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New USM office takes on online learning

Paul Cochrane

When Dr. Andrea Stairs-Davenport joined USM as an assistant professor of literacy education in 2009, she had exactly zero experience with online courses. She’d never attended one as a student. She’d never taught one as a professor. But in the age of the Internet, she expected online education was only going to grow.

“It was totally new to me, but I just dove right in,” said Stairs-Davenport, now professor and associate dean of the School of Education and Human Development.

Just over a decade later, Stairs-Davenport has helped entire USM programs go online, including the 53-year-old Master of Science in Education in Literacy Education, strengthening the programs and making them more accessible to students. But she didn’t do it alone.

“I just can’t say enough about the Center for Technology Enhanced Learning,” Stairs-Davenport said. “They literally offered the best services that a university could ask for in terms of helping faculty get up to speed on what it means to teach quality online courses.”

Andrea Stairs-Davenport

The center, also known as CTEL, helps faculty members create engaging programs, courses and lesson plans. CTEL's learning designers work with all faculty, whether those instructors are teaching online or in person.

But soon, CTEL will get a new parent: the Office of Online and Digital Learning Initiatives, known more informally to the public as USM Online. While CTEL will continue to serve both online and in-person instruction, the new USM Online will focus solely on helping faculty develop and improve online courses.

“We’re not talking content. That is faculty 100%,” said Emily Brunette, who manages online programs for CTEL. “This is about the frame.”

In some ways, USM Online is a return to the old ways. In 2008, USM had Professional and Continuing Education, a division that was responsible for building online programs. It lasted nearly a decade, until budget challenges prompted the University to restructure Professional and Continuing Education and decentralize its work.

“Online education just got scattered to the winds,” Brunette said.

Since then, faculty members have largely been left to develop and run online courses on their own. CTEL has been able to help in recent years, but it doesn’t focus exclusively on online content and its four learning designers split their time between in-person and online needs.

“When I started here five years ago, we had a handful of online degree programs,” said Paul Cochrane, CTEL’s Executive Director of Digital Learning Strategy. “But in the five years since, more have jumped on board. So we now have a much broader portfolio of online programs, but we haven’t had the full set of structures in place really needed to support the work they’re trying to do.”Paul Cochrane

Currently, USM offers seven fully online undergraduate degrees, 15 online, blended, or low-residency master’s programs, two online doctoral programs, and 17 online certificates. In 2018-19, 58% of students took at least one course online; the pandemic has only helped fuel the move online.  

But some online classes aren’t as engaging as they could be. And some present information, handle assignments, or have students log on in unique — sometimes unexpected — ways.

“What students have told us. . . the experiences in online courses differ so much from course to course that it’s confusing for students, it’s disorienting. It makes it difficult for them to make progress. It makes it difficult for them to feel connected to the institution in the way they want to feel connected to the institution,” Cochrane said. “And ultimately, that kind of approach creates a lot more work for the faculty. It makes the teaching and learning process a lot harder for everybody than it has to be.”

Great online courses start with sites that students can easily navigate. They present content in engaging ways. They use the right tools for the situation — Zoom for student-teacher conferences, for example, or Google Docs for shared editing.

USM Online will help create those great individual online courses, as well as full online programs. Faculty members bring the course objectives, goals and pedagogy; USM Online’s learning designers bring the expertise to get it all online.

“Our goal is broader than IT,” said Rucha Modak, Senior Learning Designer for CTEL. “We think about the role of these tools in the learning process. The role of these tools in what the instructor is trying to achieve pedagogically. We think in in terms of ‘What does this course need?’”Rucha Modak


USM Online is expected to have its formal external launch in fall 2022, but it’s up and working now. The office is currently developing new online, blended, and low-residency programs, creating on-boarding and orientation for new online students, and working with departments to develop a schedule of asynchronous online courses specifically for undergraduate online programs.

“A decade ago, online education was about providing access,” Cochrane said. “Now the access is taken for granted. Online education is increasingly about providing engagement and high quality student experiences for every student that we serve.”