Some of the faculty who recently completed a special course sponsored by the College of Lifelong & eLearning (CLEL) began the class with great skepticism.
Online classes, they said, were probably impersonal. Students wouldn't be engaged. The quality wouldn't be as good as an "on-ground" course, and the students wouldn't work as much or be as good. The classes might be suitable for someone else, but for their material, online teaching just wouldn't work.
They learned they were wrong.
"A colleague in the accounting department and I had discussions on the possibility of a good online course coming up to the quality and results of a good on-ground course," said Robert McDonald, associate professor of accounting. "I was not sure that was possible. But I have changed my mind on that question. I think the University community is on the edge of a major transformation in which online courses will surpass on-ground courses in quality and effectiveness."
Another professor worried about teaching foreign languages.
"My initial assumption was that online education can teach me little about being connected to my students and about building a dynamic classroom community," said Daria Kirjanov, who teaches Russian. "As it turned out, I learned valuable information from this course about how to use online classroom techniques to improve the on-the-ground courses I teach. It was an unexpected case of cross-fertilization and one that will have a substantial impact on my teaching."
Kirjanov was one of 24 UNH faculty members who were honored at a luncheon last month that celebrated their completion of the Foundations of Online Teaching & Learning course. The course is the first step in the college's online course design process.
During the four-week course, faculty learn pedagogical strategies that help create community and engage students in active and interactive learning. After completing weekly discussions, journals, quizzes and assignments, faculty write an online teaching philosophy and begin designing their online courses in collaboration with one of the college's instructional designers.
"As the University continues to develop more online learning programs and opportunities, there is growing interest among faculty to learn more about online teaching and learning," said Marsha Ham, associate vice president and dean of the CLEL. "More online courses will be developed as a part of on-ground programs to offer students greater course availability for high-demand classes and to alleviate some of the crunch for classroom space.
"The number of programs offered entirely online also will continue to grow and attract more students, who are working and busy with families, who would otherwise never have the opportunity to attend UNH to complete their education goals," she said.
The foundations course, taught by Bonnie Riedinger, director of eLearning, and Jeanne Vilberg, an instructional designer, was attended by faculty across all four colleges.
"It is about teaching how to create rigorous, successful and engaging classes," said Riedinger. "And it addresses the two main issues in online education: the temporal and the spatial."
On the temporal scale, students tune in to the class at their leisure and not, say, every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. Yet most are required to be in regular contact with the discussion group and instructor. Many teachers find students are sometimes in touch on an almost continual basis, Riedinger said.
On the spatial scale, she said, students are there when they need to be, but they might be in China when they tune in.
"There is a cultural shock to participating in an online teaching experience," she said. "But as soon as you overcome that, you see that you have a number of social and psychological connections to your students and that you can create a real community."
Al Carbone, an adjunct professor of sports management, said his impression of online learning was that it would present students with lots of boring PowerPoint slides. "Now I have a totally different perspective," he said. "The material can be interesting, and students can do the course at their own pace. They can be reflective."
In person, he said, he has noticed that one student might dominate the class by always speaking and answering questions. In an online environment, students have to respond and participate, and often the quiet student who would never speak up in person turns out to have the most thought-provoking comments.
Teaching online classes is also fun, said David Edison Sloane, professor of English. "The more fun you have," he said, "the more fun the students will have."
The next Foundations course begins Monday, Oct. 28. The first step in taking the Foundations course is for a faculty member to talk with his or her department chair and dean about their interest as they must approve participation and plans for developing an online course. Space in the Foundations course is limited to assure a quality learning experience for each participant.
This story, by Director of Media Relations Karen Grava, originally appeared in UNH Today on October 21 2013.