Rebecca Johnson—When she moved her large-enrollment biology courses online, Sandi Connelly wanted to create an environment that met the educational needs of both supported and non-supported students. Her efforts to create inclusive courses led to the Brightspace Excellence Award for Accessibility, which recognized her course design, activities, use of the myCourses platform, and her video library that purposefully integrated captions and an on-screen ASL interpreter. TLS asked her to talk about her experience developing these courses and what she discovered about her students while teaching them online for the first time.
Examples of her videos are available on her YouTube channel.
- When you first considered teaching online, you’d already received an award for face-to-face teaching. What were your biggest concerns or questions when you thought about developing an online version of General Biology?
Teaching is about the students—it always has been, and it always must be. My primary concerns about an online version of General Biology were twofold: first, would the students be able to grasp the content in this environment; second, would the students actually go through the materials as needed to be successful in the course. If either became an issue, this would not be a successful endeavor. But how would I gather information on what was happening in the course before it was too late to address shortfalls?
An important source of information is student feedback. Interacting one-on-one with students has always been a critical part of the success of the large lecture courses (BIOL 101 and 102, General Biology I and II), from which my new online courses (BIOG 101 and 102, Explorations I and II) are derived. I wasn’t sure how to foster this interaction in an online course. I tried virtual office hours, discussion boards, wikis, etc., in the first run of the online course. What I had failed to realize until after I had taught the online course for the first time—online students are different. The students who are successful in online courses are different from students who are successful in the face-to-face environment. I knew this somewhere in my subconscious, I’m sure, but I ignored those voices and pressed on, treating the online students the same as those in my face-to-face class.
When you’re in class with students, you can see when someone doesn’t understand, you make eye contact, you make conversation before and after class, you make general class announcements or recommendations, you ask questions to see whether students understand what you’re discussing, you see heads nodding when you or another student answers a question. When you do these things in class, everyone is there with you. Feedback is immediate.
You get a lot of feedback in an online class, but you need to know where to look—email, the Q&A discussion topic that I create in each online class, and even in the subtleties of their responses to exam questions. If a student responds, “It is my understanding that . . . and that is why I think this is the answer,” they are giving you information about their thinking process. Feedback from online students—both written opinions and course performance—come in very different forms and must be recognized as feedback!
What do you do with the feedback you’re getting from students? That’s where you begin to think about their feedback as a kind of formative assessment of your students. This type of assessment is multifaceted and cannot be captured in bar graphs and percentages at the end of a term. Monitoring progress and making adjustments throughout a term, not at the end of the term, is critical for the success of all students and the course overall. I had to find ways to monitor progress of students whom I will never meet face-to-face. Much of this is done in the design of the course with frequent due dates—making sure that the students are performing well on assessments and keeping up with the materials. Turns out that there are a lot of subtleties to this and it is something that takes time, and care.
- As a way of providing course content that would help all students, and particularly supported students, you created an impressive library of student videos. What was your learning curve like in developing them and how did you handle that?
I designed my course with supported students in mind, so that these students actually have a significant advantage in the online course compared to the face-to-face version. This doesn’t mean that the supported students have an advantage over their peers in the online course, but I wanted to see if I could create materials that give them an equal shot at success.
My learning curve was not all that steep, as I’m fairly comfortable with technology platforms. A couple of short sessions with Joe Zelazny in Teaching and Learning Services and I was ready to go! Perhaps I was ignoring the “uncomfortable” part of the learning curve because I had very tight deadlines on the implementation of the materials. I originally designed them for my flipped classroom and only had three weeks to get as much material front-loaded as possible before the start of the semester. When you have deadlines, your comfort level suddenly becomes a moot point.
- How did you work with your ASL interpreter to sign the videos, both in terms of workflow and ensuring sufficient accuracy?
The great thing is that I hand-selected my interpreter for this project. Christine Spencer and I have worked together for many years in the General Biology class before we started the video endeavor. She has huge content knowledge in biology, specifically in my courses. Therefore, we did not have any issues with accuracy of materials. Coordinating schedules on the aforementioned short timeline was the tough part! We determined quickly that we couldn’t run this like our face-to-face classes. I wanted the ASL to be in sync with the lecturing, as opposed to what happens in a regular class where there is a processing delay between the lecturer and the interpreter. We chose to work together independently—I recorded my lecture with the screen shots and then captioned the video myself before handing it off to Chris. Chris then listened to my video while she signed in front of a camera. She would then pass her video back to me and I would merge the two files. Ta-da! It worked really well for us, but you have to know and trust your team to make this as seamless as it was for us.
