This coming fall, the University of Arizona will launch its first General Education Academy, which will greatly enhance student learning for students enrolled in the recently launched UA Online campus.
To lead the introduction of the fully online composition courses offered through the General Education Academy, the UA has hired Susan Miller-Cochran, currently an English professor at North Carolina State University, where she directs the First-Year Writing Program. Miller-Cochran will begin her post as director of the UA's Writing Program in July.
"I have been working with the design and development of online writing classes since 1998, and I'm thrilled to be joining the team at the UA in July as we launch a new online writing program," Miller-Cochran said. Her research focuses on instructional technology, writing and writing program administration, and she has published dozens of books, book chapters, articles and other publications in her field.
"The emphasis that the UA has put on excellence in teaching and learning online is what drew me to this program," Miller-Cochran said, "and I look forward to working with the faculty teaching online writing courses to develop courses that are inclusive of a diverse student population and provide students the best opportunity for success."
The announcement of Miller-Cochran's hiring comes shortly after the launch of UA Online, a distinct digital campus expanding statewide and national access to a UA degree. Through UA Online, the University is registering students for 21 new undergraduate degree programs, which join a slate of more than 40 online graduate school degrees and certificates the UA has offered.
The UA will also be hiring a visiting scholar in writing to help oversee other core elements of the online writing program as well as faculty in Spanish to support students who require second language training as part of their fully online degree program.
The focus on online learning is an elemental part of the University's land-grant mission and Never Settle, the UA's academic and business strategic plan, which calls for a rapid expansion of student online access.
The UA's mission aligns with Arizona Board of Regents goals to improve higher-education attainment by 2020, and with nationwide priorities to greatly expand higher-education degree access, particularly to time- and place-bound students.
"The University of Arizona is the premier research university in the Southwest," said Vincent J. Del Casino Jr., vice provost of Digital Learning and Student Engagement.
"When we considered building UA Online for undergraduate students, we knew we wanted to bring the best teaching and research faculty to the University of Arizona to help us build a world-class, fully online campus," Del Casino said. "Susan Miller-Cochran is already a leader in her field in teaching of writing online. We are incredibly excited to have her leadership, not only in the Department of English and in the Writing Program, but as part of the UA Online student experience."
Digital Learning as a Movement
A team of UA Writing Program faculty has spent the spring semester experimenting with hybrid introductory writing courses — a split between online and face-to-face interactions — in preparation for moving the courses fully online this fall during the launch of the General Education Academy.
During a summer session, faculty also will pilot online offerings of English 101 and 102, as well as 109H, a section that is open to students in the Honors College.
Also, in addition to composition courses, the UA will launch fully online entry-level courses this fall in subjects that include Spanish, astronomy, music and history.
But it is not enough merely to offer courses online. Faculty must be appropriately trained and equipped with innovative approaches that will enhance engagement for online students, said Gretchen Gibbs, a professor of practice in the Office of Instruction and Assessment, who has been training faculty as they move from hybrid to online models.
"There is a perception that students born after 1992 were suddenly born with a chip in their heads," Gibbs said. Yet, faculty must rethink curriculum design, figure out how to develop a strong social presence, facilitate discussion and maintain engagement, and also deal with issues of privacy.
"They are sitting with these difficulties and wrestling with the challenges," said Gibbs, also the professional development assessment coordinator for online instruction.
Also, the UA's staged approach to offering courses online — moving from the traditional in-person model to a hybrid model before moving fully online — is unique move and has multiple intentions.
This approach ensured that other online offerings were not disrupted and that faculty were able to shape the courses during development while simultaneously testing instructional models, said Amy C. Kimme Hea, the outgoing director of the UA's Writing Program and an expert in computers and composition and writing program administration.
"The model to involve faculty in building the courses is really important in terms of the shift to online education," said Kimme Hea, who recently was appointed to serve as the UA's associate dean for instruction in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"The benefit we have is involving faculty in research and in curricula design across the program. That provides a much stronger foundation moving forward, and has distinguished the General Education Academy from other online enterprises."
Flipping the Traditional Classroom
Sean Bottai, a course director and lecturer in the UA Department of English, is a member of the team imagining new possibilities for learning interactions, activities and tools that could be used to move writing courses to a fully online environment. The team also is collecting data on performance and success to help improve online courses into the future.
For now, Bottai has been teaching a hybrid English 102 course that focuses on rhetorical analysis. Students in his course analyze controversies and must devise public arguments around topics they are learning about, such as those associated with popular music and cultural representations via video.
"The No. 1 thing I want them to be able to do in their writing is to express an informed opinion. I want them to not just be clear communicators, but credible communicators," Bottai said.
Over the semester, Bottai said he has found that the skills he is strengthening, such as engaging students in discussion and modeling behaviors, are applicable no matter the classroom space.
He acknowledges the challenge with teaching certain courses, such as English, in an online environment. But he has found that introducing peer-to-peer interactions, incorporating more free flow writing exercises, adopting video and images in instruction, and even engaging students in annotation projects online encourages students to rethink how they engage via the Internet.
"My approach to designing activities has changed," Bottai said. "This has reminded me how important all activities are in moving toward a goal the class is trying to meet, and I've become more technologically empowered."
In some ways, adopting new models in an online environment makes it easier to capture the attention, imagination and interest of students, he said.
"My natural inclination is to situate what we are doing in the present, contemporary moment, but by helping them do things they already know how to do — find song lyrics online, find an article about a contemporary musical artist, watch a video on YouTube," Bottai said. "I find that they are already confident in the online environment, but these are tools that can help them to achieve academic success."
Kimme Hea said that while offering fully online courses, particularly in general education, is fairly new territory for institutions of the UA's rank and profile, such a move is necessary to meet local and nationwide demands for higher education.
"This is a cultural shift for us, and it is a cultural shift across the country," Kimme Hea said. "What we are doing is not common for a program of our size and scope — a large, public research institution. Nationally, this is still a pretty rare phenomena."