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FIVE (OR SIX) QUESTIONS for Chadia Abras

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / October 2008

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With her extensive background in linguistics and education, Chadia Abras saw the benefits of online learning to language students early on through the use of computer-based training. Her own training with Jenny Preece involved online communities and creating heuristics for success for education and health communities, which she applied in her position as director of educational technology and distance learning at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD.

Lisa Neal Gualtieri: Please describe your graduate program, your position, and how you got there?
Chadia Abras: At Goucher College, we have three distance learning, limited-residency programs that were established in the early-to-mid 1990s. The programs were created before much technology was in common use and relied on email and conference calls. Later, a live chat software called HorizonLive was added; eventually Blackboard was too. The programs have very different needs in term of course delivery and technology. The Master of Fine Art in Creative Non-Fiction is mostly a mentoring program with collaborative discussions and application of knowledge. Students are required to create manuscripts and submit them for publication. The Master of Art in Historic Preservation has relied on a British model of mentoring and instruction, while the Master of Art in Arts Administration is a traditional program where instruction is a mix of collaborative learning, mentoring, and application of knowledge. All three graduate programs are designed for people who are already practitioners in their own field and wish to specialize in specific areas for the purpose of advancement.

When I was hired in August 2005, it was up to me to create a job description, which has evolved. Now I am responsible for creating and maintaining best practices for distance and hybrid courses; for faculty and student training and for creating training courses for both groups; and for assessing the needs of the programs and suggesting technology that could enhance student learning and collaboration. The bulk of my work is in course design.

LNG: What are your most satisfying accomplishments to date?
CA: I am most gratified with the outcomes of the course-design team approach to course development. The idea came about because faculty indicated that they did not have the time to fully train on the use of technology and to design and develop their own courses. I started a team responsible for assisting faculty in course design, allowing faculty to have full control over their content. In no way did I want the team to create cookie-cutter courses to be managed by faculty. The team includes an instructional designer, two course developers, a distance learning expert, the faculty member, and the content director. The faculty member supplies the content with the approval of the director, and then the content is divided into modules, with activities, learning outcomes, assessments, etc. with the help of the designer and input from the faculty.

Another program I am proud of is the mentoring program for faculty, in which the faculty member is assigned a mentor for the first time they teach online and as requested after. The mentor shadows the faculty member in the course and offers tech support and other assistance. Another part of mentoring is the creation of a community of practice (CoP) in the form of a listserv where faculty share ideas in online teaching and tips of what worked and what did not.

LNG: What have been the biggest challenges and how have you or are you dealing with them?
The college still maintains a voluntary approach to training and course design and it has been difficult convincing program directors to upgrade their courses to keep up with students' needs and good practices for online learning. It will be helpful if we are allowed to meet with faculty for a one- or two-day workshops on technology and online teaching during the residency, and to train the students face to face during the residency.

One strategy adopted is to train new faculty on the proper use of technology. When I meet with new faculty to teach them on how to use Blackboard, I always encourage them to keep in touch with me. I also encourage them to find ways that could enhance student learning by using the technology I introduce. With this approach, I hope that the new faculty are introduced to new ways of teaching, and are open to adopt its use to enhance their instruction delivery. I believe that without director buy-in, it will be very difficult to redesign and upgrade existing online programs.

LNG: Based on your experience, what are the five most important things to keep in mind for any program that wants to move fully or partially online?

CA: Administration buy-in and commitment is very important for the success of any program online or hybrid. The top five most important things would be:

  • Creating a robust training and mentoring program for faculty.
  • Offering adequate faculty compensation and incentives for training and teaching online.
  • Creating guidelines for online teaching that are relaxed enough to accommodate the nature of the program, content, and faculty styles of teaching.
  • Creating a support infrastructure for faculty and students, with 24/7 helpdesk support.
  • Using specific technologies for specific content in order to enhance student learning and experience, and never use technology for technology's sake.
LNG: What should never be done online?
CA: In my opinion anything can be taught online, especially with technological advances. However, students should be encouraged to apply the newly acquired knowledge through practice and internships. Hands-on experience is still needed in many fields. In the online environment some implications, gestures, and body language are lost. When the students are carefully guided to apply what they learned, they are better able to understand the finer nuances of their learning.

LNG: What are the characteristics of successful online instructors? Can these be taught or nurtured, and if so, how?
An online instructor is a facilitator of knowledge, not a lecturer. He/she is:

  • able to manage the course effectively by giving positive feedback on all assignments, graded or not graded.
  • willing to respond to students' emails and inquiries in a timely manner.
  • willing to step back and let the students manage discussions, while interjecting as needed to give support, directions, and insight.
  • using the tools of the Internet effectively to enhance student leaning by using learning objects, interactive games, or other tools effectively.
  • able to balance learning and interesting activities.
  • willing to let the students apply what they learned through projects, activities, or internships.
  • willing to deliver the content in different modes in order to accommodate different learning styles.

I believe that teaching is an art and usually good face-to-face instructors are able to learn and modify their teaching styles to the new online environment. This can be accomplished through mentoring and teaching, however, the instructors themselves remarked that they learn from their own experiences and they are able to improve their methods each semester they teach online.


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