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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2017)

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A Multimodal and Multidisciplinary Conversation about Online Instruction

By Leah Panther, Doctoral Candidate, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and 
Julie Hartwell, Instructional Design Librarian, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Inviting Ourselves to the Conversation

Conversations and decisions surrounding online education are often had in formal spaces such as faculty meetings, administrative policies (Graham, Woodfield, & Harrison, 2012), and international researchers (Zawacki-Richter & Anderson, 2014). These conversations may include feedback from student evaluations, analysis of enrollment trends (Lewis, Whiteside, & Dikkers, 2014), or national trends (Allen & Seaman, 2008, 2010). Yet, there are other conversations surrounding online education happening in back channels such as Twitter (e.g. #elearning, #highered, #adjunctlife), email threads, and localized publications such as C2C. These are conversations happening by those not invited to the formal conversation such as adjuncts, librarians, and students.

This article follows the multimodal conversations shared in the back channels of higher education; this is Julie, the librarian, and Leah, doctoral candidate and adjunct,  inviting themselves into the conversation about online education.

Julie’s Story

After graduating from library school, one of my first positions was supporting and designing online courses in higher education. This world was new to me. My graduate program was completely face-to-face. In this position, I learned the opportunities, politics, and possibilities of online education. As I transitioned to the role of an instruction librarian, I gained a greater perspective of the challenges of moving online education forward. This combination of experiences produced my interest in librarians participating in online instruction.  

Rather than teaching our own courses, librarians are invited in to collaborate on instruction. This is face-to-face, one time instruction or what the library world calls “one shots.”  With online education, this model transitioned to embedded librarianship.  Embedded librarianship is when librarians are not invited to the face-to-face classroom but enrolled in an online course within the Learning Management System. Embedded librarians can reach a higher percentage of students as students are already in the LMS (Tumbleson & Burke, 2013). Librarians are enrolled in an online course for the purposes of being as close as possible to students completing coursework. 

There are several reasons for embedding a librarian in an online course. Students question what a scholarly source is and where to find credible materials. By creating an “ask the librarian” discussion board, the librarian can provide an answer. Librarians can also help with assignment creation. Include search strategies as part of the assignment instructions, such how to narrow a topic or use a database (Tumbleson & Burke, 2013). Providing librarian contact information is a good first step of including a librarian in a course. Librarians are ready and eager to be a part of online education. 

Leah’s Story

When I began my doctoral program three years ago, I was unfamiliar with the intricacies of higher education, but knew the end goal: to work on campus, focus on being a full time student, and graduate so I could return to middle school education with more skills, strategies, and experiences to support struggling adolescent readers. Yet, much of the work I found on campus involved teaching online courses. In the same year I took my first class as an online student, I also taught my first online class. Over the past three years much has changed. First, I am now pursuing a career in higher education. Second, I have fallen in love with online instruction. While nothing will replace the energy of face-to-face classroom sessions, online education has become a second home because it better supports the modern learner, students who juggle full time jobs with school (Fussell & Gregg, 2015), challenges me to stay updated on current research and trends (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 2014), and fits my own busy schedule.

Over the past three years I have taught online and hybrid courses as an adjunct and as a full time instructor. I have also taken both online and hybrid classes as a graduate student. These different experiences have positioned me to see the difficulty in attracting and retaining online adjuncts (Hardy, 2010), the unique challenges within online education (Islam, Beer, & Slack, 2015), and troubleshoot various critical incidents in the online classroom.

The Conversation

Julie: You are recently quoted saying that you have fallen in love with online education. How do we get others to share your sentiment?

Leah: It’s human nature to reject change and to default to what we’re most comfortable with. I don’t know about you, but my education kindergarten through higher education stemmed from a traditional model. Students sitting in rows, listening to lectures, taking notes, taking tests on chunks of information. It’s easy to fall on these pedagogical methods because they are easy, predictable, and do not change your course from one semester to another. Engaging teachers in online education means making it as easy and predictable for instructors to use and maximizing instructor’s time spent on the course. Using tools like one on one training, modeling effective online instruction, building shells for courses, or incentivizing online instruction can get the instructors in the door and endear them to the unfamiliar. I am a firm believer that once instructors engage in online instruction with strong institutional support, it will be a game-changer. The real difficulty is that initial if it’s forced rather than self-selected. I know you have worked one on one with faculty making the shift to online instruction. 

