Camille Freeman Discusses Benefits of Online Learning
How She Keeps Students Motivated, Plus Her Advice to New Online Students
MUIH is known for its innovation in the field of online learning, allowing students around the world to enroll and participate in degree programs and courses taught by our renowned faculty.
We interviewed Camille Freeman, M.S., CNS, LDN, to get her perspectives on online options at MUIH and some of the challenges and benefits online courses bring for both instructors and students.
What do you think are some of the benefits to students of learning online?
The students unanimously love the flexibility afforded by online education. The online learning format lets students take a break when their brains feel full, listen to lectures repeatedly if needed, and so forth. They are able to attend class in their pajamas if they like and can schedule schoolwork to fit in more easily with other commitments.
Are there any aspects of the online teaching experience that you particularly enjoy and/or have been surprised by?
I always enjoy being stretched by a new way of doing things. The learning curve was quite steep when I taught my first online course at another institution a few years ago, and I found that moving online with MUIH was also quite challenging.
The process of developing online courses has led to a much deeper appreciation for the freely available resources that already exist online. Tapping into these resources adds a richness and depth to online courses, and with the guidance of a faculty member these resources breathe life into what can sometimes be dry material.
As I learn more about teaching, I realize that my role as a faculty member is not to impart my knowledge to students like a pitcher pouring water into a cup. Instead I think of teaching as a more collaborative and bi-directional process. The traditional lecture falls into the unilateral active teacher/passive recipient model; I have been working for years to reduce lecture in my courses and focus on more engaging teaching methods. It's been much easier to avoid lecture online and to focus on curating and contextualizing information for students.
When students are required to be this engaged in the learning, it can be a big change from what they're used to. This type of active engagement, however, promotes deeper and more embodied learning. I'm all about it, even if we are still working out some of the kinks.
What are some of the challenges to teaching online and how do you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges is finding a way to feel connected to the students. It can be difficult to get a feel for different personalities in the online environment, and it takes extra effort to create a personal feel within a course. In a face-to-face class, I can easily gauge when students are feeling overwhelmed, excited, confused, or just plain tired by reading facial expressions. I can also take a break and discuss questions in real-time when I notice confused or questioning looks. Online, it's a bit harder to read the mood of the class. It can be challenging to know when students are confused or when they are happily moving along.
Creating forums for Q&A helps; students can see the questions posed by others and can also chime in with answers. Setting up online office hours is another way to interact with students in small-group setting.
I recently did a mid-trimester survey of my online chemistry students, who had some wonderful ideas about how to improve the course. One student suggested adding informal introductory videos each week as a way to provide a more personal experience. I've implemented this suggestion, and I hope it will help students feel more connected to me as an instructor.
How do you keep your online students motivated?
On one hand, I think that keeping students motivated is not necessarily a professor's job - either online or on site. Especially at the graduate level, students who are not feeling motivated may not quite be ready to undertake a course or a program.
That being said, I do think that it's easy to fall behind in an online environment. Online courses usually require juggling multiple weekly assignments, and many students don't realize how time-intensive graduate school can be. I do my best to make sure all assignments are clear - so the students know what to do, when it's due, and how they will be assessed each week.
I also work to highlight the relevance of the material we study. Finally, I keep in touch via frequent emails/announcements and soliciting feedback about how to improve my courses. I've gotten incredible feedback and suggestions from students over the years, which has helped me continually improve my courses.
Related to keeping students motivated, how do you go about building a sense of community online so that students actually interact with one another?
I think this varies from course to course. In some courses, student-to-student interaction is crucial and in others it may be a secondary goal. Discussion boards are a wonderful way to get the students to build a community. I usually step back in discussions and let the students lead. I will step in and guide, correct, or nudge if needed, and overall I find that my students do a wonderful job with discussions as long as the question or prompt is well-conceived.
Creating strong discussion questions is a tricky thing, indeed. While the discussion prompts in an online course may seem relatively straightforward, a great deal of planning goes into each one. The goal is to create a question that inspires thought and conversation, one that requires everyone involved in the discussion to examine a topic from several perspectives. Some questions are a total flop; in that case, we try a different one the next time the course is taught.
Finally, what advice do you have for students who are about to take their first online course?
My biggest piece of advice for students—whether online or in person—is to leave your self-limiting beliefs at the door. Forget what you think you like or what you think you can do, and give yourself the chance to fall in love with the material.
For online students in particular, I recommend being obsessive about your planning. Sit down with the syllabus, read it at least three times (not kidding), and schedule deadlines for all homework, discussions, exams or other assignments into your calendar. I advise setting a reminder for the day before assignments are due.
Another piece of advice is to reach out to your professor. We are here to help you succeed, but if we don't know you're struggling then we can't help. The sooner you reach out, the easier it will be to get on track. Online learning is inherently more self-directed than on-site learning, so it's important to stay on top of the assignments and to reach out when you need help.