Professor Creates Engaging Online Learning Environment


By Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor, SJSU School of Information

I’ve been teaching in the Master of Library and Information Science online program for several years, and evolving, cutting-edge technologies continue to enhance the delivery of my courses. Some still dismiss online classes as lonely, ineffective, text-based “correspondence” style endeavors. I believe it all depends on the caliber of the online experience. Are the classes just ported over from face-to-face syllabi and entirely text-based? Or do they transform learning and inspire students?

I am drawn to online instruction because of the potential for using interactive technologies and social tools to extend my “classroom” beyond four walls and immerse my students in the environments they’ll encounter in future jobs. I teach a course that explores human-centered, new service models in libraries that encourages students to teach outside the box. I am also the coordinator for INFO 200 Information Communities, one of the core courses in the MLIS program.

“On the go and from anywhere, my students can share or participate via their smart phone or tablet.”

For both courses, I use a learning environment that fosters rich interaction between students and me, and gets students interacting with each other. I prefer not to keep our work and interactions inside the “walled garden” of a closed learning management system, but out on the open Web. Our students will surely be called upon to communicate online to some degree with the people they serve. Having an understanding of interaction outside the safe confines of an LMS is important.

Utilizing the open source content management system WordPress and a suite of plug ins called Buddypress, I create a “social network” for learning that features blogs for all students, a course activity feed, forums, work groups, and integration of other social tools. My class size is usually 35 or so students. Each student gets an account and blog within the site and can customize their environment with widgets, themes and add-ons. Small images represent each student – some use a photo, others choose to use avatars.

From that model, we now have a huge Wordpress platform for all students to use for reflective blogging. INFO 200 students use their blogs to explore their information communities, and other classes utilize the blog for various types of assignments. The platform also features a rich social environment of groups formed around various LIS interests and more. It’s a busy, chaotic, and thriving community!

Transforming Learning while Inspiring Students

The San José State University School of Information provides access to some cutting-edge tools to deliver class content. I use Panopto to record lectures. Panopto combines slides, text and video into a rich, media-based Web experience. Feedback from students has been positive. I advocate for the use of video in online teaching as a means to share beyond just text. I often record short video “shout outs” to my class from the hiking trail or beside a lake in northern Michigan. Letting them see a bit of my world, of my experience, reinforces the connection I believe is so important to establish. Last fall, I recorded a series of lectures with my trusty Labrador Cooper sleeping nearby within the frame. Other videos I record with my iPhone for upload to YouTube. These can be easily embedded into the course site and shared.

Other tools allow us to create a sense of connection and community. This is important to me as an online educator. We utilize Zoom to have live video conference sessions throughout the semester. I’ve dubbed them the Commons, a place where each participant adds value to the experience. We might have an open discussion or office hours style meet up, and other sessions might include a guest speaker. Recordings of these interactions are posted to my course sites as soon as we wrap up, for those who cannot attend the live session. It’s not out of the ordinary for a student to stop into the online room just to say hello and make a quick comment.

As a companion to the online meeting space, we use Zoom Instant Messaging, an application that allows faculty, staff and students to log in and interact in similar fashion to other chat programs. While working each day, I log in and set my status to available. Students and my colleagues at iSchool can send a brief question or comment via IM, and I can do the same. The application seamlessly integrates with Zoom and allows groups to break out into rooms for further collaboration. For students, it’s comforting to know that a professor is just a few keyboard taps away in the online environment.

I often use the micro-blogging site Twitter for sharing with my students and promoting conversation. We utilize Twitter hashtags to associate and share our tweets, and library practitioners can share and participate as well. Students also use devices other than a personal computer to interact via Twitter, and on the course site. On the go and from anywhere, my students can share or participate via their smart phone or tablet. Posting a picture, a link or just a brief thought about class content can happen wherever they happen to be.

Interactive Learning Environments Encourage Experimentation

The world is changing faster than ever, and the skillsets needed by iSchool students  are rapidly evolving. Students need to learn how to incorporate emerging technology into their future roles in libraries and information centers. As I teach courses in the school’s fully online graduate program, I’m well aware of the need to create an engaging, interactive learning environment for my students that prepares them for tomorrow challenges.

I believe a focus on play and experimentation is needed for 21st century learning success. These newer forms of learning – play and experimentation – can prepare students for the world they will work in after they graduate, and for years to come.

I emphasize this focus on experimentation via the assignments in my online courses. In my INFO 287 The Hyperlinked Library and Emerging Technologies class, students create media-based reports on recent books related to society and culture. Any media platform or 2.0 tool that can be shared across the web is fair game for play and experimenting for this assignment. Experience with various tools for creating content put them in the thick of what it will be like to do the same in their future work.

Communication is Key in Online Teaching

I have a plaque in my home office that quotes Michaelangelo: “I am still learning.” I keep that in mind as I reflect on my own teaching and use of technology. It’s an ongoing process to continue to improve. I learn from my students, my colleagues and from the networks I participate in online. It’s fine to say “I don’t know” about the next new thing and explore it with previous learning in mind. I want this for my students as well. Skills they develop now – exploring a new tool, creating new knowledge, making connections with others – will serve them well in their careers.

I’ve also learned not to get hung up on perfection. A mistake or two in a lecture or stumbling over words in a video does not negate the experience for students. In fact, it helps counteract the “culture of perfect” that sometimes permeates libraries and other environments. “Everything is beta” is a popular way to describe this approach.

Communication is key to successful online teaching as well. Being present on the course site and answering questions directed to me are a given, but I also work at consistent updating. If I’m traveling to speak at a library or conference, I let my students know. If I’m at a conference, I’ll share links and insights. My students have done the same, using Twitter or their class blogs to share their own opinions and takeaways from attending professional conferences. The sharing and communication can be informal, and it strengthens the feeling of community.

The best teachers understand that technology use in course work is not just for the sake of technology but to extend and enhance the learning process. Michael Wesch from the University of Kansas responded to an article about his advocacy for participatory technologies in course work. His eloquent statement resonates with me: “My main point is that participatory teaching methods simply will not work if they do not begin with a deep bond between teacher and student. Importantly, this bond must be built through mutual respect, care, and an ongoing effort to know and understand one another.”

The sage on the stage in giant lecture halls is giving way to a collaborative, hyperconnected world of newer methods and channels of learning, but the human connection can and should remain. I often say instructors should bring themselves to online teaching – share a bit about your life, be authentic, and connect with students via the heart and the keyboard.