Skill Building Opportunities for Distance Learning Professionals

As with any profession, distance learning instructors have a range of options to develop new and different career skills and maintain efficiency in the classroom. In this industry, technology consistently evolves and instructors must refresh teaching methods in order to reach students effectively. If you’re unable to slip away for a conference and are searching for something more engaging than a standard teaching manual, skill building with colleagues on your own campus provides timely and convenient educational opportunities.

North Lake College in Irving, Texas, is doing just that. Faculty-led efforts include training sessions for online course development, a collaborative support program for instructors and implementation of a teaching approach from a nationwide distance learning organization.

Patricia Thompson, chemistry professor at North Lake, has taught distance learning for the past six years. She says her biggest struggles are keeping students engaged with online courses and dispelling the myth that distance learning is easy.

“Online courses have a bad reputation because students think it’s going to be easier,” Thompson said. “We want North Lake’s distance learning courses to be of high quality so students put forth as much effort and receive as much education as they do in our on-campus classes.”

Before North Lake instructors create online courses, they must go through an internal training process that introduces online teaching software as well as pedagogy. They’re also introduced to Quality Matters (QM), a national program that certifies best practices for distance education through established guidelines, peer reviews and continuous improvement. Following this process, North Lake instructors develop their courses.

“It’s easier to design the online course from the ground up rather than having to go back and recreate it,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to bring all our online courses up to Quality Matters standards so we will be a campus with effective online courses for students.”

QM provides a rubric for instructors to follow when designing their online courses. It includes learning objectives, assessment and measurement, instructional materials and more.  Instructors may apply for QM certification and undergo a review process after teaching their course for several semesters.

One other skill building opportunity that North Lake and other campuses across the country use is the Teaching Squares program. Originally established at St. Louis Community College, this philosophy enriches teaching through a structured process of classroom observations and shared reflection.

A teaching square consists of four faculty members from different disciplines who spend several weeks visiting one another’s classrooms, sharing teaching materials, discussing classroom observations and reflecting with colleagues at lunch meetings. In the case of North Lake, Thompson and her colleagues enroll in one another’s virtual courses instead of visiting classrooms.

In addition to the skill building tactics utilized at North Lake College, you can also develop skills in the same manner that you teach your students – through the Internet. Webinars are just one effective way to learn. The U.S. Distance Learning Association maintains an archive of its previous presentations. Hands-On Labs also provides a wealth of information on its website and in the Online Science Educator.

As an instructor, you have the ability to continuously improve your teaching methods. Whether you are collaborating and growing with other teachers or listening to tips from industry experts, it is possible to stay on top of the best practices to provide quality education to your students.


Using Skype as a Tool to Teach Online Science (LabPaq) Laboratories

By Dr. James W. Brown, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Science, Ocean County College

Dr. James W. Brown

During the Fall Semester of 2011 I began using Skype as a teaching tool with students having difficulties with their online laboratories. For several years, I have been teaching Principles of Biological Science, General Biology I and II and Microbiology totally online. The “hands-on” wet labs using LabPaqs have been a unique feature of the courses. Students would have frequent questions about the laboratories, which usually were resolved by referring them back to the well- written lab manuals that accompany their LabPaqs. I supplemented those materials with several illustrating how to adjust your microscope, streak a bacterial plate, using sterile technique, transferring a culture, etc. In spite of these efforts, some students required a little more Tender Loving Care (TLC). At times, numerous e-mails were exchanged and chat rooms used in an attempt to resolve issues.  I even asked them to call me on my cell phone at specific times, since although deployed military could call me I couldn’t call them back- their telephone information was scrambled for security purposes.

I began using Skype as a way of instantly communicating with the student and helping them with their immediate lab issues. Skype is a web-based communication tool. Its video and audio component is wonderful tool and it makes the student feel as if you are in a laboratory right next to them. I can actually hold up test tubes, culture plates or microscope components and walk the student right through the process even though they are on the other side of the world. I first became aware of the potential for Skype in my online courses while watching an instructor in Guatemala teaching Spanish to my eight year old daughter. The real-time “face-to-face” contact provides a wonderful opportunity to help students who need just a little extra help. I frequently use it to help the students set up their microscope in microbiology, in which a drop of oil is added between the 40X high dry objective and the 100X oil immersion objective. It is a bit tricky, but the student can see instantly how to do it.

Dr. Jim Brown using Skype to communicate with student miles away
Photo Credit: William M. Brown photography

Skype is free and can be set up easily in 5 minutes. It is an incredible educational tool, and I wish I had begun using years ago. For a small cost, video conferencing can be added to a Skype account. My future plans include using Skype to bring in guest speakers, speaking to students live from their laboratories. I hope to add a virtual live hospital laboratory field trip experience for next semester, allowing microbiology students to watch a live culture work up. The possibilities are endless.

I also have encouraged students to use virtual lab partners. I require each student to purchase a LabPaq and use a completely difference set of experimental data but they can “hold hands” and help each other through the process. Many of them use Skype to help each other.

You can set up Skype instantly by going to their website. Most computers sold today have the webcam and microphone built right in, and you can be ready to go in just a few minutes. Skype and LabPaq, “perfect together!” Try it and you will love it!



This article has been translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich here >>

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