How one economics professor bridges geographical distance and generates real enthusiasm by designing materials especially for online students.
Professor of Economics, Rasmussen College
MS in Economics, BS in Mathematics/Science
also teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Florida), Grand Canyon University (Arizona), National Paralegal College (Arizona), and Southern New Hampshire University
Though economics is certainly one of the most important subjects for students to comprehend (as it affects nearly every aspect of their lives), Audra Sherwood, MS, admits that it is not the easiest of subjects to absorb online—especially when using materials designed for traditional classroom instruction. She finds that the slides and materials that accompany the textbook are often too complicated to convey across a fiber-optic cable.
Add to that the geographical distance separating her students, who originate from no fewer than five institutions: Rasmussen College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Grand Canyon University, National Paralegal College, and Southern New Hampshire University. (She teaches up to 12 distance-learning classes at a time.) “That’s one thing you have to think about when you teach online: How are you going to get their attention? A lot of it is your visual aids, and a lot of it is your personality. How do you interact? Are you excited?”
Like many of today’s best lecturers, Sherwood has taken the challenges of distance learning and used them as inspiration to develop a personal style of presenting material in ways that are better suited to computer-based classes and the diverse audiences they attract.
Challenge: Reimagining lectures for distance learners
According to the recently released Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017, more than 6 million higher education students (1 in 4) participated in at least one distance education course in 2015 and, of that, nearly half (2.9 million) take all of their courses online. With so many learners having no in-person, face-to-face contact, instructors need to find new ways to make the personal connections that can help learning sink in. Additionally, for nontraditional undergraduates (ages 25+), coursework may take a back seat to more pressing obligations, such as working a full-time job or caring for children and/or aging parents.
Given these factors, timing plays a significant role in students’ abilities to succeed online. While campus courses rely on students to carve out the same hours to meet each week, distance learners may need to tackle coursework before bed, before work, or during kids’ naps. Furthermore, studies have shown that people are far more persuasive in person than in an email, so it follows that distance educators must strive to be even more engaging during the time they do have with their students.
To surmount these issues, Sherwood has tailored her presentation methods to better suit her audience, rather than setting expectations that may be unrealistic and frustrating to them (and to her).
Innovation: A personalized approach to online presentations
Sherwood’s presentations are the key to her success in preparing her students to learn about Econ and its real-world applications. To teach the concepts and really get her students to synthesize the material, she uses the textbook’s published lesson as an outline and creates her own materials, based on real-world issues that she or her students might encounter.
This approach also enables her to make each lesson more personal: “I always use myself and my family as examples,” she says. “You have to bring in the real, so [students] understand you. [They] like to hear about your experiences.”
Course: Managerial Economics ECO 3250
Frequency: 3 hours lecture per week, 1 hour Q&A session per week
Class size: 47 students
In her words: “I’m teaching [this course] in a competency-based format, [so students complete it at their own pace, as long as they finish before the end of the semester]. The goal is to ensure the students understand the core objectives of the course. There are seven deliverables, and when [a student] is done with them, [he or she is] done with the entire course.”
Managerial Economics ECO 3250See materials
Lesson: Personal additions to the online classroom
It may seem to go without saying, but it is much easier to keep students engaged through a computer screen when you let some personality shine through. Sherwood is not afraid to show enthusiasm for her subject. “I’m really interactive. I’m not a monotone person; I’m very passionate about learning. I’m passionate about economics, and it comes out during my discussions. Students can really see that, and they appreciate that.”
Sherwood spends 8–10 hours on each of the presentations she uses in class, and she loads them with graphics, animations, and current events. Here are some of the techniques that help her connect with a far-flung cohort of econ students.
Let students be in control of their time
Sherwood’s Managerial Economics course at Rasmussen is competency-based, rather than requiring a set number of hours of instruction. Her students are assessed on whether they have mastered the core concepts of the course by completing deliverables from 7 scenario-based assignments. Whether the deliverables take 6 or 12 weeks to complete (or any amount of time in between) is up to each student. In this way, a student can take a week off to care for an ailing parent or child and not actually be “behind” on course material.
