By Nicole Geary

Recent media coverage has hyped the potential of online education, especially the new offerings of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that can enroll more than 100,000 students in a single class.

However, in Michigan State University’s College of Education, the question is not how many students can be reached. The question is how the online experience — like any other educational experience — can become more meaningful.

The college has been involved with web-based teaching for more than a decade and currently has nearly 900 students pursuing degrees completely online. At least a third of the full-time faculty now teaches online.

“We used to ask questions like whether we should or not, and if the technology will actually work,” says Cary Roseth, assistant professor of educational psychology.

Now, he says, instructors must be prepared to ask themselves which software platforms and instructional methods best match the tasks assigned and the students involved. It’s the rationale outlined by the TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) framework, developed at Michigan State University and adopted by educators around the world: rather than being just a vehicle for transmitting knowledge, technology must be an integral component of the teaching and learning process.

Growing a Hybrid Option

Graduate education in today’s universities has been particularly impacted by the lure of online programs. In many disciplines, professionals returning to college for advanced degrees are facing a complicated mix of hybrid options: a combination of independent online learning and face-to-face experiences.

Michigan State’s College of Education developed a hybrid doctoral program to meet a need in the mix of doctoral students they wanted to attract to their four-year program — namely, mid-career leaders in education. Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education Chairperson Richard Prawat explains that “The resident or face-to-face program was successful in drawing those with recent bachelor’s degrees and those who wanted to change careers, but not necessarily those who could not afford to put their careers on hold for a length of time.”

His colleague John Bell, co-coordinator of the hybrid doctoral program in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET), says the hybrid program’s doctoral students are establishing a brave new model for scholarly community, and a laboratory for the rest of the college. “It’s an urgency that drives innovation,” he says.

Bell has been developing ways for the students to participate in face-to-face classes via video conferencing systems (GoToMeeting is a favorite) and the use of iPads mounted to desks. The tablets become what he calls “physical avatars,” which represent the remote students’ spaces in the room.Bell also is director of the new CEPSE/COE Design Studio, a physical and philosophical gathering space for experimenting with and implementing new technologies in teaching. Launched in 2012, professors from every department within the college are testing and employing the use of synchronous technologies, reconfigurable chairs called Node chairs, remote controlled cameras and other equipment in their classes. They are sharing knowledge from their hybrid or online teaching experiences with each other more frequently through roundtable discussions and featured lectures.

“We strive to push the conversation forward,” says Bell, whose father Norman retired as a College of Education faculty member specializing in educational technology after more than 30 years.

“The goal is to use our own expertise to guide ourselves.”

Making it Real

One of the top challenges continues to be finding ways to cover the same amount of content from a face-to-face class in a virtual group format. Computer-mediated communication can take up to four times as long, according to Michigan State Communication Professor Joseph Walther.

Faculty members say synchronous technologies like Google Hangouts for group video discussions and Etherpad for real-time collaborative editing can help cover more material while leading to much richer learning.

When Michigan State’s Tanya Wright began teaching in the online Master of Arts in Teaching and Curriculum (MATC)—a program for teachers including those hoping to become reading specialists— students told her that their online courses had often felt too much like independent study. They longed for “real instruction” and discussions that didn’t feel “staged.”

So, like many other professors who find themselves problem-solving in the online world, she got creative. She hosts live Adobe Connect meetings to discuss case studies about struggling readers. The sessions are optional, but more than 90 percent of students participate. Wright also sets up professional book clubs that meet synchronously by time zone. She makes video presentations through which students actually see and hear her, either live or on their own time.

“Even at a distance, students crave interaction with one another and want to know the faculty member as a person,” she said.

Rethinking, Relearning

For instructors, teaching in online or hybrid formats is more labor intensive. They have the added responsibility of sorting through technical problems, time logistics and a stream of student communication that doesn’t start and stop with one class session. But students aren’t the only ones learning through the process.

“I have learned far more about my teaching through online teaching than I have face-to-face,” says Marilyn Amey, chair of the Department of Educational Administration. “It’s caused me to really question my assumptions about learning, about how I know students are learning. It’s changed, fundamentally, how I teach a face-to-face class as a result.”