Online Teaching for an Online World - Humboldt State Now

Online Teaching for an Online World

If Aristotle were alive today, Armeda Reitzel has no doubt that the Greek philosopher would teach oratory online.

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Communications Professor Armeda Reitzel shows the gathering space where public speaking students meet online.
“There’s no question in my mind that the creator of the five canons of rhetoric would do it using video technology,” says Reitzel, a Communication professor at HSU.

Reitzel has taught public speaking (COMM 100) in brick-and-mortar classrooms at Humboldt State for nearly 35 years. But using newfangled technology and old-fashioned teaching skills, she taught that course online.

First developed and taught by Communication Professor Laura Hahn in Spring 2013, the online version of COMM 100 has exceeded expectations: 96 percent of Reitzel’s students received a C+ or better in her Spring 2016 online course, compared to 93 percent in her Fall 2014 face-to-face class.

“I didn’t expect this course to work online and be so successful. Nobody did,” says Reitzel, one of six recipients of the 2016 CSU Quality Online Learning and Teaching award, which recognizes outstanding teaching and learning in blended and online courses.

About 130 online courses are currently offered at HSU, where distance learning has become an effective way to meet the changing needs of students.

“Students may be working. They may have children they need to care for. They may not have a way to get to campus, or find a class they need to take is already full,” says Alex Hwu, the associate vice president of HSU’s Office of Distance & Extended Education. “Whatever the reason, there is a big demand for online courses at HSU.”

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The history of distance learning in the United States goes back more than 200 years to the time of snail mail. In 1728, shorthand teacher Caleb Phillipps took out an ad in the Boston Gazette that promoted a private correspondence course. It’s the first known reference to distance education, according to an article by Beverly Bower and Kimberly Hardy published in the New Directions for Community Colleges. Classes via radio and audio recordings were all the rage in distance education from the 1920s until the 1950s, when televised courses came along. Eventually, satellite (1960s) and fiber-optic technology (1980s) opened the door to two-way live transmission, note Bower and Hardy.

Since the birth of the World Wide Web in 1989, distance learning has come a long way. The Internet enables interactivity not only among students and teachers, but also course material. Online courses made their debut in the 1990s and gained momentum in higher education starting in the 2000s. The latest trend is the massive online open course (MOOC). Online learning on steroids, MOOCs, which are generally free, can have hundreds of thousands of students and are offered by top universities.

Online education emerged at HSU in the early 2000s when Psychology Professor David Campbell and a handful of others taught online. Over the last four years, about 2200 students took online classes from a variety of topics. Now more than 5700 students are taking online courses. HSU also became the first CSU campus to offer a full General Education package online in 2014.

Humboldt State now has three online degree programs and six certificate programs, in addition to some extended education and professional development courses. Among the newest offerings are the Geospatial certificate program and the master’s program in Applied Anthropology, a unique hybrid course of distance and face-to-face learning.

“The goal for HSU is to educate as many qualified people so that students can go out into the job market or achieve their educational goal,” says Hwu.

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The concept of teaching public speaking remotely was initially a hard sell for Reitzel. She was concerned that online courses wouldn’t be as engaging or rigorous as a face-to-face course.

“I kept hearing from colleagues and people in professional communications organizations that there’s no way I could teach public speaking online. Even I wasn’t convinced it could work,” she says.

Friends of Wildlife major Alex Lewis had a similar reaction. Faced with an already packed schedule, he took Reitzel’s COMM 100 course last year to meet his GE requirement. “Friends who had taken COMM 100 in person thought all we’d do is email her and put up pre-recorded video presentations on YouTube.”

Reitzel does indeed use email and YouTube. But with the help of instructional designers from the College of eLearning & Extended Education and the right tools, Reitzel proved naysayers—and herself—wrong.

Her course begins with an introductory “icebreaker” emailed to students a few weeks before the beginning of the semester. The message goes over the basics (description of the course, due dates, software requirements to take the course, etc.) and includes links to two YouTube videos. In the first, she introduces herself and explains the goal of the course. In the second, Reitzel, in a tie-dye shirt, lays out her expectations – wanting “good,” not perfection—and gives speaking tips.

“I spend time creating community to manage students’ anxiety so they’re more comfortable with the online format and speaking in front of strangers.”

The course is asynchronous, which means students can access course material and learn at their own pace. They “meet” online every few weeks using Zoom, a video conferencing interface that allows participants to join a meeting and to see one another at all times. They also give slideshow presentations in real-time via VoiceThread. These interactions give Reitzel and her students a front row seat to speeches.

The point is to gain public speaking skills, get immediate feedback, and understand the technology tools used in today’s workplace, says Reitzel.

Lewis couldn’t agree more. “To say this isn’t the real world or the future is B.S. Learning how to annunciate when I speak and how to be prepared to give speeches helped me with job interviews I’ve had over Skype, Google Hangout, and Zoom.”

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Hwu points out that online learning isn’t for all students or all teachers, nor is it meant to replace traditional classes.

“The online course is a companion to face- to-face learning,” says Hwu. “The goal is to make the education experience as a whole and make it more rewarding for students.”

As for Reitzel, she’s now fully on board with online. “I never want to teach public speaking solely face to face again.”