‘A Lightbulb Moment’: Taking Liberal Arts Online Learning to the Next Level

A private, nonprofit institution founded in 1875, Park University resembles a lot of traditional liberal arts colleges, with a flagship residential campus just outside Kansas City in Parkville, Mo. But over the past 25 years, Park has emerged as “an innovator in distance learning and online curriculum,” developing over 650 courses online that serve nearly 80% of all enrolled students. With 40 additional satellite campus centers spread out across the country, Park pursues its mission to provide a diverse community of learners, including adult and military students, with greater access to a high-quality education.

“Expanding outside of our flagship campus to serve adult and military students very much grew from a commitment to the founders’ goal of providing access to a high-quality liberal arts experience to anyone who had the hunger for that experience, removing barriers related to cost, time, and location for students,” says Emily Sallee, associate provost at Park University.

In 2017, Park University and ACUE partnered through a KC Scholars Postsecondary Network grant, supported by Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, to train and credential 300 faculty members across Kansas and Missouri. Led by Amber Dailey-Hebert, who directs Park’s teaching and learning center, called the Faculty Center for Innovation (FCI), the inaugural cohort thrived.

“Our faculty were really impressed with the ACUE experience,” Sallee says. “We had excellent completion rates and the level of collegiality and community fostered among full-time and adjunct faculty had a positive impact on our culture.”

At the time, ACUE was developing a new certificate program for effective online teaching practices. Laurie Pendleton, ACUE’s executive director of content, said that Park University’s history with online learning and faculty’s deep knowledge of online pedagogy was immediately apparent. ACUE interviewed and filmed several Park faculty and students to showcase and demonstrate effective online teaching practices as part of its course development.

“Park University’s faculty provided practical and thoughtful strategies and their contributions have greatly enhanced the course,” says Pendleton. “Their knowledge of effective teaching and the care and concern they have for their students’ success was very evident.”

Watch: Jennifer Whitley, a lecturer of mathematics at Park University, discusses how to develop students’ study skills in online courses.

Investing in faculty

When ACUE officially launched Effective Online Teaching Practices in early 2020, Sallee said she believed Park University’s faculty could once again benefit.

“Park University believes in investing in our adjunct and full-time faculty,” said Sallee. “We remembered what a fantastic experience ACUE was the first time around and knew that enrolling a new cohort through the Effective Online Teaching Practices course would be valuable as well.”

Still, questions remained. Some enrolled faculty had over 20 years of teaching fully online and hybrid courses. Sallee couldn’t help but ask: “Would this be able to meet our faculty learners at different levels of their development as online teachers?”

‘ACUE raised the bar’

One measure of impact was that nearly 90% of faculty completed the course and 96% of faculty found the content relevant to their work. “ACUE’s value was reinforced in spades,” Sallee said. “We had faculty who were dealing with really significant issues caused by the pandemic, both professionally and personally, but they still persisted in completing the course – because they saw the value in it for themselves and, by extension, their students.”

“We’re focused on providing continuous learning opportunities for all our instructors and ACUE has been such an essential part of that,” says Dailey-Hebert, who facilitated ACUE’s inaugural cohort and has earned credentials both ACUE’s Effective Teaching Practices and Effective Online Teaching Practices programs.

Emily Grover, who also completed the online course, said that ACUE changed the way she thought about connecting with students in online courses.

“ACUE raised the bar for how I approach building relationships with students in my asynchronous classes,” Grover said. “I used to assume that I couldn’t get to know students that well online, and so maybe it wasn’t that important to know their names. ACUE provided so many specific examples and strategies for how to create the kind of environment where you can have relationships with students.”

For example, Grover now utilizes short videos into her online courses. “I used to think that the only point of video was to supplement my lectures, but ACUE pointed out that videos are how students actually know who you are and a way to put more of my personality into the class.”

‘A Lightbulb Moment’

At an institutional level, Sallee believes that the ACUE experience will be even more transformative. Working with ACUE’s impact and evaluation team, Park’s facilitators noticed that faculty were implementing fewer of the course’s recommended techniques than expected. That led to meaningful conversations about the university’s online course design.

Faculty in the ACUE cohort reported that implementing many techniques required permission to make changes to the pre-populated content on the university’s learning management system.

According to Sallee, faculty were bumping into a decades-long tension within the field of online teaching and learning that tends to prioritize content consistency and scalability. Establishing shared learning outcomes, high-quality content, course design, and assessment standards across all online offerings is critical to ensuring consistent quality learning experiences for students. It’s also helpful for instructors teaching accelerated online courses, who often have limited time to develop new content. The downside is that a pre-populated ‘course shell’ can leave limited room for individual instructors to make changes during a given term.

“That was a light bulb moment,” Sallee says. “This ACUE experience is helping us reflect on our policies around what instructors can and cannot change dynamically in the standardized online content. We want to make sure that our institutional practices aren’t unintentionally working against nimble, responsive teaching.”

Adjunct Perspectives: Demonstrating Innovative Strategies in Online Courses

Through the FCI’s Teaching Innovation Fellows Program, faculty are selected each year to lead special interest groups that research, discuss, and share new ideas about their instructional practice. As one of three fellows selected for the 2021-2022 academic year,  Grover is preparing to lead an adjunct faculty learning community at Park University to study how to leverage instructional agency and implement ACUE techniques within Park’s course development model.

“I realized after taking ACUE that there are a lot of ways to innovate within any course structure,” said Grover. “The goal is to get a community of online adjuncts to discuss what we can do to personalize, innovate, and have a space where we can share those resources.”

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