Today’s educational climate is a hot one with institutions of all types vying to enroll the highest number of students. Cutting edge programs, ones that will almost guarantee students careers after graduation, are being developed at a rapid rate. Innovative marketing draws attention to these programs along with the institutions themselves as they desperately try to keep up with the academic Joneses. The competition is fierce, that is certain, and those of us in higher education know we cannot forsake quality for quantity. How do we keep enrollment up while also adhering to high educational standards? One answer we’ve found at the small, liberal arts college where I work is the implementation of flex courses.
The flex course option is not entirely new to the college or university landscape but it is certainly gaining in popularity, even at our institution where there tends to be a great reluctance to adopt new concepts. Using the flex style, we adapted our curriculum to fit with the needs of our student population. We are keeping our students’ work schedules and personal lives in mind in allowing them to attend their classes in the way that best appeals to them. Despite the burgeoning success of our flex programs, I am encountering challenges in my work as a faculty developer as I assist our faculty members in creating and teaching flexible courses. So, what are some of the challenges and potential solutions associated with developing and training faculty who are teaching flex courses?
Being Open to New Concepts
While it’s true that many faculty members display a willingness to embrace enhanced methods of teaching and new technologies, some have the opposite perspective and shy away from stepping outside of their professional comfort zones. They must no longer cling to the ways things have always been done and adopt new techniques, pedagogies, and a whole new attitude about how they present their course material. This is easy for some and a big stretch for others, and it’s my job to allay the fears of some while spurring on others to continue to evolve in their roles as educators. How do I accomplish this? I use a combination of humor, cheerful encouragement, and careful, patient instruction, very often walking faculty through new concepts step-by-step until they feel comfortable enough to proceed on their own.
Creating and Teaching a Unique Course
Currently, I am working with a group of nursing faculty who are tasked with taking their traditional onground courses and turning them into flex courses. Each learning activity and assignment must be revamped so that each can be completed in an asynchronous manner, completely face-to-face, or any combination therein. The biggest challenge lies in creating assignments that give each student a complete educational experience. For example, John attends class asynchronously, listening to prerecorded lectures, participating in discussion boards, and submitting assignments all while never having face-to-face contact with his professor or fellow classmates. Sue, on the other hand, likes to attend all live classes and uses the learning management system (LMS) to submit her work and interact with classmates like John, who she never sees in person. Due to his unpredictable work schedule, Frank mixes things up each week, sometimes attending in person, while other times logging into live sessions remotely. Each of these students must be accommodated by having access to the same, or very similar, course materials within the LMS. It is this necessary equality that presents the real challenge to faculty, both in creating a course and teaching it, and I am there every step of the way to assist in any way I can by meeting with them one-on-one, either virtually or in person, to ensure each course meets with our school’s consistency requirements.
Helping Students to Acclimate to Their Course
Even though any direct work I have with students is limited, they are the audience we ultimately serve. The very concept of a flex course is confusing to some as they may not realize just how flexible this format truly is for them. I guide a faculty population that sometimes struggles with how to then guide their own students as they navigate these courses. It really is an educational trickle-down theory; I make it clear just how this type of class works and in turn, our faculty members feel more confident in their ability to assist their students. No one wants an unhappy student who may drop a course or out of an entire program because they are confused about the course logistics.
Like my faculty, I am still making my way through the world of flex courses. We are in the process of creating new degree programs, ones that offer our students great opportunities once they graduate, and more and more of these programs are offered in the flex format. I am compiling best practices to share and continuously discovering what works best and what does not work well in this method of delivery. As for my role as a faculty developer, I will continue to move forward with the way I train faculty so that they can also progress in the way they best serve our students.
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About the Author
Jen Propp has been a higher education professional since 1999, teaching a variety of English and writing courses, both online and face-to-face. In addition to her experience in the classroom, Jen has been working as a faculty developer for over eight years, training new faculty members, and helping seasoned instructors further explore their professional development opportunities. Jen also has experience in curriculum development, instructional design, and public speaking. More recently, Jen has been returning to her writing roots and has published blogs on a variety of education topics, along with personal essays.
On a personal note, Jen lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband, two children, three dogs, one guinea pig, and a hamster. :-)