‘Unconference’ tackles innovation in online education

The Channels Opinion Pages | Guest Column


On February 25th, online educators from community colleges across the state converged on Santa Barbara City College to attend the first ever “Pedagogy to Increase Student Success: An Unconference for Online Educators.” The one-day “unconference” was conceived of by Kenley Neufeld and I, and was funded by the 2016 President’s Foundation Award. It has been well-documented that while demand for online courses is growing in the California community college system, student success rates are lower than in courses taught face-to-face. While there is ample support for online educators to solve their technical problems, rarely do they get together to wrestle with the opportunities and challenges posed by teaching in the online environment. In applying for the grant, I envisioned a day where instructors came together to share teaching strategies, voice their concerns, and problem-solve with other educators. Neufeld brought in the unconference model, which minimizes panels and presentations in favor of a user-generated environment to include ample time for workshops, brainstorming, and participant engagement. Student Courtney Knudsen joined the team as a student coordinator shortly thereafter.

In the months leading up to the Unconference, participants voted on the topics that interested them most. These included “Factors contributing to student success in online learning”, “Humanizing the online learning environment”, “Diversity in the online classroom”, and “The future of online education in the CC system”. Faculty also volunteered to facilitated the workshops, adding to user-generated environment. In addition to the workshops, there were two keynote presentations. To start off the morning I interviewed Bernard Luskin, Chancellor of Ventura County Community College. Through telling the history of online education in the community college system, participants better understood the broader context in which they were currently teaching. He also discussed media psychology, the importance of storytelling, and the story of putting the first computer in a California community college. Autumn Bell, the Chief Professional Development Officer for the California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative (OEI), was the second keynote speaker of the day. She gave participants background on the OEI, which is a collaborate effort in the community college system to increase student success through high-quality online courses. She quoted the OEI executive director, Pat James, stating, “We need to stop comparing online courses to face-to-face courses, and start comparing online courses to fully-resources online course.” She toured participants through some of the resources the OEI supports, including online course design rubrics, support for Canvas (the recently adopted content management system), and plagiarism detection software. During lunch, participants dined on sandwiches provided by SBCC Catering while overlooking the pacific ocean, with many out-of-town visitors remarking on the spectacular view.

Feedback for the Unconference was quite positive. Stated one participant, “It was an amazing conference! I learned so much about teaching online during that seven hours”. Another offered, “Thank you! I loved the unconference! Please hold it again!” Of participants who completed a feedback survey, nearly 82% mentioned that they were either likely or somewhat likely to try to attend it again. While there was chat about about another institution hosting the unconference next year, some participants may chafe at the suggestion. “Always have these in a place like Santa Barbara”, stated one participant. As it’s faculty and students are well-aware, learning-even online- is somehow more appealing at a place like Santa Barbara City College.