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Excellence in Online Teaching Award recipients announced

April 19, 2021

In early February, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning announced a new award to recognize excellence in online teaching. The university community responded to the call by nominating 27 faculty and teaching staff for the new Excellence in Online Teaching Award. The nominees represented 16 academic departments within six colleges.

“We have many faculty and teaching staff across the university who have been pioneers in online teaching and learning,” said Jason Rhode, executive director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. “This new university-level award raises the profile of and highlights the importance of this work moving forward. It also signals our institutional commitment to excellence in online and hybrid teaching.”

The recipients of the inaugural Excellence in Online Teaching Awards will be honored during the virtual Faculty Awards Ceremony on Thursday, April 22.

This year’s recipients may teach in three completely different disciplines, but they share one thing in common: excellence in designing and delivering online courses that keep students engaged in remote learning.

Christine Nguyen, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Christine Nguyen, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Teaching online is nothing new for Christine Nguyen, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.  She’s been delivering courses in this manner in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology since 2016, long before a global pandemic made it a necessity.

“Dr. Nguyen is our expert in the department for any questions about online content development, delivery or online student engagement,” says Presidential Teaching Professor Purushothanman Damodaran. “She is adept to change and consistently revises her course content to remain current with ever-changing technology use to solve complex engineering problems.”

It’s no wonder colleagues consider Nguyen an expert. Her strategy for designing online courses is well-thought and thorough.

“When designing online courses, I focus on connectedness. I believe students should feel connected to the learning environment, whether it is online or face-to-face,” says Nguyen. “A learning environment should also be flexible, safe, supportive and interactive.”

Nguyen hits these marks by providing students with an explanation of proper internet etiquette (netiquette), and a list of course policies and expectations in her syllabi and on Blackboard. She also offers opportunities for synchronous live sessions even though her courses are delivered in an asynchronous format.

To help students feel connected and supported, Nguyen says courses need “the human or personal touch.” For her, that personal touch comes from the instructional videos she produces and the time she creates for weekly office hours.

“In lecture videos, my webcam is included so students can connect to me while I talk about course topics,” she says. “By including my webcam in the video, I can help create an interactive environment. It’s particularly important in demonstration videos because students can follow along with me in an example.”

Her methods work. Students feel the connection.

“Not only does Dr. Nguyen post detailed lectures and videos showing how to use class software, but she also has weekly live meetings to ensure students are doing well with class work and mental health,” said Madalynn Derro, a senior industrial and systems engineering major. “Dr. Nguyen’s ‘open door’ policy extends to the online platform where she allows students to always reach out when they need help or advice.”

Nguyen also helps students build experience through her courses by including knowledge of current issues that she has discovered through her own participation in industry-sponsored projects.

“It is important for students to be aware of industry’s needs and problems and to know how to address them. My primary focus is to teach students how to be versatile,” she says. “By bringing my experience in research and industry-sponsored projects into the classroom, students receive a current account of the types of problems that they may face once they graduate.”

Nguyen not only wants students to develop versatility, but also wants her students to continuously improve.  As a professor, she demonstrates this in her own career.

“As industrial engineers, we learn the importance of continuous improvement. The same concept can be applied to teaching,” she says. “Advancements in pedagogical methods and technology designed specifically for teaching have been crucial in the continuous development of my teaching style in online courses.”

Stephanie DeSpain, assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education

Stephanie DeSpain, assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education

When Stephanie DeSpain joined the College of Education in 2016, they knew they had a gem.

From the start, DeSpain began developing hybrid and online courses for the Department of Special and Early Education (SEED). Within her first year she had converted many of her own courses and an additional two departmental courses into an online format, without any course release or additional stipend.

“I use a story boarding approach to developing online courses, regardless of the format (synchronous, asynchronous). The approach starts prior to the semester, beginning with breaking the course objectives up across the weeks in the semester to ensure that there is a close connection between the course objectives and content taught in the class,” says DeSpain.

“From there I identify topics and skills to be taught each week and resources that will assist with helping students learn the content and skills,” she continues. “Activities to reinforce the application of content and skills are then identified and added to the story board, as well as any formative and summative assessments.”

According to fellow colleagues, and student evaluations, this storyboard approach works.

“Resulting from her excellent online delivery, attention to detail and contemporary knowledge and experience in the field of early childhood and special education, Stephanie earns outstanding course evaluations in every course, every semester,” said Greg Conderman, professor and former chair of SEED. “This is quite a remarkable accomplishment as many of her courses include undergraduate and graduate students, students who are already licensed in teaching and those who are not, and some students for whom English is not their primary language.”

Earning high course evaluation scores takes more than just delivering a great online class; it takes additional support, care and connection. In these areas, DeSpain exceeds expectations.

“In addition to excellent teaching, Stephanie also makes connections with her students outside of the classroom,” continues Conderman. “She maintains generous office hours, and she meets with students individually and in small groups to review, reteach and consult.”

DeSpain’s students recognize and appreciate her accessibility.

“Aside from her ability to deliver coursework online, she also creates a very welcoming and warm environment for students,” says Payton Orzech, a senior majoring in Early Childhood Education.

“In all of the classes I have had with Dr. DeSpain, I have always known she was not just there for me and my classmates academically, but also emotionally as people” Orzech continues. “She would go out of her way to make sure we were all doing okay in our other courses, in our personal lives, and always gave us that opportunity to connect with each other in the online classroom.”

Furkan Gur, assistant professor in the Department of Management

Furkan Gur, assistant professor in the Department of Management

Without any prior experience and with no notice, Furkan Gur got right to business transforming his in-person classes to an online format due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Not only did the assistant professor in the Department of Management attend the Online Course Design Academy offered by NIU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, he also utilized expertise from other institutions of higher education. In addition, he read books and consulted other resources to learn best practices for remote teaching.

“When the pandemic led to instructional disruptions, I worked hard to make sure the changes were smooth and easy to implement for students,” says Gur. “I also continued my commitment to making sure students still had a positive experience and learning objectives for classes were met.”

Furkan structured his classes to be delivered in a modular format, with a new lesson released each week. He created new assignments to adapt to the online learning environment, including a New Venture Launch project in which students created an online business. He overhauled course readings and resources and introduced students to YellowDig, an online community building platform.

“In my online classes, I strive to create an engaging learning environment built around providing students opportunities for hands-on and practical experiences,” continues Gur. “Students experience a combination of exercises, simulations, cases, guest speakers, workshops, field trips, improvised and planned presentations, brief and detailed business pitches, group projects, interviews and launching a business in my classes.”

The variety of content that Gur was able to deliver was not comprised when he moved his courses online. His students were pleased that they were still able to experience the activities, resources and connection they had grown accustomed to while taking Gur’s classes in-person.

“YellowDig gave us the opportunity to share resources like book recommendations, articles, websites, and even our own personal opinions on topics relating to entrepreneurship and current events,” recalls Samantha Pinnock, one of Professor Gur’s students. “This was the most included in a community many of us felt since going virtual. I knew that I had a community of people that were going through similar challenges which made me feel less alone.”

Colleagues in the College of Business have also benefited from working with Gur in transitioning course delivery online.

“Professor Gur is helpful and eagerly shares his experiences in online education with his colleagues, so that we can be better educators in the online medium,” said Sarah Marsh, associate professor of Management and former department chair. “I can say that the energy and skill in which he has developed his courses in an online format is an inspiration to all his colleagues.”