From Practice…to Research…to Practice – Sally Heath

Struggling to find a topic for my blog entry today, I decided that I’d write about my how teaching practice has informed my research, which has, in turn, re-informed my practice! Last winter, CTE colleague Sheila Hannon and I conducted a survey of all UW students who had taken an English course through Distance Education within the past year. Our motivation for undertaking this research stemmed from our own experiences co-ordinating Distance Education courses within our department. The goal of our survey was to determine whether students were satisfied with their distance learning experiences in the areas of interaction and assessment.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the results of our research, mainly because we’ll be presenting them at the Opportunities and New Directions Conference here at UW on May 6th. Suffice to say, our survey revealed that there are lots of things that are currently working well in these courses, but also that there was plenty of room for improvement. Students quite clearly identified communication as the number one impediment to satisfaction in distance learning courses. Under the umbrella heading of communication included such challenges as delayed response time from instructors, unclear instructions with no opportunities for clarification, and too-slow turnaround time on assignments. What we realized that was that most of these challenges could be traced back to the instructor or instructional contact for the course, not the course design. While it is easy for us to assume that students enrol in Distance Education courses because they are self-directed and independent learners, this doesn’t mean that they don’t need to feel that there is an instructor presence in the course, nor does it mean that they should be afforded the same respect and treatment as students enrolled in on-campus classes.

So this leads me back to practice. This term, I am currently the instructional contact for several distance learning courses. It’s been a great opportunity for this research to inform and improve my teaching practice. I have become even more acutely aware about the importance of positive and timely communication and assessment with my students, so that they do not feel that their only pedagogical relationship in the course is with their laptop or MacBook.

Are you looking for suggestions on how to make the most of your instructor presence in an online environment? Check out this article for some useful suggestions.

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Sally Heath

As the Acting Instructional Developer (2008-2009), Sally Heath oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. In addition to working at CTE, Sally is pursuing a doctoral degree in English.

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