Online Best Practices

A conversation with Dr. Sharon Doyle, Director of Sciences, Mathematics and Biotechnology

Sharon Doyle is the Director of the Sciences, Mathematics and Biotechnology team at UC Berkeley Extension. Sharon earned her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Boston University and pursued her postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. She then joined the DOE Joint Genome Institute in the Genomics Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a research scientist and group lead. Her research interests included protein structure-function and technology development, which led to an issued patent and the publication of more than 20 research articles and book chapters.

Sharon then pursued time balancing family and work, serving in multiple roles, including as a research consultant for Hitachi Chemical Research Center, a grant writer for Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and a scientific editor for a series edition in Methods in Molecular Biology. Sharon has been at UC Berkeley Extension since 2012.

How many online courses and instructors does your team oversee? How many online students do you support?

The Sciences, Mathematics and Biotechnology (SMB) team has developed approximately 30 unique online courses to date, runs approximately 85 sections per year and enrolls about 4,000 students per year.

How did you first get involved in developing online courses at Extension?

Historically, online existed as its own unique department at Extension. In 2013, the academic departments were given an opportunity to get involved in online education. At that time, I had been directing upper-division sciences classroom courses, and online education was new and exciting to me.

Five years later, I still love working with online programs and am continually learning new ways to create quality online science courses. I also enjoy working with talented and dedicated instructors from all over the country.

What process do you follow when developing new online courses and what is your role in that process?

The first step is deciding on which courses to create and to outline basic course objectives.

Then I choose a subject matter expert (SME) to work with. Together, we create a course outline, identify a suitable textbook, and discuss the overall structure of the course and assignments.

Next, we meet with one of our in-house instructional designers, who take our academic vision of the course content and help us create engaging content that facilitates optimal student learning.

During the development process, I advise the SME and instructional designer on policies and assessment design based upon lessons learned about what works best for our student population.

What do you enjoy the most about developing online courses?

I enjoy the collaborative process in course design, and continually learn from both the SMEs and instructional designers. Also, we’ve learned a lot in the past five years about how our students interact in the online environment and engage with our course content. It is a fun challenge to use this information to drive innovation and continually improve our courses each year.

What does a SME do? How does his or her duties differ from an online instructor?

A subject matter expert, or SME, is the academic content expert who creates the course material, including lectures, quizzes, exams and assignments (including case studies, discussions, etc.). An online instructor teaches the course once it has launched and guides students through as a mentor. Online instructors log in daily to answers questions, engage students in discussion and provide detailed comments on assignments to help students master the course material. It’s not uncommon for the same person to be hired as the SME and as the instructor for the online class.



Do not underestimate your role as a mentor and the impact you have on student learning.



What advice would you give to someone who is teaching online for the very first time?

Even though you are not delivering lectures as you would in the classroom, as an online instructor you should not underestimate your role as a mentor and the impact you have on student learning. It is vital to help students feel connected and to encourage active discussion and participation. Timely feedback is key, and comments should be specific, detailed and thoughtful.

Instructors should feel comfortable reaching out to their Program Directors and Coordinators for advice at any time. My SMB team pairs our new instructors with a successful online instructor, who serves as an additional resource for guidance. We also created a resource page on Canvas that is specific to science instructors. Another great resource to utilize is the Extension Instructor Hub, created by our Center for Instructional Excellence, which provides resources for all Extension instructors regarding online policies and best practices.

I hear that it can be difficult for online instructors to keep students engaged in online courses. What best practices do your online instructors follow?

It’s important to be a constant presence in your course: Make sure you have an updated photo and biography, welcome students as they introduce themselves to the class in the discussion forum and make frequent announcements using the Canvas announcements feature.

It’s also important to individualize your feedback to each student. Some of our instructors provide feedback via video to further personalize their interaction with the student. We also encourage instructors to reach out to students who haven’t logged in recently or who may be falling behind (for example, haven’t submitted an assignment recently).



Instructors often tell us that they are a better instructor in the classroom after they’ve designed an online course.



What advice would you give someone who is interested in developing an online course for the first time as a SME?

Online development is a collaborative process. For a project to be successful, SMEs need to carve out a considerable amount of time to focus on content and regularly communicate with both the instructional design team and the academic department.

While the work is time consuming, instructors often tell us that they are a better instructor in the classroom after they’ve designed an online course because it forces them to think about course design in a very thoughtful way.

If you have an idea for a new online course and feel that you have the time to devote to the project, reach out to your Program Director to start a conversation.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges in online? How are you approaching the challenges?

One of the biggest opportunities of online learning is the ability to reach learners all over the world and provide access to those who can’t attend traditional colleges and universities. We have students who are geographically isolated, including active military. We also have students who simply enjoy the flexibility of online learning.

As for the challenges, many students are not prepared for the rigor of an online course and have an expectation that it will be easier than a classroom course, when in fact the opposite may be true. It’s also a challenge to keep students on track to complete their coursework in a timely manner. We’re actively working on tools in Canvas to help students assess their online readiness and develop a realistic timeline to help them stay on track to complete their courses.

What best practices do you follow to maintain academic integrity in your online courses?

To better serve our students, it is critical to uphold academic integrity so that a grade earned from an Extension science or math course carries weight with employers and medical/graduate schools. Within the course, we offer resources to students with clear advice and expectations regarding academic integrity.

We also keep academic integrity in mind when we design a course. For assessments, we avoid test bank questions and limit access time to mimic a “closed-book” experience. We utilize a plagiarism-detection software called Turnitin and require students to pass a proctored final exam in order to pass the course.

How frequently do you update your online courses? Do you follow the same process as with new online courses?

We redevelop online course content anywhere from two to five years, depending upon the subject matter and how frequently new research emerges within that particular field of study. For smaller updates (such as quiz or exam updates, readings, assignments, links to resources), we work with our instructors on a regular basis to edit course materials and keep the content accurate and current.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our instructors about online?

Our online programs have grown in large part due to the knowledge and dedication of our instructors. I want to sincerely thank them for all their efforts and look forward to future collaborations.

Teaching online can be very rewarding, but in a very different way from classroom teaching. However, many instructors do both. If you are interested in learning more about teaching online, reach out to your Program Director.