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MU Engineering online learning offerings are on the rise

An entire November 2011 edition of “The Chronicle of Higher Education” was dedicated to varying viewpoints on the role and status of online learning in colleges. A Pew Research Center survey accompanying the thoughtful scrutiny of a variety of issues indicates that 48 percent of college presidents do not believe a course taken online provides an equal educational value compared with a course taken in person in a classroom — depending on situation and circumstance. But many in academia do not agree and the consensus is that the virtual classroom is here to stay.

Chemical engineering Professor Galen Suppes, developed online versions of three of his chemical engineering courses. He believes one of the benefits of eLearning is student accessibility in special circumstances, such as students working co-ops or for students who need to retake courses.

Galen Suppes, a chemical engineering professor, is a proponent of online learning for a variety of reasons and has taken the personal initiative to develop three online courses: Mass and Energy Balance (CH ENG 2225), Computer-Aided Calculations in Chemical Engineering (CH ENG 2226) and Process Simulation and Design (CH ENG 4980).

“Both online courses and regular courses have advantages and disadvantages,” Suppes said, adding that he believes hybrid classes, a blend of both, are preferable. “The key is to tap into both.”

Suppes serves on an MU Faculty Council-appointed task force to address the academic policy issues associated to distance education and eLearning.

He said one of the greatest benefits of online courses is logistical in that a course can be offered multiple times each year, alleviating constraints on staff time and also accommodating a number of student requirements.

“It really helps students who need to keep up, for instance, if they participated in a co-op program,” Suppes said. “And students who have failed to master the material in a course and receive a non-passing grade, have the opportunity to immediately retake the course while it is still fresh in their minds and then continue with their original study plan.

“These offerings directly meet Gov. Nixon’s challenge to reduce the time it takes to get a degree,” he said.

Suppes said he “eased into” the online classes he developed, adding lectures and quizzes over time and believes the virtual classroom allows the instructor a higher degree of certainty that students are engaged and learning.

“Online quizzes allow students the opportunity to re-take a quiz one or more times. Students often study just to pass exams; this helps with mastery of skills,” Suppes said. “Then in-class time is much higher quality. You are teaching problem-solving and having discussions.”

Suppes said he believes the most important exams must still be conducted in-person until such time as electronic proctoring is improved.

Last year, the University of Missouri combined its 100-year-old Center for Distance and Independent Study (CDIS) and MU Direct into Mizzou Online. The latter was a service unit launched in the 1990s to administer online degree programs. CDIS offered self-paced high school and college courses. Academic offerings by MU Direct followed a traditional semester-based format. Both entities previously operated as part of MU Extension and the composite unit now is under the auspices of Jim Spain, vice provost of undergraduate studies and interim vice provost of eLearning.

Kim Siegenthaler, interim co-director for Mizzou Online said that Mizzou Online works with MU schools and colleges to develop, market and deliver online courses and programs for distance students. Mizzou Online’s instructional design team works directly with faculty in the development of self-paced courses.

“We support the academic units through services such as student recruitment, course set-up and maintenance, and a wide range of student support services,” she said.

Most of MU’s online courses in semester format utilize Blackboard, an electronic learning management system also used by instructors to facilitate traditional classroom and hybrid courses. Also under Spain’s purview, MU’s teaching with technology group, Educational Technologies @Missouri (ET@MO), assists MU’s faculty to best utilize technology in coursework. Faculty benefit from a wide range of services, including instructional design assistance, technology assistance and help with content creation. Working with ET@MO, they may choose to offer semester-based classes either fully online, as hybrids or in a traditional setting with technology enhancement.

Mary Myers, an associate teaching professor in the Chemical Engineering Department who also works as director of continuing education for the College of Engineering, is working to encourage the development of online courses and facilitate the process.

Mary Myers, an associate teaching professor in the Chemical Engineering Department, also works as director of continuing education for the College of Engineering. As such, she has taken the lead in getting engineering coursework online.

Myers admits it’s been a struggle to interest faculty members in taking on the project as there is a lot of initial work involved. But that improved when the university used a portion of student IT fees to fund eight instructional designers for various units on campus, including engineering, through the Academic Technology Liaison (ATL) program.

