Skip to content

Conversation #43: Robert Crow on Distance Education

Download Conversation #43

Robert CrowA conversation with Dr. Robert Crow of Western Carolina University (WCU) on teaching, learning, and distance education.

Robert Crow, Ph. D., is an assistant professor of educational research. Before joining the faculty in the College of Education and Allied Professions, Dr. Crow served as Coordinator of Instructional Development & Assessment for WCU's Coulter Faculty Commons, working primarily in faculty professional development. Dr. Crow's expertise in assessment and evaluation has led to collaborations with other 4-year institutions, community colleges, PK-12 schools, and institutional accreditation agencies such as SACS-COC. Dr. Crow's research interests include assessment and evaluation of student learning and of learning environments.

Links for this episode:


Interviewer: Hello! We are pleased to announce D. Robert Crow, currently assistant professor of educational research, the college of education and allied professions  at Western Carolina University.  Dr. Crow began at WCU in 2006,  shortly after earning his Ph.D where he occupied the role of coordinator of structural development and assessment in the coulter faculty commons. He served in this capacity for 7 productive years then went to  CAEP faculty where he was assigned doctoral and masters level teaching. Prior to arriving at WCU, Dr. Crow served as a research assistant during his graduate years. Before this, he owned a business in Charleston, South Carolina to support college and graduate school tuition while enrolled in the College of Charleston and the cyndell. Much of his career has focused on professional and organizational development. So we thank you Dr. Crow for sharing you expertise in Distance Education. We’re here to discuss the positives and negatives of distance education from a faculty developer perspective. So Dr. Crow, Xavier’s reason for launching online classes was to accommodate our students especially during the summer when they weren’t on campus. And to hopefully enroll some guess students as well. But these last three years, we have drastically increased online and hybrid online classes in the spring and fall semester as well. So can you please speak on the evolution of distance education on the campus of Western Carolina University?

Crow: Sure! Well first of all thank you for letting me come in and please call me Robert everyone else does. So thinking about the evolution at  western, I came in at 2006 when the economy wasn't at its best. And so we all had to scramble for resources. And so what western did was, which I thought was pretty cool was, redesigned their faculty center where faculty had a large role in preparing faculty to teach online. But that was more of a formative kind of role. The faculty coordinated with the office of distance ed. And that office had a dean online. So it was really interesting to see the institutional collaboration arose from  that arrangement. The dean when I first got there, she had a lot of power. It was really good because it was more a centralized kind of model. And at that time, we were getting money feed money for the development of online courses but they would just turn around and put it on a self so basically any instructor can use it. And that worked out well. So I was working hand in hand with a lot of instructors  in trying to develop these courses. And they would get a small stipend for it but we also had to establish some criteria for rigor. And so we created a kind of rubric for the quality of online courses. So basically the faculty developer would be in the trenches with the faculty designing courses and once the courses met that standard of quality, they would eventually get paid for it. So it was really neat model. Ours was like yours. In 2006 we had 800 courses which was brand new to us. And by the time 2010 rolled around, we had about 1,600 courses every semester. So it was a lot. We had two faculty developers at that time so we were very busy. But it's really great too because they get to meet all the faculty especially the brand new faculty. Like when we had faculty orientation, we would develop them more and I can tell you about some of the structures we had to create such as  online course development day which happen twice a year. And all of the faculty and staff would cluster around and work with them all day long to get things up and running. So it was a really neat opportunity for faculty developer because you’re really needed, you’re really valued,  and you get to know everybody at the college or university.

Interviewer: That was  one of the positives for me is working with the faculty. For us, we’re very small. We don’t have as near that many courses. We may have a couple of hundred right now. But our evolution was very organic because we asked for faculty volunteers whom we trained in order to teach these online and hybrid courses. And so the faculty who were the most interested were tapped first and then as they experienced success, more faculty were drawn in. Faculty participation are really big positives for us. So you’ve already talked about some of the positives at WCU. Do they have other positives as well?

