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Dr. A. Wade Boykin

Dr. Sandra Crewe
February 2009

 Teaching a distance-learning (DL) course has unique benefits.  Dr. Sandra Crewe, School of Social Work Professor and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, has demonstrated that, by honing the right approach, a professor can create a truly engaging online classroom.


Dr. Crewe chose to teach a distance learning (DL) course to serve an important purpose: to make social gerontology more available to students in the School of Social Work.  About half of the school’s students are over 30 years old.  They have many outside obligations and often work full-time in the field.  Therefore, Dr. Crewe knew a DL course would be attractive.  She estimates that at least 50% of her DL course students could not have taken it otherwise.


How has Dr. Crewe felt about teaching a DL course? “It’s been great,” she said. “I’ve always been a ‘techie,’ so I had a short learning curve.”  All the same, she mentioned that “CETLA certification was critical” in preparing her to teach the course.  Also, before initiating the course, she met with the school’s curriculum committee for feedback and support and continues to keep it update.  She said this “feedback loop” has been vital in developing a progressively deeper understanding of how the course “fits curriculum and students’ needs.” 


According to Dr. Crewe, there are “multi-level advantages” to teaching a DL course.  As mentioned above, it has increased the availability of gerontology to School of Social Work graduate students.  It has also increased the technology literacy of Dr. Crewe as well as her less technology-savvy students.  There is a “piggy-back effect”:  By using the Blackboard online system to provide learning resources, Dr. Crewe has learned how to use other online resources, such as YouTube.  At the same time, the DL course has forced her students to become more accustomed to working with new technologies on the Internet, which builds confidence.  This newfound understanding will help them relate to young clients now and in the future.  Social workers call this approach “starting where the client is.” 


Another advantage Dr. Crewe has found is that the “class flow” of a DL course cannot be interrupted by holidays or class cancellations since it is a continuum.  Also, her class preparation is different.  As opposed to preparing for an individual class once or twice a week, preparation for her DL course is “always on the radar” since she can post material whenever she likes.  For example, after President Obama’s inaugural speech, she immediately posted a related topic on the Blackboard discussion board.  

Dr. A. Wade BoykinStudents had some initial concerns about the lack of intimacy in an online course, Dr. Crewe recalls, since social workers particularly “value human interactions.”  So, she often checks on the discussion of her students and responds to their posts. “The discussion board drives my class,” she remarks.  It encourages students to interact with one another about class materials.  Students who are normally less talkative in face-to-face (F2F) classes are likely to be more talkative online since they have more time to reflect before contributing to the class discussion.  At first, Dr. Crewe worried about being able to respond to all of her students individually.  However, soon she realized that she could respond to collective student concerns in one summary message. 


As a result of Dr. Crewe’s efforts, students have given her DL course high ratings on the course evaluations.  One student commented, “No complaints whatsoever!  Professor did an amazing job of stimulating participation and critical thinking and was always timely and available.  Bravo!  This was my favorite Howard course.  An excellent learning experience.”  Another praised Dr. Crewe’s use of videos, concluding, “No matter your level of knowledge—you will learn from this course.”  Dr. Crewe found that not only the videos but also the student PowerPoint presentations, group projects, discussion groups, and online tests were effective.


Nevertheless, despite such positive student responses, there have been some challenges.  It is difficult to find times when a majority of the students can find time to participate in a “live” chatroom discussion—though, this is not surprising since many students choose a DL course because they have busy schedules.  To address this issue and engage her students a little more, Dr. Crewe experimented with holding a conference call at the beginning of the semester that proved successful.  Students could hear her voice and “overcome feelings of isolation and disconnectedness” that naturally arise prior to taking a DL course.  Dr. Crewe said that another challenge is that she cannot read her students’ body language as she would during a F2F course to determine whether students understand class material.  However, frequent online quizzes can often help faculty check students’ understanding.


So what’s next for Dr. Crewe?  While searching for digital teaching resources for her DL course,   Dr. Crewe discovered that there was a shortage of published materials about the retirement patterns of African Americans. “Distance learning shows you where the gaps in the black story are…” she observes.  “It gives you a passion to do something about it.”  Indeed, Dr. Crewe intends to do something about it.  She is currently working on a new hybrid modular course, for which she plans to tape her classroom lectures and post them online, thereby expanding the amount of African-American gerontology material on the World Wide Web.


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