Editor’s Note: This study is a model for effective collaboration, design and implementation of distance learning programs. It combines distinctly different racial and cultural student populations with faculty collaboration in design and team teaching. Participating teachers and students in their various communities show enthusiasm for the process and for the results: greater involvement and learning for the students, and for teachers, broadening of teaching and learning management using synchronous and asynchronous distance learning technologies.
Building Virtual Bridges with
University of Illinois-Springfield
Chicago State University
Northeastern Illinois University
Diverse with a significant Hispanic population
Nestled among the cornfields not far from the state capital in central Illinois, The University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) is a small, rural campus with a predominantly white student population of nearly 5,000. Its online program, established in 1997, has been highly successful, with 17 fully online degree programs and an annual student enrollment growth of 30% (Schroeder & McCurdy, 2005). Retention of students in online courses at UIS is equivalent to that of students enrolled in face-to-face courses (Oakley, 2004). Training, development and technical support for online courses and faculty has been provided by the UIS Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning (OTEL). In 2007, the University was awarded the 2007 Sloan-C Award for Excellence in Institution-Wide Online Teaching & Learning (Sloan Consortium, 2009). In 2008 the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service and the New Century Learning Consortium were established to further the university’s e-learning leadership and outreach goals to educational institutions across the country.
Chicago State University is an urban inner-city campus in the southern end of the country’s third largest city, with the largest minority student population in the state. More than 80% of CSU’s student population of 7,200 is African-American. When the partnership with UIS was established, CSU had a developing distance learning program that offered several online courses, but no online degrees. CSU’s instructors were less experienced in teaching within a virtual environment than those at UIS. Training, development and technical support for online courses and faculty is provided by the CSU Office of Distance Learning (Scheinbuks & Piña, 2009).
Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is an urban public campus on Chicago’s north side with a student population of approximately 12,000 (about the same as UIS and CSU combined). NEIU is recognized by US News and World Report as the most racially and culturally diverse campus in the Midwestern United States, with a population that is 26% Hispanic, 13% African-American and 11% Asian (U.S. News, 2005). Unlike UIS and CSU, NEIU had no dedicated distance learning department and offered no fully online courses or online degree programs when it joined the partnership. Training, development and support services for faculty participating in the OTP were provided by NEIU’s Center for Teaching and Learning (Piña & Scheinbuks, 2007).
The nature of the OTP involved the establishment of mentor-mentee relationships in planning and implementing the instructional partnership. The faculty partners did not always assume exclusive roles of mentee and mentor, but shared these roles as they exposed each other to their strengths and weaknesses (Gatliff & Wendel, 1998). Those with more confidence in using technology in their teaching or great experience teaching online served as mentors for the other faculty members. However, sometimes the professors with less technology or online experience were the primary subject matter experts and served as content mentors for their peers. This cross-mentoring dynamic was particularly effective for partnerships whose courses spanned across different disciplines.
A faculty partnership was established when the partners agreed to the extent of collaboration (full semester or unique units). The partners cooperated to develop a syllabus containing assignments meeting the individual course objectives and the goals of the partnership. These were supported by an agreement to team teach and facilitate student activities and research in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. Students enrolled at their own university, so that there were no conflicts related to tuition and participation in programs leading toward a degree or certification. The instructors assigned by that institution were responsible for evaluating their own students’ efforts (Scheinbuks & Piña, in press). Faculty participating in the online teaching partnerships were eligible to receive a stipend, which varied according to the length and extensiveness of the collaboration.
The project was made publically available on the UIS-sponsored Online Teaching Partnership website, where faculty members at the member universities made contact and provided information about the disciplines in which they taught and their specific topic areas of interest. Once faculty members had contacted each other and determined that they wished to collaborate, they notified the support office at their respective institutions to prepare a proposal for an online teaching partnership.