Crow:  Yeah. Well I was just noting the faculty that were first coming out, those people need to be made special. So what we did was made them faculty fellows for E-learning. And so it changed. There was about 5 faculty that were deemed this and they would get a course release or a $3,000 stipend for doing this and it was a year long position. And they would work together to produce things. Like that rubric i mentioned, they produced that rubric. And those people kind of served as leaders. They all came from different parts of the college so they knew everybody. And so they could also be like the first person to call if their colleague needs advice for something. Some other things I mentioned  was that course development day was a huge success. And that’s usually held a week before classes start. We did this thing called online course design. And it was actually a two day event where you come in in the summer and bring all of your courses. We also had a small retreat every summer. Something instrumental and carving out a institutional space, is that distance learning advisory board. And most of the faculty developers would be a part of that committee too. And normally a faculty would be the head of that committee. And so that worked really good. And so it’s just all these different  types of structures you have to put in place in order to really support the faculty. In our center it was a integrated model where there were faculty developers but they also had learning management system people like blackboard technical people as well as digital media. So it was nice because the faculty can come in and get assistance. I would kind of foresee the types of things you need like digital assistance and we would all meet together. And they saved a huge amount of time because you know getting courses and the technology up can be a huge pain. So those were some good things but we’re still struggling because it is difficult especially when those early adopters are just doing it for fun and taking risk because they are seasoned faculty workers and they don’t last long because they’re ready to retire. So that’s one of the problems we had is that they have great people out there but then they retire and you get that learning curve again especially when you keep getting new faculty. So it’s just this whole circle. And one of the other things I noticed is that most faculty don’t know what people do in those centers. So to let them know up front like at faculty orientation, you guys should spend at least half of the day with the new faculty.  And let them know what each and every person does. And that was what was so cool about faculty development day because the whole faculty was there so people can meet and find out who do I call for what.

Interviewer: I’m very grateful for hearing you talk about all the positives with the faculty. Some of the faculty who are still  hesitant to join the online movement are worried about academic honesty. I know you have done some research on that. We actually use Respondus Monitor to help secure our online testing environment. Could you speak a little more about that aspect or more challenges in distance education?

Crow: Yeah. We’re facing a lot of challenges. We actually had a study that had fake students take a fake class and cheat their way through it. And got their information on what types of environments are the easiest to cheat on. And in fact, one person paid someone from a cheating company in another state to take the entire course. And it was really weird because I was teaching the course and I knew it was fake but I didn’t know which student was cheating through the cheating company. And these people would take the entire course for you and you just give them your login information and your number and they take the entire course. Lockdown browsers are ok for people to not go to different websites but most instructors aren’t giving multiple choice test as often as you think they are and that is a good way to cut down on cheating because if you create open ended assignments or assignments where they have to produce something, I found that they loved to work with technology and have voice over powerpoints and stuff like that. So as much as you like to have student generated content for your assessments, that is really helpful. Another thing we  struggle with is authentification. How do we know that robert crow is really that person in the class. And right now, I have two graduate classes totally online and there’s about 30 something students in each one and it's kind of strange because I really don’t know who they are. So you don’t get that  get that feel for your students like you do in a face to face class. Some other things like plagiarizing is huge. We had a plagiarizing self test that students took to see if they even know what plagiarism is. And we talk about that but they are going to copy, cut and paste no matter what. So teaching them how to properly cite something or paraphrase is big. I’ve been on the academic honesty board and it’s really amazing what students will do. And faculty members really have no time to do this. I even had one case where the instructor gone in, her test was taken by two students, and she had the time they clicked submit on each item within one second charted out. And I kept thinking, who has time for all of that? So the best way is to educate them on  how to  randomize test on blackboard or use some of the features you mentioned like lockdown browsers. But really opened ended type of assignments are really the way to go.  It’s still a struggle especially for rigor. I think it depends of class size, and the level, and the readiness of the student. We actually had to create something called the online course readiness assessment for people who are thinking about taking a online course have never even seen one before and they don’t understand the level of complexity in it. So for my courses, we have meetings. And even instructors who don’t have this can download they 30 day free trial. So there's ways to have more interactions with students to know whether they are who they say they are and whether they are cheater or not. I would say start small. But I’ve had faculty who say I’m just going to have them read the chapter and then put up questions from the back of the chapter and have them answer them on the discussion board. And that’s the the thing we really struggle with because no one wants to learn or teach like that. So finding out better ways to teach in a nice environment is what we should all be striving for.

Interviewer: Well thank you. We are actually using TurnItIn where students can submit their papers and see what areas get highlighted for potential plagiarism. And Respondus Monitor in addition to the lockdown browser will actually record the students taking their test. So they have to show their xavier id and as they are taking the test, if, we notice we notice their head has disappeared or they seem to be looking at cheat notes, we can tell.

Crow: So do you administer the test all at one time so you can monitor the head turnings all at once or do you review the tapes?

Interviewer: We don’t have to review the tapes. There are some that are chosen randomly. And you just have to glance at them. Usually, you don’t really go to that point unless you suspect some cheating has taken place. The camera actually caught a student holding their phone up trying to take a screenshot of the test.

Crow: And you know they thought they had it figured out with the face to face courses  with the answers on the back of the Aquafina bottle. Did you know about that one? Because I didn’t know about that one. But I think that when students are aware that you are lurking, that can be a big deterrent for them. And I think that you can time the test or randomize them. But it really is so much fun to teach online. And people that gravitate to it, you really do form a neat group. I was going to mention the faculty learning community around E-learning would come in and we would share tools that we used. It's really  energizing. And the way I look at it, I think of things as nouns and verbs and any time we community we’re doing that verb but the noun of how we communicate changes so quickly that any faculty can jump on it at any time. So that's the encouraging message to me.

Interviewer: Well thank you I love that analogy. Do you have any last thoughts?

Crow: Yeah. The future of online learning is sadly mimicking face to face. Its starting to become structural again because the synchronous of it all. So I think we need to maximize face to face  synchronous sessions instead of it being a direct instruction moment because that doesn’t work. There are two institutions in our system that are holographic. And so that is on the horizon. I definitely see more synchronous between the instructor and students through meetings. That kind of capability where you integrate those meeting spaces into online learning add a human feel to it. I think mobile devices are going to impact it, being able to access information on the spot. I have to say blackboard’s mobile thing is not good at all. And one other thing, I think it’s really important that faculty developers in general, understand about teaching and learning online. They should probably try and take an online course to get the feel of it. Because I have worked with plenty of staff that have not taken an online course and in my Ph.D program I took a bunch so I can tell which ones aren't good and which ones are. So I think that first hand perspective is really good. And one last thing,  reviewing courses from other institutions.   Its nice to see other peoples course other than your own. So if  faculty developers can get inside and review each others' courses as professional service that would be good.

Interviewer: Yes I agree. I’m a peer reviewer for Quality Matters. And I’m on the on the committee for updating the rubric so it’s a lot of work.

Crow: Well I know that we are now offering that course to faculty. And they offered it to me and I said no way. Because i feel that once you get those principles, you want students to interact, and clear communication between one another. And I think once that happens, we understand those principles and the rubrics are basically the same.

Interviewer: We just recently become members of the online learning consortium so I’m really pleased with it.

Crow: Great! Well good luck to you guys! I recently did this talk with another university and they online had two courses online. But once that line goes up it just keeps increasing. But use your E-learning people and make them feel special and they’ll produce good work. You also have to be able to speak the IT language and it takes a special person to do that. So faculty developers have to kind of be that mediator between the faculty and the IT people. And being that you are part of the consortium, I assume you know how to do that.

Interviewer: Well, we’re working on it. And thank you so very much for your advice and expertise.

Crow: Thank you! What LMS do you guys use?

Interviewer: Blackboard.

Crow: Blackboard okay! Well thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you guys today.

Interviewer: Thank you so much. Bye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.