“One of online teaching’s greatest challenges is getting the students to feel connected,” observes Isenberg’s Director of Technology Support and Services Susan Boyer. In that, networking among students, she says, goes a long way. Boyer, who teaches data management online and in hybrid online/in-class settings to undergraduates and master’s degree candidates (often in classes with 90+ students), has students share personal and professional introductions, pair up with compatible work partners, and participate in larger team projects.
At the end of the spring semester, Boyer was one of five Isenberg educators to receive the honor of Isenberg Teaching Fellow, a first-time annual award that recognizes the innovative application of new technologies in the classroom. Boyer’s fellow honorees are Melissa Baker (associate professor, Hospitality and Tourism Management), Robert Nakosteen (professor and department chair, Operations and Information Management), Shirley Shmerling (senior lecturer, Operations and Information Management), and Pamela Trafford (senior lecturer, Accounting).
“The ultimate goal is to improve student engagement,” emphasizes Shirley Shmerling. But the honor itself comes with considerable responsibility. The Fellows meet periodically (to date, weekly) to discuss and develop solutions to teaching challenges. And their mandate extends further: “We are classroom technology ambassadors for the entire faculty,” emphasizes Melissa Baker. “That means sharing insights and solutions.”
Bob Nakosteen, who teaches statistics online and in hybrid classes, says he strongly believes in teaching through asynchronous class video recordings that students can view any time, and repeatedly. “I’ve been fortunate in that I teach the same courses online that I teach in person. So I could record actual classes, students and all. No talking heads. I cannot tell you how many times online students have told me that they feel as though they are part of the face-to-face class as they watch those videos.”
Pamela Trafford also combines asynchronous and in-class interaction to advantage. “Several years ago, I revised our introductory course in accounting, effectively flipping the classroom,” she recalls. That entailed splitting several hundred students into small sections that met once a week. “Before their meeting, they completed substantive graded preparatory work online,” she says. They often brought portions of their work to the next class, “where the problem was extended and solved in small groups.” The new course design, she notes, instilled proactivity and allowed for smaller classes.
Melissa Baker, who teaches food service management and service experience management, also mixes up her repertoire. “A key,” she says, “is to keep things fresh with stimulating, meaningful content. I often break up an online class meeting into smaller chunks that might include small group exercises and videos.” One activity that brings the entire class together is an online “shark tank,” where students pitch a concept to their peers. She notes that Zoom allows a presenter to finish a statement before unmuting audio for an audience member’s response.
Students internalize concepts through active engagement, emphasizes Susan Boyer. In her data management course, that might involve bringing back data from Excel tables and fleshing out zip codes via Salesforce. It also might entail using the program Catme to poll a team’s members before assessing their strengths and weaknesses in light of the team’s activities. “We have amazing professors,” she remarks. “As head of TSS (Technology Support Services) at Isenberg, I can help them vet new technologies in the classroom. Our staff explain them and iron out technical difficulties. For faculty, new classroom technologies have high stakes. Their adoption can prove frustrating. For us at TSS they’re often a simple matter.”
As a resource for the Isenberg faculty, the Fellows program is an idea whose time has come, observes Shirley Shmerling, who teaches management of information systems, innovative management, quality and process improvement, and other courses. Technology change, she says, has always been a given, but the coronavirus crisis has upped the ante. “We had to transition and adapt within a week,” she explains. “Some of the challenges involved technology, others did not. China blocked the internet for some of our online students; other students had issues with work.” Next semester, she says, will call for “implementing incremental innovations, being flexible and responsive to unexpected challenges.” The Fellows group, she underscores, play a key role. “We need,” she says, “to be more and more agile; we need to figure out how to transform education during these unprecedented times.”