November 11, 2022

Catalyst Awards Blog Series: Leaving the lights on in online courses: creating a program to increase productivity

The Catalyst Awards program recognizes innovation and excellence in our global community of practice. In this blog series, a selection of 2022 award-winning institutions from across the globe share their success stories and best practices.

This post was guest authored by Cameron Bentley, the director of distance education at Augusta Technical College.

Augusta Technical College is a 2022 Catalyst Award winner in the Training & Professional Development category.

“The Hosting Inclusive Virtual Environment (H.I.V.E.) Series is a professional development series at Augusta Technical College. Participants have dedicated themselves to implementing teaching and learning practices that support inclusivity for all students. Among the efforts made by the group are commitments to all green [Anthology] Ally speedometers in courses, completing implicit bias testing, dedicating effort to culturally sensitive feedback, making intentional efforts to cultivate confidence and community during the vital first weeks of class, and working towards course designs that ascribe to the principles of the universal design for learning. Participants in the initiative are doing so on a voluntary basis out of a deep-seated belief [that] every student has the right to access high quality higher education.”

Dr. Ashley Strong-Green, Assessment Coordinator

Acknowledging some dark corners

Many of our current students are tech savvy. They’ve gained skills from driver education classes online, they’ve learned situational navigation as they socialize online, and they have developed the ability to focus for hours on end as they build worlds online. However, the quick shift to completely online education left many students and faculty feeling isolated and detached. The Distance Education Department at Augusta Technical College responded to the situation with a professional development series for instructors called H.I.V.E.: Hosting Inclusive Virtual Environments, during which we helped instructors navigate methods of creating welcoming spaces of belonging for all students. We know, from research and experience, that students who feel a sense of belonging and community in an online class are more likely to persist and succeed.

Augusta Technical College is a two-year college in Augusta, Georgia with four campuses, 4,000 students, and 405 associate degree programs, five of which can be completed fully online. We are a Predominantly Black Institution, as 61% of our students declare racial and ethnic minority classification. For the fall 2019 semester, we offered 199 classes in an online format. In the fall of 2020, the number of online classes spiked to 572. Currently, we have stabilized at 312, a new normal of 57% above pre-pandemic online offerings.

This new normal includes courses taught by faculty who were given rapid deployment-style training in building online courses. They knew the basics of presenting and assessing the academic content but were uneasy about replicating the class community that they missed from their on-campus experiences. In response, the Distance Education department developed H.I.V.E. as a nine-month (academic year 2021) series to help instructors develop inclusive and accessible online classes. Each monthly session was open to all faculty, but a cohort of 20 instructors, representing all six academic divisions and who committed to attending all sessions in the series and completing monthly assignments, were awarded a stipend for completing the series. The sessions included a variety of speakers, activities, and round tables. The topics covered emphasized increased awareness around diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of course design and teaching, from creating a syllabus to providing feedback. Sessions included “Implicit Bias Analysis and Creating Welcoming Course Orientations”, “Supporting Transgender Students”, and “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the 5A Approach to Missteps”, among others.

Installing the light switch

During the process of applying to the cohort, instructors were asked to rate the level of inclusiveness in their courses. Most of them put their courses at a C level. The group started at a mildly comfortable level with the series topics. In a survey of online students, 63% of 159 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they felt cared for as individuals in their online classes.

The metrics we set to measure the success of the series were:

  1. Increase instructor confidence with the level of inclusion in their classes to a B level
  2. Increase the percentage of students who felt cared for as individuals in their classes to 70%
  3. Develop three model practices to share with all instructors

The series was designed by the three staff members of the Distance Education department to address topics proposed by surveyed faculty as well as topics commonly discussed in current educational scholarship. The Distance Ed staff sought to use a variety of engagement techniques and delivery tools to model the type of community building under consideration.

We used a Blackboard Learn organization to house the content and enroll the cohort. Within a content area called Classroom, we created a folder for each month and filled the folders with a variety of content and tools. This included instructional content and delivery tools such as embedded lectures using software such as SoftChalk and Storyline, links to live Collaborate sessions, and recorded Collaborate sessions for make-up purposes; community building tools such as discussion forums and frequent announcements and emails; and data collection tools like surveys and embedded Microsoft Forms.

