changing is the relationship between teachers and students, whether in online, hybrid or face-to-face. “When you use technology in teaching, it forces you to rethink your teaching,” says Macaulay’s Ugoretz. “It pushes you to think more deeply about teaching and learning.”
Paul Russo, the director of online programs at SPS, notes that “We’ve learned so much from the students” since the Online Baccalaureate was launched in 2006. “We’ve learned how we need to communicate with them, what it takes to get them reading — from the first day of class.”
Russo, who also teaches a class in management and organizational behavior, adds: “What’s been important to me is the depth of interconnections with my students. The distance [between online faculty and students] requires me to know more about them. I’ve got to know their story.”
In a broader sense, there’s been a fundamental change in the educational land-scape, spurred by the interactive model of online learning. “From the teacher’s perspective, it’s no longer, ‘Can the students regurgitate what I gave them yesterday?’ ” says Vogel of Lehman College. “And from the student’s perspective, it’s no longer, ‘OK, feed me, tell me what you want me to know.’ Teachers are telling them, ‘There’s been a shift. This class is about you, not about me.’ ”
Chef’s Recipe for Online Success
By her own account, Alyson Vogel is best known for her “soup-to-nuts approach” to academic project management — an apt description for a certified chef from the French Culinary Institute. But Vogel has blended her unique set of skills into a recipe for something other than classical cuisine: online education.
As associate director of online education at Lehman College, Vogel now helps faculty redesign their classes as online and hybrid courses, developing a community of teachers who can share resources and ideas, troubleshoot vexing problems, and gradually expand online education into new programs and degrees. “We can make a big dent with 25 faculty,” Vogel says. “When you bring people together, they’re no longer in distinct silos. That’s when it gets exciting.”
Vogel’s passion for team-based teaching — and learning — has its roots in her work in television. Graduating from Brooklyn College, Vogel spent her early career as a TV and radio engineer at NBC, then as director of a $1.5 million after-school media learning project for the New York City Department of Education, designing state-of-the-art TV studios and computerized multimedia facilities, as well as developing training materials for teachers, librarians and parents. She spent the next several years at Columbia University’s Teachers College, working with faculty to develop online and instructional technology-based courses and teaching media literacy. (Along the way she taught a course at the online University of Phoenix — “I wanted to see how they did it.”)
As Vogel expanded her portfolio in online instruction, she realized that teaching philosophy was infused with her media experiences: “TV works best as a team and crew, not just one person’s head,” she says. And so it is with online education, Vogel says, where the best education emerges through group interactions: “Learning socially is the way of the world.”
Vogel encourages such learning through “self-directed teams,” where the main responsibility for completing assignments is placed on groups of students within the class — whether it’s online or face-to-face. The teams do get support and tips from instructors (and coaches) when faced with knotty problems like, “How do we deal with the ‘free-rider syndrome’ — students who refuse to pull their weight?” But in accomplishing tasks each week, such as keeping the course discussion board going, that’s the job of the students, not the instructor.
Similarly, Vogel likes to provide both faculty and students with “scaffolding” — the steps they need to help them achieve their goals, without removing the responsibility of doing it themselves. “I’m trying to model the kind of teaching that’s not ‘Let me tell you everything I know,’ ” says Vogel, who is also a certified personal and professional coach. Instead, she wants to offer guidance that is “encouraging, challenging and exploratory: We have to give people a chance to show what can come from them.”
Smartphone Use Encouraged — In Class
Standing in front of a class of about a dozen students, Adam S. Wandt peruses the long row of items spread out on the table before him. “What’s this?” he says, holding up what looks like a pen. “Just a pen — or something else?” It turns out to be “spy pen” with a high-definition camera. He asks the students how much the device costs, and the students immediately pull out their smartphones to check out eBay. The prices vary widely, but some are, well, surprisingly affordable.
This is a graduate-level class in information security, one of several courses taught last semester by Wandt, an instructor and deputy chair of academic technology of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. What makes this course different from many other classes, where teachers frown on students constantly checking their mobile devices, is that Wandt welcomes them — in fact, they’re integral to this hybrid or blended learning course, which combines face-to-face sessions with online work. It’s all part of an experiment in “mobile learning,” where Wandt and other researchers are testing whether society’s ubiquitous handheld devices can make online learning more effective and accessible to CUNY students. Most are using Sprint Evo 4G phones (11 were donated to the college), but others have iPhones, iPads, Androids or other devices.
“It’s a great tool,” says Shela Delgado, a Manhattan grad student, who wants to be a criminologist. “I can download documents. I can read articles on the way to school or work. Before, I always had to read [course assignments] on my laptop.”
Wandt, a John Jay graduate himself, was active in community police work on Long Island, where he grew up, eventually working as deputy chief for emergency medical services in the Town of Huntington. But he is also intrigued with technology (his longtime hobby is doing underwater photography around the world). “My goal is to reinvent the way online courses are handled,” says Wandt. “We’ve just started to put together a council of instructional designers [at CUNY]. We have a lot of different initiatives.”
Wandt, who is more of an advocate for hybrid than fully online courses, says he often Skypes with his students, sometimes in far-flung locations, from Atlanta and West Point to Iraq and Ireland. “I want to see their face, so I know they understand me,” Wandt says. Once, he wanted to meet with a student who couldn’t come to his office that day, so he Skyped her while she was sitting in a taxi.
Where Wandt sometimes veers from other instructional technology experts is on the issue of training for students. “Many faculty think that students need formal training for online courses,” he says. “I feel you should just give the students the work — that forces them to tackle technology issues from the ground up. Once they learn the basic building blocks, they’ll be much better off when they face problems on their own.”