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Interview with Pamela Witcher - 
by Carmen Holotescu
At the first anniversary, the special guest of our Romanian eLearning Community is Dr. Pamela Witcher, from
University of Maryland University College USA, who generously accepted to share her valuable experience with us. 

Pamela is the Director of Faculty Development Programs, at the Center for Teaching and Learning - CTL.

Pamela has taught online, voice mail, and classroom-based psychology and behavioral science courses for UMUC since 1994.
Pamela also has extensive background as a trainer and researcher. 

The Center for Teaching and Learning - CTL - focuses its efforts entirely on faculty development and online
training. CTL offers programs that encourage teaching innovations, reward faculty accomplishments, and promote
collegiality among UMUC’s faculty worldwide.

Dear Pamela, thank you so much for accepting this interview and letting us learn from your worthful experience. For the beginning, can you please tell us a little about your experience in traditional teaching and e-learning?

Thank you, Carmen, for asking me to share my experiences in teaching and e-learning with you and your colleagues. It is an honor to do so and to help celebrate the Romanian e-Learning Community’s first year of activity. 

As noted in your introduction, I’ve taught for UMUC since 1994 and have taught in various traditional teaching settings over the past 20 years, including health education programs and workshops in clinics and non-profit organizations. I enjoy helping people—children, youth, and adults—learn and expand their knowledge and perspectives through teaching in whatever avenue that is available (i.e., classroom, online, or voice mail).  I believe that lifelong learning is vital in improving our lives and making our world a better place to live.

Any teacher or student of higher education today who has had the chance to participate in the online experience has readily recognized that there is a world of difference between the traditional brick and mortal and the asynchronous settings that define the two individual systems.

Which do you feel to be the most challenging aspects of e-learning?

To me, the most challenging aspect of e-learning is creating a positive and active learning environment where all students and instructors can discuss and explore various concepts, perspectives, and solutions to problems. While it is often said, “you can't sit in the back of an online classroom,” some students do manage to “sit” idly by while others take a much more active role. The challenge for me in CTL is to ensure that UMUC instructors know of ways to become enriched from students and each other in the online environment. 

For example, in a face-to-face classroom setting, an instructor can initiate a discussion on a particular topic and students can respond.  The instructor could then call on students who had not participated in the discussion or had responded non-verbally to another student's comment.  This type of class environment assessment is much more difficult—if not, impossible—to do with online conference discussions held in asynchronous time.  “Lurking” often happens—that is, a student in online classroom can read what is written but not respond and the faculty member has no way of knowing that the student was in the online classroom. 

Ironically, I also find it true for faculty members who register for an online workshop but do not post a response to any of the conferences! ;-)  People’s lives are very full with other responsibilities and priorities and there are only 24 hours in any given day.  I think that these realities make online learning more time-consuming and require more self-discipline than face-to-face classes.

Can you please provide us a few figures on the extend of the online programs offered by UMUC?

UMUC students can choose from 86 undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs offered completely online via WebTycho, the university's state-of-the-art interactive classroom software.  In addition, unlike most colleges and universities that offer online courses, UMUC also offers a comprehensive array of online academic and student services.

CTL offers programs for the UMUC's faculty. Can you please give us a few details of these programs?

CTL offers also the peer mentoring program. Through the program, experienced faculty members who volunteer are assigned a new instructor, or mentee. Please tell us some more also on the partnerships fostered in this program.

The mission of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is to promote teaching excellence and enhance teaching effectiveness in order to maximize the quality of teaching and learning at UMUC.  CTL's services include: 