Put some sizzle in your slides
Unless there is technology to provide live-action video (recorded or streaming), most online courses are going to make use of PowerPoint or some other presentation software. Says Sherwood, “You’ve got to make your [slides] look really eye pleasing, so they’ll get the attention of the students. I get all my templates through Presenter Media, and a lot of them are animated. Students seem to like that because it’s different. I know they’re grown adults, but you’ve got to have fun with your class, too, and that’s a way to make learning fun.”
Bring lessons home with real-world examples
Widgets are nice and all, but there are more relatable examples that today’s economics students can readily connect with. “I remind them, ‘You want to understand your home mortgage, your insurance policy, when’s the best time to purchase a large-ticket item.’ These are things consumers should know. You’re going to be a better-informed consumer, you are going to be able to make better financial decisions. So, I go through and I always make sure there’s an example to follow up what we’re talking about.”
Deliverables, too, feature scenarios that take place in the real world, such as this (from Deliverable 02):
Oil Company X is a large oil refinery that has been expanding and taking on new investment projects. Recently, they have considered building a pipeline that stretches across the United States, from Canada to New Orleans.
The Board is considering a proposal to increase their oil stores to better prepare for events that impact the market price of oil. They have asked you, as a member of the Cost Department, to determine events that affect the price of oil. They have requested a report explaining the various effects of these events on equilibrium price and quantity.
One example with a personal twist: Sherwood shares a story of when she attempted to purchase two beauty schools in Virginia and West Virginia. “I dealt with many different types of financial institutions and funding companies in which I had a bad experience,” she says. “I provide students with knowledge of firms that are healthy, as well as red flags to watch out for. I use my own misfortunes to enrich the class!”
Do more than tell them—show them (in real time)
Rather than posting a still shot of a graph, Sherwood draws it on screen in real time, inviting the students to graph with her. She alternates frequently between her presentation and Excel to demonstrate how to use the software to graph.
Get a dialogue going
Many profs hang back after class in case students want to come to them with questions, or they have office hours when students know it is OK to drop by. To mimic this scenario in her online courses, Sherwood says, “I don’t rush to get off when the class ends. I stick around for last-minute questions. I take the extra time.”
She also holds a 1-hour Q&A session each week, in addition to 3 hours of lecture. During the Q&A, students can get additional help and ask her to clarify anything they did not understand from that week’s lesson. Sherwood finds that this enables her to make more of a connection with those who participate. “You don’t have that personal interaction [as you would in a traditional classroom], so you have to have a strong presence in your discussion forum,” she explains.
Know when to pick up the phone
Sherwood encourages students to be proactive and keep up with their studies, but she understands that can be harder to do in an online course, due to life’s myriad distractions. “When you get a student that’s really upset or just struggling, you’ve got to get them on the phone,” says Sherwood. “Once you get them on the phone, you can calm them down. They know you’re real. They know that you care. You have to have that personal connection with them.” Students want to succeed, and sometimes a quick call can help them push through a tough time and get back on track.
Unfortunately, Sherwood never knows exactly how many of her students will be watching in real time during her “lecture” hours, and how many will view the recorded session later. This can make it challenging to know whether she is hitting the mark during a particular session. “It’s kind of hard when you’re teaching a class and no one shows up, and you have to do it all by yourself,” she notes.
Sherwood gets positive reviews from her students during end-of-semester surveys, but she is most gratified when she sees them take the concepts she taught and utilize them, not only in their future studies but also in their day-to-day life. “It’s really fun when [students] really start to embrace economics and to apply that toward their employment and their personal lives as well,” she says.
One of her students recently sent this simple email:
“Thank you so much for your presentation. Keep it up, you’re doing a great job.”
Sherwood reflects, “When I get an email like that, I know I’m doing something right.”