Coffee Talk with CogBooks: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work When Fostering a Community of Online Learning

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Our program has come to a certain maturity level now. And I think through the pandemic situation, this will only be more accelerated across the institution. We’ve already seen a focus on putting more programs online to enhance their online presence. And I can see that continuing to accelerate within the next year.

Peter Van Leusen, Director of Personalized Experiences, Arizona State University

Shortly after universities across the country went fully remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CogBooks was fortunate to host a panel during Online Learning Consortium’s virtual Innovate event with partners from Arizona State University regarding the evolution of online learning. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we learn and deliver learning experiences, and our partners at ASU have uncovered a number of useful insights about online education in today’s world. The following is pulled from a transcript of our conversation. 

Meet the Panel: 

CogBooks Coffee Talk Host – Heather Shelstad, Chief Marketing Officer

Peter Van Leusen: Director of Personalized Experiences, Arizona State University.

Amy Pate: Assistant Director of Faculty Support, School of Life Sciences, ASU

Susan Holechek: Instructor in the School of Life Sciences, ASU.

To what extent do you think there’s a negative perception of online learning? What do you think causes that? 

Peter: Online learning has been around for quite some time—and been quite successful. So we don’t really have that perception, that online education—or as we call it “full digital immersion” education–is second quality. However, when we communicate internationally, we often find that online education is still considered second-tier. People are skeptical to change, and may not be familiar with how to deliver instruction or how to assess effectively and rigorously in that environment. So they have a healthy skepticism. 

But I think what we’ve proven here at ASU with online programs, which has close to 50,000 full time students now, is that this can definitely be done right. With the current COVID situation, we’re quite lucky to have had that digital experience for the past 5-10 years, because we can leverage this expertise to foster, or to support, the remote teaching that we are currently delivering. 

Amy: I think that myth [of online courses being second-tier] comes from a lot of history of looking at poorly-developed online courses. We really try to work with faculty, and look at Quality Matters and OLC scorecards to assess whether or not the courses are well-designed. And I think that that makes a difference for us. So we believe that those courses are just as good as our face-to-face courses. It just depends on what modality you’re using to teach the students. 

We also do summer reviews. Every summer, there’s a series of courses that we choose to look through. For us, it’s a cycle of improvement. There’s no perfect course. So we’re always looking for that next step forward.

Susan: From the instructor point of view, let’s take my Genetics class from last summer: After all the reviews and recommendations, I was able to bring that feedback into my fall classes. Our school works very hard to keep the quality of our online classes really high.

Together, we try to make classes that are not just for online, but can work on-ground as well. But it’s not just me as an instructor trying to make the class better. We have CogBooks, which helps a lot because it’s an instrumental part of our courses. We have Amy, we have Peter, we have a group of people, both at the School of Life Sciences and throughout the university, that are all very supportive of having these adaptive platforms. They’re always working with us to make things better. We don’t just create a product, and that’s it. We’re always trying to improve. 

We know that high school seniors have a mixed experience with online learning. Maybe their teacher was not prepared to provide a quality education online. So maybe that was frustrating for the students. And if you have a 17-year-old home that’s frustrated, that’s going to frustrate the parents as well. So I think that contributed to the negative perception. 

What advice do you give institutions to help overcome that negative narrative so they can continue to advance their program? 

Peter: I think what really sets you apart is the leadership on different levels. So I’d say: Support this mission and give it the resources it needs. We have a team-based approach that can empower us, as well as our students. That comes from the top down. Our president is very vocal about it, but he also makes sure that resources and people are in place to implement that vision. 

We need consensus at every level: From the top, from the Provost Office, and from the instructor level. Then, we’re all aligned on our mission and our goals. We partnered with the School of Life Science to enable this new approach in order to foster success across different modalities. 

Amy: We also put a strong emphasis on course design. It’s going to take six months to a year to develop activities and alignment on course logistics. So when COVID hit and we went fully-remote, we already had learned some lessons. Luckily, we were more prepared because our department had an online degree ready to go. But we still had some failures. We still had courses that didn’t go up online as well as we wanted them to. That was because there was no planning stage. There was just, “We gotta get it going, and we have to get it going now.” Looking back, we’re taking quite a bit of time this summer to plan for fall classes. 

