Working towards a degree for some students can be a struggle as they balance full-time work, families and coursework. In this episode, Marela Fiacco, a Healthcare Management Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator at SUNY Canton joins us to explore options that give students greater access to courses and co-curricular activities. Dr. Fiacco is the first instructor at her institution to teach a flex course, a modality in which students may participate either in person or remotely.
- SUNY Canton Creates “Flex Classes” for Traditional and Online Students.” http://news.canton.edu/blog/2018/02/16/flex-classes/
- Google Hangouts
Rebecca: Working towards a degree for some students can be a struggle as they balance full-time work, families and coursework. In this episode we’ll explore options that give students greater access to courses and co-curricular activities.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Marela Fiacco. Marela is a Healthcare Management Instructor and Curriculum Coordinator for the Healthcare Management Program at SUNY Canton. She is also the first instructor in this program to teach a flex course. Welcome Marela.
Marela: Thank you, thank you for having me.
John: We’re happy to have you here. Are you drinking tea?
Marela: I’m drinking water.
Rebecca: It’s a nice, healthy choice.
John: Our teas today are…
Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon tea… again.
John: And I have Harry and David’s Bing Cherry Black Tea.
Marela: Oh, that sounds yummy.
John: It really is. It’s hard to find– you have to go to a Harry and David store or order from them online, but it’s a Republic of Tea tea that’s custom made for them.
You were the first instructor at your institution and one of the first in SUNY, I believe, to teach a flex course. Could you tell us a little bit about what a flex course is?
Marela: Certainly, at SUNY Canton we received a grant from SUNY system, I believe, and this is by our Dean of Instructional Technologies and the idea was born to create what we called at the time, probably about this time last year, we called it a converged modality classroom delivery. We can call it a flex class or a converged modality. To us at the time, it was a mix of face-to-face and an online class, so we have students in a face-to-face class and students in an online class. Students in an online class can watch the video live or they can watch a recording later. Face-to-face students, if they are not in attendance, could watch a recording later. It’s really a mix, and when you say a flex course that’s what it is. It provides flexibility.
John: A flex course, then, is a combination of a face-to-face and an online class. Are students free to choose the modality, or are they enrolled in one section or the other?
Marela: Since this was a pilot, it was really difficult for students to understand and determine when they were first registering for a class. We have since gotten a little bit better and created two different sections and they understand what it is and they understand what they’re signing up for. At the time, we just provided a face-to-face and an online section. Those students who were purely online and couldn’t come to class physically, they chose an online version. Little did they know that they were going to be in a converged class, or a flex course, but at the very beginning I had a video done where I was explaining what it is and should they choose not to participate they could have picked a different section… but, this was just something added that they could benefit from. It wasn’t anything that we were taking away from their online experience.
John: So, if they were in the online course, could they attend face-to-face classes?
Marela: They absolutely had an opportunity to participate in a face-to-face class if they chose to do that. But, I think, for the health care management program, we advertised it as a hundred percent online program, and so most of our online students choose online because of the convenience. But we also do have students on campus and commuters who come to class face-to-face.
Rebecca: What was it like teaching a flex class?
Marela: Quite frankly, it was a lot of prep work at the very beginning. Well, first I thought: “How am I gonna do this? I’ve never done anything like this. It’s going to be a lot of work and then I thought “Well I have to start from somewhere.” I taught this class both online and face-to-face in the past, so that helped. We teach in Blackboard. I took the online class and just really took a hard look at it, and thought to myself “How do I make this class more user-friendly for both groups. I modified my online class. I of course added both on converged modality. We have videos for each lecture capture, so each time I’m in class and I’m lecturing I am using those to upload into those weekly modules for those online students to watch and for livestream. The thing I really wanted to achieve is I didn’t want to have it separate. The face-to-face students, I think they had more work than anybody else. They were asked to participate in discussion posts online together with online students. So, for them, it was almost a hybrid. They were supposed to upload assignments in Blackboard and also discussed whatever topic it is… whatever questions that we had for those weeks in Blackboard.
