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NIU’s remote-teaching stars to help colleagues go the distance

March 30, 2020

About three dozen of NIU’s most tech-savvy teachers are volunteering their time to help smoothen the transition for colleagues as the university shifts to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester.

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center (FDIDC) recruited the “Remote Teaching Fellows” and launched the effort this week. Faculty members can check out the all-star lineup of mentors on the Remote Teaching Fellows website and schedule an appointment for a conversation.

In addition to tapping expertise of the fellows, NIU faculty can continue to get one-on-one help from the experts in the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. Center staff already have logged more than 500 one-on-one conversations or interactions with faculty. Additionally, hundreds of faculty have attended the center’s virtual workshops..

“The Remote Teaching Fellows initiative adds another layer of faculty support to our Keep Teaching effort,” says Stephanie Richter, director of faculty development and instructional support. “It’s incredible that during this busy transition, the fellows are willing to volunteer their time to help their colleagues.”

Many of the fellows previously recorded some Tips for Online Learning videos featured on the student-focused Keep Learning site. The fellows range from former college deans and faculty regularly teaching online courses to technologically savvy teaching assistants and staff members.

Fellow Brian Bender is finishing his ninth year as an instructor in Operations Management and Information Systems, teaching both blended and fully online courses. This semester he’s teaching two large-auditorium courses.

“I think it’s extremely important to help out my fellow professors and instructors who may not be as familiar with remote teaching,” says Bender, who’s been a techie pretty much his whole life. “I’ve been doing this with department colleagues for a number of years. I hope that my experiences can provide colleagues with a greater sense of comfort using technology.”

Board of Trustees Professor Kathleen McFadden is lucky enough to have an office next to Bender’s in the OM&IS department.

“He was the first person I thought to ask for help when I was learning to use Blackboard Collaborate,” she says. “I was having trouble with the recording feature. Brian was able to clearly explain it. He also gave me some tips on how to convert my exams to an online format, and we discussed the pros and cons of using Lockdown Browser.

“Brian’s support and expertise meant so much to me during this busy time. He was very patient and thorough and really eased my anxiety. He has a special skill and the perfect demeanor to facilitate faculty as they make this transition.”

Professor Fatih Demir in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment is another Fellow with a special skill set.

In addition to conducting research on remote learning, he teaches online courses for his department, which is perennially recognized by U.S. News & World Report for delivery of some of the nation’s best online graduate programs. The master’s degree and Ph.D. programs in instructional technology are blended or fully online, and their students come from across the country.

“I just want to share my knowledge with other faculty so they can quickly set their courses up and teach remotely in a smooth way,” Demir says. “You can’t replace face-to-face learning, but on the other hand, remote teaching and learning can bring benefits to both students and teachers.”

One of those benefits, he says, is the ability to record lectures and classroom activities that students can view or review at any time. Additionally, research shows that technology can increase student engagement in many settings, Demir says.

For example, during synchronous online lessons, when conversations happen in real time, students could have the option of chiming in via chat or voice. Some students who might be reticent to raise a hand and speak in front of their peers feel more comfortable participating through the chat function.

The conversion to non-face-to-face instruction can be more challenging when faculty are engaged in hands-on learning, such as in a laboratory setting.

“Depending on the topic, there are different options,” Demir says. For example, a professor teaching a lesson on the human skeleton might use 3D video, allowing students to zoom in and examine bones from different perspectives.

Demir, who has been participating in NIU’s remote-teaching workshops, is accustomed to having colleagues come to him for help. Just in recent weeks, he helped a professor with no online-teaching experience at George Mason University transition to remote learning. “We built up his course module on Blackboard in two hours,” Demir says.

He also notes that, even without the COVID-19 crisis, the demand for online learning is on the rise—and it’s a skill set that will benefit educators.

“During this time, faculty members and teaching assistants will discover both pros and cons to remote teaching,” Demir says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they may want to continue with it in the future.”