How to Become an E-Learning Champion

Priscila Zigunovas
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Quick take: A university in the United States has created an award to recognize instructors and staff members who are committed to improve the online student experience. The initiative fosters academic effectiveness in online learning by sharing teaching best practices.

Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Every month at the University of Cincinnati, a faculty or staff member who goes above and beyond to improve their students’ experience in the classroom, recognized as an “E-Learning Champion.”

Dan Waddell entered the eLearning Backpack Project during his first year as assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati (UC). He was one of 36 faculty members that received a backpack full of technological equipment meant to complement the tools and resources available in Canopy, the university’s branded digital learning environment powered by Blackboard Learn, or, as they call it, their e-learning ecosystem. In return, ‘backpackers’ were encouraged to reimagine how they created and delivered course content, as well as how they engaged with their students.

“It was great having the technology at my fingertips,” says Waddell. “If something popped into my head, I could just do it instead of worrying about finding funding or having to do it out of my own pocket, so it was incredibly beneficial and useful.”

The Backpack Project no longer exists. However, it is a good example of how UC’s e-learning approach is anything but conventional.

The eLearning Champions initiative

In 2014, the university started the eLearning Champions initiative, offering monthly awards to faculty members who exemplify use and integration of UC’s e-learning tools and resources in the classroom, promote innovation and collaboration, model new techniques, best practices, tools, and ideas, in an effort to provide UC students with a successful, 21st century learning experience.1

The Champions can be nominated through an online form by anyone at the university. The winners, elected by a panel, receive a $500 honorarium and have the opportunity to be featured in the Canopy newsletter and UC News. In addition, they may be called on to share their wisdom, providing support for a faculty workshop, knowledge-base article, or a case study video.

Photo Mike Mitchum, interim assistant director, Technology Team, Center for Excellence in eLearning. Photo: AFP David Kohl.
Mike Mitchum, Interim Assistant Director, Technology Team, Center for Excellence in eLearning. Photo: AFP David Kohl.

Mike Mitchum, Interim Assistant Director of UC’s Center for Excellence in e-learning, says that the award works as a method of recognition rather than as a motivational tool. “It is a highlight for folks who are really digging in and doing the tough work and using the tools that we put out. And not only the tools, but the pedagogy that comes along with taking those tools into their curriculum. I mean, it takes a lot of work to do this in your class, to do it well, and do it consistently. The people who are doing this work, because they are interested in it, care about engagement, they are not doing it because they want some sort of shiny recognition.”

Meet some of UC’s champions

Sarah Schroeder, associate professor, Field Service

Sarah Schroeder coordinates UC’s undergraduate School of Education e-learning initiatives for pre-service teachers. Along with that, she works on online course improvement and on implementing Quality Matters standards. She has a wide range of tasks that go from faculty member to trainer, to instructional designer, to member in multiple committees.

Photo Sarah Schroeder, Assistant Professor, Field Service at University of Cincinnati Photo: AFP William Philpott.
Sarah Schroeder, Assistant Professor, Field Service at University of Cincinnati Photo: AFP William Philpott.

Sarah shares her experience

“For me the most important thing about integrating technology well is focusing on teaching first and technology second. Always putting good instructional practices and student-centered approaches first. If you do that, and you really focus on the outcomes you are looking for from students and then select your tools carefully, making strategic choices, I think that is what makes good technology integration in the classroom. Not every tool works for everybody, and that’s okay. You need to choose the tools that work best for your subject area, for your students and for yourself, as an instructor. If you do that, and focus on student success, the technology integration is going to be successful, and I think that is where the champion side of me comes in. I am a big cheerleader for finding the right tools for your teaching style and your classroom and your students. If we try to incorporate every single tool that’s been given to us, it can overwhelm the faculty and the students, especially brand-new faculty, and good teaching can get lost in an effort to integrate technology.”

Want to know how to predict student success and intervene when needed?

Anton Harfmann, Professor and program Director for Architectural Engineering

Some professions more than others, have been drastically affected by the evolution of technology. Architecture is a good example. Anton Harfmann has been teaching architecture for more than 30 years, and although his job is to teach construction, not software, he decided to integrate three-dimensional modeling into his course.

Photo Anton Harfmann, professor and director of Architectural Engineering. Photo: Jay Yocis.
Anton Harfmann, Professor and Director of Architectural Engineering. Photo: Jay Yocis.

Anton shares his experience

“My primary goal is to teach construction technology, but I also introduce the students to the use of this intense 3D modeling system that is now known as Building Information Modeling. We do not have a formal course in how to use that software, so I integrated it into the class. While the class is focused in construction technology, the students learn the software because I use it to teach with, while modeling directly in the class to explain a complex construct, and then they are able to follow along. They are all required to bring their laptops with the software on it and they are encouraged to model along with me. In order to accommodate students who have difficulty, I have a help session before the class starts and they can come and we model everything I did the previous class. Additionally, I incorporated Echo360 Lecture Capture into the course about three years ago. That allows students to watch the lectures outside of class, and that has been a godsend for me, because the class now is able to move at a regular pace and get through all the content in construction, and let the students practice learning the software their own time. We have now a fairly interesting set of options that were not available twenty years ago.”