I also created a group assignment that I think was a bit of a challenge for all of us, because I intentionally picked the groups and they didn’t have any say in that and I picked online students and face-to-face students, and provided him with links in Blackboard Collaborate to get together and work on their assignment. That was a challenge for all of us.
John: From your perspective, are you compensated for teaching two courses or is it treated as if it’s one course, in terms of your workload.
Marela: I did get an extra that an adjunct would be paid or that a faculty member would be paid for teaching an extra course, because of the workload. Because this was a pilot because we capped both of the sections at 15 students normally our caps are at 30. So, I did get an additional pay last semester for teaching this converged modality or flex class. Moving forward, I don’t think that they’re actually doing that with other faculty.
John: To get things started, it often helps to give a stipend to encourage people to experiment. In the future, would the combined sections be capped at the same level as a single section would have been?
Marela: They are capped at 30 and it’s just one section.
John: …and then students are free to either attend in person or online. That’s what I was thinking..
John: …because that’s what I’ve generally heard about flex courses. I just haven’t seen many examples of them in practice yet.
Rebecca: What was one of the biggest challenges you had as an instructor? and what might you do differently next time you teach a class like this?
Marela: One of the biggest challenges was technology, to be honest. Just working out the kinks… because this was new for all of us, including the online support staff. You come in and the camera is not working… or the sound’s not working… videos not working. We might be missing a livestream or we might be missing a recording. It was the technical difficulties that were really the hardest. I struggled with attendance in the face-to-face class, because now students are thinking: “This is super flexible, I don’t have to show up.” So, I struggled with the balance between allowing them to have flexibility and the fact that you signed up for this class. So, you want to provide students that flexibility if there is a snowstorm and we lose power and whatever it might be and if they’re traveling a distance. So that was kind of the fine line, but I think each instructor determines their own attendance policy, so every one of us will approach it differently, I suppose.
John: Did you use any tools such as polling or quizzing in class where students had to participate either virtually or physically?
Marela: No, not this time. Just because the technology was new and I think next time I do it I definitely would want to do that. But at the same time, that is another hard one, because the online students, the reason that they take online classes is for convenience. Most of them are working professionals. In my program, 85% of the students are working professionals. The classes… let’s say nine o’clock in the morning… well, they can’t exactly participate live. They do appreciate the recording later at night working on their homework or whatever it might be.
John: So, for online students synchronous attendance isn’t required? It’s an option but not required?
John: What would you say would be the major advantages that students get from this sort of offering?
Marela: I think the greatest advantage for online students specifically is the lecture capture. If there are any misunderstandings about the assignments, whatever it might be they, they actually get a lecture instead of being self taught if, you think about a purely online class. Another thing too, is it provided greater connectivity with students. I really can’t stress that enough, that it really gave me an opportunity to connect with the online students… one that I wouldn’t have otherwise… because it often feels disconnected from the campus. With this grant, it wasn’t just the converged modality, it was also to connect with online students. We invested money in live streaming our Excellence in Leadership lectures and speakers so that we can bring online students and have them participate in different things on campus. We really wanted to create that connection and that’s one thing that they really appreciated the most… that was their feedback. They want to see us, that we exist… we’re here… and that we care enough that we want to do this for them. So, I think that was one thing that they really appreciated the most.
John: It created more sense of instructor presence and more of a connection to the institution.
MAREA: Yes, and they feel a sense of community… they feel a sense of belonging.
Rebecca: Did you find that a lot of the students took advantage of some of the extra things that the college invested in, so they could take advantage of those extracurricular opportunities?
Marela: They did. They really did… and we were really pleased with that… and actually the Dean of Students, myself, the Assistant to the Provost, and the Dean of Instructional Technologies we are presenting at the CIT conference and we are reporting our findings, not just on academic side but also the extracurricular and non-academic piece of it… and what is it that students took part in, what they enjoyed the most, what is it that we should continue doing for our online students. We have a large population, and let’s face it, we are all looking to online to look outside of local and geographic area because our enrollments here are really declining because of the graduation rates in high schools. We are all looking for ways to connect with online students on different levels to make them feel part of our campus and our community.