The Office of Distance Learning at CSU, the Office of Technology Enhanced Learning at UIS and the Center for Teaching and Learning at NEIU provided primary instructional and technical support for members of the partnership. This support included assisting faculty in the development of proposals, training in the use of technology, administering the learning management systems and virtual classrooms, dissemination of information, preparing reports and troubleshooting.
Some of the participating faculty had prior experience teaching online or in using technology within their face-to-face courses, while others had little or no experience and required training and mentoring. The learning management system (LMS) used by all three institutions for asynchronous, instruction, communication and interaction, was Blackboard’s Enterprise Edition, version 7 (Blackboard, 2009). The most common LMS tools used within the partnerships were uploading course content, class announcements, threaded discussion forums, assignment management, quizzes and assessments, and the online grade book (Piña, 2010).
Synchronous tools for delivering interactive real-time instruction, such as two-way audio, application and desktop sharing, whiteboards, live PowerPoint presentations and interactive polling and quizzing, were provided for by the Elluminate Live classroom system (Elluminate, 2009). These technologies were made available to both faculty and students, to assist in developing and completing joint assignments and discussions by the support organizations at each institution.
Since administrative and management rights and authority for the Blackboard and Elluminate systems resided at the same departments that provided the primary support for the online teaching partnerships, each partnership could be assigned to a joint Blackboard course, administered by one of the campuses. Students and partner faculty from both campuses were enrolled into the joint course. Both faculty members were given full instructor privileges in the course. Some instructors chose to use the group feature in Blackboard to separate students from the two institutions for grading purposes, but all of the courses used tools in Blackboard to allow all of the students to interact with each other and/or complete joint assignments (Piña & Scheinbuks, 2007).
The faculty and students participating in the collaborations were of diverse ethnic, racial, socio-economic, educational, and technological backgrounds. The demographics of the students tended to reflect those of the geographic area in which their institution was located. UIS students tended to be white, middle-class and rural. CSU students tended to be heavily African-American and from Chicago’s south side. NEIU students tended to be more racially mixed, with about 40% of Latino ancestry. It was expected that this mix of diverse backgrounds would enhance teaching and learning for all the collaborative groups studied (Scheinbuks & Piña, 2009). Nine teaching collaborations that were implemented and completed during the initial four years of the online teaching partnership are shown in Table 2 below (Scheinbuks & Piña, 2010). Each of the collaborations consisted of two faculty members, each from a different university.
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Technology in the Curriculum
Chicago State U.
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Internet and American Life
Chicago State U.
Special topics in Technology & Education
Chicago State U.
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Black Women Authors
Northeastern Illinois U.
Technology for School Leaders
Chicago State U.
Cougar Academy for Future Teachers
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Science Teaching Methods
Northeastern Illinois U.
Northeastern Illinois U.
Human Resource Development
Chicago State U.
Educational Leadership and Technology
Chicago State U.
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Northeastern Illinois U.
Public Administration (Studies of Barrio)
U. of Illinois-Springfield
Latino & Latin American Studies
Chicago State U.
U. of Illinois-Springfield
This collaboration between two professors from different departments within their respective colleges of education provided an opportunity for both faculty members to develop a unique assignment unit for all members of the collaborative class. The class consisted of students who had varying experiences, backgrounds, and cultural differences. Students from CSU were pre-service education majors and the students from UIS were in-service educators. They were divided into several research groups, which included students from both UIS and CSU. Group discussions were facilitated in real-time by the use of Elluminate.
Due to the differences in student service background, the concerns of CSU students were different than those of the UIS students. The groups worked well together in a professional manner and successfully carried out a series of surveys concerning technologically advanced high schools in three areas: Northern Illinois, Central Illinois, and the Greater Chicago area. The extent of the study was novel for this class and had an impact on reaching class objectives for the course. The students learned to effectively use the Elluminate tool in working well together by complementing each other’s skills and interests. In conclusion, the students felt that the collaboration between the classes was a rewarding experience that enhanced learning.
