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Achieving Excellence in Online Education

A Moravian College student with her MacBook sits at a picnic table outside the HUB as she Zooms in to her online course.

Most people would agree that nothing beats an in-person class, especially at the small numbers typical of Moravian College classes. The physical presence of students and faculty in a room produces an invisible but palpable connection; words reach across a shared space in thoughtful discussion. That said, online classes have advantages, and excellence in education can happen in virtual spaces, too, especially when educators shape their courses for an online platform.

To prepare for a fall semester that would offer a mix of online, in-person, and hybrid courses, Moravian College faculty spent the summer in workshops and with peers studying the best practices in online teaching and learning. They poured over their courses, considering innovative ways to present their material in an online format, and they worked with the college’s instructional designers and technologists to build those online offerings with excellence as the goal.

That excellence has its beginnings, however, in 2013 when President Grigsby made the decision that Moravian would be an Apple campus. “It was only because of that very good decision that our students and faculty did not have to struggle with shoddy computers or in a lot of cases, no computers at all,” says David Brandes, chief information officer. “The president and Scott Dams [vice president for enrollment and marketing] extended this advantage to our 2021 incoming students by authorizing the issuing of MacBooks at the point of deposit, so some of our Greyhounds were able to finish their last year of high school with technology they would not have otherwise had.”

Fast forward to March of 2020, the Moravian College Department of Online Education and Innovation is formed, led by Bernie Cantens, associate provost of online education and innovation, and including team members Sarah Rentz and David Castañeda, instructional designers, and Elizabeth Tate, instructional technologist. As stated on their webpage, the team is “committed to supporting faculty in designing fully online and hybrid courses using the highest quality standards of online course design.” Those benchmarks align with the rigorous guidelines set by Quality Matters, a nonprofit organization that measures the success of online education. “The most important factors of an online course are course content, course design, course delivery, institutional infrastructure, faculty readiness, and student readiness,” says Cantens.

Course Content, Design, and Delivery

Solutions in Political Science

Khristina Haddad, associate professor of political science, teaches political theory. She will tell you that she is one of the ultimate advocates of in-person courses and before the pandemic hit was resistant to teaching online, but she fully immersed herself in learning what technological tools were available to her and how to use them to build her courses online.

“Discussion and shared work with the text are essential to teaching political theory,” says Haddad. “The traditional classroom allows me to encourage a culture of discussion and to support students in the development of their intellectual voices. I help them work with textual evidence and respond to each other constructively. The challenge of moving discussions online is a significant one as Zoom classes displace students from each other physically and require extra effort on the part of the instructor and the students to create a shared intellectual space and to work out thoughts while unmuting and muting. I have to project emotion toward the students in a new way.” But Haddad finds Zoom helps discussions by making names visible, and she openly encourages students to participate and contribute to a sense of community and energy.

She finds the best way to engage students, whether online or in-person, is to teach them how to prepare for class by taking focused and structured reading notes customized to the subject and course. Her preferred method of note-taking is the commonplace book, a handwritten journal in response to a text and to in-class discussions that she would sporadically collect and review. Haddad adapted the commonplace book for her online course “Utopias, Dystopias, and Manifestos: The Imagination of Political Alternatives.” Students type their notes online or may handwrite them and submit a photo. The reading notes—which contain selected passages from the assigned reading, questions for discussion in class, and a reflection—are submitted ahead of class. When students connect through Zoom, they are ready to share their reflections or ask their questions.

An added benefit of putting the commonplace book online is a higher level of organization. “I used the assignment function in Canvas to schedule every set of required notes and to set it up for online submission with precise date and time information,” says Haddad. Having student submissions ahead of class allows Haddad to review students’ questions about the material and customize the Zoom discussion.

Haddad has also had to rethink the out-of-classroom experiences, she traditionally plans, taking her students to the Moravian Archives or Historic Bethlehem, which are not possible during the pandemic. Instead she brings political scientists to her class through Zoom. “Dr. Mark Jendrysik will be joining us from the University of North Dakota to discuss Thomas More’s Utopia,” says Haddad. “We will be working with Jendrysik’s recently published book, Utopia (Key Concepts in Political Theory). This is Zoom magic!”