Rebecca: The extracurricular piece seems like it’s one of the most powerful additions to this particular opportunity because I think you’re right that the students, when they’re taking a class online and they’re not coming to campus, they miss out on a lot of that intellectual development from these other points of view that we don’t always offer just in the class… having the opportunity to get involved just seems like it would be really exciting for some students.
Marela: It is. It is. It’s very exciting for them. Actually we have had, for instance, one time we had a CEO of one of the local hospitals come and speak… particularly to the networking and career goals and things like that… and the students were very interested… and actually emailing and asking when is the live stream going on? Usually, these are in the evenings… part of our Excellence in Leadership series. They really wanted to take part in that… listen and understand their career options. or whatever it might be. So, those are some of the things of value to them. Actually, I was just talking to the President the other day… we had our scholarly activities, where students come and faculty come… present their poster presentations… and present their research and such… and I was just talking to him and I said: “You know, it would be great to involve our online students in these scholarly activities a little bit more, not only our engineering students and nursing students who are here on campus, but because our online students are getting involved a lot and some of them are lobbying. They’re involved in so many different activities… in their own communities and some of them do research, so it would be really great for them to present… to have their posters there and have them on Skype or somehow live streaming, where they can be present or invest in bringing them here or whatever it might be.
John: For the synchronous sessions what are you using as a platform for live streaming the classes? are you using interactive video?
Marela: We were using Panopto. This was purchased by our online programs. So they were using Panopto, which is embedded in Blackboard and then that’s how we’re doing that.
John: We use that here too. We have it in pretty much all of the classrooms and we have a site license for it. It works really well. The only limitation I could see for it in this context, and I’ve experienced the same thing, is it doesn’t work as well for two-way communication. The remote students who are viewing synchronously only have the option of typing in little text messages. They’re not able to interact in real time other than with text.
Marela: That is correct, and we are looking at different ways to fix that. I don’t know if they were able to accomplish that this semester, but you’re absolutely right. Students would have to type in their question. I would have to come back to the computer to check every now and then to see if there are messages there.
John: Because when it pops up, it’s only there for a few seconds, so it’s really hard to see unless you check on the screen itself.
Marela: That’s correct.
John: Just a thought… it might work better if you use something like Google Hangouts or Zoom or something similar for real-time sessions where students who are viewing in real time could actually communicate with voice without having that barrier. We used Panopto for many years here for our workshops with remote participants, and it wasn’t quite the same experience. We switched over a few of the workshops about a year and a half ago, and we switched all of them in the past year to using Zoom and it’s been a much better experience for people who are participating from other cities, countries or just from their offices even.
Rebecca: It’s a better experience for the person doing the presentation or teaching as well, because then you can see what the students are doing. You can see who those other participants are, when they might have questions, if they’re bored, or whatever, just like you can students in the class.
John: Just having those recordings can be useful. We have a lot of ESL students, students who are foreign who sometimes struggle with English, and having the ability to go back and replay parts of the course or look things up while they’re watching it and pausing, or slowing it down to half speed sometimes, is something they find really helpful, and in Panopto you can go back and look to see what portions of the video people were watching, and it’s also could be useful to see “well, maybe I need to explain this a little bit better, next time” if you see that there’s areas where students were going back more often.
Rebecca: If someone wanted to pursue a flex class what advice would you give them?
Marela: Be flexible.
John: I think that’s good advice with any form of teaching.
Marela: Really… be flexible. Actually, at the beginning of this semester, the Dean asked me to do a bit of a SWOT analysis for the instructors who are teaching it this semester… and I said: “Be ready to have technical difficulties. Be ready to laugh it off and not get caught up in it. Be ready for students to not show up. Be ready for multiple things.” So really, be flexible and allow for it to take its own course, I suppose… and just try to be as accommodating with students as possible. They don’t always understand it. They like it and I just keep going back to this connection with students. Just keep that in mind. It’s worth it. It does take a little bit more work outside of class and you have to be ready to be there a little bit early to get set up and stay after the class is over to make sure it’s all uploaded. Make sure that you give a lot of instructions. Revisit your attendance policy, those types of things, but really be flexible for a flex class.