Leah: What are the major challenges with instructor buy-in and how do you overcome them?

Julie:  I would say the biggest challenge is that some instructors don’t want to do it. Like you mentioned, it is easier to stick with the traditional model. Print your paper and hand it in. This challenge is overcome by explaining and training how the LMS works, requirements for an online course, and being available to answer questions.

Julie: How do you think librarians can better position themselves as more and more courses and programs go online?

Leah: When you say “position themselves”, are you asking about how librarians can better support online instructors or how they can remain relevant?

Julie: Oh, librarians being irrelevant has been debunked time and time again! I am more interested in how librarians can support and move online education forward ?

Leah: I am putting on my student hat for this one. As a student who had taken several different online course across schools and divisions on campus, there can be many inconsistencies. Librarians are the unifier. Even as course structures and online tools waver and change, librarians are often invited into course to support text adoptions, teach modules on research and e-learning, and other roles I have not experienced or can even imagine from my discipline specific positionality. Speaking as one online student who finds the drastic differences from one course to another exhausting, librarians can better leverage this opportunity. Having a video from the librarian who serves the particular course, division, or school within the university to greet me would be an excellent first step. The short video could point out the resources available for students in the course including research help, e-texts, open access textbooks, and virtual librarian or reference desk. This could also include embedding other library resources across all course sites--links to relevant research databases and writing guides for the discipline, for example. 

Julie: All brilliant ideas! Librarians could have a “meet your librarian” video ready to go for faculty to insert into their course. Love it. 

Julie: What’s the best way the library can engage with adjunct faculty? They are difficult to find!

Leah: Walk a mile in an adjuncts’ shoes: they are often overqualified, paid less with no benefits, and are juggling many courses at many institutions to make ends meet. This is unpredictable employment from one semester to the next and adjuncts have no voice or power institutional policy, voting rights, or even the ability to adjust the course curriculum they are asked to teach. Few adjuncts I have encountered want to stay adjuncts, they are looking for full time employment which demands a record of research and collegial service. The best way you can engage with adjuncts, and experiences, is to reach out with resources that will support the work we do and acknowledge our precarious positions in academia. That might be a hack for navigating different online learning management systems as they interact with three to four platforms across a normal week, providing online training and support conferences that work with adjuncts’ busy schedules, or a word of encouragement about what students are saying about their instruction. Many adjuncts, particularly within online instruction are more prone to burnout--in part due to lack of collegial interaction and community. What are the strategies you’ve used to engage adjuncts within higher education?

Julie: You’re right about adjuncts having a sort of juggling act between teaching many courses and sometimes working a second job. I’ve had the most success finding and working with adjuncts when full-time faculty refer them. Adjuncts tend to be very appreciative of any and all help provided!

Leah: And food. But that might just be me! But I’m wondering what else, besides referrals, you use to engage adjuncts within higher education?

Julie: Wish I had more, but that’s legitimately all I have!

Julie: Since you are both an instructor and a student, what is your favorite tool for engaging in online courses with your students and with your instructors?

Leah: As a student, I have had a variety of online experiences. I appreciate instructors that send weekly feedback videos to students addressing common questions and feedback they have addressed throughout the week or module. I also enjoy instructors that make the most of the online experiences by drawing from electronic texts, websites, and videos to introduce and reinforce course concepts. Additionally, while it’s small, it can be powerful to must introductory videos and students to upload a photo--it personalizes what can be an isolating and anonymous space. As an instructor, some of my favorite tools for teaching in an online environment include the strategies mentioned above, but extend to offering online office hours, video conferences, and optional face-to-face sessions on campus to add a personal element to the course. Not only does it increase the community within the class, but it also increases empathy to have a face, voice, and stories associated with each name. As for explicit teaching tips?

Make screencast videos to prove how to navigate your course, submit assignments, and view feedback. This covers the most common questions students email about and can be copied from one course and semester to another.

Write a personal email to each student within the first two weeks of the semester. Ask questions to get to know them, their learning style, and the obstacles they foresee for the semester. It increases retention within the course and can prevent problems.

