The start of a new semester is an opportunity to reflect on what, how, and why we teach. Looking back on my fall courses, and especially on student feedback, I became acutely aware of the ways that online teaching allows me to advance a set of values about individual students’ situations, needs, and ambitions. Last semester my courses enrolled a diverse student body in every sense of the word “diverse.” Students included the spouse of an active military member in the midst of moving bases; a traditionally aged college student raising a teenage sibling with psychological issues; and an adult student from a historically subjugated group, living hours from main campus, and grappling with severe anxiety. Then there were the large number of students who were fully employed and/or caretakers of children, spouses, or parents.
When I talk with colleagues at other state institutions, I find that my roster is similar to theirs. While demographics vary from school to school, often revealing the composition of a state or region, the diversity of students’ unique requirements remains consistent. These students occupy situations largely unfamiliar to me, and they have needs that I often must seek advice to meet. But their ambitions I see and know: To pass my classes. To complete their bachelors’ degree. To get a job that is personally rewarding as well as economically sustaining. Online courses are often the only way that these students can pursue their ambitions because nonsynchronous classes and virtual learning environments meet their situations and needs. The spouse of the service member cannot come to main campus to complete their coursework. The student raising an at-risk teen needs a course schedule that can bend to medical and psychiatric emergencies. The student juggling historical and personal trauma requires the security of virtual spaces in which to discuss challenging texts and issues with classmates.
Meeting the requirements of teaching these students is not only my values but also my institution’s values. According to the University of New Mexico’s Faculty Handbook, Access and Student Success is among a short list of the University’s values. This value is defined as follows: “We have a clear obligation to provide a quality higher education to all New Mexico students who have the capability to succeed. This obligation is combined with the responsibility to provide an environment and appropriate support to give every individual his or her best chance of success.” (Policy A20: Vision, Mission and Value Statements) Online instruction is one critical way to “provide an environment and appropriate support” for “every individual” who can succeed at the University.
These provisions and support need to be consistent – from the University President to departmental advisors. And it cannot be simply paid as lip service. Human and material resources need to be put behind this endeavor. In this way, and only in this way, can the University fulfill two other values that are listed higher than Access and Student Success. These values are Creativity and Initiative and Excellence. The University has begun to dedicate significant resources to help instructors develop rigorous, sophisticated online courses as well as to recognize and reward innovations in virtual environments that support student access and success. Continuing to support students and faculty is a step in the right direction, which is making leadership in online education an institutional priority. Indeed, leadership links the three values cited above, either explicitly (in the case of Excellence) or implicitly.
So as I revamp one online course and create another for the spring semester, I am struck by the ways my pedagogy matches up with my personal and institutional values. Just as importantly, I also think about the ways that it might serve as a model for fellow online teachers, both at my University and at other colleges and universities. Because as online education grows, more and more students, faculty, and administrators as well as community members and leaders are beginning to recognize its value.