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A Collaborative Approach to Online Learning

with Alan Young

October 1, 2012

Writer: Rob Eaton

BYU-Idaho's approach to creating and teaching courses online is designed to harness the subject matter expertise of its on-campus faculty, the instructional design and operational "know-how" of its online team, and the dedication and instructional skills of its remote instructors.

Having so many parties involved in such a creative process can be challenging, but the synergy of these critical ingredients allows BYU-Idaho to create a high-quality learning experience online for  growing number of students. For this collaborative approach to succeed, it's important for everyone who contributes to understand their role - and to respect the expertise and experience of others.

Campus Faculty

Department chairs and faculty are the chief stewards of content. Among other things, they do the following:

  • Help decided which courses get created online.
  • Collaborate with the online team in creating great courses, helping improve them over time, and keep them synchronized with what's being taught on campus.
    •  This is accomplished through councils that include online instructors and curriculum designers. Council members listen to each other's ideas with open minds and debate proposals respectfully and rigorously.
    • On matters of content, such as deciding on the critical learning outcomes for the course, faculty members have the final say.
    • No substantive changes to the content of any course should ever be made without approval of the responsible on-campus faculty.
  • Screen online instructor applicants to make sure they have sufficient expertise and appropriate credentials to teach courses in the discipline.
    • No online instructor should ever be hired without a department chair or Foundations team lead approving their hire.
  • Help provide, as needed, content and discipline-specific training to online instructors.
  • Provide critical input to the online team if any content-related concerns arise about an instructor's performance.
  • Look for opportunities to reach out to online instructors in their discipline or course and invite them to participate, when possible, in content-specific discussions and training, without underwhelming instructor's reporting relationship to the online team.

The Online Team

A centralized team oversees the creation and administration of courses online at BYU-Idaho. This approach has two distinct advantages: Expertise and Scalability.

Curriculum designers with advanced degrees in instructional design provide critical expertise in creating courses, while specialists in online instruction train remote instructors how to achieve the best results when teaching online. In addition, by handling the logistical details of reviewing thousands of applications, hiring hundreds of applicants, and offering hundreds of sections, the online team makes it possible to offer courses online to thousands of students without overwhelming department chairs.

The roles and responsibilities of the online team include the following:

  • With input from department chairs, the Online Academic Advisory Committee, which consists primarily of on-campus faculty and academic leaders but also includes leaders from the online team and online instructors, and the Dean's Council, the online team decides which courses and degrees get created online.
  • The online team establishes design standards for creating courses online, such as implementing the Learning Model and requiring rigorous but reasonable amounts of meaningful student work.
  • The online team collaborates with designated faculty in creating great courses based on these standards to achieve learning outcomes chosen by faculty. While faculty members bring knowledge in the context to the process, curriculum developers bring instructional design expertise.
  • The online team recruits, screens, and hires online instructors, with approval from department chairs about the academic suitability of applicants to teach popular courses.
  • The online team trains remote instructors, oversees the quality of online instruction, and takes remedial steps, when necessary. Online instructors report to the online team.
  • If any issues arise concerning an instructor's mastery of the content, the online team confers with the department chair or course lead.
  • In consultation with department chairs, and under the leadership of the Scheduling Council and the Academic Vice President, the online team decides on the appropriate number of sections to offer of each course online.
  • Through the Online Support Center, the online team provides support to students taking courses online.
  • The online team responds to all student complaints stemming from online courses, conferring with the Course Lead if any issues arise regarding content.

Online Instructors

BYU-Idaho hires remote instructors with master's or doctorate degrees in relevant disciplines to teach the courses jointly by on-campus faculty and the online team. Because they don't need to create courses or generate significant amounts of content themselves, these instructors-many of whom are working in the fields about which they teach-focus on providing customized feedback and instruction to students. Their responsibilities include the following:

  • Helping students navigate through and understand the provided curriculum.
  • Deepening students' understanding by providing them specific feedback, probing questions, and occasionally pointing them to additional material to address specific concerns.
  • Building and facilitating a community of learners that support and build each other in testimony and academic learning.
  • Connecting students with appropriate resources on campus, such as Acadmic Support.
  • Submitting "fixes" to Course Development to rectify minor technical mistakes in courses.
  • Providing substantive feedback and suggestions on how the course can be improved to the online instructor designated to share such ideas with the Course Lead as part of a Course Improvement Council.

The entirety of this article, along with a table that outlines the approval process for online activities, can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Perspective Magazine.