This collaboration allowed a UIS professor of communications to mentor another in online pedagogy as their students collaborated in an online course environment. CSU students and a CSU instructor were enrolled within a UIS Blackboard course shell. Activities were also shared by using the Elluminate software. The faculty agreed to a common syllabus with similar expectations for both UIS and CSU students. Readings of the Pew Charitable Trust Project served as the basis for student discussion of their own experiences. In describing the tone of the class, one of the instructors (UIS) noted, “The perspectives reflected in the discussions were far more rich with the addition of the CSU students. Extended exchanges were common as the students sorted through the impact of the Internet on such aspects of American life as health care, government, elections, and education” (Schroeder & McCurdy, 2005).
The collaborating CSU faculty member provided a different but relevant perspective. As time progressed, he developed experience and confidence in the role of an online collaborative faculty member and began to recognize some significant differences in the computer literacy and online course expectations between CSU and UIS students. Other CSU online faculty confirmed these observations. The CSU faculty member adapted this UIS course to offer it as a new CSU course, thus expanding the CSU curriculum.
This collaboration gave a unique opportunity for both faculty members who were interested in ‘Black Women Authors’ to create a unit for discussion between their two classes. In preparation for this unit, both classes were assigned to read Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor and view the film, Julie Dash’s Daughter of the Dust. Real-time collaboration and discussion occurred in two sessions using Elluminate Live Classroom. The software permitted considerable input from most members of both classes. In addition, there were several sidebar conversations (implemented by written chat that related to the ongoing speaker’s discussion). Students reported that they had enjoyed the collaborative sessions and felt that it helped them understand the issues and relative to the novel, Mama Day. Both instructors were excited about the results of the collaborations and indicated that they would be willing to collaborate again.
In this collaboration, one of the instructors, an administrator and faculty member in instructional technology, was able to mentor the other, a young teacher education instructor, concerning the implementation of pedagogical techniques used with technology. The two faculty members had agreed to a blended learning approach where a component of the collaboration was asynchronous using Blackboard for online discussions between students in the two courses and synchronous lessons, and where the instructors provided live step-by-step instruction in the creation of instructional materials using PowerPoint software in both linear and non-linear formats. In implementing the synchronous presentations and exercises, the presence of faculty members to assist students was an important issue in providing a successful student experience.
A breakdown in communication occurred as a result of instructional assignment changes at Chicago State University. As a result, the class of pre-service teachers at CSU was replaced by a class of pre-college students who were interested in entering a career in education—unbeknownst to the NEIU instructor. The students at NEIU were graduate students who were principally professional educators in the last stages of their master’s degrees. As a result of the gap in communication, some miscalculation occurred in developing collaborative assignments that would be equally useful and beneficial to both classes. In reality, both classes had a very unique experience in understanding the differences in the capabilities and maturities of the collaborative class. The collaboration was also a challenging experience for both instructors who had to do some “on the fly” adaptation of their instruction to match the backgrounds of the students in each of the classes. The pre-college students tended to be a bit overwhelmed, while the graduate level students were amused and understanding of their younger colleagues located on the other side of the city.
Both classes in related disciplines provided an opportunity for the faculty members to focus on various points of views related to the collaboration. The CSU class had a greater focus on the development of instructional techniques related to the various scientific disciplines, particularly environmental sciences. The NEIU class provided students at that institution with an opportunity to fulfill their general education requirements for an undergraduate degree by being exposed to real environmental issues and understanding how these can be studied to resolve environmental problems. The instructors agreed upon a syllabus that provided an opportunity to collaborate and team-teach their students for three different units or areas.
The first area was related to the development of concept maps as an approach to relating scientific concepts. Various biological concepts were studied and concept maps were developed relative to the regulation of the biosphere through a process called homeostasis. Life forms interact with environmental factors to produce a self-regulating system. A movie clip was used to illustrate the concept. A classroom activity was designed in which an interactive free computer program CTOOLS was used for producing the concept maps. Students from both classes evaluated each other’s maps in terms of the overall effectiveness of organizing new information. The CSU class in terms of how the use of these maps could enhance learning in a high school classroom setting analyzed the learning process.
