“Social work is all about connecting with people,” says School of Social Work Professor Dr. Carolyn Gentle-Genitty. “The same is true of effective online teaching.” Named IUPUI’s first Faculty Fellow in Online Education in 2016, Gentle-Genitty has a passion for blending the best of face-to-face and online teaching in “unique and breathtaking ways.”
Gentle-Genitty wants her students to experience the full depth and enjoyment of online learning. To that end, she builds a framework inside Canvas that helps students understand the logistics and culture of the online setting. She anticipates the questions that students (especially those new to online learning) might have and explains logistical issues like how to navigate a course site, how to interact with other students, how and when to interact with her, and what it means to “be present” in a course.
Since students who choose online learning often have multiple other commitments, Gentle-Genitty makes very clear how much time students can expect to invest preparing for class, listening to lectures, doing homework, and taking part in chat rooms. “Very specific information gives students a realistic picture of the commitment they’re making,” says Gentle-Genitty. “I want them to understand that a three-credit course may translate into more than nine hours of work per week. If they know exactly when, on what weekday, we discuss their papers, they can become very efficient at structuring their own time. Structure is liberating.”
Her course framework enables students to be organized and connected. It comprises a teaching presence, a cognitive space where students interact with content, and a social presence—online discussion forums and chat rooms—where she and her students interact, build personal connections, form teams, and work in small groups. Students see the course syllabus, learning objectives, reading materials, announcements, videos, and hyperlinked modules. Each module spells out learning expectations and outcomes.
Gentle-Genitty makes Canvas her ally in effective online teaching. She explains, “It can be more effective to teach online because of the data and analytics in Canvas. You can measure student comprehension. Canvas can create grids and pie charts that provide more detailed, personal, and multidimensional insights into student performance than traditional teaching allows. You can measure other, more subtle kinds of competencies, like diversity. I spell out what I mean by diversity, assign it a rubric, and it automatically loads when I’m grading an assignment. I can observe student activity—what course materials they used, how often, and how much time they spent. I combine this with performance data to learn where I may need to adjust the way I deliver content to aid comprehension. If a student who is doing well looked at a certain file 25 times in a given week, that could signal I need to clarify something.”
Some students hesitate to take online courses because they assume support will be scant, their questions won’t receive timely answers, and they’ll miss having a community of students to talk to. As a proponent of Quality Matters, Gentle-Genitty believes in the power of “regular and substantive interaction” with her online students. Along with regular online discussions and chat rooms, Gentle-Genitty uses Canvas data on student performance and comprehension as springboards for individual email connections with students. She may recognize the depth of someone’s insight, highlight another’s strengths, or offer help in an area that someone finds challenging. Gentle-Genitty finds that students love earning badges and are motivated by being singled out. So she links certain learning outcomes to badges. One student earns a “Critical Thinking” badge. Another earns the “Ready to Teach” badge and is paired with a student who needs a hand. All this builds connections and community.
Effective online learning also involves human behavior and civil discourse. Those steeped in today’s 280-character, rapid-fire tweet culture sometimes need refreshers on the etiquette of email. Gentle-Genitty prepares her students to be responsible online citizens, including using salutations and closings, avoiding boldface and caps, and writing clear subject lines. These are life lessons that facilitate communication beyond the classroom.
The preparation that goes into teaching online pays off. Students find Gentle-Genitty’s practice and enthusiasm infectious. An initially hesitant online learner commented, “I have never been engaged in a course—face-to-face or online—where I felt so connected. I learned a lot. I earned ‘Student of the Week.’”