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Proactive, not Reactive: A chat about Distance Learning with Michia Brangers

By Elizabeth Varnado
November 21 2019

For National Distance Learning Week (Nov. 4-8), CELT’s sibling unit UK Online facilitated workshops to highlight resources available for instructors/students in UK’s online education program. These workshops were held online via Zoom, which allowed us to demonstrate one of the most powerful tools that online instructors can use: face-to-face conversations through video chat!

Michia Brangers, the UK Online Admissions Counselor, was instrumental in planning this week of workshops. I sat down with Michia a few days ago to chat about Distance Learning, and its importance in the future of education at UK.

In her role at TLAI and UK Online, Michia Brangers is responsible for coordinating recruitment and enrollment activity for online students. Michia has several years of experience in the field of online education; she worked as an Academic Advisor for online learners around the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). Speaking with UK’s online learners is essential to Michia’s job, and allows her to better understand where they are coming from and how we can provide the best assistance and support for their success. Michia’s approach is student centered and stresses the importance of contextualizing the online learning environment. She told me: “I try to ask students what they think, what they need, what they would like to see. I ask them, ‘Going forward, what would you like online to look like? How do you feel it falls short?’ I have that conversation with them and take it back to the people that need to hear it.”

In our interview, I asked Michia about NDLW, and her vision and mission for online education.

Click on the navigation below to expand or collapse portions of the conversation, which you can read in sequence or as stand-alone segments.

I. What was the focus of National Distance Learning Week?

Elizabeth Varnado:

Hi Michia! So, last week was National Distance Learning Week. What was the focus of NDLW, and what kind of events did you put on?

Michia Brangers:

I wanted to generate appreciation and acknowledgement of what is already out there and our being an online entity in general. Nowadays, where everyone is digitized, everyone's checking an app, everyone's downloading something to make their life a little easier...I want to bring attention to different resources that students can definitely utilize that aren’t as broadcasted as some of the on-campus offerings, and also to show them what that online environment can generate and how to best be successful and safe. [This was the content of an online meeting that Michia hosted titled “The dark side of communications.”]

EV: That's really interesting. What are some of those resources that you think students should use while they are taking online classes?

MB: A lot of departments offer really great resources, but they're not always transparent in their offerings for online students. One that I came across that was really awesome was Academic Coaching. Julie Bradley did a whole session on that which generated so many questions and attention, because they are one of the only departments on UK's campus that does coaching appointments via Zoom (An online meeting service available to UK students and staff). Academic Coaching is like a life coach/success coach for students. The students can come to them and say, “Hey, I need help, but I don't really know with what!” They can teach students how to manage life, how to manage time, how to manage assignments, and it all can be done via the internet.

The Career Center has amazing resources, too. They have something called Handshake, and I would encourage people to go back and look at Jocelyn Gatos's session on that. There's a lot of different resources that they offer, but at first glance, you may think, "I can’t do this online." The Career Center has done a phenomenal job integrating a lot of their resources for online students. Their NDLW session was just targeted to that. 

EV: So this is really an emphasis on student life as part of learning online, which is more than just curriculum and content. It's more than instructors making an online class effective and engaging. It's also bringing students into a campus experience that helps them and matches them where they are. Maybe they're not “hanging out on the quad” or whatever, but they have the same resources as other undergrads who are on campus. 

II. How can instructors learn more about their students in the online forum?

EV:What's a good way for instructors to learn more about their students? To learn where they are and what they need in the online forum, which can be uncomfortable?

MB: You nailed it. It can be super weird. If people are just behind a screen and that's all they have to go on, then the online course is not going to be a priority, it's not going to feel like school... Their mindset going into it is really important. I always say to my students, “You are not the exception, you are the norm here,” ...because I feel like a lot of them push online learning off as it it’s not of equal importance. They think, "Well, you know, online is online..." But that’s not true!! Credentials don't change! It's the same credentials, it's just the learning format that is different. Instructors should remind their students of that.

EV: It's true. At the end, their diplomas won’t say University of Kentucky, online degree. You mentioned one of your sessions last week, which discussed the dark side of the internet and how it can be a place where, maybe, we feel a little bit unsafe. How do you think that instructors can build a safe and trusting learning environment online? 

MB: I don't think collectively we've figured that out, but I think that trial and error is going to be the best way to tap into what is working. It starts with instructors making their communications very transparent, try to make the online course as normal as possible. Don't give students homework assignments that are too simple or vague: "My name is..." "I am here for this...." Make it very conversational. Incorporate technology, incorporate videos, make Skype sessions a normal thing in your course, do group-wide discussions via Zoom. If we integrate a lot of the face-to-face video calling technology that we have to work with, it would make online learning a less awkward experience. Even though you're behind a computer screen, it doesn't mean you can never see the people in the class. Even better, if video calling it made a requirement, then you have to see the other people in the class! As an instructor, I think it’s about being unafraid to try things that are not your normal, to just see what works with the students you have.

EV: In a traditional classroom, some instructors have doubts about making students work in groups because students can be really uncomfortable in person, as well. But of course, pedagogically, we feel no shame about making students talk to each other in person, even if they feel uncomfortable doing it! I guess there's really no difference online, with assigning things like "send in a video talking about yourself or make a recording of your voice on a video,” something to get students over that hurdle of personal interaction online with their instructors and peers.

III. What qualities do you think are essential for a good online instructor?

EV: What qualities do you think are essential for a good online instructor?

MB: Whoo, I love that question! Someone that is experimental. I think people that are unafraid of change, people that are able to adapt well to change, and people that are open minded about the possibilities of change. Going back to expectations, if you bring in an expectation that something's just not going to be the same, or something's not going to be effective, then it's not going to be effective, period. I think that you should come into online education ready to learn things yourself.

