Academic Outreach

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Thoughts from a Paragon Award Recipient

Posted on: July 8th, 2014 by Mary Lea Moore

By Victoria M. Bryan, 2013 Recipient of the Paragon for Excellence in Distance Teaching Award

I’ve been teaching Writing 250 — an advanced composition course — for a few years. The majority of my online teaching experience comes from my adjunct work at Chattanooga State Community College where I’ve taught composition, humanities, and world literature courses in an online format.

Victoria Bryan poses with Paragon Award trophy

Victoria Bryan

I enjoy the flexibility that online and distance learning offers to the traditional and nontraditional college student. I’m only 28, and the college experience today already looks much different than mine did. Students work, have families, own businesses, and engage in myriad other obligations outside of their academic responsibilities. As technology has changed and advanced our world, it’s also changed and advanced educational opportunities. Because of online and distance learning, the University of Mississippi can serve students who would not have been able to carve out time for an undergraduate degree 10 years ago.

With those changes come certain challenges, though. Online courses serve students — and instructors — best when we design them based on consistency and ease of navigation. My course is fairly minimalistic. Too many links, windows, etc. clutter the screen and can cause students to shut down. I separate the course into units and within those units I provide a consistent structure. I want each unit to look generally the same so that once we finish a major assignment as a course, the students do not have to learn an entirely new structure and can instead focus all of their energy on improving their writing skills.

I also require meetings with my students via Skype. At the beginning of the semester, students and I explore the course together one-on-one or just discuss my expectations of them for the semester. While this gets time consuming, the best practice for online instruction is to put the time in up front so you’re not consistently answering the same questions over and over all semester. That significant time investment during the first two weeks of the semester frees up more time for me to work on my own research, future course development, conference travel, and other obligations academics face in any given semester.

We utilize online meetings throughout the semester. I require meetings with my students before they complete their biggest assignment of the semester. Again, this serves the students and the instructor well because it foregrounds instruction and produces better papers instead of putting the instructor in a position to have to correct mistakes after an assignment has been submitted for grading. Though I only require these two rounds of meetings, I also allow individual meetings throughout the semester whenever a student requests one. I do not set specific office hours for these meetings, though that practice might serve some instructors very well. Instructors would simply sign on to Skype (or Google Hangout or any other online meeting tool they decide to use) for the time during which they set their office hours and let students know that they can call during that time without going through the trouble of setting up an appointment.

Utilizing these practices and free resources allows increased communication between student and instructor while also foregrounding the work required to design an online course, freeing an instructor to focus on other requirements of the academic life — student support, research, etc. Further, I’d be happy to open a conversation with other instructors about interesting practices and inexpensive resources that we can use in conjunction with Blackboard.

Victoria M. Bryan, winner of the 2013 Paragon Award for Excellence in Distance Teaching, is a 5th year doctoral candidate in the English department working on her dissertation entitled “Modern(izing) Burial in Interwar American Fiction.” She has published articles in the journal “Studies in American Jewish Literature” and a conference proceeding “Faulkner and Chopin”. In 2011, Victoria co-founded the John Dos Passos Society, an author studies society dedicated to furthering the study of John Dos Passos’s literary accomplishments. In addition to her research and service, Victoria has been teaching for six years, and four of those years have included online instruction in the English and Humanities fields. She has also worked with incarcerated learners, teaching literature and composition at Charles Bass Correctional Complex in Nashville, TN. She can be contacted at vmbryan@olemiss.edu.