KIERAN: Dan we’ve been having conversations about the ins and outs of online instruction and program administration for years now, but at some point those conversations started to center around the idea of creating a podcast. I’m a little fuzzy on the details of how that started… do you remember how we got here?
DAN: I do remember it actually quite well. I was on summer vacation in New England last summer and you called me up and asked what did I think about making a podcast for academics who are building online courses or online programs. Clearly I thought it was a pretty good idea because here we are a few months later with microphones in front of us.
As you know, I’ve got a good bit of experience teaching adult learners in an online graduate program, but I think all college teaching improves when professors get a chance to hang out and talk about their trade. And this is true in brick and mortar classrooms, but then it’s usually at a retreat or over happy hour.
This is really a chance for online faculty to get together and talk about their trade. Online is a very innovative teaching area in higher education right now. So the tricks and stories that we want to share are probably even more valuable than ever before.
The thing that I always sort of have to come back to is that distance courses often have distance professors. So getting together for retreats and happy hours isn’t going to be automatic. We’re going to have to do it intentionally.
But is that what you were thinking about when you proposed this idea of a podcast, which we’re now calling Wired Ivy?
KIERAN: Well, you know, I’ve been running an online graduate program for 7 years now and I’ve been involved with some aspect of distance education for way longer than that. I’ve taught online myself and I work with both full-time and adjunct faculty as well as other online administrators at Virginia Tech and at similar institutions across the U.S., and I consistently hear colleagues with for more interaction with others who are active in this academic.
It finally dawned on me that what we need is a safe, supportive community where geographically dispersed online educators can meet, a place where we don’t have to explain what we do or validate why we do it. A chance to exchange ideas about what works or doesn’t, to share wins and frustrations. Since we’re a fairly tech savvy people, and knowing something about how and where folks hang out these days, a podcast seemed like the way to go.
Do you find yourself having to explain what you actually do as an online instructor?
DAN: Oh yes, for sure. I have to explain to colleagues who’ve never taught online before and they’re thinking about trying it. I have to explain to adults who are contemplating going back to school and are thinking about online as an option, and even to friends who went to school pre-Internet and think I record myself talking in front of a dry erase board, which by the way, I do not.
The one group that really doesn’t ask me too much are 20 somethings who are freshly out of undergraduate school or maybe still an undergraduate school. I can only assume this is because they’ve had online courses if not in high school then at least in college already.
KIERAN: And what do you tell them when they ask?
DAN: A lot of times I find myself telling them it’s not what they’re actually imagining. Friends not in teaching seem to think that it’s going to be some kind of one-way television program with a quiz at the end. That’s not how I teach online. I tell them that my goal is to create a collaborative community. For colleagues who are already professors and to the prospective students I explain how the online classroom is really a multimedia, multi-dimensional space, Perhaps much more so than a brick box is. I think people don’t realize how innovative and interactive the virtual classroom actually is.
What do you find yourself explaining to colleagues when they find out that you’re directing an online program?
KIERAN: You know, it’s changed quite a lot over the years. At first, the push back was pretty strong. Colleagues would tell me, I don’t believe in distance education. Later it was common for someone to say they didn’t have anything against online instruction per se, but they were sure it couldn’t work for their course in the past year or two. I’d say the primary response is curiosity and of course with so many universities switching to remote delivery mid-semester as a way to keep teaching during the COVID-19 outbreak, the tone of conversations has become very pragmatic and immediate.
Another trend I’ve noticed… when I first accepted the role of program director and started speaking with prospective students, they would often ask if the words, distance, education or online would be printed on their diploma. They also want it to be reassured that graduating from an online program wasn’t going to put them at a disadvantage with potential employers reviewing competing applications. It’s been a couple of years now since a student has asked me that question, which I see as a sign of just how mainstream online higher ed programs have become.
Here’s the thing… we have plenty of data, thanks largely to decades of longitudinal studies by the Online Learning Consortium, which was formerly known as the Sloan consortium, and they show online learning outcomes are as good as — often better than — traditional face-to-face instruction. And we know why that’s true, as well. It’s because learning… quality learning experiences are tied to the instructor, not the instructional transmission channel. So a passionate, creative, engaged teacher is going to deliver a great learning experience, whether it’s online or in person, or some combination of the two… and an apathetic, distracted, indifferent instructor is going to provide a mediocre learning experience, at best. Being in a physical classroom isn’t going to help, and being in a virtual classroom isn’t going to hurt.
DAN: So who, in a nutshell, would you say this salon is for?