I think a lot of faculty shy away from teaching online because they don't know what to expect. You know, you already don't know what to expect in the classroom when you first get there, but online is even more mysterious, you really don't know. So I think that instead of being worried about the perception, be more brave and open in the delivery of the course. Address it! Say to the students: "I know this is awkward, I know you guys don't know each other, but let's change that narrative together. This is how we're going to do it..." And then, see if it works.​

IV. How can instructors make sure their students feel like they belong to a campus community?

EV: I know that you are really passionate about making sure that online degree-seekers feel like they belong in a group. What are some other ways that instructors can make sure that their students feel like they belong? We've talked about these assignments and making sure you get some face time with your online students, but what are some other ways that we can ensure that online students feel that they belong to a campus community, even though it is networked across the internet?

MB: That's a really, really good question, and one that I toss around alot. How can we make that connection? Because again, it's so varied. We don't know what “belonging” or “community” is going to look like for each class...but to start, talk about the same type of things that you would talk about in-person. For example, if there's something crazy happening on UK’s campus, talk about it. Make an assignment around it. Ask the students to do research on where they're going to school. If students are enrolled in an online program, they really need to know the history of that school if they’re really going to belong there. Find creative ways to implement that knowledge and the news of the day. I think a lot of people underestimate the power of that. Talk about things that online students want to know: what is happening on campus, how campus is trying to revamp their online initiatives, other things coming down the pipeline to support online education. A lot of times, we don't share that, and it contributes to the narrative that online students often believe: "well, they don't really care about me, I'm just online..." The students don't know how hard people are working to get them what they need! 

EV: Ah, it's putting online courses in a context. That's really important because, as a person who's taught online, and just my conception of online teaching, when you get in that space and open up that Canvas window, it doesn't feel like you're where you are, it feels very out of context. It feels disjointed. But we should do whatever we can to put that course in the context of something other than the robotic notion: "I open up my screen, and I'm on this website where my class exists…” We can communicate to students, “No, your class exists in the world, and specifically, within this campus, with real people learning all around you.”

MB: Right. I personally would love to see more crossover and online topics based on the content that’s happening in face-to-face classes. Something like, "Hey, Professor such-and-such in our department just lead a discussion about the same material we're covering. And this was the general consensus, what do you all think?" Make it so online and in-person curriculum are not two separate entities. It's just a different way of teaching the same stuff.

When you're dealing with students, they never want to be referred to as different. They want to say, “No, I’m a regular University of Kentucky student, I just can't be there.”

V. What assumptions do students and faculty bring into the online learning environment?

EV: What are some other expectations that students often have about going to college online, getting a degree?

MB: The number one thing that I hear is, "it's just going to be easier for me." A lot of people make that assumption simply because the technology that we use on a day-to-day basis is created to make life easier. But when it comes to education, we would be doing a disservice to students by making it "easier." We can make it more convenient for their lifestyle, what they're going through, but it's certainly not "easier." I think that's a huge assumption.

EV: On the other side of the coin, what assumptions and expectations may instructors have about online degrees and online courses? What message would you give to instructors that may be hesitant about teaching online?

MB: I hate to be cliche, but it is the way of the future. Many times they’ve never taught online before and they think: "Oh, it'll be easier. It will be quicker on my schedule" or, you know, "it's just more cut and dry. You give the students what they need and that's it." And I think that causes a humongous disconnect, because if the students assume it's going to be easier, and the teachers assume the receptiveness of the students will just be cut and dry, they're both kind of passing in the night, you know? Neither students or teachers are getting what they expected.

Many online faculty are phenomenal, they understand that needs are changing, that the current workforce is a huge reflection of this. I always challenge faculty to understand that not everyone can be here, but that should not be a reason to shortchange their opportunity for an education. Students nowadays don't necessarily need to be in school for four years to get what they need. I think the narrative is just changing.

VI. How do we encourage students to engage in online courses?

EV: What's your suggestion for making online learning, as you say, "less awkward." How do we get students to engage?

MB: Going straight for it on the first day of class. If you're looking for it, there’s a student that’s going to virtually be the one in the back of the room who isn’t saying anything. That's a standard that we just can't allow. We have the student, who, if you say “We need fifty words for this discussion post”, will give you forty-nine and some extra grammar, and that's it!

If participation feels optional, then the students are going to treat it that way. But, if you set the precedent early, if you stress the importance of being present, communicating, saying something engaging, then they're going to know this is not optional and in order to pass the class, they have to do these things.

Adding that standard to the checklist is super important. I feel like a lot of missed opportunities happen, because it's an awkward conversation to have as a faculty member to a bunch of screens, right? "OH you have to do this, and this..." well, your students don't have to do anything. They can just log off, right? But you can set the priority upfront: "My expectations are not going to be lowered. Because this course is online, it will be taken more seriously.”

EV: And hopefully it'll turn those “screens” into students, because they will, we hope, meet the instructor at that commitment. Just like in-person courses, students are dealing with so many different teaching styles from different instructors when they're in a slew of courses as part of a degree. They probably have taken courses where that commitment wasn't expressed as directly. And so you, as the instructor, have to set that expectation.

MB: One hundred percent! If we're more proactive instead of reactive with online learning, it'll just create a much more thriving environment.

EV: Being proactive takes takes prep on the instructors part, to learn how to do all of that. Practice and proactivity.

MB: Yeah! It's tough!

EV: But if we are able to be proactive about all those elements in a classroom, then we can make it happen online.

MB: One hundred percent!

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Thanks, Michia, and the rest of our UK Online Team for all you do for distance learning!

Please follow the links in the article or CLICK HERE to view all of the sessions and resources shared during National Distance Learning Week.