How Faculty Raise the Bar for Online Learning

TMCC Mathematics Professor Blisin Hestiyas, who is one of several faculty who has completed the ACUE training.
Rebecca A. Eckland

By 2022, chances are, you know the difference between a good online class and a bad one. A good one might not always be enjoyable, but it’s (at the very least) predictable. You feel like you’re learning something. And, in addition to knowing your instructor’s name and something about their personality, you also might know one or two classmates. Since online classes are pretty much the norm thanks to the ongoing pandemic, you, too, are somewhat of an expert in this field. 

And yet, when have you asked yourself:

  • What makes an online class work? 
  • What do I like about online classes? 
  • What makes me feel like a part of an actual classroom community in an online class?

Since 2018—well before the pandemic—TMCC faculty ranging from part-time, full-time, non-tenure track and beyond, have tackled these kinds of questions through a curriculum and pedagogical development program called ACUE, or the Association of College and University Educators. 

This program equips college instructors with evidence-based practices that help students to be successful in their classes. Starting Feb. 2022, thirty-two faculty will begin the ACUE training and join previous years’ participants in becoming more effective teaching in online environments.  In a time when so much of our learning spaces are virtual ones, training like this could come at no better moment, no matter what subject you teach. 

“You always hear that math cannot be taught online, but that’s not right,” said TMCC Mathematics Professor Blisin Hestiyas who completed the ACUE training in 2019. “You can do math online if you know how to teach it with the available technologies.  I’m not talking about automation, I’m talking about having the ability to reach students in a way that resonates with them, [which is] it’s definitely more work than in-person class.” 

However, thanks to ACUE and several other technologies like ProctorU, Discord (an instant messaging, and digital distribution platform) and the ability to create videos in both Kaltura and YouTube, Hestiyas is making her virtual classroom as good as–if not better–than a physical one.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Hestiyas has been a member of the Mathematics faculty at TMCC since 2007. A tenured professor, she teaches a wide range of math classes for beginners to advanced learners and practitioners. Obviously a skilled instructor, Hestiyas sought out additional training after being first being offered to teach a completely online class. “Teaching online is different from teaching in-person,” she said. “When I taught my first online classes, I wasn’t always satisfied with what I did, so I was always looking for opportunities to improve.” 

It wasn’t that Hestiyas was unable to teach the class, rather she didn’t sense that students in the class were feeling satisfied with their experience. This was the moment when ACUE training was yet another opportunity for faculty to improve their teaching skills. Hestiyas decided to sign up for the training. “Mainly my goal was to improve my online class design and delivery,” she said. 

After ACUE, Hestiyas said that in many ways, an online class is better than an in-person one; but it took time. “ACUE was definitely helpful. There were a lot of things I learned that I could apply in my classes,” she said. ACUE directly impacted her online classes through the insights it offered on instructional design, how to intrinsically motivate students in an online environment, connecting class content to real-life application and fostering a sense of  belonging. 

While “belonging” might seem to be too intangible and distract for online spaces, Hestiyas has maximized Canvas/WebCollege spaces in order for students not only to get to know the rules and structure of the class, but also Hestiyas herself. Before ACUE, Hestiyas didn’t include much information about herself, aside from her contact information and office hours. 

These days, Hestiyas welcomes students by providing them with a comprehensive introduction to the class and the instructor. This includes a picture of Hestiyas, which helps students to feel as though they know her. She also produced a short video that students must watch before they begin doing anything else in the class in which she introduces herself and the topics that will be covered over the course of the semester. The purpose of these materials is to orient the students to the class, to answer—at least in part—why the material of the class is relevant to their futures and also to give the students a solid sense of who Hestiyas is, which is a key component of fostering a sense of community in an online space.

“Students know that I’m there for them, and they feel like they belong in the class,” she said. “I even tell them in my video that they belong in this class and if they have any questions, that they can come and talk to me in my office hours [which are held on Zoom.]” Before completing the ACUE training, Hestiyas admitted that students rarely took advantage of her help during office hours; since explicitly inviting students to do so, the difference has been night and day.

Each module of the class is also accompanied by Hestiyas’ “personal take” of what they learned that week, which helps students to review the material for the class while also providing them with a social interaction, which reinforces their sense of belonging in the classroom. This includes YouTube videos that Hestiyas has made of step-by-step instructions on how to solve specific kinds of mathematical problems.  

“I definitely learned that from ACUE,” she said.

Improving Online Learning Environments

Faculty who complete the ACUE program progress through twenty-five (25) learning modules over two semesters covering five content areas. These areas are:

  • Designing an effective course and class
  • Establishing a productive classroom environment
  • Using active learning techniques
  • Promoting higher-order thinking
  • Assessing to inform instruction and promote learning

Upon successful completion of the course, faculty will receive a nationally-recognized Certificate in Effective College Instruction, endorsed by the American Council on Education (ACE).

According to TMCC Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Jeffrey Alexander, the training is well-worth the time and effort. “Participating in ACUE is a wonderful opportunity for college instructors, and those who complete this two-semester program earn a nationally-recognized credential. Our last cohort of faculty participants spoke very highly of the ACUE curriculum, which features many engaging topics that expand the participants' repertoires. The college is very pleased to be able to make such a significant investment in faculty professional development once again, and we hope that all of our 32 participants will find it enjoyable and rewarding,” he said.

For professors like Hestiyas, the ACUE training helped her to improve her class design and approach in an online environment which, given the evolving technology and changing student needs, isn’t likely to go away any time soon. 

“Teaching is not just standing in front of a board and explaining the concepts.  There is more to teaching, because the world is changing and technology is changing. We have to change with the change. For me personally, I started exploring opportunities, and that’s helped me to design classes which are student-friendly,” she said. 

For more information about ACUE, contact TMCC’s Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs at 775-673-7090