Cancel any small assignments the same week the student course surveys come out. Instead, ask students to complete the survey instead. It increases the response rate, which is much lower for online classes than face-to-face classes.

Block your time. Have all assignments for one course due Mondays at midnight? Block out Tuesdays from 8am until noon to grade the assignments. Having a predictable schedule reduces burnout and decreases the feedback turnaround time. The faster the feedback, the more likely students are to (a) read it (b) remember it and (c) persist in the course.

Leah: But what about you, Julie? What are the common problems you see online instructors managing? Any proactive tips to prevent the challenges from occurring?

Julie: You have described the best practices of multimodal learning! The idea that students have learning styles has morphed into learning preferences. Turns out, students like a variety of instructional formats and activities. A common problem I find in online education is not using tools to adapt to these learning preferences. Blackboard holds more than PDFs and PowerPoint files! Engage students with presenting content via a Comic Strip or a Piktochart infographic. Promote interactive discussion using VoiceThread or Panopto. I love your idea about the survey as a standalone assignment!

Leah: That’s a lot of exclamation points! I found a topic you’re especially excited about. 

Julie:  What can librarians do to better promote the library’s online instruction and resources?

Leah: I asked a few of my colleagues if they knew about our institution’s library resources. Those that had some experience or knowledge shared two common trends:

Networking. The majority of those I spoke with found out about library resources due to personal connections. This might be a friendship with a librarian, attending a conference presentation a university librarian presented at, or building a relationship when they reached out for support in their research.

University news. Additionally, most of the instructors and adjuncts I spoke with knew about the library resources because of advertising such as email blasts, fliers, librarians giving a short presentation at a faculty meeting, or a profile of a researcher that was making use of library resources and mentioned it in an interview or publication.

Leah: But I’ve been doing most of the talking. I want to know what the biggest challenge or dilemma you have faced in trying to include your voice in the online education conversation.

Julie: Librarians live in limbo in academia. We may or may not be faculty. We rarely teach credit bearing courses. This leaves librarians courting instructors to include us in their courses. As mentioned before, instructors are busy. It is human nature to avoid change. Part of that change includes a librarian to enhance or contribute to an online course. I am challenged with helping faculty connect their curriculum to library instruction. My dilemma is getting my foot in the door!

Julie: In a perfect world, what does online education look like?

Leah: A chip in our heads that can download knowledge Matrix-style.

Julie: A librarian in every course. 

Leah: Your solution seems more likely. 


Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2008). Staying the course: Online education in the United States, 2008. Sloan Consortium. PO Box 1238, Newburyport, MA 01950.

Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2010). Learning on demand: Online education in the United States, 2009. Sloan Consortium. PO Box 1238, Newburyport, MA 01950.

Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2014). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other. Routledge.

Fussell, G. & Gregg, F. (2015). Online education: Benefits and difficulties. Редакционная коллегия, 40.

Graham, C. R., Woodfield, W., & Harrison, J. B. (2013). A framework for institutional adoption and implementation of blended learning in higher education. The internet and higher education, 18, 4-14.

Hardy, K. (2010). Nine practical ideas for training and retaining online adjuncts. Distance Education Report, 14(3), 1-7. 

Islam, N., Beer, M., & Slack, F. (2015). E-learning challenges faced by academics in higher education: a literature review. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(5), 102-112.

Lewis, S., Whiteside, A., & Dikkers, A. G. (2014). Autonomy and responsibility: Online learning as a solution for at-risk high school students. Journal of Distance Education (Online), 29(2), 1.

Tumbleson, B. E. & Burke, J. (2013). Embedding Librarianship in Learning Management Systems : A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. Chicago, Illinois: ALA Editions. 

Zawacki-Richter, O. & Anderson, T. (Eds.). (2014). Online distance education: Towards a research agenda. Athabasca University Press.

About the Authors 

Leah Panther is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Her research interests include high leverage literacy practices, urban religious schools, and adolescent literacy. Her current research project involves high leverage literacy practices in urban religious middle schools.

Julie Hartwell is an Instructional Design Librarian at Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She contributes to the creation of learning objects and instruction for the library’s Research Essentials program. She also is a content creator and instructional designer for the New Literacies Alliance, an inter-institutional information literacy consortium.

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