KIERAN: I think Wired Ivy — the podcast, the website, the LinkedIn group, etc — is going to serve as a kind of cyber teachers’ lounge where academics who are building virtual classrooms and programs or want to become active participants in that effort can meet, converse, commiserate, create… at least, that’s our goal.
DAN: Maybe we should introduce ourselves now as the hosts of this salon. Kieran, tell us how you found yourself so immersed in higher education.
KIERAN: Completely by accident. I enrolled in a graduate program myself at Texas A&M, and because my research focus, urban wildlife, was rather niche, then and still today, I had a pretty limited slate of courses there related to my topic. I’d heard about distance education… I thought it might offer a way to customize my plan of study, and that being able to access the curricula at other schools and transfer the credits would open up a lot of possibilities.
My graduate advisor, the late Clark Adams, was open to this approach. He got my committee on board, and it worked out great. I’m not saying that all the classes I took online were state-of-the-art. In fact, some of them were pretty darn sad, but I was able to take courses that simply weren’t available at my home institution and that was a big plus.
DAN: So taking online courses enabled you to find more specialized offerings than you would’ve found otherwise?
KIERAN: Absolutely. And, just to be clear, taking online courses wasn’t part of some more strategic career plan. It was just a means to an end for me.
But I later found out that it wasn’t all that common for someone in biological sciences or other STEM fields to have any familiarity with distance education. So later, when I accepted a postdoc position at VT, I was tagged as someone who could help them develop online curriculum… and having been an online student played a big role in informing my approach to instruction in that space, I have to say.
The courses I developed were well received by both students and my supervisor. So I continued to teach for VT but my next primary role was as executive director for the Natural Resources Distance Learning Consortium. VT was the lead institution for that organization. When I accepted that position, I think there were five member universities and when the lead position transferred to Utah State a couple of years later we had 10 members.
My time with NRDLC gave me some insights into how other universities were developing and delivering online courses, certificates, degrees, how to market online offerings and make them easier for potential students to find and access… basically the administrative side of the house. And in late 2012, the leadership at VT’s College of Natural Resources approached me with an offer to run the Master of Natural Resources program, and at the time that had started as a face-to-face program, and then had moved into offering both face-to-face and online courses as an organic approach to serving a changing audience.
After I’d been in that position, about one year later, I suggested that it was time to officially switch to a hundred percent online. The face-to-face courses just weren’t getting the same kind of enrollment anymore. My supervisor agreed, we got all the necessary approvals, and I’ve been working to improve and evolve the Online MNR program ever since.
I’ve also become increasingly involved in the broader conversation about virtual instruction and adult learners at VT, and have served, most recently, as a special consultant on these topics to the Graduate School Dean.
So you and I met about six years ago, I think? When you started teaching at VT and for this program… had you already been teaching online? I know you’d been teaching but I don’t know if you had already been teaching online. I don’t remember that.
DAN: Certainly not teaching online in the way I have since been, uh, when I was in graduate school myself, it was in the 90s and the world wide web was just coming online, so the tools for distance learning didn’t really exist in any form like they do today.
The Internet… I remember getting my first email address when I was in graduate school, so that’s dating myself, but that’s how it works. The early college teaching, when I started in 2000 for an undergraduate college in Pennsylvania, was really all brick-and- mortar teaching and learning management systems were just… just beginning to be developed at that time. And, the early uses were, in my experience, for posting resources that the students could access easily and a chance for the students to be able to submit their papers digitally. And there was a..
KIERAN: … a kind of an early drop box, I guess…
DAN: … an early drop box, yeah. There was a big sort of buzz about, oh, maybe we could have an entirely paper-free course, we could teach a course and not a single piece of paper would be killed. So that’s, that’s kind of how the technology was deployed in the early days.
I did, some years later, use the internet for a video linked joint classroom where I worked with a colleague at another institution in another state and we taught a course together. We both had a small group, and we wanted the students to have a bigger group so they could collaborate more. Technology was there, it was easy. It was cheap. We did it.
2014 is really when I made the switch to teaching fully online and found myself teaching students who joined an online program and were getting all their material online and in an asynchronous format at that.
KIERAN: Mmmhmm. So, I know what courses you teach beacause we are active in the same program but listeners might want to know what kinds of classes you’re teaching at VT.
DAN: So I teach a range of courses… um, some of the courses that I teach now were analogous to ones which I have taught in the past. A couple of them are really entirely new subjects that I developed. All of them, I would say, had to be rebuilt in order to take advantage of the tools that we have through our learning management systems.
