Removing roadblocks is a constant for Lee Ann Shafer.
As program manager for the Bachelor of Professional Studies (BPS) degree, Shafer works with students much different from the average 18–22 year old. Her students could be working adults, active-duty service members or nontraditional students with prior course credit: students who need a personalized bachelor’s degree, free from barriers of time and location.
Removing roadblocks to graduation also has been identified in USI’s strategic plan, increasing online accessibility in hopes to have an effect on student retention. As a result, 43 new online courses were added in the past year. A total of 251 courses can be taken completely online.
￼One course, which has been taught for several years online by Lee Ann Shafer, is Personal and Professional Development (PRFS 498) from the Bachelor of Professional Studies degree.
Learning isn’t always tied to sitting in the classroom and listening to someone talk.
In our fragmented world, we see preference differentiation all around us and it is even more evident in the education setting. There are countless environments in which students learn best and while there may be many variables that contribute to this differentiation, the constant among them is the need for quality learning.
USI Distance Learning allows student location to become the variable, as students enrolled in one class can be living, working and studying anywhere; but quality learning remains the constant. Laura Suero Cole, Distance Learning consultant, works with USI faculty to modify courses that may have been previously taught in-person, online or not at all, and prepares them for the transition to an online setting with quality course content.
“We’re trying to bring more quality online courses to the University and students,” said Suero Cole. “A focus for the University is retention and we believe that an online education would be a good way to keep students, because it gives them more flexibility.”
In early fall 2015, Shafer began collaboration with Laura Suero Cole and USI Distance Learning, allowing her to develop and edit her online course through the Online Course Development Program (OCDP). OCDP is a 12-week program that provides resources and support to faculty who are creating or modifying online courses.
"OCDP gives USI a competitive advantage. It assesses a course that has been taught for a while and allows us to modify that course right off the bat." —Laura Suero Cole
Shafer entered the OCDP and viewed her course as if she were a student. She utilized resources from Blackboard, the course management system, and viewed the course learning objectives from the student’s perspective. She then went to work on modifying her course content to create the most effective student experience.
Where do you begin modifying a course that has been taught for 10+ years? The end.
Shafer found that OCDP allowed her, as a teacher, to focus on what students should know and be able to do at the end of her course. She defined the course learning objectives and then worked backwards to create a syllabus, course content and grading standards that would enable students to meet the end learning objectives. In real-time, students are set up to meet those learning objectives through their course activities and finish the course with tangible skills.
However, this method led to cutting long-standing learning tools.
“It allowed me to eliminate some things that didn’t really focus on the learning objectives I had identified,” Shafer said. “The idea that everything that’s done in the class maps back to the learning objectives, that is something that can apply to a face-to-face class too.”
Cole aided Shafer as her consultant during OCDP. She found that focusing on the learning objectives set students up for success.
“It is important for faculty members to have time to reflect on what they want students to accomplish by the end of the course. If faculty members don’t know what they want to accomplish with their students, then they won’t be assessing what they want students to achieve,” said Cole. “A course needs adirection and goal. If we have clear goals, we’ll be able to easily determine the objectives of the course, the course components that will help students meet these objectives, and the assessments that will tell us if the students actually met the objectives. We call that alignment.”
At the end of the OCDP cycle, Shafer’s course was reviewed using a set of evaluation tools. This review process involved Cole and two other individuals who combed through every aspect of the course to ensure it provided clear expectations, plenty of teacher-student engagement, and up-to-date tools for distance learning.
In the spring 2016, when the modified course goes live, students will see the benefit from course alignment. “Students will be able to declare that they have met their goals by the end of the semester,” said Shafer. Enabling students to complete a course with clear skills has been a driving factor for Shafer.
However, not only will aligning coursework with learning objectives allow students to come away with tangible skills from the course, it will ultimately align students with a degree— a degree they received from an accredited, affordable and accessible program with fewer roadblocks along the way.