Daniel Waddell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

For Daniel Waddell, an Assistant Chemistry Professor, being open and willing to continually adapt is one of the more important things a teacher can do. When he first started at the University of Cincinnati, he had a lot to figure out: new courses to teach and new tools to use.

Photo Daniel Waddell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Educator at University of Cincinnati. Photo: AFP William Philpott.
Daniel Waddell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Educator at University of Cincinnati. Photo: AFP William Philpott.

Daniel shares his experience

“I try to genuinely use a measured approach to the technology in that I want to try to enhance the pedagogy of my classroom and incorporate some of these e-learning tools, but I do not want to do something just for the sake of using that technology. I try to sprinkle in little pieces of e-learning throughout my course without changing the structure completely or drastically. I dabble in a number of things. One of the things that students have given me the best feedback from are short little video tutorials that I have created. For instance, a short video of myself on our Blackboard Learn page talking about our syllabus and where things are located as well as the structure of the course. Instead of spending twenty minutes in class just talking at them about it, I make a short little tutorial so they can watch again and again. Now, I can spend the class time talking about the chemistry content and working through chemistry problems and letting them work through things.”

Todd Foley, Assistant Professor

Assistant Professor in the division of experience-based learning and career education, Todd Foley developed a flipped classroom approach for co-op courses (co-op, or cooperative education, combines classroom-based education with practical work experience). He teaches students on how to network, create a resume and prepare themselves for the professional world.

Todd shares his experience

“Most of the teaching I do is experiential learning-based, which means that most of it is highly active and discussion-based within the classes, or getting students out of the classroom and doing work in the community. So, not a lot of technology was being used in the teaching that I have done in the past. When I came to UC, I had the opportunity to be a part of the eLearning Backpack Project, and I received a lot of equipment, most specifically video equipment, that I was able to use both in the classroom and beyond. At the same time, I applied for a mini-grant from the State of Ohio to improve my classes as well. Through those two generous programs I was able to change the way I was teaching all of my classes. Before those grant programs, I was not doing anything with e-learning really, I was not even using Blackboard Learn the way I actually should. After the grants, I changed my perspective. I actually like lecture-style classes; if they are done well, the students get a lot out of the experience. But having done a flipped classroom for a couple of years now, I will never go back to just lecturing students because it really is an amazing way to engage them. One-on-one I can lead them in more personal ways. It really frees you up to do a lot of new things, and it took my teaching to the next level.”

Learn from the champions

Inspiring practices and ideas

Do not fall for the “digital native” myth. Students may not be quite the technology experts that we think they are. “Most of them grew up with cellphones and laptops and had technology their whole lives. But what we see is that these students may have had technology, but that does not mean they know how to use it, or how to use it well, and they definitely don’t know how to use it for productivity,” says Sarah Schroeder. Teachers should promote digital literacy and digital equity, “making sure students aren’t just given the tools, but that they know how to use them for more than just entertainment.”

In big classes, consider having learning assistants.I have learning assistants that go around the classroom and talk to the students, and then they tell me what the students are having issues and problems with, and then I can take that feedback and create short little video tutorials about those topics,” says Daniel Waddell. The assistants are undergraduate students at the university that have already taken Daniel’s class and have done well in it. “The class has been consistently growing with about 450 students in my chemistry lectures at this point, so to try to get some more of that personal touch into that hugely non-personal atmosphere has been a big goal.”

Make your students masters of the information. “Discerning what is good and relevant information is what I think is a good teacher’s primary responsibility. Since we have limited time with the students, and they have to take a course in a particular time frame, our job is to actually develop a path, leading them to good content and content that is relevant and most useful to their needs,” says Anton Harfmann. “And then again, to teach them how to do that process on their own, once they become masters of the information, because eventually they will have to discern for themselves what is good and what is fake news.”

Flip one lesson and see what happens.I know that the e-learning industry says you need to have a purpose strategy before you adopt a technology. And while I agree completely with that, I also love the idea of just trying something out and seeing if it works,” says Todd Foley. “Technology enables you to think differently, so until you have actually practiced and played with it, it is really hard to imagine how that is going to enhance your teaching. You do not have to convert your entire class to a flip module, for example, but I encourage you to try it, so just flip one lesson. Just pick one day, and instead of teaching in class, just teach out of class and then watch what happens. Once you get your feet wet a little bit, I think that it is really helpful.”


Three Experts Around Technology Enhanced Learning


* Anton Harfmann, Professor and Director of Architectural Engineering. Photo: Jay Yocis.

* Daniel Waddell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry – Educator. Photo: AFP William Philpott.

* Todd Foley, Assistant Professor – Educator.

* Sarah Schroeder, Assistant Professor, Field Service. Photo: AFP William Philpott.

* Mike Mitchum, Interim Assistant Director, Technology Team, Center for Excellence in eLearning. Photo: AFP David Kohl


1 University of Cincinnati. (n.d.). Nominate a Champion. Retrieved August 16, 2017, from

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