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On Target With Online Teaching

Carol Billing is passionate about her research on best practices for effective online teaching.

Her enthusiasm for online education is such that, this academic year, she took her four kids – two sets of twins in the fifth and seventh grade respectively – out of a traditional school and enrolled them in the Boise online Inspire Connections Academy.

“I believe online education is very important, so last year, I decided that, before they go to high school, it was important for my kids to learn how to navigate online coursework and use the tools that online education offers,” Billing said.

Her own first online experience was completing her master’s degree in education at National University in Sacramento.

“That was my introduction to online learning,” she said. “Since then, I’ve been an online student, I’ve taught online and, this academic year, I’ve been an online parent. I feel lucky that I have three different perspectives on online education.”

Billing started teaching technology at a small rural high school in 2002. She had always had an interest in computer technology, and online education was the right fit. Since then, she’s been teaching, both in a classroom setting and online, moving to teaching at a community college and, most recently, as a clinical instructor in Boise for the University of Idaho’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. She has balanced her career with raising a family and completing her doctorate at U of I.

“We moved from California to Idaho to raise our family in a quieter environment, and I went into higher education because this field allowed me to have a more flexible schedule,” she said. “Teaching online enables me to work when my kids are at school, as well as weekends and evenings when my husband is able to take care of them. This schedule is chaotic, but it enables me to be at drop off, pick up and get them to sports and extra-curricular activities in the afternoons.”

Carol Billing
Carol Billing teaches classes for the U of I from home.

Online Teaching Resources for Instructors

At U of I, Billing has been taking classes and working on her research, along with working as a clinical instructor for the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program.

“I love focusing my experience on CTE,” she said. “I come from a blue-collar family. My mom was a secretary and my father was a small-business owner and mechanic, and for me teaching CTE is like returning to where I come from.”

CTE provides the skills and knowledge to enable business and industry professionals to teach youth and adults. U of I offers programs in business and marketing education; engineering and technology education; family and consumer sciences education; occupational education; and agricultural education.

U of I CTE program is delivered in a variety of modes, including face-to-face, online and a mix of both. Classes are offered on U of I's Moscow campus, as well as through its centers in Boise, Coeur d'Alene and through the Twin Falls Research and Extension Center. Billing said that the online option is critical to recruit more CTE teachers in rural Idaho.

“The professionals who are looking to change careers from industry or trade are very motivated,” Billing said. “For them, it’s not about the money; they want to share their knowledge. One of the biggest barriers to recruit CTE teachers is having to relocate or travel to get a teaching certificate, because these professionals want to stay in their towns and don’t want to move.

“Online programs are the key to recruit and train these CTE teachers and address the shortage of CTE teachers in small rural areas. They have the knowledge about their trade, and we teach them how to share that knowledge in a classroom setting.”

To help facilitate training for these CTE teachers, Billing’s Ph.D. focuses on how to teach more effectively in an online environment and how to change the instructor’s teaching strategies for a specific group of students. Her research was conducted in a community college setting and evaluates how students perceive the online environment from three perspectives — social, teaching and cognitive presences.

When Billing was scheduled to defend her thesis in March in front of her committee (Allen Kitchel, Paul Gathercoal, Kathy Canfield-Davis and Daniel Campbell), Gov. Brad Little announced that people were asked to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. They moved her defense to an online format and Billing successfully defended her dissertation, “A Quantitative Study of Perceptions of the Community of Inquiry Presences in Community Colleges Online Courses,” and is graduating this semester. Her future plans include conducting research specific to CTE teachers’ online instruction and, in the long term, to create an online learning platform for teachers in any area.

“It took me seven years to complete my Ph.D.,” Billing said. “It was a long, slow road, and I am thankful for my committee for being with me for longer than is typical.”

Ideas for Successfully Teaching Online

Based on her experience and research, Carol Billing shares advice for those tackling online teaching for the first time:

“It is almost ironic that as I defended my thesis, teachers across the nation were scrambling to move their classes online,” Billing said. “Some of my friends and colleagues in education were contacting me for ideas and help as they were being asked to move their classes online from occupational therapy to farming classes.

“Teaching online is very different, you have to really embrace different technologies but not so much that your students get lost. You have to support them differently than face-to-face teaching. You have to find new ways to hold their attention and develop intrinsic motivation for them.”

Billing said her research showed different kinds of students need a variety of resources to succeed, some do well in written, others need a voice to listen to, or to see you to feel connected. Billing suggests that instructors need to teach in a variety of modalities to connect, which takes more work than a face-to-face class.

Her advice to those who had to start teaching online because of COVID-19 is to review how they are communicating with their students.

“Communicating via just email is not enough,” she said. “You should provide different ways to communicate.”

In addition to email and phone, teachers can turn to video conferencing to provide students non-verbal cues. Depending on the age group, students who have the ability to text like to communicate like that. Programs such as Voxer or Viber allow texting without sharing phone numbers, and voice messages can be sent back and forth.

“If students have vision issues, email or text is hard, so these allow you to answer via voice,” Billing said.

In addition, she recommends looking at when you are available during the day and on weekends.

“Traditional school hours, like 8-3, might not work any longer, but at the same time, allow yourself to set some boundaries so you don’t work all the time,” she said.

For more advanced online teachers, Billing suggests getting familiar with screencast apps such as Screencast-O-Matic with screen capture recordings where you can walk through the students’ questions and send them a one- or two-minute tutorial video.

“These apps bridge the need to meet face to face, students can stop the recording, rewind, or watch multiple times,” Billing said. “A recording does not need to be a formal production to support your students.”

Article by Maria Ortega, University of Idaho Boise.

Published May 2020.

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