John: You mentioned that you started with your online course and then you thought carefully about how to restructure it to work in this environment. What were some of the things that you did more of? Some things that you trimmed back? How would you characterize the main changes you made so that things would work better in this environment?
Marela: To be honest with you, I did not alter the online course as much as I thought I would have to. The biggest change was capturing the lectures. The one thing that was challenging was the discussions. The online students were not participating, so they are participating afterwards when the discussion post is due. Face-to-face students may be having a discussion in class. My biggest worry was how do I now capture that and make it fair because they are participating, there is a classroom participation. So, I then additionally was asking my face-to-face students to almost hold on to those discussions. Go back after class… go into the blackboard… and post those, and write about it. So, I had to think about the grading policy actually the most… and make sure that they receive credit for their thoughts and discussions in addition to what they were providing in class. The assignments I altered a little bit more. I wanted him to know that I valued their patience with the group assignment and so I gave more weight to that assignment… and I know some of them really saw a benefit to it. There was a student or two who complained about it, but I said: “Well, think of it this way…. If you are in the real world and you have to work with a facility that’s hundred miles away and you still have to connect and you’re working on this project. There is logic behind my madness, and why I’m asking you to do this.” That was one of the things. But, in terms of the material, the content what was being taught wasn’t anything different. I would say probably the assessment piece was a bit different and then capturing the lectures for students.
Rebecca: I’ve been thinking this whole time as you’ve been talking about what the classroom experience is like versus an online experience and so I was thinking about my own classes…. thinking about: “Well, how would I change a hands-on activity that’s in class so that people could participate in a different time and space, and then make sure that everyone can come back together and see what the results were and share out.” One of the kinds of activities that I do a lot in my web design classes is little code examples where they’re practicing putting code into play… and I guess what I’ve discovered is, over the course of this semester, I started doing things in a more flexible way because I realized that my mix of students was a lot more diverse than I had been in the past. I had students from different majors that I hadn’t had in the past before and to accommodate that I started giving out little exercises… giving some time in class… giving some tips out in a lecture… that I could easily have shared out to online students and then having students finish the exercise for homework, taking the tips into place, and then coming back and going over the example or going over the results the following class period. I think that over time I ended up having to implement something that was flex-like just because my students were a lot more different from one another than they had been in the past… and so, although it wasn’t because they were in different places, I think this strategy might work in other scenarios.
John: …and actually I’ve done a couple of things over the last five or six years too, partly because of the availability of things like Panopto. I teach a class in the fall with generally 360 to 420 students in it, and it’s always offered on Tuesday-Thursday and we have this Thursday Thanksgiving holiday, and a lot of the buses leave late afternoon on Tuesday and often there aren’t a lot of students in class… and a lot of classes on campus end up being canceled effectively or not covering anything substantive on that day… and I never wanted to miss that class. So, what I’ve been doing is in my class we use clicker questions, but now that over the last several years over half of the students use mobile apps for it, they don’t have to physically be there. So, each Tuesday before Thanksgiving when I have class I may have half or two-thirds of my students sometimes even three-quarters of them not physically present but I’ve had up to 150 students who’ve been watching the video stream on Panopto and participating in the clicker quizzes all through the class. They don’t have to miss the class… and I’ve had students who are on vacation… I’ve had students on cruises… I had students participating on that Tuesday class while they were on a family vacation in Florida, for example.
Rebecca: Or on the bus somewhere…
John: …and it’s worked pretty well… and actually, more generally, I have students who are at various sports events in my other classes, where they’re going to be away traveling on a bus or they’re going to be out of town and if they tell me in advance, if it’s not a class that I regularly livestream, I’ll just click the little button in Panopto to set up the live stream, especially in classes we they have clicker options… and they can participate and even though some of them use a physical radio frequency clicker, they have the option of getting two weeks of free use of the app version of it. So, that allows them to participate from wherever they are, and it’s essentially a mini version of the Flex course. Going back to Rebecca’s comment, the other case where I did something very similar, in some ways to yours, is I taught a COIL course which was jointly offered with an instructor in Mexico. My class was an online class, her class was a face-to-face class, but we had some common components where they were working in groups. Most of their work was done asynchronously. But they worked in small groups synchronously with each other and there was a lot of benefits from that… and the students really enjoyed that community, especially the cross-cultural community where they were working with students from another country. There’s a lot of advantage of this modality that makes our offerings more available to a wider range of students who wouldn’t otherwise be as much a part of the college communities. I think it’s great.
