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A Snapshot of Online Learning at Community Colleges

As Aristotle once said, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." This month we examine how collaboration on a college campus can lead to success, specifically in the area of online learning at a community college. Although our two guests work in different departments, they give us a snapshot of how the logistics of technology, marketing, communications, teaching and more make Georgia Perimeter's College online program work so well. We are fortunate to have Barbara Obrentz, the Chief Public Information Officer and Director of Marketing, and Dr. Calandra Davis, Associate Professor of Mathematics and the Department Chair for the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at GPC Online, discuss online learning at community colleges, as well as essential tips for success in your higher education career.

After reading, we invite you to continue the discussion in our LinkedIn group or follow HigherEd Careers on Twitter.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Ms. Obrentz, will you briefly explain your career path and what led to your role as director of marketing and chief public information officer at Georgia Perimeter College (GPC)?

Barbara Obrentz, Georgia Perimeter College: I started my professional career as a public school kindergarten teacher. Realizing I wanted to be an administrator, but still work with children, I became director of the largest federally funded day care center in New Hampshire, a position I held for many years before starting a Ph.D. in education at Georgia State University. While pursuing this degree, I became a program officer for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), evaluating Head Start programs. With federal administration changes, I also changed careers, and became a marketing coordinator for a high tech firm. This opportunity led to a position as director of marketing with Georgia Perimeter College.

Hibel: In a Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) press release, 1 a colleague stated, "Barbara is an extraordinary communicator who is dedicated to telling her college's story." Can you summarize briefly what GPC's 'story' is and how online learning fits into this story?

Obrentz: As the most diverse institution in Georgia, Georgia Perimeter College is the third largest institution within the 35-member University System of Georgia. Our two-year college offers more than 40 programs of study both in class and online. Our online program has grown exponentially, keeping pace with the college's enrollment, and the online program now has an enrollment of more than 8,500 students -- the largest online program in the state. The growth of GPC's online program follows a national trend in public two-year colleges -- to provide quality educational opportunities to students who also have family and work responsibility -- two reasons why students take online classes.

Hibel: The Georgia Perimeter College homepage 2 states, "With more than 25,000 students, GPC is the third-largest institution in the University System of Georgia." It goes on to say that GPC "offers more online courses than any other institution in the state." These are impressive statistics. How has your institution achieved these numbers, and what is the significance of having the most online courses?

Obrentz: The online courses give students that would not be able to come or return to college the opportunity to do so. Also, at such a low cost, many of them are able to pay for the classes out-of-pocket as they go. Many, if not most of our online-only students are working moms and dads. Online classes are one of the only ways to fit college into their busy lives. As for how we have achieved these numbers, we are letting students know about online opportunities through the college's outreach and marketing efforts.

Online enrollment has also increased as class availability at physical locations, especially at the prime times, has decreased. With limited additional classroom space, online classes provide the "time fit" for our students.

Leadership at Georgia Perimeter College has been deliberate and focused on building an exceptional, comprehensive online program that provides students with an opportunity to experience excellent teaching, learning and student community support.

GPC has developed a number of courses to provide students the means to complete their associate degree through our online program. The focus on development of online course options supports our mission of student success through supportive access. Students who are interested in taking online classes are able to complete their degree goals rather than defer their education plans, primarily because of the flexibility, opportunity and affordability that online courses provide.

Hibel: Shifting our next several questions directly to the facets of online learning within a community college, would you briefly explain your role at Georgia Perimeter College and what you enjoy most about working within the area of online learning?

Dr. Calandra Davis, Georgia Perimeter College: I serve as the Department Chair for the GPC Online Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Unlike many colleges, GPC has full-time tenured faculty who teach solely online and work from their home offices. I have eight tenured, two lecturers, four full-time temporary, and 25 part-time faculty in my department. Like my campus counterparts, I observe and evaluate the teaching of faculty, handle student issues, and provide support for professional development. In my job as department chair, I enjoy the challenge of creating ways to accomplish tasks traditionally done in a face-to-face setting. For example, because I have faculty who live at a distance (i.e., my lecturers), all of my department meetings are held in a virtual meeting room. To help foster a sense of community among my faculty, we use webcams and microphones at our meetings so that we can see and talk to each other as if in the same room -- or state! There are many aspects of working in an online department that call for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking (e.g., developing criteria for online classroom observations when much of the activity is asynchronous, offering workshops for students, developing a faculty mentoring process, developing ways to honor student achievement). I am fortunate to have dedicated faculty in my department who love teaching and also enjoy learning to use new technology.

Hibel: A recent article in Community College Week 3 stated that there was a 22 percent increase in the number of community college students enrolled in online courses. However, the author goes on to say that community colleges are struggling to keep up with the demand because of limited budgets. In your opinion, do you think this can change?

Obrentz: Many community colleges are early adapters, making online classes available to incoming students even if they never plan to use them. Online classes provide budget flexibility in that much of the infrastructure is already available and the program can be scaled without new buildings. With a supportive administration and faculty, this can easily change.