The second unit involved a class visit to the Green Technology Center in Chicago. This city-operated center provides information about how to pursue and develop green technologies. This outing permitted students in both classes to meet and interact. Up to this point, the students interacted asynchronously. This outing made it possible for the students to meet their counterparts in the teaching partnership and interact on a different level. Many of the students in the environmental studies class have considered developing a career in education. This interaction was helpful for them to meet potential role models of students who were actively pursuing these objectives.
The third unit developed from concepts that had been discussed in the second unit. The second unit related to green technologies and the absence of hazards, while the third unit dealt with an understanding of hazards and how they affect the environment. Discussions of how hazards affect the environment were done synchronously using Elluminate. The NEIU instructor demonstrated an Air Emissions Modeling Program (ALOHA) to assist responders to emergency events. An understanding was developed of the issues related to such an environmental catastrophe. Students were then given similar problems for analysis and to develop strategic approaches for resolving these problems. As a result of the immersion into this model, each class developed different take-home lessons. The CSU students used this as a model to develop an instruction plan while the NEIU students used this as a model for understanding issues related to toxic accidents.
The students were queried about each of the three units. Their responses were positive and helpful in assessing learning associated with each of the units. Students were enthusiastic about the collaboration and said that they would participate in additional courses using similar formats. The two instructors were not experienced at using online technologies for instructor prior to the course and while they found some of the technology to be challenging initially, they were able to master a wide range of synchronous and asynchronous applications.
This was an instance where a teaching partnership had been planned, but one of the instructors’ courses did not have sufficient enrollments to be offered that semester. In its place, another course was selected after the semester had begun. The original full-semester partnership was modified to four weeks of collaborative instruction.
This partnership provided two faculty members the opportunity to collaborate in teaching two different courses, one offered by Departments of Human Resource Development at NEIU and the other by the Department of Educational Leadership at CSU. Students in the NEIU were undergraduates who were interested in training and development in business and industry settings, while the CSU students were studying the integration of technology into school curriculum and instruction. Both courses were blended courses, which implemented both asynchronous activities using Blackboard and synchronous sessions using Elluminate. This teaching partnership involved a number of collaborative events: 1) a discussion forum related to interviews with technology coordinators at local K-12 school districts by the CSU class. Both classes discussed the results of several research findings and proposed an optimal type of arrangement for a local K-12 institution. The students discovered that some of these institutions were lacking in technology (implicating a digital divide) while others were well supported. Students compared and contrasted K-12 technology training and support with that provided in industry settings.
A second asynchronous unit dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of online verses blended learning modalities. The discussions indicated that both are appropriate, but the blended class would be the most acceptable to the group. They discussed what types of learning should take place in synchronous verses asynchronous sessions. A further discussion related to recent research on the use of mobile technology, such as iPods, PDAs, MP3 players and cell phones by minority students and Caucasian students. The finding that minority students tended to use the advanced features of mobile technology at higher rates than Caucasian students led students from both courses to conclude that mobile delivery of online content should be a priority of minority-serving institutions (Rainie & Keeter, 2006; Rainie & Madden, 2005).
A synchronous presentation of the history of distance learning in the state of Illinois was presented using Elluminate followed by a discussion of the presentation using the tools made available by Elluminate. At the conclusion of the course, both of the instructors and the students concluded that, despite the rocky start of the partnership, it was a success and the instructors were looking forward to future collaborations with each other.
