Smoothing online speed bumps

Award-winning program helps faculty deliver more courses to CMU’s far-flung students

| Author: ​Jeff Johnston

After years in Central Michigan University information technology, where "nerd is a compliment," Denise McBride had no fear of computers.

But as a faculty member, McBride worried when she set out last summer to create an online business information systems course. She'd heard horror stories of a long and confusing path.

Fortunately for McBride and other faculty, a team of CMU pros had smoothed the bumps to online course creation.

Gone was the average 145-day-long process and the 89 percent rate of missed deadlines. In its place was a system that has tripled the pace of successful online course creation without increasing staff.


"This was not a people problem, it was a process challenge," said Jeremy Bond, interim director of eLearning at CMU's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Bond and a team that included colleagues Mingsheng Dai, manager of instructional design in CETL, and Kendra Brown, faculty support and assignment coordinator, won the 2018 Catalyst Award in training and professional development from educational support company Blackboard, but there's plenty of credit to go around.

"It really has included essentially everyone willing to reinvent the process," Bond said.

"Their only goal was for me to be successful. I just love that team approach." — faculty member Denise McBride

Before CMU rolled out the upgraded course creation process, Bond said university instructors never had created more than 36 new online courses in an academic year. But in the pilot year of 2016-17, faculty created more than 70 courses. In 2017-18, the number rose to nearly 100. And the start-to-finish time is down to 97 days.

The new system leads small groups of faculty through the process at three scheduled times a year, standardizing the steps that can be standardized, giving instructors a built-in support group and connecting them with partners — a librarian, instructional designer, media producer, eLearning coordinator and more.

"Their only goal was for me to be successful," McBride said. "I just love that team approach."

The process includes a ticketing system like many IT departments use to manage help requests. Faculty can hand off their mundane tasks, freeing up time and energy to focus on course content.

"It really acknowledges the expertise of the faculty," said Barbara Klocko, an educational leadership faculty member. "We aren't faced with hours of development minutiae."

"Last summer I developed three courses at the same time," Klocko said. "I wouldn't have been able to do that otherwise."

'Not just throwing your syllabus online'

Most online courses start as on-campus courses, and converting them is a tall order. Beyond the obvious challenge of teaching and learning without in-person contact, online courses operate on eight- and 12-week schedules instead of the traditional 16-week semester.

"It's not just throwing your syllabus online," Klocko said. Instructors have to think purposefully about assignments, resources, activities, and how to make personal connections with students and ensure that they meet course objectives.

"We're not machines doing all of this. We're professors," she said, and the team approach to course development keeps faculty focused. "We're getting better at it, and support like this can really help us to be better.

"Ultimately, that's good for students."

'We are responding to the needs'

Bringing more courses online faster and better is important as CMU expands its reach into underserved areas of Michigan and beyond.

Klocko said CMU's Specialist in Education and Master of Arts in Educational Leadership degrees are 100 percent online, as is the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership degree with the exception of one class.

"In the Ed.D. cohort last year, almost half of the students were from the Upper Peninsula," she said.

"We're getting amazing students from all over the country. We are responding to the needs of educational leaders who are in the field."

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