Bridging Policy & Practice: Reflections From an Online Educator & Digital Learning Advocate

Ahh, April. Here in Ohio the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing and it is back to school season for my students.  Yet, the spring start date isn’t the only non-traditional aspect of my class.
My students are adults—graduate students in fact—most of them practicing educators. They’ve enrolled in the University of Cincinnati Masters in Educational Leadership Online Program and they will spend the next two years with their online cohort and me. While we will never meet face-to-face, the cohort will transform from a group of individual strangers to a tight cadre of peers who will come to rely on each other professionally and personally for years to come.
I’ve been an online course facilitator since 2005. This is the fourth cohort of students that I will take through their full two-year program to certify as educational leaders.  Launched in fall of 2003, the program currently serves approximately 130 students, with five faculty members and ten online facilitators. Like me, all facilitators are former students – an intentional way to build continuity and a true testament to the strength of the program. To date, 765 students have graduated and earned licensure in 24 states. Only 65% of students are local Ohio residents.
It’s an exciting and important time for my cohort and me as we begin this two-year virtual journey together. As an experienced online instructor, I’ve come to learn a number of things about the sensitive nature of these early weeks.

How to Set Initial Class Sessions & Expectations

Initial class sessions, be they virtual or face-to-face, require the same deliberate intention to getting to know each other, setting goals together, establishing clear expectations and formulating classroom procedures.  Because I work with adult educators with their own expertise about pedagogy and classroom management, I present my students with the opportunity in the early weeks to form their own group goals and establish norms about what they expect from one another and from me in the virtual environment. Often, these things are not much different from what you would expect in a traditional setting – freedom to share ideas without judgment or attack; opportunities to work collaboratively and individually; desire for fair and consistent evaluations of their work and assignments that are practical and meaningful to their professional practice.

Students Discover Unexpected Advantages of Online Learning

While I’ve found over the years that college students choose virtual education for various reasons—flexibility of timing, ability to balance coursework with family/career/military commitments—students often discover additional advantages. Chief among these: constant, ongoing points of contact with their peers and instructors. The virtual cohort creates a personal learning network that is always accessible. Unlike a traditional course, class discussions aren’t limited to 4:00-6:30pm on Tuesday evenings in Room 112. Discussion boards and emails are always open. Office hours become meaningless and someone is always available. As such, feedback loops are shorter and more meaningful. Students with questions seek answers from one another and from me as they arise by accessing the virtual Q&A forum I establish each quarter. Online exchange of documents means that students receive evaluations of their assignments without having to wait for the next class meeting. New assignments are created with the benefit of feedback from the previous one. Learning happens in real time.

Online Learning Oftentimes Has High Levels of Engagement

People are often surprised at the level of engagement that online educators have with their students. Much of this can be attributed to the program’s cohort model that keeps students together with their peer group and me as their facilitator for the full two-years in addition to the university instructor that also manages each course individually. Engaging several times weekly over the course of two years means that a lot of “life” happens during our time together – births and deaths, new jobs and RIFs, marriages and divorces.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a seasoned online facilitator is to create opportunities to foster community development in the virtual environment. For me, that means the creation of a “virtual hallway” discussion forum for each new course where we discuss non-academic topics that interest us. I’ve experimented over the years with posting prompts or just letting discussion in these forums occur organically and have come to rely on a balance of the two.
Just as important as the creation of this space to be human with one another in the virtual environment is the valuable realization that students should not feel required to participate in these more personal ways. As virtual educators, it’s important to respect the students who chose virtual learning because they value the anonymity and appreciate the opportunity to engage more with content than with peers.

How Online Facilitation Merges With Ed Policy

Working as an online facilitator is only one part of my career. My “day job” involves working as an education policy researcher and consultant. It wasn’t until recently that these worlds merged, and I began to engage in policy work to support the expansion of digital learning opportunities across the P-20 spectrum.
Having the dual perspective of a digital learning researcher and digital learning instructor gives me an interesting lens to view both worlds. This perspective helps me to build bridges between policy and practice that must exist as the nation takes up the work of expanding digital and blended learning opportunities. I am able to make policy recommendations based on the reality of what I know the future of education demands. As students enter college and the workforce, they will increasingly access digital learning and should therefore be required to take at least one online course or more to graduate. Teaching online requires a unique set of competencies and teacher preparation and professional programs must evolve accordingly. Education policies must reflect shifts like these. Those of us who know the potential of digital learning from our own experiences must amplify our voices to inspire action – from classrooms to statehouses and beyond.

