The School of Continuing and Professional Studies was one of the first to grasp the potential of technology to bring together learners from different locations into a single virtual classroom. “We were there at the beginning of distance learning,” says John Payne, the School’s senior director of strategic technologies and new initiatives.
Starting in 1986, when SCPS began delivering Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program courses via satellite to locations around the state, the school migrated through a series of technologies including digital video satellite and two-way audio and visual conferencing before graduating to the Internet.
But in Payne’s view, the School’s expertise in technology is only one element in its ability to deliver compelling educational experiences at a distance. “Even though we have done an amazing job keeping up with technology and even pioneering some of it, what we have done best and what we emphasize increasingly is how to use technology in the service of learning,” he says.
The key to this effort is the School’s instructional designers, Hope Kelly, Kevin Lucey, and Taeho Yu. It is their job to help faculty members achieve the same learning objectives online that they do in a traditional face-to-face course. “We emphasize instructional design in the context of online learning,” Payne says, “but going through an instruction design process can make a good teacher better regardless of setting.”
Focused on Pedagogy
Although the School’s instructional designers help faculty master UVaCollab, the University’s learning management system, their fundamental role is pedagogical, helping faculty members blueprint their courses during a semester-long workshop as well as through individual consultation. As part of this process, they work with faculty members to craft measureable learning objectives and outcomes for their courses and then to align those with assessments and learning activities. “The faculty members are subject matter experts,” Lucey says. “Our role is to help them optimize the way they translate this expertise into a powerful learning experience.” Building this explicit pedagogical framework also benefits students, who can more readily understand what is expected of them.
Mastering Online Tools
“Once the structure and content is there, our role shifts to helping faculty members realize their vision using the tools available in UVaCollab,” Kelly says. “We can help them appreciate the power of the tools as well as their limitations and show them how they have been used successfully.”
Faculty members soon find that UVaCollab is a very accommodating platform that offers them analogues of such classroom activities as lectures and breakout sessions as well as tools that have no counterparts in physical classrooms such as threaded discussions and chat forums. The overall experience is quite similar, but the dynamics can change. Payne notes that introverted students too intimidated to participate in classroom discussions often flourish in the online environment. There, they can respond to a question posed by an instructor without feeling that all eyes are upon them. “Overall, you exchange some of the immediacy of a live classroom for a more thoughtful and measured exchange of ideas,” Payne says.
Another advantage is continuity. “In a face-to-face course, you normally don’t interact with your peers in between classes,” Lucey says. “Using discussion boards and chat tools, instructors can support 24-hour exchange as students post ideas and others respond. This sustained conversation can improve the quality of learning.”
There are even more powerful tools on the horizon. “As an industry, we are looking at virtual and augmented reality, which have potential applications in fields like biology, art, and architecture,” Kelly says. “There are also some amazing applications for learning analytics that can help faculty members more readily identify students who, for instance, are struggling. It’s a very exciting time for online learning.”
Studio Investment to Enhance Online Course Delivery
In the past, SCPS faculty have used the technology available on their desktops at home or at work to manage live synchronous class meetings and record information that students can absorb on their own time. “With better equipment, our faculty can do more,” says John Payne, the School’s senior director of strategic technologies and new initiatives. “It is important for us to invest in the best tools for our faculty.”
This year, the School created a state-of-the-art studio, including high-definition audio and video recording equipment, for online course production and delivery. Faculty members can upload videos, PowerPoint decks and animations and produce seamless presentations in a professional-looking setting. During synchronous live broadcasts, faculty members can see camera streams of all their students displayed across the studio’s huge monitors.
“We are doing this in Charlottesville as a proof of concept,” Payne says. “If it works, we will replicate the studio at our UVA Academic Center in Falls Church, where we have the largest concentration of faculty.”