UNC Professors Craft Online Courses at i3@UNC

NC State University professor Alton Banks, who has taught chemistry for the last 39 years, has big plans for the “Chemistry and Society” class he’ll offer online for the first time next fall.

Banks will introduce concepts using video and ask students to post written, audio or video comments to online discussion boards. His students will sample the ozone in the air and study the ingredients in household products like toothpaste and shampoo. And they will convene virtually in small groups to find ways to present their data to the rest of the class.

"This course, for non-science majors, helps people understand how chemistry affects their lives,” Banks said. “The course has been a traditional face-to-face class, but we think we can extend its effect by going online.”

i3@UNC participants.i3 participants

Banks was one of 24 tenured and tenure-track professors from 10 UNC system campuses who recently participated in the Instructional Innovation Incubator (i3 @UNC), a 10-day fellowship in Asheville hosted by the University’s new Office of Learning Technology and Innovation.

In disciplines ranging from design to education to psychology, i3 fellows worked under the guidance of state and national experts in instructional technology and design to develop online courses for their respective institutions.

Faculty are in a unique position to benefit from professional development in the moment they’re building new online courses, says Matthew Rascoff, UNC’s Vice President for Learning Technology and Innovation.

“That is when they most need technical support and most value just-in-time feedback,” Rascoff says. “Our fellows are working on the fundamental questions of online teaching and learning in their disciplines. If we want great online programs and courses in the UNC system, we need to support our faculty to create and deliver them.”

How one student found flexible learning options at NCCU.

The i3 @UNC framework is itself innovative, blending the entrepreneurial energy of a technology incubator with evidence-based pedagogical practice, drawn from education.

What this means, says program director Laura Cruz, is that the i3 fellows are challenged to “not just follow best practices in online teaching and learning, but to define them. That kind of leadership is what sets the UNC system—and the i3 program—apart.”

Online Movement

The UNC system currently offers 324 online degree and certificate programs that serve approximately 70,000 of its 221,000 students. This September, the University launched a redesigned website that helps degree candidates discover online programs.

In its 2013-18 strategic plan, “Our Time, Our Future: the UNC Compact with North Carolina,” the University expresses its intent to help increase the portion of North Carolinians with a bachelor’s degree or higher from the current 26 percent to 32 percent by 2018. By 2025, the University hopes to elevate that share even further, to 37 percent, positioning North Carolina among the top ten most educated states.

To reach its ambitious goals, Rascoff says, the University needs to create more flexible educational options for new kinds of students and to support faculty in their efforts to design and deliver them.

Investing in instructional excellence and innovation is one of the central pillars of the University’s learning technology strategy, Rascoff says. “The strategic plan calls for creating ‘enhanced teaching and learning environments for both faculty and students’—and that’s precisely what we set out to do here at i3,” he says.

In many cases, the people who stand to benefit the most from online learning are those whose lives cannot accommodate the traditional educational model.

“It’s essential to remember that for many of our online students, the alternative isn’t a residential degree; the alternative is no degree at all,” Rascoff says.

Banks recognizes the positive impact an online version of “Chemistry and Society” is likely to have, especially for non-traditional students.

Matthew Rascoff speaks with i3@UNC participant.Matthew Rascoff (left) speaks with an i3 participant.

“With this course online, someone who may be working in a bookstore from 9 to 5, for example, can take a chemistry course in the evenings or early mornings or weekends or whenever their schedule permits,” he said. “It allows the learning to occur at times that are not dictated by a brick-and-mortar class schedule.”

Susan Cates, executive director of the online program at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, was a guest speaker at i3. She told fellows that faculty who teach in both online and residential MBA programs report that online students are performing at least as well as those in residential programs.

“They have also noted that we see fewer students who slip through the cracks in the online program,” Cates said. “We believe that our flipped classroom model, with short video lectures and vignettes from our top professors combined with small virtual live classes focused on application of the concepts, drive high levels of engagement and performance among our online students.”

Under Construction

On the final day of the i3 @UNC workshop, the fellows described their experience as transformational.

“Everyone is excited about where we are now,” said Takeisha Wilson, a professor of social work at NCCU. “We got shaken up.”

UNC Greensboro art professor Barbara Campbell said over the course of the fellowship, as she developed an online drawing class for beginners, she had to grapple with a number of tough, important questions.

She wrestled with how to replicate the feeling of a studio community online and how to handle viewing her students’ work on screen rather than in person. 

“My big take-away is that fundamentally, the challenges of teaching online are challenges of education,” Campbell says. “How to adapt and evolve to meet the challenges of teaching online is less about wrestling with technology and more about rethinking the way we educate.”

Part of the strength of online classes, i3 fellows say, is the rethinking they require—and the potential for more interaction with and among students.

“We’re consciously designing that interaction in—how it’s going to occur, when it’s going to occur and how we’re going to evaluate it,” says business professor Jon Marvel, who is developing a production and operations management course for WCU. "Here, we have to think about that just as much as giving them pure content.” 

A professor of 17 years, Marvel is excited about the possibility in online education.

“A lot of us have been teaching for a long time, and this is giving us a new challenge,” he says. “How rich I can make it?”


Homepage image: Participants of i3 @UNC discuss online learning strategies.
Story by Christina Cooke: Freelance writer
Photos by Christina Cooke and Ashley Evans (WCU)