Faculty and staff at Polk State College are embracing innovative tools and technology that are enhancing the Polk State experience and engaging students in the online environment.
The onset of the pandemic required faculty and staff to move classes and services online; lessons learned and best practices have stuck. They are implementing resources and creativity within their courses that are allowing their students to flourish in a learning environment that may be new or challenging to them.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing a student who came in saying ‘I don’t like online classes, I don’t want to be here, and I don’t understand why this is important,’ to having them come away saying, ‘wow, this really applied to my life, this was fun to learn, and I enjoyed it,’” Professor of Psychology Dawn Drake said.
This has been the phenomenon for many faculty members teaching in online and hybrid formats. Hybrid classes include both in-person sessions and online learning.
Professors at Polk State have found that “technological touches” have benefited students in a variety of ways, from helping them to further their understanding of course content, to providing them with motivation along the way.
Professor of English Sherry Siler has seen great success with some of those “simple” touches, including virtual stickers and ribbons created using Canva that she awards to students, as well as her Bitmoji, a cartoon avatar that she uses to introduce herself and greet students into the course.
“I’ve gotten remarkable feedback [and it was] a surprise. My first time using ribbons, I woke up the next morning to emails from six students with positive feedback. It’s a rare day to have six direct pieces of positive feedback,” Siler shared. “That’s a high as an educator…, which makes me want to do more.”
“By using those tools, that technology, we’re able to create an environment that looks a lot more like the world in which they live.”
Sherry Siler, Professor of English
Students have printed out their ribbons to frame or post on their refrigerators. One student shared that her sticker served as a piece of positivity during an otherwise bad week.
“Those touches and technology are important for a couple of reasons. First, from a very formal standpoint, it opens up the learning styles it appeals to. Secondly, many of our students are digital natives. They don’t want text only. They don’t want a white background with black text. That’s not the way their world works,” Siler said. “By using those tools, that technology, we’re able to create an environment that looks a lot more like the world in which they live.”
“It makes me more of a real human being to them, a real presence that they can relate to, relate with, and talk with.”
Faculty members have a valuable resource in the Polk State Learning Technology Department and its instructional designers who work collaboratively with professors to strategically develop their online courses.
Instructional Designer Carleigh Okwali got emotional when speaking about the response Professor Siler received about the use of ribbons in her classes, illustrating not only their dedication to their work, but also their genuine care for the students.
“A student shared that it had been one of the worst weeks and that the sticker she received in Professor Siler’s class was uplifting. We were both about to cry,” Okwali said. “After our students had to go online [during the pandemic], a lot of our faculty were concerned about our students and how they could thrive in the online environment. We found ways for them to engage with their students, whether in a virtual classroom, on Zoom, or in prerecorded videos.”
“We want to keep that momentum going,” she added. “We want to share those skills and tools so that we can actively engage with our students in the online environment.”
The Learning Technology Department has expanded as a result of the pandemic, although it remains a “small but mighty group.”
Cody Moyer, District Director of Learning Technology and Leadership Development, has led the Quality Course Design initiative which has implemented state standards for quality and high-quality online courses, while also developing a rubric of standards that were already in place at the College level. Moyer, Okwali, and Instructional Designer Katie Ragsdale developed an instructional design seminar and work with faculty through a guided course revision process.
“The pandemic thrusted everyone into the [online] platform and brought about the need for sustainability and increased quality to make it equitable to the face-to-face experience,” Moyer explained. “My encouragement to faculty is don’t be afraid of technology. You don’t have to be the master of technology. That’s why you have teams like mine to help you embrace it and do the leg work so that you feel comfortable.”
“By embracing your students on that level and reaching them there is how you get them to buy into your courses and the content, and feel part of something more than just clicking, reading, and going through the motions,” he added.
Dispelling the myth
“There’s this myth,” Ragsdale said. “Not just with students, but with instructors as well, that not everybody can learn online. I think that is inaccurate. Anyone can learn online as long as they have the discipline and motivation to do so. That’s why it is so important to work with instructional designers because we help faculty create that environment so that students have that intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and they really want to be in the learning environment.”
The faculty and instructional designers have gotten creative in providing students with options so that they can capture all types of learners within their courses. Some have given students the option to write a traditional essay, or they can submit a video or even a rap song. Others prompt students to create a model using household items and send in a picture, but it’s important to note that it is not the artistic ability being graded.
“There’s this myth. Not just with students, but with instructors as well, that not everybody can learn online. I think that is inaccurate. Anyone can learn online…”
Katie Ragsdale, Instructional Designer
Drake, Professor of Psychology, tasks students with communicating something about the learning objectives for the class and receives an eclectic assortment of submissions. One student created a narrated Google slide deck, another sketched it out, some created infographics, and others wrote poetry.
“I love seeing what they turn in and their creativity,” Drake said. “I make sure that they understand that it’s not about how artistic they are and how skilled they are. It’s about the process and learning as you make the choices and decisions.”
It’s a similar process for Drake in implementing these facets into her online courses. She may think of an idea and rely on the instructional designers to bring it to fruition.
“I don’t always know how to do something; I know what I want to do but may not know how to do it,” she explained. “I can come to the instructional designers and say how is this possible? Will the technology let me do that? And how to effectively implement what you want in a way that will be engaging is a really helpful thing.”
Professor of English Carol Martinson said she wanted to bring her Literature course to the 21st century.
“Research papers are great. There’s a reason we write research papers,” Martinson said. “But I got with the instructional designer… we wanted to appeal to different learning styles. In addition to writing their literary argument on a play… now students can take the play and make a rap out of it, they can act it out, they can make a playbill, they can write a newspaper article about how this play related to a current event.”
“It has been a great experience because some of the students who may not have thrived in writing another paper, thrived when doing this project,” she added, “and they are pretty phenomenal – I’m very proud of them.”
“We know from our studies in our field that if you can create connections with students, they will thrive,” Okwali said. “Ultimately, it is about our students – that is our mission at Polk State College.”
In addition to easy-to-navigate online classes and engaging course content, faculty and staff remain accessible to the students, whether it is through the basics such as phone calls and email, or through tools such as video conferencing and discussion boards within the College’s learning management system Canvas, where the classes are housed.
“We know from our studies in our field that if you can create connections with students, they will thrive. Ultimately, it is about our students – that is our mission at Polk State College.”
Carleigh Okwali, Instructional Designer
In Martinson’s First-Year Seminar course, which teaches college readiness for first-time-in-college students, she spends 30 minutes one-on-one with each student at the onset of the course in Big Blue Button through Canvas.
“When you get with a student one-on-one over video, you can understand their situation and get to know them,” she said. “They feel much more comfortable with me after that.”
Siler also utilizes Big Blue Button and emphasized meeting with students at their comfort levels.
“My students don’t always opt to turn their video on. I always turn my video on,” she explained. “They can reveal as much or as little of themselves as they want to and that’s just incredible. They don’t have to leave their house or wherever they are – they can be comfortable where they are.”
Moyer echoed this sentiment.
“I give students multiple ways to access me – I give them my cell phone number, I give them my Zoom office, I give them my office number, and create a flexible way for them to communicate with me,” he said. “If they want to text me questions, that’s OK. If they want to meet with me face-to-face, they can do that. It has really helped students embrace me as their instructor in the online environment because that is one of the biggest challenges you have is bridging that gap and being able to connect with your students.”
“It’s my goal to keep Polk State competitive and relevant in the online environment,” Moyer added. “It is important that we embrace this modality and look at how we can expand it across all modalities to have them be an engaging experience.”