We got through it in March, but now we’re thinking about what’s next. How do we really design these so that students are really engaged in the course, not just a course that’s kind of thrown together at the last minute? 

Susan: I wanted to go back a little bit to a comment about the misconception about online education. Because online is “supposed” to be easier, right? What students don’t realize is that I teach this same class both in person and online. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a 16 week in-person class or if it’s a six week summer class. They all have to go through the same learning objectives, the same activities. And the expectations remain the same. Students have to realize they still need to invest a good amount of hours to be successful in the class.

So we have to work on student perception and communication to help drive student success in online courses as well. 

Of the roughly 50% of instructors who’d had experience teaching online prior to COVID, the overwhelming majority believed that experience had made them a better instructor. I’d love to unpack that. 

Amy: I’ve seen this happen quite a lot. There are a couple different positions that I’ve had where online education is scrutinized much more than face to face classes. We tend to automatically assume that, in the face to face classes, the faculty always know exactly what they’re doing. It’s not a good assumption to make, but it’s the standard in higher ed. 

But as soon as we bring them into an online format, we’re closely checking their outcomes, and we’re aligning their assessments and their activities. We’re training faculty to be engaging in the new technologies that they’re going to have to use. We just don’t do enough in our regular classes. We assume they’ll know how to teach, but we don’t really give them any kind of training for teaching. In our case, we’ve trained faculty to be biologists and researchers—not teachers. 

Once they go into the online format, we really work with them from an educational standpoint. How do people learn? How do they engage students online? There’s a lot more intense training that happens with faculty, and once that happens, they reflect, and see what they need to change in their face-to-face classes.

Susan: I was always teaching these large classes in person, and then suddenly, I had to create the unit in this class from scratch. That’s when I decided to use the courseware from CogBooks. That led me to think about how the class will work, because everything is recorded, and I love interacting with the students. 

To keep my students engaged [while teaching remotely], I hold two hours of office hours weekly, and I have my students show up. I have a large number of students come in for my office hours, and we work on activities together. So I assign activities online, and we work through them together. I don’t give them the answer; they come with the answers, and we troubleshoot to make it as dynamic as possible. 

I enjoy the human component, and my students like it as well. Instructor presence in online courses is very important, and I try to do that in all of my classes. 

QUESTION: Are there any other “aha” moments that you’ve had? 

Susan: Yes, using CogBooks, you have extra time to be more creative. So when I design activities that could be for my online students, I can take many of those to my in-person students. They have to pass the same exams, etc., so it’s nice to have both worlds, because they complement each other.

And then you have to look critically at what activities perform better in what modality. What works better in person, what works better online. What if I try this activity in-person and spice it up a little bit because it’s more hands on?

Peter: We are a research-focused university. Our instructors often do not have a formal education background, so when they’re working with instructional designers for the first time, they often have the time to reflect on the teaching and get more formal educational experience. 

And that really helps with faculty development initiatives. They can then implement that training in other modalities. I’ve seen that with hundreds of professors that we’re working with. In general, it offers a very collegial approach. That’s not always the case at other institutions. So we were fortunate to have an internal research group here at ASU who has spent significant time and resources on evaluating whether there’s a difference in the efficacy of online courses versus in-person courses. The majority of the data says that the online outcomes are as good, if not better than in-person, because we spend significant resources in enabling instructors, making it rigorous, and ensuring that there’s no cheating. 

When we work closely with instructors like Susan, when we have these special initiatives, working with adaptive tools, we closely monitor student success data, and we are able to see a significant improvement.

Let’s finish with a round robin of final comments about this topic that you’d like to share as we wrap up.

Amy: I was just going to comment on Peter’s talk about data. Susan uses a lot of data from CogBooks in order to target students and really know what they need, to mentor them and help them through her course. And I think that data is really key to not just creating strong online courses, but also strong online programs. Susan uses the data for her students but Peter helps us analyze our program and our degree and make sure the courses work well.

Susan: You know, you have the micro level and the macro. At the micro level, you can actually look into which students are struggling. I can easily look in CogBooks and that allows me to reach out to those students that they maybe are skipping too many quizzes, or may need help. 

Peter: Our program has come to a certain maturity level now. And I think through the pandemic situation, this will only be more accelerated across the institution. We’ve already seen a focus on putting more programs online to enhance their online presence. And I can see that continuing to accelerate within the next year.