Wiley University Services sat down with Dr. Polly Smith from Utica University to talk about her insights, opinions, and experiences teaching and managing programs online. Smith is a distinguished member of Wiley’s Fellows initiative, which aims to foster a community of practice among Wiley’s institutional partners focused on innovative online teaching and learning.
Q&A with Dr. Polly Smith, Utica University
Wiley: Tell us about yourself and your history with online learning.
Dr. Polly Smith: I am the Associate Provost for Online Learning at Utica University; I oversee and manage 22 fully online programs. I have 12 years of online teaching experience. I teach a variety of sociology classes online and previously directed a master’s of liberal studies online.
You have extensive experience in online learning. What did you think when you first started teaching online and what do you think now, given all that you know?
Dr. Polly Smith: When I was first approached about teaching a course online, I was very skeptical. I have a background in secondary education and I thought that the classroom was the best way to present content to students, to get the best learning outcomes, and to achieve my goals as a teacher in the classroom. But I’m a full believer in the fact that you can’t really knock something until you try it.
I went into the online environment thinking I can do exactly what I do in the on-ground classroom. I tried that for the first two to three courses before I decided that it wasn’t working. What I know now that I wish I had seen at the beginning is that online education is not the same as teaching in a classroom. The objectives are the same, the outcomes should be the same, but the way you deliver content is completely different.
One of the most important pieces that I’ve learned in the last five years is working with an instructional designer and acknowledging that he or she knows more about the technology and the techniques that work better in the online space is perfectly okay!
I am the expert in my content area – sociology. But the instructional designer knows about technology, the best way to lead a discussion, the types of learning activities you can use, and the best way to do group work in an online setting. Combining those factors with my presence in the online space makes for a very high quality online class.
It sounds like getting used to working with an instructional designer for online course design was a big adjustment for you. What was it like making that transition and how did it impact your overall experience teaching online?
Dr. Polly Smith: Working with an instructional designer is a completely different experience for someone with a PhD, who takes their content very seriously and believes that they are a subject matter expert. Academics do not traditionally want someone else to tell them how to teach their course.
Adjusting to working with an instructional designer was a challenge for me, because I think I have my course objectives and content delivery all figured out. I know how to work with the students. This is my content. I don’t want someone else asking what I mean when I say I want students to understand X topic or how I think I can communicate that in the online space.
But it doesn’t work that way! When you work with an instructional designer, you develop measurable course level learning objectives and module level learning objectives, and then you figure out how best to communicate that content in the online space. It’s about combining what’s comfortable for the faculty member, which is likely content or delivery methods that are more common to the on-ground traditional classroom, and taking them into a new online space.
When you see the students respond to these new techniques and technology, it really is very rewarding. You have to be willing to take some risks and be open to new ideas from the instructional designer. It’s necessary to overcome the notion that someone is trying to tell you what to do in your space, when indeed that is not the case. What they are really trying to do is say how do you communicate this differently in this space.
As someone who has now taken the risks and seen opportunities online learning can provide, what advice would you share with a faculty member who is new to teaching online?
Dr. Polly Smith: If I were talking to a faculty member who was going to be teaching their first online course, I would tell them that they are going to get the best discussions they’ve ever seen. In a classroom, you might have two or three people that talk over 15 weeks. In an online course, all 20-25 students will participate, answering every single one of your questions, responding to multiple peers each week. If that’s not reward enough to teach in the online space, I don’t know what is.
Additionally, when planning an online course, a professor needs to make sure that they have a plan not only for content delivery and grading, but for how they will communicate with students. Students want to have interaction with their faculty member. They want to feel like they are important. Communication, in my mind, is key to the online course.
Faculty who are new to online learning often feel that they’ll lose a valuable sense of community. How would you describe “community” in the online environment?
Dr. Polly Smith: Community in an online course is something that has to be created. It doesn’t just automatically exist. And community to me does not necessarily mean quantity, but rather quality of interaction. So for me, students will feel like they’re part of the classroom, part of the online community, part of their program, or the course if they get quality interactions from faculty and from their peers. That has to be generated.
So in your opinion, what are the main characteristics of an excellent online course?
Dr. Polly Smith: An excellent online course is an online course that has three equally weighted components: 33.3% design, 33.3% high quality content, and 33.3% engagement, which includes faculty presence, student to faculty, and student to student participation.
Let’s talk briefly about Utica University’s experience partnering with Wiley University Services to develop all the online programs you oversee. In your opinion, what is the advantage of working with a partner?
Dr. Polly Smith: Utica University has taken advantage of the academic support services that Wiley offers and I think it’s improved our ability to not only take on additional students and launch new programs, but also to improve things such as retention, engagement in the classroom, and implementing a degree of standardization that is needed to scale. In terms of efficiencies and the ability to scale and take on not only more students, but also to launch more programs, working with the support team at Wiley has been advantageous for Utica.
You’ve been a Wiley Fellow for over 3 years now. How have you enjoyed being a part of a community of faculty from other Wiley partners that focuses on innovative online teaching and learning?
Dr. Polly Smith: I’ve had the opportunity to be the senior Wiley Fellow and it has been a terrific experience. As an administrator, it brings me back into the world of faculty. Not only do I teach three times a year, but with this group I get to communicate with faculty who are teaching in all sorts of programs, at different levels of experience, and who are at different levels of acceptance about online learning.
Working with Wiley Fellows gives us the opportunity to solve problems in a way that is much more efficient and effective than we could ever do on any one campus. The group allows us to come together to discuss issues, to compare experiences, and then to come up with solutions that not only I can use, but that we can use across all of our campuses. It makes the group extremely valuable.
All in all, what’s the one thing about teaching online that you didn’t know before?
Dr. Polly Smith: One thing I’ve learned about online teaching, that I didn’t know 12 years ago is that it’s an iterative process – your course is never done. In the classroom, I’d have lecture notes, I would have PowerPoints that I posted, I’d have discussion questions that I knew were going to generate discussion, I’d have assignments that I would give out on a regular basis. And I could walk into the classroom on any given day with almost no prep. In an online course, it doesn’t work that way. It’s iterative.
Every time I teach my online course, I have to go back and evaluate my discussion questions, assessments, and content to make sure it’s fresh and it works. Teaching online is a lot of work, but it also provides rewards from the students that you don’t always get in the classroom.
To learn more about other faculty member’s experience in teaching online programs, visit our blog.