Solutions in Biological Sciences

“For most courses in the sciences, developing labs for an online environment has been a significant challenge,” says Cecilia Fox, Louise E. Juley Professor, chair of biological sciences, and

director of the neuroscience program at Moravian. This past summer, Fox offered two sections of “Anatomy and Physiology” entirely online. To work out how to adapt a hands-on, in-person lab course to a virtual space, Fox met online with software designers and college faculty across the country to learn about innovative programs she could use in her course. “I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered,” says Fox. “I was able to use virtual cadaver labs, histology atlases, and computerized physiological simulations. The ability for students to collect and analyze data, compose laboratory reports, and share in collaborative experiences was preserved using these new online tools.”

Using breakout rooms in Zoom, Fox placed students into virtual lab groups where they worked together just as they would have in a physical laboratory. “They compared their data and were able to troubleshoot any problems they encountered,” says Fox. “It worked out beautifully.” Every Wednesday evening, the class met for three hours via Zoom to discuss lab data and work on problem-based learning activities and review exercises. “I often gave my students a few minutes to just connect with each other and chat about their week; then they would jump into the activity of the day,” says Fox. “I feel as though this new approach was a successful alternative for effectively accomplishing my learning objectives.”

Institutional Infrastructure

In this measure of excellence in online education, “Our resources are exceptional!” enthuses Cantens. As mentioned earlier, thanks to Grigsby’s directive in 2013, everyone—students, faculty, staff--has a MacBook Pro, an iPad, and access to the same vast array of software.

Wireless coverage and signal strength have always been strong, but Brandes led the IT department in adding coverage and enhanced signal strength in the areas that now have tents for outdoor classes, meetings, and activities. Wireless coverage was also added in all commuter lots.

Knowing that this fall, some students would be attending classes remotely and that students and faculty physically present in classrooms would be wearing face masks, the IT department began the work of improving audio. In several classrooms, including Dana, the large lecture hall in the Collier Hall of Sciences, microphones have been installed that allow students to speak in a normal voice while wearing masks and be heard clearly by everyone in the room and those who may be engaging online. In addition, personal wearable amplifiers are available to all faculty who request one. The work to enhance audio throughout campus is ongoing with the goal to bring every classroom up to the standard set in Dana.

Faculty and Student Readiness

Instructional designers Rentz and Castañeda and instructional technologist Tate have been working day and night since March with faculty, training them on the technological tools used to create a quality online teaching and learning experience and collaborating on how best to design online or hybrid courses using those tools.

“In spring, our goal was to get people comfortable online,” says Tate. “Through the summer and now moving forward, we help faculty optimize the online learning experience for excellence in education.” Tate describes herself as “the nuts and bolts.” She instructs faculty in how to use software, and she helps them set up the elements of their courses online. Moravian has a wide variety of tools: Canvas—the premier learning management system—Zoom, Gsuite, YuJa (for lecture capture, video, and video quizzes), an extensive lineup of Apple programs and more.

Rentz and Castenada collaborate with faculty on how to design online or hybrid courses to meet course objectives. “Our team gives workshops, and meets with faculty one on one to consult and exchange ideas for their courses. We’re also here to troubleshoot and answer questions as they come up,” says Rentz. “Additionally, I build interactive elements for courses using programs like Articulate 360.”

Over the summer, the team gave more than 100 workshops with total attendance exceeding 550, and Tate created an online technology resources course for faculty and one for students. According to an Ithaka S+R survey of Moravian College faculty, in March 37 percent of faculty reported they felt confident to teach online. Today, says Cantens, 97 percent report confidence.

“The college has done an exceptional job in amassing resources and educating faculty in the design and implementation of online and hybrid courses,” says Haddad. “I’ve spoken with peers at other colleges where the effort to prepare for excellence in online education pales in comparison. I have never been more proud of this college.”

A Healthy Community
Comenius Hall Embroidered

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