Abington lecturers speak at 'Faculty of the Future' conference

Two lecturers from Penn State Abington -- Steven N. Pyser and Ronald Costello -- enlightened the attendees of the Faculty of the Future Conference held at Bucks County Community College on June 4 by revealing the magic behind successfully teaching with an online learning community.

Magicians they are not, but Pyser and Costello are experienced teachers of online and hybrid-learning courses. Their interactive workshop titled, "Talkin' bout my generation: Fostering inclusivity and harmony with Millennial students in a diverse online learning community," addressed the issues facing today's teachers as they reach out to a population of students who are tech savvy and demand online classes due to their busy lifestyles.

Just how does a teacher reach the Millennial generation?

"By fostering a community of willing participants, promoting shared values and by embracing cultural respect and diversity," said Pyser, lecturer of political science at Abington, corporate trainer/consultant, speaker, author and attorney.

A key component to Pyser's successful hybrid learning classes is having students sign a Full Value Community Agreement (FVCA) contract at the start of class. The FVCA -- an intentional social agreement signed when first meeting on campus and electronically online by all willing students -- focuses the student on what exactly is expected from him/her throughout the course. It helps to define and empower the learning community, relax skepticism and support trust. The faculty member also agrees to be bound by the arrangement thereby creating reciprocity and supporting a climate of commitment to learning.

Creating a strong foundation for collaboration by all participants and encouraging participation of "lurkers" -- students that rarely or never contribute -- are other FVCA benefits. The FVCA fosters an environment of opportunities for maximum contributions by everyone in the course.

"'Full Value' means recognizing and valuing anything that makes us an individual and recognizing the same in others," said Pyser. "It means to 'be here,' not just physically, but attentively. Contribute, be a part of the process." The Agreement also is ground rules for the conversation and goes on to emphasize that "all voices are invited, respected and heard,” and "all experiences are treated as valid."

Costello, Abington's instructional design specialist, also teaches a hybrid version of an introductory cinema course (25 percent classroom, 75 percent online learning environment) on campus and has mastered the art of online/hybrid teaching. He had many suggestions for the teachers in the audience to reach this tech-savvy generation of learners:

  • Gauge the student's prior knowledge of technology and presentation skills.
  • Detail expectations -- tell them what an 'A' looks like by giving them a very detailed rubric.
  • When teaching online, teach in small chunks -- preferably 20 minute segments, so students can listen while on the treadmill, train or beach -- backing up the key points of the readings.
  • Use technology: iTunes U, iMovie, Snag it, Blooms Digital Taxonomy, etc.
  • Effectively communicate -- not only what you expect of your students, but also what your students can expect of you.
  • Emphasize the idea of community -- students need to learn from each other and must be comfortable in sharing.

"Having everyone participate actually builds on the course material," said Costello. "You can't teach this type of course on a one-on-one basis."

According to Costello, "anywhere learning" -- when students download course content onto their iPhones, iTouches, etc, and take it with them anywhere -- is the indispensible component to teaching this generation.

"My philosophy of education is to give the students everything they need, but not everything they want," said Costello. "This balances the idea of meeting the various needs of the students, while still holding them to high academic standards and not compromising those standards. Students generally rise to the level of expectations put before them. The key is understanding how they learn and how they like to learn because that achieves my goal of wanting them to become lifelong learners and enjoy learning."

For more information on hybrid and online teaching techniques, Steve Pyser may be reached at [email protected]. Ron Costello may be reached at [email protected].