Going above and beyond to support instructors

Posted by Sara Volmering on

Western Michigan University rapidly shifted all spring semester courses to distance education on March 16. Despite hopes for a swift return, distance education continued for the remainder of the spring semester as well as the two summer sessions.

To help instructors adapt and transition thousands of course sections to online delivery, WMUx, formerly known as Extended University Programs, created a collaborative, cross-departmental team. The team included staff from WMUx, Disability Student Services, Office of Information Technology, and the University Libraries. Three University Libraries staff members joined the instructional support team in early April.

“During conversations with Julie Garrison, several individuals with untapped talent and the ability to make significant contributions were identified,” said Andrew Holmes, executive director of technology, WMUx.

The instructional support team was tasked with helping instructors adapt their face-to-face or hybrid courses to synchronous or asynchronous online courses for the summer and fall semesters. After some training, team members were assigned roles in instructional design, course building, user experience, accessibility, and media support.

Assembling the team

The University Libraries’ Alex Teal and Sara Volmering served as instructional designers, and Angela Brcka served as user experience support. Each staff member on the expanded team, including Brcka, Teal, and Volmering, brought their unique experiences to their new roles.

Headshot of Alex Teal, emerging technology specialist at Western Michigan University Libraries.

Alex Teal

“I had previously developed online resources using an LMS [learning management system] to train student staff and had worked closely with faculty for ten years in classroom A/V support,” said Teal, emerging technology specialist.

“Much of my 12+ years’ work experience developing and maintaining websites has helped me in the role of UX reviewer,” said Brcka, web developer/content strategist. “Understanding the value of usability and user experience testing as well as meeting accessibility standards helped me to explain these concepts as they relate to online courses and shape a UX review process that would work for instruction continuity.”

“My instructional design experience comes from the realm of employee training and development,” said Volmering, executive assistant. “The skills and knowledge needed to create effective and engaging employee learning experiences are the same needed to create effective formal educational experiences. My background definitely helped in this new role with WMUx.”

In addition to the instructional support team, WMUx mobilized a group of faculty champions, who provided peer-level support to their faculty colleagues by using their unique experiences with Elearning. Amy Bocko and Mike Duffy, faculty members from the University Libraries, served as faculty champions.

Headshots of Amy Bocko and Mike Duffy, faculty at Western Michigan University Libraries.

Amy Bocko (left), Mike Duffy (right)

“I have taught MUS 6100 many times, and have used Elearning each time I have taught. This experience has also helped me use Elearning as a librarian working with faculty in other courses.” Mike Duffy, associate professor and fine arts librarian. “It was encouraging to work with faculty and staff from other parts of campus to create a better educational environment for our students.”

Between the instructional support team, faculty technology center, and faculty champions, instructors had multiple ways to receive support and troubleshooting help as they transitioned courses online.

“Combined with the support and guidance of the faculty champions’ team and joint instructional advisory committee, the impact has been profound,” said Holmes.

Supporting Instructors

With hundreds of summer I courses in the queue for development, the team got to work quickly, creating new workflows and making continuous improvement as work progressed. The instructional designers focused their work on the front end of the process, which meant Teal and Volmering had to get up to speed quickly.

“It was a big adjustment to learn a new job, work with a new team, learn new systems, and figure out how to do all of this from home,” said Teal. “Typically, a designer will start working with faculty to begin planning three to six months, or more, before the course is offered. In this case, we had three weeks until summer I started.”

Headshot of Sara Volmering, executive assistant at Western Michigan University Libraries.

Sara Volmering

“Our job was to help instructors design their courses for online delivery,” said Volmering. “This included helping them to break course objectives into manageable units of learning, articulate objectives for their modules, align their content and activities with these objectives, and incorporate best practices for online learners.”

“We had to learn the ins-and-outs of WMU’s learning management system and campus policies,” said Volmering. “There’s a lot of work that goes into developing courses at WMU, not only in creating the curriculum but ensuring that it’s inclusive to everyone.”

The new, team-based process also meant that some procedures needed to be developed before being used in practice.

“User experience reviews had not previously been done on courses in Elearning, so we had to start from scratch, develop a checklist, and train others on UX,” Brcka said.

In addition to the course development process, “the instructional support team continues to provide support to all WMU instructors and has produced dozens of support guides and Help Hub articles, facilitated hundreds of group training sessions, fielded countless phone, email and chat inquiries, and has implemented many technical and process solutions with the goal of improving the overall teaching and learning experience,” said Holmes.

The work of the instructional support team, including Brcka, Teal, and Volmering, continues as fall courses are delivered online and in-person. Although their work on this team is drawing to a close, the collaboration and relationships developed with WMUx will continue.

“I have a new understanding and appreciation for the countless hours of prep work that our faculty spend in advance of each lesson. I want the library to continue to play a critical role in providing expertise in supporting students, faculty, and staff,” said Teal.

Headshot of Angela Brcka, web developer/content strategist at Western Michigan University Libraries.

Angela Brcka

“One of the great things to come out of this relationship with WMUx is the implementation of a library resources module in all courses in Elearning. This module may not have come about if it wasn’t for the relationship the Libraries developed with WMUx,” said Brcka.

“It was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with such a talented, passionate team of people,” said Volmering. “Education is the heart of this university. It was rewarding and inspiring to help ensure that our students received an engaging and effective educational experience, despite challenging circumstances.”

“I have learned that many faculty are eager to work with us, and I look forward to continuing to work with faculty in other units – and to encourage others in the University Libraries to seek out ways to do this as well,” Duffy said.

“We remain incredibly grateful to the talented University Libraries team for all of their collaboration, partnership, and support,” said Holmes.