This partnership gave the two faculty members an occasion to collaborate in teaching two educational leadership classes at the graduate level located at different institutions separated at a distance. The UIS class was populated with graduate-level in-service teachers and the CSU class contained undergraduate-level pre-service teachers. The instructors were experienced in offering both blended course and online course modalities. The instructor at UIS had stronger technology skills than the instructor at CSU. The instructors developed a syllabus for each of their respective classes that had designated both asynchronous activities (2-3 weeks) and synchronous activities (3 weeks). The asynchronous activities were implemented easily and the students appeared to enjoy the interactions between members of both classes. Two of the three synchronous sessions using Elluminate were successfully implemented. The instructors interacted well in planning the collaboration as well as interacting well in the various collaborative sessions with the students.
All instructors were responsible for setting the standards and objectives for their respective classes and evaluating their own students. Although the objectives for the two respective courses differed somewhat, the instructors agreed upon the objectives for the collaborative sessions. Students were queried both at midterm and at the end of the course by survey to obtain feedback concerning the collaboration. The students indicated that they enjoyed the collaborative activities and felt that the collaboration added an extra dimension to the content of the course. The extra dimension was related to student backgrounds—UIS is an institution located in rural Illinois while CSU is located in the Chicago urban area. Both students and faculty felt that their experiences were valuable in that they were able to obtain unique information and understanding relative to their diverse backgrounds. Both faculty members have presented papers at conferences based upon this collaborative experience.
A proposal for a semester-long partnership focusing on diversity (the Barrio in Latin-American communities) was submitted during the spring semester. During this semester, the faculty team planned the format for course collaboration to be implemented during the fall semester. Since a course on this topic did not exist at UIS, the faculty member proposed a new course that met UIS general education requirements so that it could be scheduled for the fall semester.
The partnership focused initially on the development of web resources to study the Barrio. To accomplish this goal, an introduction to the use of technology to link the classes together was provided within the first two weeks. During the third week, a lecture/discussion was presented to both classes on “The Meaning of Context” relative to the study of the Barrio. The demographics of Chicago and the state of Illinois were examined in lecture/discussion using Elluminate. Students were involved in Blackboard forums related to the nature of the Barrio. Following these discussion, students were assigned to select and develop research projects based upon the course’s introductory sessions. These research projects were discussed during the fifth week of the partnership.
After the initial two week technology introduction period was complete and the team-teaching of the course content commenced, it became clear to the two faculty partners that their teaching styles were not compatible. One instructor was very meticulous in his preparation and delivery and preferred instructor-led discussions, while the other one preferred to “go with the flow” and allow the instruction and discussion to be led by the students. Ultimately, these two styles proved to be incompatible and it was agreed that the collaboration would end after 5 weeks and the two courses would be developed and offered independently for the remainder of the semester. Feedback from the students indicated that they were unaware of the difficulties between their two professors and assumed that the course was designed for collaboration at the beginning only. Students from both courses rated them highly, which reflected positively on the professionalism of the faculty involved.
This collaboration provided an opportunity to enhance an introductory level biology class focused on issues related to sexually transmitted diseases. The objectives of the course are to make the issues of contracting and treating these diseases meaningful to the minority student audience at CSU. Collaboration was begun between CSU and UIS, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Brothers and Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS (Illinois Dept. of Public Health, 2009), to enhance learning by immersing the students in the course into the virtual worlds of Second Life. Some students in the class were familiar with Second Life and had developed avatars while others accessed it for the first time to develop their new avatars. With the assistance of UIS Office of Technology Enhanced Learning, our students were introduced to the virtual instructional world of UIS Second Life Island. The process of enrolling students into Second Life was cumbersome because of issues related to the selection of avatar names.
Students in the class were given access to the BASUAH Ambassador training site to learn and review basic information about sexual diseases. The course also provided a unique focus promoting the attitude of education for the public about problems surrounding these diseases. Many of the students were excited about the opportunity to become BASUAH ambassadors and looked forward to educating their community within the confines of community and state organizations. The class utilized this experience to develop skits so that they could role play how they would meet the challenges of educating members of the community about sexual disease issues. The presentations and skits were recorded on Elluminate and then converted to a format so that these could become available in the BASUAH instructional area within the UIS SL Island. Support for the collaboration will be provided through a newly established consortium, the New Century Learning Consortium that both institutions have joined (New Century Learning Consortium, 2009).
