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Of MOOCs and Google Classroom – W&M professor expands discussion of online class management

  • Stephanie Blackmon,
    Stephanie Blackmon,  assistant professor of higher education, focuses her research on the use of educational technology in institutions of higher education.  
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When Stephanie Blackmon, assistant professor of higher education at the William & Mary School of Education, considers the growing field of online course offerings, she sees plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate. In two recent publications she furthered those discussions by expanding knowledge about the experience of educators in different online situations: conducting MOOCs (massive open online courses) and developing online course offerings using non-traditional learning management systems (LMS) for higher education students.

Professors who teach MOOCs are motivated by altruism as well as a unique opportunity to innovate while extending research and expertise globally, according to Blackmon, whose research focuses on the ways in which faculty can integrate technology into higher education classrooms. The research, a qualitative analysis of the lived experiences of faculty teaching MOOCs, appeared in the September 2018 issue of International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL), one of the top five educational technology outlets according to Google Scholar. In addition to the positive aspects of teaching MOOCs, Blackmon also identified barriers such as time and technology, and concluded that more research is needed, particularly on whether or not MOOCs strengthen ties between students and the institutions supporting the course, in cases where MOOCs are offered by a college or university.

For the study, Blackmon spoke with eight faculty about their motivations and experiences creating and teaching MOOCs. Blackmon, who previously taught a MOOC, said she wanted to provide empirical research to better inform the national discussion around open education and open online courses.

MOOCs have been a hot topic in national conversation, causing some people to adopt them and dive into creating them – and driving others away. But, said Blackmon, they are also worthy of a more serious research-based conversation that could yield substantial information about what works and what doesn’t when thought leaders scale up their courses to meet the needs of thousands of students.

“It’s about having these conversations so we can think more critically about what we do, and how we do it. That leads to innovation,” she said. Blackmon has been leading the conversation in multiple professional settings, ranging from educational to technological professional meetings and conferences to state-level groups seeking to provide in-depth professional training and support.

The current publication explores the joys and challenges of open resource courses. Blackmon argued that the next step will be to address the needs of people who have pedagogical concerns when creating MOOCs and other open education resources.

“It’s one thing to have the resource out there for people to use, and another thing to structure learning around that,” she said, pointing out that this is a dynamic conversation where tools and techniques refined in MOOCs could lead to innovations in more traditional online, hybrid, and face-to-face education.

Blackmon frequently engages in the ongoing conversation about how virtual platforms can best be used, whether for MOOCs or for more traditionally sized classes. She also recently published a first-person article in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, one of the top 20 higher education outlets according to Google Scholar, that outlines her experience using Google Classroom to develop for-credit online classes which would be useful for students and suit her needs pedagogically. The three graduate courses were for current or future college and university instructors of courses of all types and covered topics on syllabus development, college teaching strategies, and educational technology in higher education respectively. These students might need to use LMSs as they develop their own courses, so Blackmon’s selection of Google Classroom also became a learning experience for her students. 

“I was teaching three fully online graduate courses, five weeks each. I knew the kind of experience I wanted students to have,” said Blackmon. She considered a number of factors when conducting her search for an LMS. She found that using a system affiliated with the university would ultimately be the most accessible format. “I was concerned about practicalities like login and trouble shooting. They can be nebulous areas when you are using a tool that isn’t affiliated with your institution.”

That led her to consider Google Classroom, due to William & Mary’s use of Google platforms, but she couldn’t find a lot of information about its adoption in higher education. So she tested the platform herself before using it for her courses.

“I tried it out, and played with it a little bit. It’s important to me for students to be able to express themselves in myriad ways. I wanted them to be able to interact with me and with each other and build community quickly and easily.  There are ways that you can do those things online that don’t mirror what happens in face-to-face courses,” she said. Blackmon pointed out that the decision to move to an online format does not have to be viewed from a deficit-based perspective. Educators can also gain some new capabilities by offering courses online.

Blackmon said she was additionally aware of her process in choosing Google Classroom because her students would have to make similar decisions in their education careers. “We know there is an increase in students who are engaging in online courses, so when we are preparing people to go out and do the work of educators in that environment, we would be remiss if we didn’t have thoughtful conversations about these decisions,” she pointed out.

Even though Blackmon conducted her class through Google Classroom, she emphasized that the article isn’t about the Google LMS itself.

“The piece is about what happens with the adoption of an LMS, whether it is one that you choose to use or one that is provided by your institution. It’s a pedagogical decision, and sometimes we miss that point. When you say, this is what you have to use, what you are also saying is, this is how we have to interact,” she said, explaining that while technology sometimes feels like a neutral tool, the implications for instruction are significant.  “We are telling people to innovate, innovate, innovate, but if someone has adopted a system that makes it more difficult to have creativity and interaction, then as a faculty member I have to go out and find something that allows me to do the work, to innovate and provide a similar opportunity for students.”

The conversation about how best to use technology to support educational goals in higher education is ongoing — and Blackmon plans to continue to take a lead in the discussion throughout.