“Pil Won On is an instructional designer and an online content expert. She teaches faculty how to teach online courses,” Myers said. “She facilitates a process with professors to make sure students learn what they will be tested on. It is all about building measurable learning objectives first and then making sure all learning materials and assessments are truly aligned.”

With a background in education, On had her own perspective on how to approach online learning that she said didn’t exactly match up with the perspectives of her first engineering faculty clients.

Pil Won On is one of eight instructional designers on campus funded by the Academic Technology Liaison (ATL) program. She works with engineering faculty to develop online courses.

“In engineering education, students are graded while they are practicing. Professors think they are doing mastery by grading homework,” she added. “But everything in the online classes I am setting up must have a prescribed level of mastery to move on the next piece. The level of success is determined based on certain matters such as an instructor’s expectation and difficulty of subjects.”

On and the faculty she has worked with spend hours pinning down measurable objectives and then structure them into a meaningful online offering. Luis Occeña, professor and chair of industrial engineering, worked with On to develop an engineering economic analysis (IMSE 2710) course.

Occeña had already completed an online version of the course but was spending as much time administering a class for 30 students as he would a face-to-face class when he turned to Myers for help and she referred him to On.

“Pil Won turned my approach to the online course around 180 degrees. Now I can easily manage an online class with 102 students because of the changes we made, ” Occeña said. “It’s a challenge just to find space for a class with that many students in a typical lecture setting,” he added, pointing out one of the advantages of virtual classrooms.

Industrial engineering Professor Luis Occeña, chair, consulted On when restructuring an online course he teaches. With her help, Occeña was able to create an online class that could better help students, yet still be time efficient.

Explaining the format of the online course, Occeña said students are assigned a reading chapter each week and may listen to his supplemental lecture, which emphasizes key points and highlights from the reading. Students then take a short reading quiz, and must receive a perfect score to move on to an assignment with four to six questions consisting of more in-depth problems. That assignment also requires a perfect score before students can continue on to the 90-minute timed chapter test, released on Wednesday and due on Monday. All activities are graded online, freeing up faculty and teaching assistant time.

“Students can take the first two activities as many times as they want to get a perfect score in order to move to the next task. It’s called adaptive release,” Occeña said

Though he never sees the class face-to-face, Occeña said students still are able to interact with their instructor.

“Students can send me a private email through Blackboard, or they can use the asynchronous discussion board to ask a question that is viewed by all students in the class. It’s like a live discussion to examine issues that they can’t resolve,” he said. “Students who don’t follow the discussion board posts are shooting themselves in the foot.”

A third way for students to interact with Occeña is to schedule a virtual discussion and he will schedule “office hours” to interact in real time online with as many students who wish to participate.

“It’s more productive because I don’t have to sit around during regularly scheduled office hours waiting for students who may or may not come,” said Occeña.

“One-on-one attention is easier with online classes. If they participate in the discussion board, they can get as much attention as they need,” he said.

Occeña said students who are most successful are those who take ownership of the class and do the work in a timely manner, though he does get a list of students who are not progressing through the chapter modules and is able to email them reminders.

“That has been very helpful,” he said.

Two additional successful online course collaborations between On and engineering faculty are offered through Mizzou Online: Hani Salim, LaPierre associate professor in civil engineering, offers Statics and Elementary Strength of Materials (ENGINR 1200); and Marie Steinwachs, director of the Environmental Assistance Center, has developed Pollution Prevention: Applied Engineering for Sustainable Business Practices (CV ENGR 4285, Sec. 2).

Myers said she would like to see the College of Engineering add nine additional online courses over the next three years.

“We just have to get the right people together,” Myers said.

Occeña will be presenting a paper on the process co-written with On at the Institute of Industrial Engineer’s (IIE) national conference in May, and On will make three presentations in June at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference: “Instructor’s Perspectives of Transforming a Traditional Engineering Economics Course into a Fully Online Delivery” with Occena;  “Training Engineering Teachers Online for Practice and Application of Team-Based Learning (TBL)” with Professor Bob O’Connell; “Transforming a Large-Enrollment, Engineering Statics Course into Quality Online Instruction by Adapting Proven Instructional Strategies” with Salim.