Steven Schinke Receives Online Teaching Award

October 2, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

Steven Schinke, D’Elbert and Selma Keenan Professor of Social Work and director of our School’s online campus, has received the 2015 Excellence in Online Teaching Award from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the leading professional organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education.

The award was presented in recognition of Professor Schinke’s efforts to develop and teach two online courses—T6501 Social Work Research and T6009 Introduction to Statistics—using a flipped classroom model.

The citation is as follows:

“For strong success in offering a difficult subject online, both with synchronous and asynchronous methods and continuous improvement, while achieving extremely high retention and pass rates with variable small to large-scale student enrollments.”

Notably, the OLC describes Professor Schinke’s subject, statistics and research methods, as “difficult.” Most newly admitted students would agree. Many of them feel anxious for instance, about the School’s statistics course requirement. How challenging will statistics be at a graduate-school level?

To allay their fears, as well as to put in perspective what Professor Schinke has accomplished, the Communications Office decided to ask him a few questions, which he kindly agreed to answer.

Here is what he told us:

After 40 years in front of the classroom, how does it feel to be recognized for teaching online?
I am humbled and delighted. Mostly, I feel honored to be part of a fantastic online team that deserves comparable recognition for their dedication, professionalism, and creativity. They are the true winners. I just happened to be lucky enough to work with them. Only one name goes on the award. If I were writing up the citation, lots of names would go on it.

What were the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make to teach the class online?
Early in the process, I discovered that instructors cannot simply translate physical classroom pedagogy to the online classroom. Instead we need to make use of the array of online tools that are unavailable in the physical classroom. These include interactive communication vehicles, real-time polling, audio and video enhancements, and all of the elements that make up what we at Columbia call our flipped online classroom.

What do you think students enjoy most about your online classes?
Students like the personal attention that online affords, and they also value having access to all the interactive communication tools. They also like the pacing—the fact that we can go more slowly if I’m discovering, through various monitoring devices, that students are struggling with a concept. In every class there are multiple moments of students expressing gratitude to each other, to my TAs, and to me for helping them master the content.

There are skeptics who think that teaching social work online won’t be as effective. How well do you think your students absorb the key concepts of statistics and research methods?
Because online students enjoy repeated exposures to course content and experience those exposures through various technologies and mechanisms, they can acquire certain knowledge and skills quickly, relatively easily, and perhaps in a more expedient manner than students who learn the same content in the physical classroom.

Can you explain what you mean by “repeated exposures”?
Before they actually come to class, online students do assigned readings; view mini-lectures that were pre-recorded and underscore various concepts in the readings, applying them to case examples; and answer a series of questions about what they’ve learned, which they have to get right before the next step: a self-check quiz comprising roughly 25 multiple-choice, true and false, and matching questions. Once a student submits a self-check, they immediately receive their scores and, more important, the correct answer to any questions they missed, directing them to page numbers of the text where the answers appear. Only after all of that preparation work do they attend the class, which consists of a two-hour live session where they hear and interact with me and with one another and the TAs to go over the course material for the week. Then, because every live session is recorded, the students have unlimited opportunities to review the class until they feel they’ve thoroughly mastered the material.

That sounds intense but ultimately a good way to conquer a subject that you don’t feel confident about learning. What do you most enjoy about your online classes?
As you mentioned, I’ve been teaching for 40 years. But even after all that time, I get immense enjoyment in learning how to teach better. Though the preparations, rehearsals, debriefings, and feedback sessions that are part of our online instructional model, I am constantly made aware of how I can improve my teaching. Moreover, I can tweak what I’m doing at the very next class and check to see if it works. For me, this experience is unique to the online format. I also really enjoy my students, who’ve consistently been outstanding. Online students come from all over the country, and they bring many and diverse backgrounds and experiences to the online classroom.

In what ways have you improved as an online teacher over the past two years?
I listen more carefully. I gear my instruction and examples more closely to student needs. I attend to each student as if I were teaching a tutorial to individual students rather than to a classroom of students. I have learned that less is more when selecting the material I will cover each week. I also rely more on my TAs—and have come to appreciate the amazing gifts our TAs bring to the classroom and to our students.

Are there improvements you still want to make?
I need to become ever more attentive to areas where students are challenged. I need to talk less and listen more. I need to let the students teach themselves. That is where the real learning happens.

Online courses and degrees are catching on across the country. How do you think this will impact social work education?
Without question, online social work education will raise standards in our field. When we make graduate social work education accessible, convenient, and individualized, we increase the quality and the numbers of students who will benefit from the Columbia School of Social Work’s program. We’re already tapping into new pools of talented students, many of whom could not attend Columbia if they had to physically come to campus. Simply put, the online option has made our program more accessible. In a similar manner, online instruction allows us to engage new and highly talented instructors who would not otherwise teach in our program. These are professionals who live outside of New York and are very busy. They can only teach for us if we give them the same convenience as we offer our online students.

Will we see a very different model emerge?
The online model is global. It’s portable. And it’s capturing current trends in the field. It is changing higher education in exciting and positive ways. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

Thank you, Professor Schinke! You have provided us with a window onto this brave new world to which you now belong, and congratulations again on your award!

—Compiled and edited by ML Awanohara