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Seattle U Leads the Way in Highly Engaged Online Learning

Written by Allison Nitch

July 23, 2020

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Care of the whole student no exception, even in remote instruction.

With August looming and COVID-19 cases increasing, questions around the start of fall quarter weigh heavily on every college and university nationwide. Since late winter, Seattle University has been an innovative example of the effectiveness and success of remote instruction. Through its leading-edge Center for Digital Learning and Innovation (CDLI), Seattle U’s online learning continues to uphold the high quality and deeply experiential learning consistent with the Jesuit approach, which is rooted in a distinctive and impactful values-based education.

While some schools had to suddenly assemble an online format from scratch due to the pandemic, 250 Seattle U faculty members had already completed a six-month CDLI course design program. “We had the technologies in place and were able to scale up quickly due to our strong Information Technology Services (ITS) unit,” says CDLI Director Richard Fehrenbacher, PhD. “We had already been thinking these things through.”

Care and Excellence

Another unique feature that prepared Seattle U for these uncertain times is its approach to teaching.

“We incorporate Jesuit principles of cura personalis (“care of the whole person”) and the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm into all of our training at CDLI and teaching standards,” he says. “… That combination of experience, of a strong technology team and a commitment to our Jesuit principles, really sets us apart.”

While earlier models of online learning management systems provided basic offerings, “they more or less attempted to replicate the traditional classroom experience but didn’t consider the possibilities of virtual education being offered,” says Fehrenbacher, an early adopter of online education. While much can be attributed to technological capabilities and how people now perceive teaching virtually, “content is now delivered in a much more dynamic way and, most importantly, the emphasis is very much on active learning.”

This type of learning is delivered through two methods: synchronously, where instructors and students gather online at the same time and interact with a “real time” or “near-real time” exchange between instructors and students; and asynchronously, in which students do not meet as a class in real-time and faculty prepare learning activities designed to create asynchronous student-instructor interaction.

Dividing the delivery mode of content allows for more impactful learning. College of Nursing Associate Professor Patrick Murphy, PhD, explains, “I’m using asynchronous learning methods, such as narrated podcasts, to provide the ‘me-talking-to-you’ in a way that is most suitable for the students’ schedules. This allows our synchronous time, when we meet as a live class, to be filled with engaging class activities. Students take a more active role in their learning and ownership of our course content.”

When asked what it says about faculty and staff who were able to adapt so well to remote instruction beginning with the late winter and spring quarters, Fehrenbacher says, “First, it shows how dedicated they are to the students and the university’s mission. Second, it was truly a team effort—people across the university pulled together as one community and met this challenge, which was really inspiring to see.”

He also expresses appreciation for staff and support services, such as ITS. “They were foundational in our ability to move online.”

Says Murphy, “Getting this right is a priority for us. I’m proud to be part of the campus community and seeing everyone work together for the betterment of our programs and what we’re able to offer our students.”

It is on good authority that CDLI’s faculty training has been effective, Fehrenbacher says, based on student feedback.

“In our end-of-year survey, students expressed high levels of satisfaction with their virtual courses this past spring,” says President Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J. “It starts with our great faculty, who are deeply committed to the development and success of each individual student and is made possible virtually through their creative and innovative ways of teaching and the technology support, training and resources provided by our leading-edge Center for Digital Learning and Innovation.”
 
“There was a lot of gratitude from students,” notes Fehrenbacher. “… I think they realized how difficult it was going to be to turn everything around in three weeks. Hats off to the students for being so understanding.”

Nonetheless, there’s always room for growth. Students provided input in the spring that has been applied to the upgrade of future courses. For instance, when students shared their difficulties in navigating around an online course, CDLI built additional course templates and emphasized the importance of course flow and content structure during faculty trainings.

“We also realized that while we accomplished reformatting courses quickly, we needed to give faculty the opportunity to rethink and recreate their courses more thoroughly, so we offered an accelerated version of our six-month course design over the summer and thus far, 350 faculty have signed up for it,” Fehrenbacher says.

Students also addressed the lack of a social element with remote learning.

“In some courses, students felt that they weren’t connecting in the same way with their classmates as they did previously,” he says, adding that many students are already in a variety of online communities through hobbies, clubs, gaming and social media. “It’s fairly easy to do in a virtual setting. … You can use a lot of the same tools that students use to generate their own organic communities to create one in the online classroom.”

While CDLI already offers a stand-alone community building module, it’s difficult to incorporate into a class on short notice. “We developed a summer training to make sure faculty understood how to go about building a sense of community into their courses,” Fehrenbacher says. “It’s something students come to college for and I’m really interested in making sure students feel like they’re a part of their class.”

“Having students taking classes remotely has increased participation: There’s no longer a back row to hide out in,” says Murphy. “Students who are more hesitant to speak up seem more willing to have their voices heard via Zoom chat and breakout rooms.”

Future Success

Given the ever-changing nature of technology, the future of Seattle U’s learning experiences online will continue in the post-pandemic world. Acknowledging the success of recently launched masters programs from the Albers School of Business and Economics, Fehrenbacher thinks it’s likely the university will continue to offer online programs in graduate and continuing education and how to better incorporate technology into in-person classes.

Ultimately, Fehrenbacher sees the connection between what’s happening now for learning and how that translates into success in the long run.

“There’s a recognition that many of the skills students are learning in their virtual courses are also ones that slot really well into today’s digital workplace and that’s something that Jesuit education has always done,” he says. “It’s not like we think of online education as something alien to our mission or something that’s different—it’s just another way of meeting students where they are, which is a large part of the Jesuit philosophy of teaching.”

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