While the development and expansion of online programs and services requires dedicated funding to support the faculty, staff and services needed to run them, the cost-to-benefit can be realized on a faster time-table. Rather than waiting for funding, building and scheduling of additional classroom spaces to accommodate student enrollment demands, time and funds can be directed to the development of additional online courses, services and resources. This allows institutions to be more flexible and at-the-ready to meet students' needs and adjust for enrollment changes more quickly.

Hibel: In a report published by the Source on Community College Issues and Strategies, 4 an administrator at Butler Community College stated, "Unfortunately, too many community college online students -- especially those attending part-time -- learn in relative isolation, disengaged from their peers and faculty members." Do you agree that this is an issue that community colleges face?

Davis: At GPC, our online students have numerous opportunities to work in a collaborative environment. Most of our online instructors incorporate active discussion boards in their classes. The instructors expect students to interact with their classmates and share ideas through this asynchronous tool, which enables students to communicate even though their schedules are varied. The online discussions often give more students an opportunity to participate, as issues such as shyness or students who are quick to dominate a discussion are somewhat minimized. Students often work on group projects or form study groups through the discussion boards as well. Two other tools utilized by our online instructors are Wimba virtual classroom and Blackboard IM. Many instructors hold their weekly office hours or exam reviews in a Wimba virtual classroom, allowing students to ask questions in real-time and hear the teacher giving a response, and sometimes seeing the teacher if s/he uses a webcam. There is also an electronic whiteboard capability in Wimba that allows math teachers, in conjunction with a graphics tablet, to work out problems for students virtually, just like if they were in face-to-face classroom. These advances in technology have helped to engage students and have the students feel more connected to their instructors and classmates. Another tool gaining popularity with our instructors and students is Blackboard IM. This is an instant messaging tool that allows instructors and students to connect with each other in real-time if both are online simultaneously without having to be logged into a virtual classroom.

Hibel: In reference to the previous question, how does Georgia Perimeter foster a sense of community when students are not physically connected on-campus with their peers? What are some of GPC's techniques to help students become and remain engaged?

Davis: GPC Online Student Services uses Wimba extensively to enhance the development of a supportive online student community within the college. The GPC Online Student Success Team organizes events ranging from online Open Houses to webinars such as "Career Insights, Technology and the Job Hunt," "Reducing Anxiety & Building Effective Study Skills," and "Fiscal Management & Budgeting." The online student success team also created and moderates the Online Student Success Course that provides online students with a forum to share and receive information in academic, personal, and professional development areas.

There are several online student clubs currently under development that will be sure to interest many online students. The GPC Online Business Club is up and running and has been very popular among students. This club has invited numerous speakers across Georgia to give talks to their students in a webinar format, and have enjoyed notable student participation.

Hibel: A recent study performed by the Department of Education found that online learners performed slightly better than students in the classroom only environment. Yet, there is still some skepticism by college presidents (of two- and four-year institutions) about online learning. Only half said that online courses provide the same value. 5 What do you think of these results?

Davis: There are a lot of misconceptions about online classes. Many opinions have been formed by people who have never taught an online class, or taken an online class as a student. The finding that online learners performed slightly better than students in the classroom rings true to me. Online students must be motivated to complete their classes. No one forces these students to turn on their computers and login to their classes. These students do not get a phone call reminding them to turn in an assignment by a given deadline. These students do not simply show up to a classroom and sit and listen to a lecture. Rather, an online student must purposefully get access to their course materials, purposefully watch a video or read their textbook to learn the content, and purposefully reach out to their instructor or classmates with questions. A successful online student must be self-motivated and disciplined in order to set aside the time necessary to work on their online class. Therefore, the finding by the Department of Education sounds realistic.

Hibel: It is clear that students need to be prepared to take online courses, but how do you think faculty and staff should be prepared to teach or work with online students?

Davis: An online faculty member must be comfortable with technology in order to be effective with his or her students. Fortunately, we have a great Instructional Technology department that provides extensive training opportunities for any faculty member who would like to either teach online, or simply incorporate online components into their face-to-face classes. Training on how to use our online course management system (e.g., uploading course materials, using the gradebook, creating assessments), creating lecture videos and making them available on the streaming server or as podcasts, designing web pages, and teaching with the iPad are just a few of the training opportunities that are available to our faculty. Further support is provided for our faculty by having an Instructional Technologist available on each campus to work with faculty members on their technology projects.

Hibel: Do you think that some faculty may be against the idea of online teaching?

Davis: Yes, but that is okay. We will always have face-to-face classes, and online is just another method to provide access to students who cannot make it to campus. There is plenty of room for both delivery formats and it is not a one-or-the-other problem.

Hibel: In the past, there was a stigma associated with online programs that they were lesser quality or that they require less effort of students. Do you think this still exists?

Davis: I believe the stigma of online programs having lesser quality is lessening as more traditional institutions are offering both online and traditional classes. Thus, they are seeing first-hand the rigor that faculty can incorporate into these classes. Another factor that directly contributes to the quality of online classes is the available technology. Having tools available such as virtual classrooms that allow instructors to provide real-time instruction to groups of students, instant messaging software that allows computer science instructors to see their students' computer desktops and assist them in debugging programs heightens the quality and effectiveness of online classes. There are areas that can still be improved, such as making it less tedious for students to create and submit handwritten work (or symbolic work) within a course management system, and having the teacher be able to easily give feedback on said work. As technology continues to advance, the quality of online classes will surely follow suit.

