Distance education: You do you

Contact: Stacey Markin
Photo of Dr. Alan Rea

Dr. Alan Rea

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Being authentic and accessible is something that students appreciate about faculty and staff members, and these qualities are even more important when teaching and providing services in a virtual environment.

That was the message Dr. Alan Rea, professor of business information systems, and Dr. Marcel Zondag, associate professor of marketing, delivered to business faculty and staff as WMU moved to distance education in March. Rea is one of the most experienced faculty members on campus when it comes to online learning, teaching fully online or hybrid courses and using different means of instruction and tools. Likewise, Zondag has often taught in a hybrid format and uses an advanced cloud-based simulation in one of his courses, as well as other tools.

The team got business faculty and staff up and running with both Microsoft Teams and WebEx and provided advice on best practices in Elearning, continuing to mentor individuals as they encountered their own unique challenges and successes in courses, advising sessions and more.

“As we finish our semester, choosing the technology that best supports how you teach is my advice to faculty,” says Rea. “If you are better recording your lectures with Mediasite and uploading them for students to watch asynchronously, do that. If you want to livestream and record with WebEx, do that. The content and connections faculty have with students are the most important element to maintain in this challenging time. None of us expected this, so working with students to help them learn the most necessary course content is the key. Moving content online in such a short period of time causes you to simplify. For those of us teaching in the first summer semester, we now know that our courses will be delivered using distance education, which gives us the opportunity to incorporate more tools for our students. We all get better at this with practice.”

“Technology is your friend,” says Zondag. “Granted, it’s a difficult friend, that sometimes bothers you and tends to ‘flake out’ on you, but at the end of the day, it’s a valuable tool to enhance the educational experience for our students, improve their learning, and prepare them much better for the business reality they will face after graduation. The opportunity for self-paced learning, immediate feedback and alternative formats of knowledge transfer is wonderful. The best advice is probably to give yourself some time—which we all know is in short supply—to play around with the different platforms we have at our disposal. See what you like for your needs, and don’t be afraid to not use certain technology that does not work for you. Communicate your experiences with your colleagues, so we all learn from each other.”

Advice for students

Dr. Marcel Zondag

Dr. Marcel Zondag

Students are getting to know faculty teaching styles in a completely different context during the shift to distance education, and looking at how core course content is being delivered is what Rea wants students to focus on. “If a professor is posting videos with course content, make sure to take the time to watch them. If a professor is livestreaming during class time, make the effort to attend as many sessions as possible. However, the most important thing is to ask questions just like you would in the classroom. Perhaps more! Professors want to help you learn, and we are doing our best to keep that happening.”

Patience and communication are the elements that Zondag identifies in order to maintain the best learning environment for the end of semester push. “Understand that this immediate switch to distance learning is a detour for all of us and much of the course content wasn’t designed for online delivery and assessment. But, embrace the challenge and do not be afraid to provide your professors with constructive criticism on how you think the experience can improve going forward. As faculty members, we can learn much from our students’ experience. It is almost like we were all thrown in one large unexpected higher education experiment. What we learn from it is the real test for all of us.”

Where are we going from here?

“Although most faculty and students will not want to move to a completely online teaching environment, I think faculty members will find approaches that might allow for a richer teaching experience overall,” says Rea. “Perhaps faculty see that online office hours allow more students to ‘drop in’ and visit, since they do not need to get to campus to do so. Staff might see that a quick video conference can take the place of occasional face-to-face meetings. Students who were not as comfortable talking in class may find a new voice online. I hope that everyone realizes that education can be enhanced with technology, rather than seeing technology as a barrier to learning.”

Zondag agrees. “You cannot replicate some experiences, and the value that comes from them, online. However, in general, business education lends itself to technology-supported distance teaching for most of our fields of study. Of course, the strength of the Haworth College of Business comes from the relationships between students, faculty and staff—no matter how we interact. Going forward, we may well see a switch to using more distance learning strategies, but we cannot underestimate the in-class, personal part of our curriculum delivery or the connection that stems from that.”

Rea and Zondag have both been appointed faculty champions for the summer I semester, where they will facilitate the acceleration of the course development process by hosting virtual training sessions on a variety of topics.

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