FIRST – Sorry to our subscribers who received the seemingly random post of Jo Kroll’s picture. I was trying a newer version of WordPress and made a mistake. Some parts are not quite as user friendly as I’d hoped. Russ Poulin
ON TO THE POST — I first met Jo Kroll at WCET’s old Institute for Managing Distance Education several years ago. Since then, I’ve followed her career and noticed that every institution where she served improved their online offerings and enrollments dramatically in a short time. Jo is a whirlwind. When we chatted about what she had accomplished in one year, I wanted her to share it with you. Remember she did this all in one year and in Joplin, Missouri – the site of the devastating tornado in May 2011. The faculty had other priorities on their mind, but Jo kept them moving forward. – Russ Poulin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A few weeks ago Russ Poulin emailed me and asked me if I would be willing to write about the what, how, and why Missouri Southern State University(MSSU) is doing what we are doing with regards to online learning. Of course I replied – certainly! If you know Russ very well you know that this was not a tough decision. Russ is (and has been for many years) the first person I turn to when I have had a need, question, or request. I am sure this has been the case for many of you. So, to return a favor is a pleasure.
What has been a tough decision is where to begin. For those of you who may not know me, I have worked in the field of higher education for more than 20 years, and specifically in the areas of instructional technology and distance education. Over this time period, I have worked for traditional land-grant universities, a community college, privates and for-profits, and military education organizations. It is through my experiences within these environments, continued research, and an on-going pursuit of information in my chosen field that I have acquired the skills and knowledge to do what I am about to describe. Let me add, however, one disclaimer; the world of higher education is changing daily. What works today may not and probably will not, be what works tomorrow. My approach has always been to do what works best for: the students – at the current time and foreseeable future, and the institution.
While there are many areas where change is taking place on the MSSU campus (and specifically MSSU Online) the focus of this discussion will be centered on the redesigning of all online courses. We chose to redesign the online courses for three basic reasons: 1) accessibility, 2) consistency of learning outcomes, and 3) scalability.
Why Course Redesign?
MSSU Online courses incorporate PowerPoint presentations, audio and video objects, graphics, images, and PDF documents. Many of these instructional elements were not accessible to students with sight or hearing disabilities. Keeping with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments, and to ensure that we are making good on our promise – to provide a quality learning experience anytime, anywhere, to any one – the online courses required review, re-working, and the incorporation of newer technologies to ensure equal access to all. To that end, captioning has been added to all audio and video objects, audio with captioning has been added to all PowerPoint Presentations, graphics, images, and PDF documents.
We are now in the process of examining mobile technologies so that course objects and materials can be downloaded into mobile devices via apps and used by all students; including students with the above mentioned disabilities.
Consistency of Learning Outcomes
Like many traditional universities, faculty have been the sole decision makers on the MSSU campus with regards to what students should learn. While I will make no arguments against this philosophy, I do want to point out where the landmines are hidden.
After an in-depth review of all MSSU online courses it was apparent that there had been little or no basic instructional design principles incorporated into the course design and development process of the online courses being developed and offered. Every online course was different: different format, different structure, different navigation, and different technologies used with different levels of interaction (if any). Within the content of each course, often within the same course taught by two or more different instructors, there were differences in the stated objectives for the course, the assessment measures, and the content covered. In other words, content across several sections of the same course being taught by different faculty could not be accurately measured because the content differed based on the instructor and what that instructor believed students should learn.
So, the first order of business was to hire an instructional designer and begin the redesign of all online courses. We did not remove or diminish the faculty’s decision making responsibility with regards to what students should learn. What we have done is to have each academic department identify faculty who are the foremost subject matter expert(s) (SMEs) in each department and have that SME (or group of SMEs) work with the instructional designer to redesign the course content – using one departmental approved syllabus, aligned with the overall program goals and objectives.
We have also designed and developed a course template based on best practices and research. Every online course, as it is redesigned, is formatted into this template. This standard template provides the student with a common look and feel across all courses. This simple standardization of the template removes a great deal of frustration for the student. Students now can concentrate on learning the content instead of spending valuable time locating course materials and resources. Students also now know ahead of time (before the course begins) where they will post assignments, when and where the discussion will take place, and how to contact the instructor, help desk, and student support services.
