by Kasi Williamson, Assistant Professor & Assistant Chair, Organizational Studies
Context: What, Where, and Who I Teach
In the School for Professional Studies (SPS) at SLU, I teach communication courses to adult learners, in eight-week terms, in online and on-ground formats.
In other words: I get to teach transformative concepts to extraordinary students in a format that helps them make higher education a part of their already full lives.
The benefits (and challenges) of online, eight-week courses are many. Our students take only one or two courses in any given eight-week term, so I can expect their focused time and energy. But wow, do those eight weeks go by quickly. The online environment allows students with work and family demands to schedule their own “class time” each week. But because online participation is sometimes monitored in word count and rewarded with points, there’s a risk that the routine elements of a course will feel more “transactional” than “transformational.” The online classroom can push students beyond the surface to a more authentic kind of learning. But that takes a different kind of work from the instructor and the students.
Experience: A Path Paved with Metaphors
The challenge, then, is to design an eight-week digital experience in which students encounter rich content, engage in authentic interactions with their classmates and instructor, and understand both the mundane logistics and higher order concepts that course learning activities require. Through trial and error, with the help of colleagues and an attentiveness to student feedback, I gradually refined my online course activities and assignments.
I began to imagine my online courses as a path, in which assessments serve as milestones. Students travel the trail together, helping each other along the way. At each milestone, a student encounters my feedback, which serves as an opportunity for conversation and redirection. The path leads to a final course project; ideally, this project becomes a perfect realization of the student’s learning experience.
The reality, of course, is much messier than my metaphor. The “experience” is not created by me — the experience of the class belongs to the students. Even before I encountered their book, I was influenced by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson’s (2012) observation that online courses should help students become increasingly responsible for their own learning (p. 15). I wanted this to be the case. I wanted students to blaze their own trails! But I still felt as if there wasn’t enough “student” in the student experience of some of my courses.
Reflection: Beyond the Digital Domain
At a Jesuit university, we have an additional framework for transformative learning: The Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm. Discussions within SPS about Jesuit identity in our online programs ultimately helped me to see my instructional challenges in a different light. My course is online, so students will experience the course content I provide in a “virtual” environment. But the students, themselves, are flesh and blood and walking around in their own very concrete worlds.
Respect for the student’s “context” led me to observe that only certain parts of the learning process happen in the online environment I create: The “experience” of some course content, perhaps, and students’ “reflection” on their learning. But students might also “experience” course content more meaningfully in their own context, and they can certainly “act” in the world based on what they have learned.
Service learning activities are designed to provide an opportunity for students to engage in just this sort of “action,” to make their learning real in the world. The online learning environment doesn’t necessarily need to simulate “real life” interaction; students can interact in their real lives, and bring those experiences into the online learning environment. Within this particular application of the Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm (which is certainly not the only possible application), the online learning environment provides a framework for student “experiences” and “actions,” then creates focused opportunities for “reflection” and “evaluation.”
Action: Real Life, Online Service Learning
Based on these reflections, I adapted one of my eight-week online courses for adult learners to become an eight-week online service learning course for adult learners. Service learning-related resources at SLU abound: Several of my SPS colleagues had implemented service learning projects in their online classes, and SLU’s Center for Service and Community Engagement provided additional helpful advice.
In a course called Strategic Digital Communication, I asked students to select an organization that would benefit from the creation of a strategic digital communication plan and a digital prototype (e.g., a couple of web pages and a selection of social media posts). While the “plan” assignment included narrowly defined components, the “prototype” assignment was largely open for definition by the student (with instructor consultation). In addition, students would create for me a recorded presentation in which they “pitched” the plan they were proposing.
Adult learners work with multiple organizations in their everyday lives (e.g., their employer, their church, their children’s school, and so on), and many adult learners already engage in regular service in their communities. I gave students the option to choose a nonprofit or community organization they been involved with in some capacity in the past, or to use this as an opportunity to create a relationship with a new organization. I also allowed students to make a case to me that their current place of employment provided a meaningful opportunity for both “service” and “learning.”
Students were required to schedule and conduct an interview with someone from the organization (phone interviews were allowed, to increase flexibility). They also analyzed the organization’s existing web communications. In each week’s discussion, students applied new course concepts to a component of their projects-in-progress, benefitting from peer feedback and ideas. I assigned my typical “milestones” in the form of draft project components, so that I could comment on how students’ work reflected the concepts we were learning in class. At the end of the term, students reflected on how the experience of service affected their learning process. They had an opportunity to incorporate my final, evaluative feedback on their projects before delivering their work to their service learning organization.
Evaluation: First Steps, Next Steps
Very early in the term, I could feel the energy in the online course. I could see that having “real life” stakeholders (i.e., other than me) added a dimension to the work that made it seem much more … real. I teach strategic communication because it’s a practice that helps people and organizations have a transformative impact in the world. My students had an opportunity to sense this potential through their lived experience. From my own perspective, the classroom dynamics I saw reminded me of the kind of excitement I have experienced in creative, mission-driven professional settings.
Importantly, I learned that good things happen when I let go a bit. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t control all aspects of the student experience in this class. As the instructor in the course, I had no interaction with the service learning organizations; it was entirely up to the students to initiate the relationship, understand the organization’s goals, and design a project that would meet course expectations and make a contribution to the organization. To be sure, my assignment sheets still included some pretty abundant detail. But because the experience was more fully “theirs” to begin with, students were much more central to the course experience as a whole.
Moving forward, I plan to add service learning projects to one or two more online courses that I teach. I would like to continue to shift the balance of the service learning experience to one that is focused on the student, eventually moving that focus further toward transformation in the community. This class represents a few first steps, which were encouraging. The path continues ahead.
 Rita-Marie Conrad’s books provide a helpful model for facilitating deepening levels of engagement online.
Kasi Williamson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor & Assistant Chair of the Organizational Studies Program in the School for Professional Studies.
As a rhetoric scholar and former strategic communications professional, she is most interested in how words make change in the world.