To gauge the impact of the online teaching partnerships, interviews were conducted with the collaborating faculty, support personnel and a sample of students enrolled in the courses. Student comments from Blackboard discussion forum questions and end-of-course evaluations were also analyzed. Faculty who participated in the online teaching partnerships were in agreement that it promoted a well-rounded education that provided access to a diverse student population. It also afforded opportunities for faculty to enhance and develop teaching skills by learning how to apply new technologies and how to teach in asynchronous and synchronous online learning environments. Although most of the participating faculty had some experience with Blackboard, only four had ever used Elluminate. At the end of their collaborative experience, all of the instructors expressed confidence in teaching using either a learning management system or a synchronous virtual classroom. They praised both Blackboard and Elluminate for having a relatively gentle learning curve and for having few technical glitches. Faculty rated the experience of collaborating and team teaching as exhilarating and motivating, with the caveat that the collaborators must be compatible in their goals and teaching styles.
One of the greatest advantages indicated by the faculty was that online technologies can be used successfully to bring together and teach students who are racially and culturally diverse and that the interactions between students at the different institutions enhanced the courses. They also considered the new courses that were developed as a result of the project to be a very tangible success. All of the faculty participants—including those in the least successful partnership—stated that they would be agreeable to participating in future collaborations of this kind and that there was great potential for a state-wide initiative with more participating institutions.
Students likewise held positive views of the online teaching partnerships, mirroring the faculty comments about the utility of both Blackboard and Elluminate. They commented that the technology enhanced their learning experience. They particularly enjoyed the ability to access materials at any time, view their grades, upload their homework, interact with and query their instructors, and interact with other students. This agrees with findings by Educause on how students utilize and value LMS features (Kvavnik & Caruso, 2005). Although students praised the ability to interact and work with students at the partner institutions and that they would like to do more inter-institutional collaboration, they did not tend to acknowledge that they were interacting with students of different races, backgrounds or rural versus urban locale. This was taken as a positive indicator that an online teaching partnership can bring diverse students populations together successfully.
The directors of the support centers at the three institutions were also pleased with the positive results of the project and its impact upon the participating faculty and students. They also discussed some of the challenges involved in establishing and implementing the online teaching partnerships. These included funding delays from the IBHE, difficulty in publicizing the program to faculty, scheduling conflicts, changes in teaching assignments, and low enrollments in a few of the courses that prevented some collaborations from taking place. However, they acknowledged that the increase in technological competency of the faculty, the positive reviews of the students and the enhancements to curriculum more than made up for the difficulties that were experienced.
Although the initial online teaching partnership project has concluded, a number of activities have grown out of it. The participating faculty members continue to use synchronous and asynchronous technologies in their online, blended and web-enhanced courses. Several of the participants have delivered papers and presentations at local and national conferences based upon their experiences with their collaborations. Both instructional and non-instructional collaborations between the three partner institutions and others in the region are being facilitated by means of SLATE, a community of practice of leaders and faculty from over 60 institutions who share an interest in technology and distance learning (Piña, Sadowski, Scheidenhelm & Heydenburg, 2008). The New Century Learning Consortium (2009) has been established with funding by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to take the basic premises of the online teaching partnerships to colleges and universities across the United States and beyond. Online teaching partnerships can be a viable and effective way to build virtual bridges across races, cultures and institutions.
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Dr. Julian Scheinbuks is Director of the Office of Distance Learning, Chicago State University, Chicago, Illinois. His interests are in minority student accessibility to higher education using online instructional techniques and in using these technologies in public health education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Anthony A. Piña is Academic Dean of the Global e-Learning Campus of the Sullivan University System, Louisville, Kentucky. He was formerly Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University. His research interests are in administrative and macro-level issues in e-learning. He can be reached at email@example.com.