Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Burgess Smith

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Dr. Burgess Smith is a senior lecturer and faculty member at Granite State College, Executive Director of the Upland Headwaters Alliance (a group of conservation agencies in western Maine and the Mount Washington Valley) and a Board of Directors member for two of these agencies.  He has been teaching a variety of both online and face-to-face courses at GSC for the past eight years. He has been teaching in the classroom for over twenty years in two separate periods. They bookended a sojourn as a college executive developing adult, baccalaureate programs.

Dr. Smith holds an Ed.D. in higher education with a specialization in online learning from Nova Southeastern University, and an M.A. in history from the Johns Hopkins University.

Online teaching best practices

Dr. Smith completed a doctorate in 2007 that focused on best practices in online learning communities of various types.  He was sure, drawing on his experience as an educational entrepreneur, so many would embrace the online environment that the impact on higher education would be seismic.  As a historian, Dr. Smith knew the recent explosion of baccalaureate programs for adults had massively reshaped higher education, and he was determined to be involved in this new venture.  Research reports had satisfied him that the digital classroom could match the face to face version.

How teaching online has changed over time

“I learned quickly that one piece of advice in the literature on best instructional practices was on the money: that one should resist the lure of ‘bells and whistles’, keeping the technology simple and transparent, so that attention remains on the subject matter of the course. GSC’s switch from Blackboard to Moodle abetted this tactic, as the Moodle front page favors a simple, sequential course design.”

Dr. Smith remarks, “Online learners more commonly are competent time managers and self-starters, as well as deservedly confident of their composition skills. They also are likelier to be comfortable with the subject matter. This follows from research that indicates those who are not confident of their skills tend to prefer the F2F environment, and goes far to explain the quality of online learning outcomes.” Dr. Smith shares with us that he has found working adults to be the most stimulating learners with whom to work. He feels students learn greatly from one another. “Peer interaction is as intrinsic to learning outcomes as is the course facilitator.”

Communicating his message 

Dr. Smith establishes a clear set of student expectations and provides an overview of every module in his online courses, as well as a library of rubrics for every assignment.  He uses several strategies to promote camaraderie among students, such as an open forum for socializing.  He is careful to be involved but not dominant in the content-related discussion forums, posting selective responses to student comments on a daily basis. “I usually keep a lower profile as the course proceeds and students find their own feet.”

Creating an online presence in an online environment and managing discussion forums

Dr. Smith considers it critical to emphasis asynchronous forums (with everyone participating on independent clocks rather than simultaneously). He states quite arguably, “this (online) environment is even more effective than F2F dialogs, as students need not try to listen and think out their own responses at the same time. Everyone can read, think, and comment at their own pace. This can promote a distinctly reflective dialog.”

One way he reinforces the value of forums is to assign reflection papers. “I use these to evaluate students’ grasp of course content – their ability to distill and summarize what they’ve learned. They are welcome to quote the forum comments of peers in support of their own insights.” “I discovered adult, non-traditional learners in my early teaching years, and this experience set the rest of my academic career. I believe the growth of continuing education arguably is the most significant trend in higher education since the end of World War II, and I’ve always found working adults the most stimulating learners with whom to work.”

 

“If there is one thing history shows you, it’s how it is that society is changing.  If you want to be
on the cutting edge in your life it is education that’s going to put you there.”


Challenges

Although the literature on adult learning emphasizes the value of problem-based team projects, Dr. Smith’s students have found them difficult in the online environment.  All too often too few teammates carry their fair share.  He therefore designed a grading mechanism with at least 25% based on student evaluation of peer contributions.  He is still looking for more solutions to this problem.  He also comments that in the past some of his students felt he responded only to the most insightful commentaries, so now he is keeping track of those to whom he posts replies, to assure that he’s inclusive.

Dr. Smith also finds that broad topical courses suffer a bit from the absence of traditional lectures, (U.S. History surveys, for instance), which help to tie themes together. He hopes to develop short lectures with graphics and audio in the future when time permits.

Resources

Not surprisingly for an historian, Dr. Smith has found that his options for good course materials have exploded with the advent of digital archives with primary source files and short articles.  He is able to support a single text with files and links of his own choice.  He has many more options than would be the case with any published anthology, and student expenses are much reduced.

Advice about teaching online

Dr.  Smith states, “Above all else, do not confuse online courses with independent learning exercises, unless your subject matter calls for it.  Most online students need regular contact with both peers and instructors to feel as if their learning experience is complete. My F2F students constantly complain they’ve been driven away from online courses in which they felt they were operating in a vacuum.”

Influences along the way

Dr. Smith reflects, “with respect to the online environment, the majority of my mentors have been authors of monographs on effective teaching (they would call it “facilitating” to distinguish it from podium-based pedagogy).” He adds, “that follows from the doctoral research I undertook. There is no shortage of printed blather on the subject, but also some truly excellent work that would benefit newcomers to these courses.”

To contact Dr. Burgess Smith you may send an email to: bksmith@go.granite.edu