Originally posted by Carri Schneider as a guest author for Getting Smart. 

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Charissa Talsma

As one of Dr. Schneider's first cohorts of students, I can attest to the beauty of the online program. I searched out the program for many of the reasons she stated within her blog post; however, at the time I was a music teacher with very few options to advance my degree without stepping out of the classroom. This program allowed me to continue my career in the classroom and also pursue opportunities that I might not have, had I not been involved in the program. In fact, I am now no longer in the classroom, but serving as a Curriculum Director for a charter school in Michigan--something that would not have been possible without the experience and knowledge I gained through the program.
What I enjoyed most about the program was the fact that the discussion board was always open, and this allowed time to process and think about the discussions prior to making a statement or assumption. Despite being miles away from each other, my classmates and I got into some pretty heated discussions over the course of the two years, and the virtual aspect of the classroom allowed me to come back with that great comment that you always think about two hours after class. I truly believe that some of our discussions were actually deeper through the virtual realm than they would've been had we reported to class for 3 hours once a week.
My experience within the program was nothing but a positive one--the university even allowed me to extend my time in the program as I went on maternity leave during the course of the two years, which gave me a unique opportunity to be a part of not just one, but two cohorts--each having their own uniqueness-es that I came love and appreciate.

John Stegall

As a member of Dr. Schneider's third cohort of students that enrolled in Fall 2009 and graduated during Fall 2011, I echo Charissa's comments. I was in training to become a school administrator at the time I enrolled in the University of Cincinnati 's Masters in Educational Leadership Online Program. Anyone who is familiar with the role and responsibilities of a school administrator knows and understands that the job does not end when a typical school day does for students. For this reason, I needed the extra flexibility that only an online program could provide.
Prior to selecting UC, I researched and compared several education administration Master's degree programs, including online and traditional "face-to-face" options. I ultimately concluded that no other program appeared to offer the balance of flexibility and rigor that UC's online program did. Indeed, my actual experiences within UC's Masters in Educational Leadership Online Program exceeded my expectations. I found the quality of the weekly asynchronous discussions I engaged in with my cohort to be as strong or better than the interactions I had previously experienced within traditional classroom settings.
As Charissa mentioned, the ability to reflect upon readings and think through responses before posting them was extremely beneficial. It greatly improved the depth and quality of our discussions, and also aided my preparation for writing reflection papers and completing research projects. It was also insightful to converse with a diverse group of educators who hailed from the Greater Cincinnati-Dayton area, as well as West Virginia, North Carolina, Texas and California. Some members of the group were younger, and some were more experienced, but all brought unique and valuable perspectives to our ongoing conversation.
I feel that UC's Masters in Educational Leadership Online Program adequately prepared me to successfully complete the Educational Leadership Praxis for my Principal's License, which I accomplished in Spring 2011. It also prepared me to enter a doctoral program, of which I am now a first year student in Urban Educational Leadership at the University of Cincinnati. Clearly, the program has given me a firm foundation of practical knowledge, theory and skills to stand and build upon throughout my professional career.
I must also note that for all of the rewards and benefits I have received, the two years I invested in completing my Master's were particularly challenging for me from a life events perspective. In January 2010, just after New Years Day, I was involved in a car accident that resulted in significant hearing loss and chronic tinnitus in my left ear when my driver's side curtain airbag deployed. In May 2011, my paternal grandmother passed away. During both events, Dr. Schneider and the UC Educational Leadership Program Faculty were very supportive and provided me with the time and additional flexibility to cope with the transitions that had occurred. I am grateful for their care and concern, and it has reinforced for me that humane connections and relationships are definitely possible within an online learning environment.

Carri Schneider, Ed.D.

How nice to see former students sharing their perspectives on virtual learning here. I imagine there are lots of students in programs across the country who might have unique perspectives on their experiences to share as well, and I would love to hear them.
It's been my experience so far that those who have learned (and taught) inside these virtual classrooms are the best advocates for busting myths and setting the record straight.

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