As far as perception that online classes require less effort from students, I believe students will provide the greatest insight here. I have had numerous online math students tell me that they planned to retake a course the following semester in a traditional setting because they felt that the online class was too much of a challenge for them. It is not uncommon for students to have the perception that online classes are easier than face-to-face classes, but that view is often dispelled a week or two into the semester, assuming they have made the effort to get started.

Hibel: Pamela Quinn, Provost at the LeCroy Center at Dallas County Community College District, believes community colleges face challenges regarding prospective student awareness of their online programs, especially in search engine results, because they may not have budgets like other institutions. 6 Do you think budget issues are the biggest reason why many online programs are not well-known?

Obrentz: Because of their larger advertising budgets, private schools are winning at program awareness, but that does not mean we shouldn't try. I think of it as a community service to let as many people as possible now about our programs and the savings, transferability and accreditation they provide.

Hibel: Changing direction to talk about your careers, what would your advice be to a colleague who may want to enter the field of higher education? Any tips on what he/she can expect?

Obrentz: I am very passionate about my latest career selection and I would encourage anyone interested in entering this field of higher education to do so. It is very rewarding to work with an institution whose main goal is student success. My advice would be to make sure your personal values are in line with the values of any institution or organization you join. Salary may not be a main driver in your decision to work in higher education.

As for tips on what to expect, most people working with higher education spend long hours with others who are equally committed to the success of the students with whom they work.

Hibel: Congratulations on being named the 2011 National Communicator of the Year by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations. The next question is in regards to communicating in the workplace. With fast paced environments and numerous technological options, proper communication etiquette in the workplace can often fall to the wayside. What would you suggest to a new graduate entering the workplace on how to communicate effectively on the job?

Obrentz: While most people whose job involves communications use technology and social media to its fullest, my advice is to make sure those you're communicating with are listening to you -- responding to you effectively and appropriately. If people are not interested in what you're saying, you will not be successful, so your job is to make sure you're telling your college's story in an interesting and relevant way.

It may sound "old fashioned" but I still feel the best way to communicate with anyone is face-to-face whenever possible, through phone calls, emails, texts, and of course, now social media. Remember that effective communications requires good listening skills. Remember the basics -- they haven't changed no matter how much technology does.

Hibel: When searching for a job, you are responsible for marketing yourself. Drawing on your marketing experience, what are some suggestions on an effective marketing campaign for a candidate pursuing a job search?

Obrentz: First, write your ideal job description and then create a hypothetical job posting based on this description. Next, create a resume which you feel positions you as the BEST candidate for the job you just created. Make sure this resume includes key words mentioned in the job posting.

Now, you are ready to search for a job using those key words to guide you to sources that match those words or phrases. Use as many technological tools as you have at your disposal: networking, social media, job posting sites, newspaper ads, etc. Match your skill sets with job requirements as closely as possible.

If you are fortunate enough to secure an interview, study the organization in depth before you arrive. Answer questions succinctly. Make sure to get contact information from every person involved in the interview and write a personal note to each of them immediately after the interview.

Hibel: What is the best part of your job?

Obrentz: Beyond a doubt, the people that I work with and the partnerships I've developed -- both internally and throughout the educational and professional community.

Hibel: Listening to your career path, it looks like you have always had an interest in education, but did you think that you would ultimately secure a position in marketing at a higher education institution? Is it safe to say that one should be flexible when thinking about their career path?

Obrentz: I have always pursued career choices that involve service-oriented opportunities with a slant toward education. To that end, I began my career as a kindergarten teacher. I really didn't know what direction my career would take when I entered the marketing arena. It took me many years to come back to working in an educational environment, but I think that happened more by chance than design. I absolutely believe that a person should be very flexible when searching for a new career path, because -- as in dominoes -- one move leads to and links to another in ways you can't always imagine or plan from the beginning. As I said previously, as long as you're pursuing activities you are passionate and care about, you're bound to be successful.

Hibel: Working in a team environment is becoming increasingly more important today in colleges and universities. This interview is a prime example of how different departments on campus can work well together. Do you have advice for colleagues either within your college or at different institutions on how to promote positive inter-departmental relations?

Obrentz: The best way I know to promote inter-departmental relationships is to get out of your office and start meeting people within different departments. In my case, this activity started my first day on the job as the medial relations coordinator, when I was sent out on assignment to cover a new Early College initiative on one of our campus facilities. Working on this assignment provided the first opportunity for me to meet and learn more about an academic program that I subsequently became more involved with on my own.

Attending meetings, extending assignments beyond the required deliverables, volunteering for committees, participating in and attending college events and learning as much as you can about programs and services offered by the college are all good ways to start positive inter-departmental relationships. These relationships grow into valuable partnerships over time that not only benefit the institution, but also generate lasting friendships and more meaningful and in-depth opportunities in the future.