Strategies for Empowering and Connecting Learners and Faculty with an Online Learning Community

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Come explore an Online Learning Community that promotes student engagement with course faculty, content, and peers across all sections of a core course and supports success in achieving learning outcomes. Take away ideas for collaborations and processes involved in moving the concept from idea to action and sustaining its success.


Stacy Southerland, PhD, is a Professor of Spanish and Faculty Liaison for the Center for eLearning and Connected Environments and Institute for Learning Environment Design (iLED) at the University of Central Oklahoma. She designs and coordinates the university's online Spanish courses and contributes to research and development for iLED analytics tools and learning innovation initiatives. Her research and presentation agenda focuses on learning innovation and learner success. She has received international recognition for her work in these areas and for her online teaching, learning environment design, and learner support strategies. Dr. Southerland is also a 2019 graduate of the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (IELOL).

Extended Abstract

The University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) has long offered campus-based foreign language tutoring, essential for helping students succeed in this challenging discipline, at no cost to students. However, when the university offered its first online section of Elementary Spanish, it did not have an equivalent learning support service in place for online learners who might not have access to campus-based tutoring services.

The demand and success of the online delivery option for Elementary Spanish brought rapid growth to UCO’s online Spanish curriculum. Currently, Elementary Spanish I and II comprise approximately 33% of the sections of this core curriculum offering each fall and spring and 78% in the summer and include sections tailored for Law Enforcement majors and minors. With this growth came increased concerns about how to provide the same free learning support service that campus-based students enjoyed to distance learners who could not make use of the campus tutoring services.

Lessons learned from the first few iterations of an online tutoring option prompted and informed a bold and creative move to leverage the university’s learning management system to create a discipline-specific community of learning and the Online Spanish Learning Community was born. Launching the initiative relied on collaboration between the lead faculty member and administrators in the university’s elearning center and enrollment management. The community works essentially as a course in the university’s learning management system. All UCO students enrolled in any modality of Elementary Spanish I and II—online, self-paced online, and face-to-face—are enrolled in this not for credit “course” each semester after the drop and add period ends. The end result a “class”, a community, of 800-900 students and half a dozen online Spanish faculty members who volunteer to work with students in the site during their online office hours.

The immediate purpose behind this concept was to provide tutoring services like those the Modern Languages department had long provided for traditional campus students to the rapidly increasing number of online and self-paced online Spanish students. However, the overarching goal was to apply holistic learning design principles to the development of a learning space that would allow students to create personalized, informal learning pathways to complement and support their success in formal learning experiences. The concept was also driven by a vision for a community of engaged learners that could share their diverse knowledge and skills with one another to promote an engaged and collaborative learning experience. By bringing students from all sections together in the learning community space, they have the opportunity to engage with many more students and learn from more peer and faculty perspectives than they would in a section of twenty-five students and one instructor.

Students who use the site enjoy free, synchronous tutoring by online Spanish faculty through video conferencing, chat rooms, and discussion forums on a variety of grammar, vocabulary, and technology topics. Outside of set faculty tutoring opportunities, students can access the community 24/7 to chat with other students and help each other with questions about course content, assignments, technology, and more. The site also offers supplemental instructional resources available any time for just-in-time learning assistance. These include text and video grammar tutorials as well as links to verified Internet tutorials and sites for exploring the Hispanic world. In this setting, learning meets students where they are in terms of ability and prior content knowledge, providing them with the information they need when they need it and students become teachers. Students may take additional ownership of their learning and shaping the community by suggesting additional resources for addition to the site.

Faculty members appreciate that the community promotes efficient management of online hours for those who teach multiple sections. They also enjoy the time saving benefits afforded by the ability to share supplemental instructional resources through the site. Students in all sections can benefit from materials prepared by other instructors, new resources do not have to be added to each individual section because they are available in the community, and faculty can share the workload of developing new instructional supplements for use by students and faculty in all sections.

This example of an online learning community is applicable to any discipline and scalable to any size—a class, multiple sections of a class, or a major or minor degree program and has been modified at UCO to create major hubs.  Leveraging learning management and video conferencing platforms already in use at the university makes the infrastructure for implementing this initiative highly affordable and sustainable. Learner and faculty satisfaction with the community is evidenced by feedback from surveys and by user rates that show as many as 62% of learners using one or more of the sites resources in a given semester.

In this session, we will explore the online learning community’s features and resources and exchange ideas and strategies for customizing the concept for other disciplines and uses at participants’ institutions. Attendees will learn from the experience entailed in developing this model and take away ideas and strategies for replicating this model to support the needs of learners in their organizations. This session will inspire and empower participants to leverage resources available to them to lead cost-effective, innovative initiatives for developing transformative learning experiences through virtual learning communities.