Rebecca: I’m appreciating your advice to be more flexible. As you were talking I was thinking like “What else could I do that would be more flexible in general.”
John: That’s really good advice.
Marela: Thank you.
John: How many classes are now being offered? Your’s was the first class… that was in the fall wasn’t it?
Marela: That was in the fall, yes. Right now we have, I believe, two classes from the School of Business and Liberal Arts. One is a finance course, the other one is economics… and we also have classes in the criminal justice and law enforcement leadership from the School of Health and Sciences and they are using the classroom… and interestingly enough I think some instructors are using the technology in the classroom similar to some of the things that you described… whether it’s clicker, whether it’s using it for different group projects and things like that. My class was just Intro to Healthcare Management, it wasn’t anything super exciting.
John: …as opposed to economics, yes. [LAUGHTER] My students might disagree with that.
Marela: As I was going through the semester, I thought to myself that perhaps greater value in this type of delivery lies in courses such as finance and math and economics where students may struggle with the concept. They really need to pay attention and they really need to be tuned in to the videos and watching it and rewinding it and whatever they have to do to get it and to understand the concept. I think, for them, it may be a little bit more of value versus teaching yourself some concepts that may not be as abstract or as hard to understand. I think even toward the end of the semester it was thinking there are so many things that I would do differently… provided that we might alter the technology and have it where students can be interacting and asking questions. I really wanted that classroom interaction to be better, or to foster more of it, rather than just online students watching it later and listening to other students having a discussion… and then I was thinking “well, how can they participate?” So, there are a lot of ideas. Of course, everything in hindsight is different… some of the things that you might do differently and have them build more of a connection, I suppose, between the face-to-face and online students.
John: But, having your group projects, I think, is a good way of doing that because then it does provide those connections for both groups of students.
Marela: Yeah, they really enjoyed that and I think they learned a lot from each other. Online students are professionals, non-traditional students. About 80-85% of them are already working in the field. A majority of the students on campus are first-time freshmen. I think it was a great way for them to bridge, not only the age gap, but also the knowledge and skills type of gap so students here could learn from the online students.
John: …and we’re moving into a world where people will often be working with people locally but also be working with people remotely, and this type of experience is good preparation for those future work skills.
Rebecca: I think the more we emphasize that for students the more adaptable they are and the more likely that they are to appreciate the platform or the methods.
Marela: Yes, you almost need their buy-in and because there are other sections of the same course being offered, you have to sell it to them: “What’s in it for you in this class?” and so, if they really appreciate what they can get out of it, they might be more willing to participate and be vested in that class.
John: How are your colleagues responding? Do they generally enjoy this format or is there opposition to it? What’s the general reaction to this modality?
Marela: I think you’ll hear a mix of both.
Some of us are more technologically challenged than others and some of the facultyu members when they hear the technology and when they hear what it’s like and all of the little things that can go wrong, they shy away from it and are probably unwilling to try it. Some are embracing it and saying “This is awesome, I can do all these different things with my students now.” You will have the early adopters and then…
John: Yeah, even those people who are reluctant to try new technology often drive their vehicles. They’re not riding a horse. So people come around eventually.
Rebecca: So, we usually wrap up our interviews by asking: “What’s next?” What’s next for you?
Marela: I would like to do a converged modality or a flex class model in some of my upper-level courses and try to get our other faculty in the program to use this modality… especially, for instance, healthcare finance courses where we use simulation. I think those would be some of the things that I would like to experiment with and try that and see how students respond to it and whether we have a good response.
Rebecca: I can imagine a flex class at a lower level being quite different from a flex class at an upper level so it’ll be interesting to see how your experiments go and how that experience for you and for the students might be a bit different.
Marela: I believe that it would be different, and yes, I just don’t know how until I do it.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It was really interesting and definitely got both of our heads buzzing about ideas for our own classes I think.
Marela: Thank you so much for having me.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.