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Transitioning Programs Online – Dr. Helen Dawson, University of Birmingham

Transitioning Programs Online: Q&A with Dr. Helen Dawson, University of Birmingham


Wiley Education Services sat down with Dr. Helen Dawson from the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) to talk about her insights, opinions, and experiences in online teaching. Dawson is a distinguished member of Wiley’s Faculty Fellows initiative, which aims to foster a community of practice among Wiley's institutional partners focused on innovative online teaching and learning.


Wiley Education Services (WES): What is your role at the University of Birmingham?

Helen Dawson: I am the Director of the Masters in Public Administration (MPA) for the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom).


Why did the University of Birmingham decide to move into the online learning space? What was the end goal?

Helen Dawson: The University of Birmingham is one of the leading Russell Group universities in the UK. We have a large student base and we’re doing very well, but like most UK universities, we have to expand income through teaching.

However, since 2008 and the global market crash, enrolling our traditional set of students has been much harder. We wanted to bring in international students by taking our MPA program online. For this reason, The University of Birmingham saw the value and potential that online learning provided as a solution to help us meet our institutional needs.


What challenges did the University of Birmingham face before moving into the online environment?

Helen Dawson: First off, online learning was completely new to all of us at the University. We had a virtual learning environment, but most faculty were using it purely to post electronic reading lists – not leveraging it as a teaching medium. We needed guidance on how to translate and teach a course for the online environment.

Second, we needed to change the way we engaged with students in order to accommodate different learning styles, experiences, and histories from around the globe. For example, a student from India may have a very different educational upbringing from a British or American student, which brings some recruiting and teaching challenges. How do you engage students from different educational backgrounds? How do you get students to critically evaluate the material that you're giving them? Exploring how to best meet different learning styles and learning experiences, then integrating them into a program which is predominantly a UK or US based pedagogy, was a real learning process for us.


That’s a challenge that many schools hoping to bring in international students overlook. How did you all tackle the problem?

Helen Dawson: Since the move to the online environment, and with the help of Wiley Education Services’ program design and development team, we have integrated adaptive techniques into our developmental materials to accommodate our students with different starting places.

We moved to a system that now uses gated pages, meaning students will take a quiz early on in the module to show what understanding and competency levels he or she already has. Students who are more experienced will move quicker because they are guided through courses most relevant to them, while students with less experience will go through the whole course. We now have the ability to re-calibrate courses to meet their individual needs. Rather than offer one universal course to everybody, we are now able to place students in the area that is most appropriate for them.


Facing the Challenges of Launching Online Programs

Implementing adaptive learning techniques into your programs must be a big change for your online faculty. How have they generally reacted to teaching online? Have there been challenges?

Helen Dawson: The biggest challenge for our faculty new to teaching online has been realizing the difference between an online learning environment and a classroom environment.

Teaching online, faculty have to build more engagement points into the material to keep students engaged, and it is very easy for a faculty member to say, "We don't need that. The students will happily write the 3,000 word essay, and we can assess them on that once a term." In online learning, that doesn’t work. We need multiple ways of assessing students at different levels.


What recommendations can you make to other program directors who want to better prepare and support their online faculty? What are some ways to get your faculty on board the transition to online education?

Helen Dawson: Even though faculty may not embrace distance learning from the start, I recommend program directors work hard to make sure they involve some of their permanent faculty in the early module design and delivery. When well-regarded professors are engaged early on, they become the ambassadors for the online program. Try not to think "I'll just resource this through new hires” because whether they're permanent lecturers or temporary contract people, they will never have the clout of the 65 year-old professor who learns to love the distance learning environment.

In our case, we gained faculty support by having two of our retiring professors come on board early on. That really helped us show other faculty members the value of online learning, and they've become strong ambassadors for us since.

Additionally, Wiley offered our faculty an online certification teaching program which gave us the experience of being online students. It introduced us best practices and to good ideas implemented by online faculty members from other universities further along in the online learning journey. That exposure helped a lot of our faculty overcome anxiety about moving into online teaching.


What other ways has Wiley helped you and your faculty transition successfully to the online environment?

Helen Dawson: I am part of the Wiley Faculty Fellows program, which allows me to talk with faculty in the US and other countries who are also leading distance learning programs. As a member of the program I feel accompanied, like there's someone else out there who understands the discomfort of change that I am going through.

To a school thinking about partnering with Wiley, do not underestimate the impact that this kind of community can have. Talking to other program directors and online faculty who are developing their own online courses really helps – it helps me feel more confident as I lead my faculty into what will be a better practice.


The University of Birmingham is in England and Wiley Education Services is in the United States. Why did you choose a partnership outside of the UK?

Helen Dawson: We made our partnership decision based on the capabilities that Wiley offers, and they offer the complete package. They understand marketing, how to recruit quality students, and how to produce excellent academic courses. They have instructional designers and technologists who know how to get the best out of the online environment. I can't think of anybody else in the UK who offers that level of service and expertise. As a program director leading the move into distance learning, it is incredibly helpful to have a one-stop place to go for a response on any of the issues that might come up.

Overall, Wiley’s ability to bring in students globally via our online MPA has helped us enormously in maintaining student numbers and our student income. Working with online students has also helped us improve our on-campus offerings because the best practices for online teaching have translated into how we teach our in classroom students, as well.


To learn more about the Wiley Faculty Fellows program and its members, click here or read another Faculty Fellow Q&A interview with Dr. Polly Smith of Utica College or Ray Klump of Lewis University.

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