- What other assistance or partners did you have with this project?
I had originally created these videos as part of a flipped classroom approach and had worked with Joe Z. as needed for the videotaping and posting of videos in the flipped classroom.
It was not until a year later that I decided to use all of my videos to go fully online with the courses. When I made that move, I applied and was accepted to the ILI Gen Ed Online Course Development (GOLD) course and worked with Marty Golia to design an online environment that would be friendlier to the students. Marty helped me a lot with layout and structure. I have now reworked and revamped a lot of what Marty and I designed to reflect feedback from the students. It is an evolving course, and if it is done correctly, it should never stop evolving.
- Do you have different types of videos (i.e., lectures, lab preps, follow-ups to questions, etc.)?
My primary set of videos is for the lecture content. I occasionally post additional videos, primarily as tools for the students. For instance, I am not visible in my lecture videos (by design, to make room for the interpreter, captions, and screen capture), so I always make a welcome video every semester for all of my online courses/sections. In these videos, I talk to the camera, so that students see me, and then I walk them through the course—myCourses, the publisher website, everything that they need to be successful in the course. This is like the course orientation that I do on the first day of all my classes. Making this video has been great because I am answering students’ questions before they even have them, and I’m giving them a sense of “I can do this!” Students have told me that they love this first introduction to me and to the course.
- What kind of feedback did you receive from your supported students? What did they find most useful?
The supported students LOVE the streamlining of the content in these videos. They have slides and an interpreter/captioning all in their field of view. Think about how an interpreter is positioned in a classroom—up front, hardly ever in line with the screen or board. Now, take that person and put them actually on the screen. The students have loved it!
Further, because I was focused on speaking clearly for my interpreter, and for the auto-captioning tool in the video software, all of the students have appreciated that I go clearly and succinctly through things. There is not a lot of fluff, but for an online student who is often juggling work, a family, and classes, fluff isn’t always welcome.
7. What was your greatest discovery or insight the first time you taught the online version?
Online students are not face-to-face students! I had to rethink deadlines, time frames, and schedules. Every time I teach the online course, it is tweaked slightly based on feedback from previous classes, but I also change things midstream as needed. For example, my students in the summer online class always seem to take on too much—between work, multiple classes, and home. This meant that the exams I had scheduled on Tuesdays to be completed between 12:01am and 11:59pm were extremely difficult for some of the students to fit in between their other commitments. After the first exam when I asked a couple of students why they struggled with the materials and did not even attempt some of the questions, I found out what they were juggling. My response? Open the exams at 8:00am on Monday and close them at 11:59pm on Tuesday. I only allow the students 90 minutes to complete the exam once they begin, but the time change gave the students much more flexibility and better opportunities to balance their workload. It’s the little things that lead to success of the students, and of the course itself.
We always think about keeping tight deadlines and structure to reduce cheating, to make things easier for instructors, and so on, but this should not be at the heart of a course design, or redesign. Curriculum development is a challenge, and addressing student needs in the design so that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed is even more so. My course redesign has afforded all of my online students an opportunity to journey together, on equal footing—with me as a truly proud guide-on-the-side.
Sandi Connelly joined RIT as a lecturer in 2007 and became an assistant professor in 2009. Every term, she teaches large enrollment foundational biology classes (traditional General Biology and online Explorations in Biology), engaging hundreds of students with diverse interests from all colleges at RIT.
In recognition of her passion for teaching, Connelly has received several international and institute teaching awards. She was most recently awarded the D2L Accessibility Award (2016) and the Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Award (2015), both for her work in making course materials ADA compliant and deaf-friendly. She was awarded the College of Science Outstanding Teaching Award in 2014 and the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost's Award for Outstanding Teaching 2011. The Provost's Award recognizes annually one outstanding teacher with fewer than three years teaching at RIT.