Faculty Spotlight: Michael B. Russell, PhD

A veteran classroom teacher since 1971, Mike jumped at the chance to try something new when Granite State College began to offer online classes 15 years ago. “It appeared to be an interesting challenge and an opportunity to provide enhanced access to our students,” he explains.

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At first, Mike struggled with how to establish “presence” at the beginning of each class. “Students need to know, from day one, that you are there and are paying attention.” Mike stresses the importance of responding to student introductions in the first week, as well as staying involved in weekly group discussions throughout the course… but not too involved. “A significant challenge is finding ways to be engaged in the group discussion activity without having to read and respond to each group member’s postings. Most of my classes are heavily enrolled and striking a balance between being engaged and not over-engaged is a challenge.” Timely responses to individual messages from students are also key.

Over time, Mike has made many changes to his teaching style. “I had to rethink what ‘discussion’ means in an online setting, how to engage online students effectively, and how to measure performance in an online environment…” He now provides discussion requirements explicitly in his syllabus, to set student expectations, as well as providing rubrics specifically for both writing and discussion. He offers the following specific advice:

  1. Ask “discussable” questions. That is, don’t ask “what” questions.  Ask “why” and “how” questions or questions that ask students to evaluate or measure something; be controversial.
  2. Stay actively involved the discussion activity of each group, every week.
  3. I have a rule that, while each discussion group gets the same grade for their weekly summary response to the discussion questions, students who do not actively participate will receive a lower grade.
  4. Respond to the inevitable complaints from students that a member of their team is not actively engaged.  If I confirm the student’s complaint, I send a message to the student in question reminding him/her of rule c above and encouraging him/her to get involved.
“I had to rethink what ‘discussion’ means in an online setting, how to engage online students effectively, and how to measure performance in an online environment…” Forum discussion is not the only component in Mike’s classes, of course. Mike is known for his inclusion of the Glo-Bus simulation game in MGMT 650, where his students have competed internationally with other college teams and have achieved first place in the Global Top 50 Rankings. He includes a peer evaluation component in this activity, though he describes this as “an ongoing challenge.” He is still experimenting with different online tools to facilitate this component; recently he experimented with implementing a wiki within Moodle to facilitate group collaborations.
GloBus-1 And Mike is still working to improve his other online courses. “I am considering a peer evaluation for discussion groups and would appreciate any help with this from fellow faculty members.”

He has also experimented with Xtranormal in one class. “This is a wonderful technology that allows you to create a ‘live’ [animated] discussion between two individuals. You get to create the setting, what the individuals look like, their accent, and the conversation between them. A wonderful tool!”

Click here to view a sample of one of Mike’s Xtranormal videos.

“Online teaching certainly requires more time than classroom teaching. It is pretty much with you every day,” Mike notes. But he encourages other faculty members to consider teaching online. “Just do it. I am living proof that it does not take a high level of technical expertise. The real challenges are pedagogical, not technical, in nature.” He says the experience has benefited his classroom teaching, as well. “I think that managing online discussions has made me more aware of the importance of discussion and the difficulty of creating a valuable learning experience through discussion. It has also made me more aware of asking the right kind of questions.” “I think that managing online discussions has made me more aware of the importance of discussion and the difficulty of creating a valuable learning experience through discussion. It has also made me more aware of asking the right kind of questions.”

To contact Mike you may send an email to: mike.russell@granite.edu.