In early 2018, a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences caught the eye of Flower Darby, then instructional designer and educational technology faculty at Northern Arizona University.
“The Future of Undergraduate Education, the Future of America” recommends a three-part national strategy to achieve educational quality, the first being to ensure that students have high-quality learning experiences.
It is this call for improved learning experiences that engaged Darby and will serve as the springboard for her keynote talk at the 36th annual University of Wisconsin–Madison Distance Teaching & Learning Conference (DT&L), which this year takes place entirely online, August 3-7. Her talk, “Answering the Call: New Motivation for Online Teaching Excellence,” will serve as the conference’s closing keynote.
“My DT&L talk is meant to be inspiring and motivational,” Darby explains. “I will argue that online education makes obtaining a degree much more possible for those who might not otherwise be able to earn one — and that it’s critical to our collective future.”
She notes that individuals who earn college degrees reap many rewards — higher wages, better health and more time with families — and they also positively benefit society.
“People with college degrees are more engaged citizens,” she says. “They’re also the critical thinkers and problem-solvers who will tackle the world’s future challenges.”
Darby acknowledges that online classes offer unique teaching and learning challenges that make it easy for students and faculty to lose faith, grow fatigued and give up. All the more reason to re-invigorate online teaching, she says.
She adds, “I think that as online educators, we have a moral obligation — and an amazing opportunity — to make the world a better place.”
Connecting virtually in a pandemic
Now the assistant dean of online and innovative pedagogies at Northern Arizona University, Darby explores practical teaching approaches to help students learn, complete their coursework and ultimately earn a college credential.
She says that being well-versed in online teaching will help her present her virtual talk at this year’s DT&L conference, which is being offered fully online for the first time ever in response to concerns around COVID-19.
“We’re all finding ways in recent months to connect meaningfully through synchronous conferencing technology. My approach is to give 300 percent of my energy to my virtual audience,” she explains. “I pour myself into the camera to get that emotional connection.”
A first-time attendee, she’s “excited to be presenting at the longest-running conference in the online teaching and learning space.”
She also looks forward to hearing from conference participants about the opportunities and challenges the pandemic brings to their work in distance teaching and learning.
“I’m always interested in hearing about the innovative approaches others are using in their online classes,” she says. “But I imagine the buzz this year will be around what fall 2020 looks like for colleges and universities and how online education can help us keep people safe, do our work well and create equitable education experiences.”
Thinking, teaching and technology
Kicking off the conference with the opening keynote, Newton Miller will present “The Three Ts of Effective Online Education: Thinking, Teaching and Technology.” As associate dean for the department of education studies at Ashford University, Miller has served as teacher and administrator in both secondary and higher education settings.
“My DT&L keynote will explore the relationship between the “three T’s” and online education,” says Miller. “I’ll also discuss the existence of, and perceptions around, the cultural gap that exists between many educators and the growing population of nontraditional learners.
“We’ll talk about the importance of understanding the student mindset and how that can help instructors tailor their techniques, methods and accommodations to the teaching and learning process.”
Miller says it’s not until educators have a firm grasp on thinking and teaching that they can effectively employ technology to close the online instruction loop.
“I hope attendees will be able to reflect on their current teaching practices so that they can be more effective in educating various student populations online,” he says. “I want to provoke participants to consider their own ability to be flexible enough to balance the 3 T’s in order to enhance academic achievement for all learners.”
Teaching the teachers
Miller describes his work at Ashford University, a fully online campus, as a “constant cycle of professional development and action research.” His goal is to find best practices for serving “at-potential” student populations. (Miller eschews the descriptor “at-risk.”) He also leads the school’s bachelor of arts in education studies curriculum. “In essence, we teach teachers to be teachers,” he says.
Miller notes that while he will miss the in-person interactions at this year’s DT&L Conference, he’s sees advantages to the online delivery.
“I think it is amazing that all of the wonderful information being shared is going to be digitized and available on demand,” says Miller. “I predict that the conference recordings will be my ‘radio station’ for a month after the conference has ended.”
DT&L conference director Wendy Fritz is excited to have both Darby and Miller as keynoters at this year’s event.
“In past years, Newton Miller’s sessions have consistently received the highest ratings from conference-goers,” Fritz says. “His energy, advocacy for lowering barriers to education for online students and positive message make him the perfect choice to be our opening keynoter.”
She anticipates Darby will be just as popular.
“Along with everyone else in the online education field, we read Flower Darby’s Small Teaching Online [which examines the power that small and strategic changes have to improve student learning]. We knew we wanted her research-based practice and inspiring message to cap off the conference — especially as we consider our collective response to the pandemic,” Fritz says.
Miller says he feels equally honored to be selected as keynote presenter for his “favorite annual conference,” which he appreciates for the selection of relevant information and the knowledgeable speakers who know how to connect with their audience.
He adds, “The people that attend this conference think outside the box on a daily basis. I am excited about the opportunity to disrupt that thinking even further. I always leave DT&L charged, with a new energy and community.”