The variety of content delivery methods ensured that all participants were able to find a comfort zone for participation and engage with both the content and the other participants in their own preferred method: face to face roundtables, Collaborate chats or open mics, discussion videos or texts, or even email. We all learned through this experiment the value of providing flexible options for creating a level baseline for students of varying degrees of economic stability, neurological and physical ability, social comfort, and other commitments. Experiencing conflict and accommodation firsthand gave instructors insight into ways of creating flexibility in their classes and reasons to do so.

Flipping the switch

Of the 20 instructors who began in the cohort, 18 of them completed the full series. In addition to the cohort members, 31 other faculty members attended some sessions of the series, so 51 faculty members participated in all.

To successfully reach our goal of increasing instructor confidence in the level of inclusion in their classes, we addressed both the pedagogy and the tool use. During the series, participants not only discussed topics such as the benefits of a welcoming course orientation and creating an inclusive syllabus, but also worked in groups to use Collaborate and Yuja to create and post videos and to use various authoring tools such as SoftChalk and Microsoft Sway to create an engaging syllabus.

The most successful changes these faculty reported having made to their classes are:

  • The addition of a personal introduction video to welcome all students and initiate the building of a community
  • Putting the time expectations on the syllabus into a graphical form
  • Giving the final exam as a pre-assessment and guide during the first week of class
  • Including surveys or assessments to encourage metacognition at the end of each unit and to gather advice from students to share with the next semester’s students

Students in online classes during the fall of 2022 were surveyed to assess the degree to which they felt cared for as individuals in their classes. We robustly surpassed our 70% goal with 76.5% of students agreeing or strongly agreeing that they feel cared for in their online classes.

Leaving the light on

The H.I.V.E. participants have made positive changes in their online class delivery, affecting the educational success of hundreds of students. They have also shared their ideas and stories of what worked and what didn’t work with the larger community of distance education instructors at Augusta Tech. The Distance Education department has added their stories and ideas to our Blackboard Learn organization for professional development, to which all instructors at the college belong, so H.I.V.E. lessons will reach a larger audience and have an impact on more and more students each semester.

To meet our final goal of developing model practices based on the H.I.V.E. lessons that can be shared out to all instructors, the Distance Education staff created models and step-by-step guides for:

Role-playing discussion: Students are asked to address topics from the perspective of a member of a certain group such as first-generation college students, veterans, gamers, the elderly, etc. We provided rubrics, objectives, instructions for students, instructions facilitators, and guidance for how to build the forum, assign the groups, evaluate the topic, and grade the work.

A visual syllabus: The Distance Education staff provided examples built in Sway, Softchalk, and Blackboard modules and developed step-by-step instructions for building in each format, what sections to include, what types of information to put in graphical format, a comparison of inclusive and non-inclusive ways of phrasing information, ideas for using images that reflect an inclusive community, and how to best implement a syllabus negotiation activity to build buy in from students.

An assessment to guide students through metacognitive strategies: Getting feedback from students is important because it helps them evaluate their performance, makes them feel like their voice is valued, and gives the instructor important information about the student experience. The Distance Education staff created a list of questions and developed step-by-step instructions for faculty to create a discussion, a Microsoft form, a Blackboard survey, and a Blackboard assessment to use for this activity. We also provided instructors with a list of journal articles and other sources giving compelling evidence of the benefits of providing spaces for student reflection and feedback.

Many factors contribute to student retention and success. We are confident that feeling included matters, but we need long term data to demonstrate the statistical impact, so that phase of our project is happening this term, our first semester after H.I.V.E. completion. Our H.I.V.E. instructors feel reinvigorated and eager to share. Their experiences and successes will be replicated by other faculty who follow their example and make use of the models created by the Distance Education department. The light switches have been installed, the lights have been turned on, and the lights will stay on to welcome everyone who wants to belong to our educational communities.

Watch the H.I.V.E. series video here:

For more information on the program, visit Catalyst Awards. Learn more about our 2022 Catalyst Award winners and their stories.