Online SMEs do what they do best. Workings with a professional instructional designer faculty in the role of subject matter experts write course content. The instructional designer ensures alignment between objectives, assessment, and content. Once the content is compete, the instructional design team and assistants upload the content into the course template.
There are some cases where the academic departments may not have a subject matter expert available to redesign a course, or courses, due to workloads and time constraints. In these instances, the academic departments have made the decision to recruit outside the campus community and hire qualified SMEs to redesign a specific course or list of courses. Again, this decision is made by the faculty within an academic department. The curriculum and final syllabus are reviewed and approved by the academic department and its faculty.
The final reason for redesigning online courses is scalability. Previously, the faculty member that designed and developed an online course was the only instructor that could teach that specific course. If another qualified faculty member decided (or was asked) to teach the same online course they had to design and develop the online course for their use. This restricted the number of courses/sections that could be offered and taught each term. Enrollments were growing. Demands for additional course sections were on the rise. Students were being turned away.
With the new process courses are designed in such a way that the course can be duplicated many times over to offer multiple sections. Adjuncts can now be recruited and hired to teach additional sections of an online course. Scalability also reduces the cost of offering a course and ultimately an entire degree program.
Again, the academic departments and the faculty decide who will teach an online course. MSSU Online recruits potential online adjuncts, prepares the required hiring portfolio (resume/vitae, transcripts, letters of recommendations, etc…) then places all of the potential adjunct’s materials in an online database (that has been designed specifically for this use). Afterwards, deans, department heads, and faculty go into the shared online adjunct database, review the materials, and identify those individuals that are qualified and credentialed to teach a course(s) for that department. Once the individual has been approved to teach they are contacted by MSSU Online and scheduled for the online faculty training – an ongoing four week totally online training program.
We now have a pool of approximately 800 credentialed and fully trained online faculty. Once a course section fills (reaches 30 students) we open another section, contact the credentialed online instructor (from the database), and begin enrolling students in the new section. All of this now takes place in about 15 minutes.
The end result is to be in a position to offer the online course and/or programs (degree and/or certificate) that students need at a price that they can afford – all while dealing with reductions in state funding and increased competition.
Of course we still have bumps in the road from time-to-time. This is just life in world of online learning. We have, however, accomplished a great deal in a short period of time (for a traditional university). As a result enrollments are climbing significantly. Students are never turned away and of most importance, every student receives a high quality, highly interactive learning experience – when and where they need to learn – and student services are centered around what the student’s need and when they need it.
Additional Improvements to Online Offering and Student Experience
Other changes that MSSU Online has made over the past year (and are continuing to make) are:
- Implemented a Concierge program for enhanced online student services – including prospect, recruitment, admissions, enrollment, financial aid, program placement, persistence and retention, tutoring, mentoring, career and alumni services.
- Implemented constituent relationship management.
- Implemented workflows for each of the MSSU Online staff members.
- Implemented data driven decision making process for enrollment predictions, courses/programs to be offered, adjuncts needed, etc…
- Implemented on-going online faculty training, services, and professional development opportunities.
- Implemented Social communities: Facebook, Twitter, text messaging.
- Implemented behavior monitoring – web use analytics and behavior within online courses.
- In process – standardized degree and certificate program plans.
- In process – State Authorization: 80% complete.
- In process – accelerated degree and certificate programs.
- In process – all courses to include e-texts and digital materials that can be used with mobile devises.
- In process – updating all technology infrastructure and technologies across the MSSU Campus.
- In process – Banner and Blackboard integration with Blackboard analytics.
- In process – target marketing based on national areas of need.
- In process – predictive analytics for student placement.
In the future, we are planning to add:
- International target marketing.
- Courses delivered in multiple languages.
I’m happy to have shared our experiences from the past year and am will ing to answer questions that any of you may have about our experiences. I’l l monitor comments to this blog and respond or you can contact me directly at the address below.
Dr. Jo Kroll
Dean, Graduate Studies and Lifelong Learning
Missouri Southern State University
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