Specifically the first course I taught was on coastal and marine systems, and the great thing is, the way you had set it up for me to get introduced to this mode of teaching, was I team taught it with a colleague and yeah, it was, you know, just that one semester, that first semester… So the course was developed and I could see how a subject that I was very familiar with and I had been teaching for years, was structured or graduate students in online activities… and I also had someone whom I worked with closely every week, uh, just to get an idea of things that happen in all online and things that don’t happen online. So that worked out wonderfully…
KIERAN: Yeah, Courtney [Kimmel] is such a pro. She’s just, she’s she’s so creative in that space.
DAN: Yeah, it was, it’s such a well articulated class and it was a great way to get introduced. And we’ll talk about some more ways of people getting on board as the episodes develop down the season here.
Other courses that I teach are landscape systems…urban water systems is a popular course I teach once a year, and sustainability systems in the biosphere… these are all courses geared towards our students interested, interested in sustainability and interested in natural resources.
KIERAN: So all those subjects sound pretty visual, like have strong visual components in them, and I’m curious to know whether or not you found that to be a big challenge in an online space or has that opened up new opportunities for you that you weren’t able to address when you were teaching in a brick and mortar classroom?
DAN: They are visual. One of the reasons they’re visual is because they’re very place-based. Um, the subjects that I tend to teach, often rely on case studies that exist in the real world and to the degree that we can bring in images or other things than images…sounds… that just enriches the classroom experience.
The great thing about having the internet and online platforms is that it’s multimedia. So I would say teaching online actually is helpful when trying to pull in some of these visual and audio elements that I’m going to be wanting students to be exposed to.
The one interesting challenge is that because my courses tend to be placed based, I’ve often relied on field experience as an important learning modality. I had to switch in my mind the idea that a field trip was everybody in the same place at the same time. So all of a sudden I’m teaching asynchronously distributed people, and I’m thinking how does this field trip thing work?
And it’s like, well, they can get in the field. It’s not going to be the same field at the same time, but they have objectives that they go to the field to accomplish and then they can report back. And what’s enriching is actually they share their experiences with their colleagues in the classroom.
So we’re going to get into this a lot more, I hope, in a future episode, but there’s a great opportunity right there of how online kind of opens up some doors, as it were, that weren’t necessarily available when I was in one town in a rural part of North Carolina. And I think there’s fun stuff to be worked on here.
KIERAN: Plus it’s not trivial, when you are working face-to-face with students, to go on a field trip. I would imagine that it’s actually less logistically difficult for you to give instructions for what you want students to do out in a field and have them go, than to have to get permission slips signed, and get a van, and all those other kinds of things, which, there’s this mindset that somehow, virtual classes, that’s impossible to do, but it happens all the time on campus, and we both know it does not.
DAN: Exactly. I can just remember with cold sweat sometimes having to learn how to back up a trailer full of canoes a mile down a dirt lane because it was the wrong dirt lane. And um, so that just that, logistically, alone is something I’m not dealing with right now.
KIERAN: Right, you get to let them handle their own canoes and..
DAN: Kidding aside, exactly, kidding aside, uh, yeah, it takes it, it switches energy from worrying about the logistics, in that case, to worrying about the lesson plan and the learning objectives.
KIERAN: Okay, great.
Well, speaking about logistics… I think that we need to spend a little bit of time talking about how we’re going to handle the logistics of this podcast and this community.
This podcast is a labor of love. Dan and I enjoy getting into the weeds about delivering online courses and programs, and we wanted an excuse to do so on a regular basis. It’s also somewhat self-servicing because we both work virtually, and far from each other, and far from our colleagues, so we miss having opportunities for informal interaction with other educators. That said, we have limited time and financial budgets and, for now anyway, a continuous weekly feed isn’t feasible. But…
DAN: … we are academics after all, so it felt natural to us that Wired Ivy would be organized by seasons — two each year, aligned with the Spring and Fall semesters — plus we’ll have some teasers and ad hoc conversations over summer and winter breaks.
KIERAN: Once we started trying to map out episodes, it became clear, very fast, that we needed a way to organize these conversations. Distance education is such a multi-tentacled beast and — mixing metaphors here but still staying within the Animal Kingdom — every topic has the potential to go down dozens of rabbit-holes and, believe me, we have gone down dozens of rabbit holes.
DAN: So each season will have a broad theme to help us focus. Season 1 is about creating online communities… in class, of course, but at the same time we’re also creating the Wired Ivy community.
This first season will have 8 episodes, plus the welcome episode, delivered every other week. We’re looking forward to having guests in several of the episodes, so you’ll hear many voices, thoughts, and opinions, not just mine and Kieran’s.
KIERAN: We want this to be a conversation, not a soapbox, and we want to hear from you, too.