UTEP Center Helps Create Online Courses

The team that assists faculty from The University of Texas at El Paso to develop online courses has settled into its new home in UTEP’s Extended University and looks forward to assisting more professors to catch the digital wave.

UTEP’s Center for Instructional Design (CID) guides and supports UTEP instructors in the creation and enhancement of online courses. This unit has served the campus under different titles for about 20 years.

The center made the switch during the fall 2016 semester from Academic Technologies, where it functioned as the Online Learning unit, after it was decided the mission was a better fit under Extended University, which directs UTEP Connect, the University’s suite of fully online degree plans.

UTEP Connect launched in May 2015 with a handful of online programs. Today, it has 14 online undergraduate and graduate degree plans that serve about 900 students from 10 countries and 47 states. More courses are being developed every semester.

“We’re growing all the time,” said Arathi Kylasam, Extended University marketing director. She credits the growth to the program’s flexibility, affordability and superior product. More than 250 students already have graduated through UTEP Connect. “Our programs are an extension to what UTEP offers.”

Currently, the CID staff is working on several online courses that will launch in March 2017. At the same time, they have begun to assist with the development of new courses that will debut in summer 2017.

Among the part-time student employees assisting with the process is Aime Valdez, a sophomore industrial engineering major, who has been with the CID for more than a year. She has spent approximately six weeks enhancing a civil engineering course that should be ready for the fall 2017 semester.

Valdez was stationed in a quiet third floor office in the Undergraduate Learning Center with several other student co-workers, most wearing headsets as they worked in front of multiple computer screens. That particular afternoon Valdez was cutting and pasting code to resize images from one module to another. She also ensured that presentations, quizzes and assignments were where they belonged. The student, who has taken hybrid courses, said she will suggest ways to make the course more student friendly.

Cira Montoya, CID director, said her team made academic and technical upgrades to about 350 courses last summer. They average about 20 new projects per semester.

“Online learning is going on across the country and UTEP looks to compete with the best,” Montoya said.

The team trains instructors on learning management systems such as Blackboard that track, report, deliver, document and administer electronic educational technology. They also review course objectives, student engagement, use of social media, and technical aspects of courses to ensure usability for students. They make sure the courses are ADA compliant and follow copyright laws.

One of the recent converts to online education is Keith Polette, Ph.D., professor of English, who started at UTEP in 1995 and taught his first online course during the fall 2016 semester. He said the graduate course – “Introduction to English Education” – was a good experience for him and his nine students.

The award-winning instructor said his preparation included taking an online course on how to teach an online course, and conversations with his sister, a university educator in Missouri who endorses online learning. He decided to start with a basic graduate course that he has taught on-and-off for the past 10 years.

His main concern was that the course would lack the spontaneous interaction of his face-to-face classes, so for the online class he was responsive to emails, scheduled worthwhile reading assignments, and created opportunities for critical thinking and pedagogical strategies. He said he plans to offer it again next fall, and added he may teach all his graduate courses online.

“I can’t replicate what I do (face to face), but I can create an online course that is educationally rich and challenging and will help the students make a connection between what they need to learn in this course and their own teaching practices,” Polette said. “This gives me an interesting counterbalance to what I do in the classroom.”

The professor was satisfied enough to work with the CID on a second graduate course – “English Teaching Methods” – that launched in January 2017.

On the other end of the spectrum is Michael Kolitsky, Ph.D., an online adjunct professor in biological sciences, who has been involved in online learning since 2000. He was UTEP’s associate vice president for instructional technology from 1993-98. He recently taught an online course in human anatomy and physiology with a lab.

“I couldn’t do what I do without (CID),” he said during a phone interview from his home in Ocean City, New Jersey. He also has worked with the CID to pilot new programs that promote the integrity of online learning to include video proctoring. “They help with the design of the course and they’re ready to support me if I have a problem. They bend over backwards for faculty.”

The move by the CID coincided with the naming of Beth Brunk-Chavez, Ph.D., as the new dean of Extended University, which also oversees UTEP’s Professional and Public Programs, continuing education and professional development courses.

Brunk-Chavez, professor of English, had directed UTEP’s award-winning First-Year Composition program. She is a University of Texas System Board of Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award recipient and a member of its Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

The new dean, CID and UTEP Connect look forward to expanding the University’s portfolio of online courses and programs.

“The University has built a strong tradition in online learning that engages and supports students and faculty,” Brunk-Chavez said. “We’ve only tapped the surface.”

UTEP faculty interested in the collaborative tools used to create quality online courses should attend the workshops organized by the University’s Center for Instructional Design. Click here to see the schedule of upcoming courses.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications