Community-building is a concept associated with people living and working in close proximity to one another.
Technology, however, has transformed the reality of community-building into a process that can be shared by people regardless of where they live, work or study.
Successful building of online communities of students whose members communicate freely to share ideas and create projects lies in the strength of the faculty members who design and facilitate the online courses.
Faculty in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA) at NIU believe community-building is integral to the success of its online programs. As a result, the College of Education earned a place on the U.S. News & World Report’s Honor Roll for Online Graduate Education Programs.
As an integral piece in this achievement, the NIU faculty ranked No. 1 for credentials and training.
“I was almost hesitant to get into a technology program at first because I considered it so impersonal,” said John Cowan, an assistant professor in ETRA and a lead faculty member in the department’s online programs, “but the reality is that it opens up gateways to incredible communication. If you are not moving ahead in this field, you are falling behind.”
Cowan has been working in the field of online learning since receiving his master’s degree at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque in the mid-1990s.
While earning his degree, he worked as a public school teacher. It was during this time that the first world-wide website was created, and the advent of computers in the classrooms was just beginning. He became his school’s first technology coordinator because he was the only teacher who had computer experience, as little as it was.
After earning his master’s degree, Cowan was asked to teach the cohort that followed his. He has been involved with online education ever since.
Darryl Draper, the latest addition to ETRA’s online faculty, worked in the business world for 25 years prior to entering academia. Her corporate expertise focused on development of e-learning programs, organization development and human performance technology.
Academics offered a natural and welcome transition for Draper. “I wanted to be in an environment where I could make the most impact in the field and mentor students,” she said.
The varied backgrounds and experiences of people such as Cowan and Draper and others who work in ETRA contributed to the acknowledgement from U.S. News & World Report, Cowan said.
“If you are in this program, you are being taught by tenured track professional faculty,” he said. “That fact is a commitment to a quality education. It’s a quantitatively and qualitatively different experience to have people with the diversity of backgrounds that we have here.”
There is great power that can be created in online cohorts, he said.
The community formed during the learning phase continues even after graduation through career networking and support. These are individuals who must keep up with their fast-paced industry, he added. Having peers to contact for advice and input is crucial, and the cohort provides that lifeline.
“You bring people together in a community and build trust in that community. What bonds the community is both that trust and the mutual pursuit of some kind of knowledge,” he said. “It’s so great to be connected to other people, to know that you are not alone and to know that you can work together on things.”
Draper also focuses “on creating a sense of community” when she teaches her online students. “There’s an opportunity to share information,” she said, “and as a result of this, the students become more expert in what they do.”
The closeness that developed between Draper and her students in ETRA’s first online master’s in Instructional Technology Specialist cohort made their graduation bittersweet. “It was like sending your children off but wanting them to come back,” she said.
Her wish is coming true. Several alums of the first cohort are returning to NIU as students in ETRA’s doctoral program.
by Marisa Sanders