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Researching What Makes Online Education Excellent

April 03, 2024 - 5 minute read

Over the past decade, faculty members Tanya Tarbutton and Lori Doyle ’97, MA ’06, have been part of helping Concordia continue its long history of online education move into online education purposefully and with excellence. Recently, the duo began combining forces to co-author more than 14 projects, including book chapters, journal articles, edited books, and professional conference presentations, mostly on the subject of what works best in online education, and why.

“We look at virtual learning environments specific to graduate programs, and how to do that really well,” says Doyle, associate professor of education and director of the Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program. “From designing the coursework and assignments to hiring faculty, we focus on the whole process of online learning and how educators can do that in the best possible way.”

Concordia’s graduate programs have helped set the standard nationally for quality online and hybrid courses. Around 2020, Doyle and Tarbutton became interested in researching best practices and sharing their findings with a wider audience.

“Many of the School of Education’s programs are online and are taught by adjunct instructors who bring invaluable contributions and unique perspectives to our virtual classrooms,” says Tarbutton. “We embraced opportunities to investigate and sharpen best practices for adult learners.”

“We went into it thinking, ‘I wonder what will come of this? Is there a place for us to pour into others who might be working at universities?’” Doyle says. “If someone had said in the next few years we would present or publish fourteen projects, I think we would have been surprised.”

Doyle accepted a call to Concordia in 2015 after teaching English and theology at a Lutheran high school and serving as an adjunct professor at the college level for several years. She holds the distinction of being one of the University’s first full-time remote faculty members. She also earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Concordia, before completing her PhD in Psychology. Her parents, husband, and oldest daughter are Lutheran educators as well.

Tarbutton, born and raised in Canada, is married to a U.S. Marine and came to Concordia in 2016 as a full-time residential faculty member in the School of Education. She completed a doctoral degree in Education Leadership and Management and is now senior director of the Master of Arts in Education degree programs, educational administration practicum coordinator, and associate professor of education.

One of the pair’s first projects was a book chapter titled, “Virtual Ancillary Faculty: A Model of Support to Avoid Burnout and Foster Self-Efficacy.” They concluded that adjunct faculty need to feel strongly connected to a university and share a sense of support and camaraderie with others there to have long-term success. Doyle and Tarbutton recommended offering plenty of professional development opportunities for instructors where they could learn and connect with others.

In working together, the twosome also realized they share a similar work ethic and are able to give critical feedback to each other.

“It’s a great working relationship,” says Doyle. “We are both very structured and systematic in how we go about things. We have fun with it, which is a nice component.”

They decided to keep at it, examining successful online education approaches and digging into the research to discover why the methods were effective and how to implement them.

“There are purposeful things a university can do to build an online program and make online learning the best it can be,” says Doyle. “You foster success by the way courses are designed, assignments are written, and faculty are trained and supported. It’s a lot of effort to make online programs successful, and that’s what Concordia has embraced. There’s purpose behind everything we do, and that’s exciting.”

“Social, collaborative communities develop organically in traditional face-to-face settings, but in online platforms, curriculum designers need to be intentional to create collaborative communities to reap those same benefits,” says Tarbutton.

She and Doyle find it exciting to discover the degree to which the School of Education’s approach to supporting instructors and students is aligned with the research on best practices.

A publishing company then accepted their proposal to write a 16-chapter handbook, Adjunct Faculty in Online Higher Education: Best Practices for Teaching Adult Learners, which was released in early 2024 and is described as “an essential handbook that delves into the pivotal role of adjunct faculty instructors in the booming realm of online higher education.” Their second co-edited research handbook, Best Practices and Strategies for Online Instructors: Insights From Higher Education Online Faculty, will be published this fall. Both function as textbooks.

Improving the experience of adult learners is one of their primary motivations.

“You have to understand the needs and styles of adult learners, specifically,” says Doyle. “Adult learners come to classes with a ton of lived experiences. They are not talking about future careers. They are in careers wanting immediate take-aways they can put into effect tomorrow. You have to provide them opportunities to connect their experiences, careers, and personal lives with what you’re doing in the classroom. You also can’t assume anything about the adult learner population as you can with undergraduates who are dealing with typical things 18-to-22-year-olds are dealing with.”

Other research topics have included the importance of instructor “presence” in online courses, presented in a 2023 article titled, “Virtual Teacher Presence for Enhanced Learning,” published in the Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference.

“Each project points us in new, exciting directions,” says Doyle. “We always laugh when we finish one and say, ‘I wonder what will come from this one?’ We learn with each of our projects and gain interest in other areas.”

“It’s easy to see God’s hand in this,” Tarbutton adds. “No sooner do we close a project than another door swings wide open. It’s beautiful.”

All their research enhances and points back to Concordia’s own offerings, they say.

We feel honored to be representing Concordia in print and in person,” Doyle says. “It’s exciting for us to write a bio saying where we work, or to state it in front of an audience. We both see it as a privilege to represent our University in these different ways and put together textbooks other universities might use.”

Tarbutton says they often remark “how grateful we are that God is blessing us through these projects and the different people we get to meet, and our own camaraderie as colleagues. It’s a precious gift from God.”

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