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Investments in Online Learning Boost Quality, Student Experience

By Betsy Lundgren

September 28, 2020

Professor Fabio Gaertner films an online class in front of a lightboard
Fabio Gaertner, associate professor of accounting and information systems, films a graduate-level financial reporting course for online delivery. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

The abrupt shift to remote instruction last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic came as a shock to the Wisconsin School of Business community, as it did across the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus and so many institutions across the country.

“Instructors and students alike were thrown into the deep end of the remote instruction pool,” says Enno Siemsen, associate dean of MBA and master’s programs.

Since then, WSB faculty and staff have had time to swim back above surface and reset expectations and delivery modes for online learning as the Fall 2020 semester started in a hybrid model of in-person and online courses.

“At WSB, our goal is to move beyond remote instruction to a place where we are providing premium online learning experiences,” says Siemsen. “That means that we’ve trained our faculty and instructional staff, designed great online courses, and have the technology and infrastructure to deliver them.”

With many WSB classes starting the semester with some online component, and all classes temporarily shifting online due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, the efforts to boost the quality of online learning have been substantial but exceedingly worthwhile.

Technology and tools that boost quality

In recent years, the tools available for online learning have evolved quite a bit, and WSB students and instructors are benefitting from new technologies and proven resources in the online education space.

Professor Enno Siemsen poses for a portrait.
Enno Siemsen

“We have the advantage of ‘leapfrogging’ in some ways,” says Siemsen. “Though we’ve had to start from zero in translating some of our courses online, we’ve been able to jump right to the quality resources.”

Take, for example, the challenge of translating in-person discussions to an online format. In class, instructors can call on people, read the room, and facilitate a spontaneous, active conversation. Trying to replicate that online can be difficult, but there are now virtual discussion platforms built on artificial intelligence that can make this more feasible. Under Siemsen’s leadership, WSB is trialing one such platform this fall. By leveraging an AI-based discussion software to analyze class participation at the individual and class level, the platform can make sure every student is heard.

“Discussion forums often suffer from the problem that once you have 30-40 people contributing, the conversation becomes too big and no one knows what to read,” says Siemsen. “With AI software, you can spot patterns of behavior. If there are groups that only respond to each other, that’s essentially group think. If someone is constantly disagreeing, you can pick that up. All of this helps in ranking responses and provides instructors an individualized way of coaching students.”

WSB is implementing a range of other virtual tools as well. Instructors are adapting their traditional in-person presentations—which usually deliver a unidirectional flow of information—into an interactive set of rich media. With this type of live, online content, presentations function as virtual blackboards where students can simultaneously record their responses and see classmates’ posts in real time.

Some faculty members have started recording course content with the intention of providing top-quality asynchronous lecture material. The professionally shot videos are strategically designed to deliver key course material, convey each faculty member’s personality and expertise, and engage students in a compelling way.

“In preparing to film, I really had to think about how an in-person presentation differs from video,” says Fabio Gaertner, associate professor of accounting and information systems, who recorded his graduate-level financial reporting course over the summer. “I had to think of the most efficient way to deliver my message—to develop the best, clearest way to communicate. That process was really helpful because it will ultimately make it easier for a student consuming the content to understand course concepts.”

Investing in the student experience

Across all efforts, it’s that focus on the student experience that matters most. For Gaertner, one of the benefits of online learning is the ability to adjust pacing.

“There’s a wide variation in how quickly students understand material and can go through it,” says Gaertner. “With online instruction, you can make sure everyone is there with you. Everyone has a chance to absorb the material in their own way and at their own pace, as opposed to just driving the class at the pace most people are comfortable with.”

A business student uses her laptop
WSB students engage in a variety of programming online, including instruction, academic advising, and career preparation. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

WSB is focused on ensuring a consistent, quality experience beyond the virtual classroom as well. Advising services have shifted online since last spring, with the same number of undergraduate students participating virtually as they did in-person the previous year. According to Brian Mayhew, associate dean of the undergraduate program, student satisfaction reports on virtual advising have been the same or even slightly better, and he predicts that the School will retain virtual advising for the long term.

The undergraduate and graduate programs have been holding virtual career fairs, with corporate interaction remaining steady through this shift. Mayhew and Siemsen foresee that this is another lasting change, as both WSB and corporate partners benefit from the expanded reach inherent in the virtual environment.

Ensuring instructor training and course readiness

WSB has made significant investments in professional development to equip instructors to effectively design and teach online courses. It’s not as straightforward as simply taking an in-person curriculum and dropping it into an online environment.

Over the summer, WSB leaders devoted significant resources to determining which courses were ready to be online.

“We look at two key indicators to gauge readiness,” says Ron Cramer, senior learning technology consultant at WSB. “First, the instructor has had some professional development or experience teaching online. And, second, they’ve had the opportunity to work with an instructional designer to get the course developed.”

Instructors for WSB’s core undergraduate courses—which tend to be high-enrollment, preparatory courses—have gone through the TeachOnline@UW program, a learning community that explores and implements research-based online course design and teaching best practices. As part of this program, WSB faculty and lecturers worked with an instructional designer to develop their online courses.

For those who haven’t been through TeachOnline@UW, the campus assigned people like Cramer and other instructional designers, to be a part of WSB’s overall continuity of instruction effort.

In addition, WSB has offered many webinars, bootcamps, and other virtual resources to help instructors boost their efficacy for delivering quality online instruction. “We have the technology and tools in place,” adds Cramer. “So it’s really about readying instructors to effectively employ them within their course design.”

Our goal is to move beyond remote instruction to a place where we are providing premium online learning experiences. That means that we’ve trained our faculty and instructional staff, designed great online courses, and have the technology and infrastructure to deliver them.

—Enno Siemsen

Intentional course design

Along with this investment in professional development comes the benefit of time, with several months to prepare a hybrid delivery model for the Fall 2020 semester, as opposed to the mere week instructors had when classes shifted online in March.

“Compared to spring, now we’ve had time to think about it. We have designed our online courses to actually be online,” says Mayhew, who took the TeachOnline@UW course this summer. “The mindset and the structure that you create with an online class is different than what you do live.”

Lecturer Matt Griffith sits in front of his computer to teach an online course
Lecturer Matthew Griffith teaches an online course from Grainger Hall during the Fall 2020 semester. Photo by Paul L. Newby II

WSB courses went through a thorough design process to identify what content and activities are best suited for online learning. This means understanding which aspects are unique to the classroom and won’t translate well online, and conversely, finding ways to take advantage of opportunities available online that aren’t available in the classroom.

“I’ve been pretty excited about the opportunities online,” says Mayhew. “We have seen strong engagement. When students embrace things like online discussions, they’re actually more thoughtful and more inclusive because they have to type out their responses. And they’re more likely to respond because the shy student doesn’t feel as shy online.”

Another benefit is that instructors can easily track who is participating. Technology makes it easier to measure who is engaged and to what extent students are understanding the material. “When you’ve designed a course purposely to be online, you can take advantage of the tools that are there,” adds Mayhew.

From adopting new technology to redesigning courses, it’s all part of an effort at the Wisconsin School of Business to deliver premium online learning. And if Siemsen’s predictions are right, this work is paving the way for what’s next.

“The acceptance of online or virtual experiences has increased massively,” he says. “This is the way of the future.”