  • Offering a wide variety of professional development programs and training for UMUC faculty and academic administrators worldwide through evening and online workshops and technology conferences.  Examples include—
    • New faculty orientation meetings for stateside undergraduate and graduate faculty
    • WebTycho training (required of all instructors who want to teach online at UMUC)
    • Computer software training (e.g., PowerPoint, Netscape Composer, Basic HTML)
    • Evening and online workshops on various topics such as teaching techniques and specific strategies for enhancing both classroom and online courses, UMUC policies, and appropriate tools for assessing student learning.
  • Fostering collegial discussion and idea sharing through its online symposia, discussion groups, and Peer Mentoring Program.  CTL’s Peer Mentoring Program is designed to support new UMUC faculty and faculty new to online teaching (“mentees”) by assigning them an experienced faculty member (“mentors”).  Typically, the mentor is someone who is also teaching the same course in the same format (i.e., in the classroom or online) or is in the same discipline.  Throughout the semester, the mentors and mentees discuss teaching philosophies and strategies, troubleshoot any issues that arise in the classroom or online, and observe each other’s classes for new ideas and feedback.  At the end of the semester, each mentor and mentee are required to complete a summary report form that covers issues discussed throughout the semester.  These reports are forwarded to their respective academic administrators.  This program has been offered since 1985 in the School of Undergraduate Studies and is now in progress of expanding into the Graduate School and to UMUC-Europe and UMUC-Asia.
  • Supporting and recognizing teaching innovation and teaching excellence through its faculty professional development grant and award programs for stateside faculty.  CTL manages the Professional Development Grant Program that provides funds for adjunct faculty members who wish to attend or present at professional conferences in their disciplines.  These faculty members must apply for and receive their department’s support to participate in this program.
CTL manages the stateside faculty awards program that honors several faculty members for their special teaching achievements each year. Undergraduate and graduate students nominate their respective faculty each semester for these awards, and selection committees make the final recommendations for approval.  These awards are given at each spring commencement ceremony.
The workshops organized on important topics in e-learning are very successful. I participated in five online workshops and I really learned a lot, sharing with UMUC's teachers worldwide. How do you select the topics and the facilitators for these workshops? Which do you consider to be their impact? 

We establish each year’s workshop topics and their facilitators through a process that includes considering current events in higher education. We also collect suggestions and recommendations from workshop participants throughout the previous year and from CTL’s Faculty Development Council. This Council consists of faculty and administrator representatives from UMUC-Europe, UMUC-Asia, the School of Undergraduate Studies, the Graduate School, and the Office of Distance Education and Lifelong Learning.  We compile this information and submit it to the Council for review and approval for the academic year.

Currently, we assess workshop participant feedback at the end of each evening and online session.  Overall, faculty participants are very satisfied with their workshop experiences and often articulate that the resources shared and the opportunity to meet and discuss pertinent issues with other faculty members are the most valuable elements of the workshop.  We also ask them to state their intentions to use the information gain through their workshop experience, but have not established a way to follow-up with them in subsequent semesters to see if they succeed in meeting their intentions.  The plan for such a follow-up process is in the design stage! :-)

We can speak about a real online community of the UMUC's faculty. Can you expand a little this idea?

The faculty community at UMUC is growing.  We currently have 962 faculty in the United States and 1,718 faculty worldwide.  You may like to know that 195 faculty members in the United States are from 29 foreign countries in FY01, with Romanian faculty ranking sixth among them! :-)

More faculty are receiving WebTycho training and are teaching online. We are also seeing an increase in the number of faculty who participate in our online symposia and workshops.  A third area where I see our online community growing is in the activity on our faculty listservs for our stateside and UMUC-Europe faculty.  These listservs are active and deal with issues that range from questions about grading and final exams policies to what faculty members are doing in their professional lives.  Often, faculty bring up relevant articles in higher education publications for discussion.

What are your future plans at CTL?

  • We plan on strengthening and expanding what we have (e.g., the Peer Mentoring Program, WebTycho training to include more advanced training).  
  • We want to include more resources for our global faculty either by directly providing them to our faculty or by referring our faculty to them.  
  • We want to share our experiences with other universities and colleges through conferences and publications  (So thank you for helping achieve this goal! :-)  )
As far as you are willing or able to see, what is the future of online learning? What important trends do you see on the horizon?

I believe that online learning is here to stay and will continue to help people fulfill their educational dreams and goals.  I also believe that it will become an integral part of face-to-face classroom teaching, but will never completely replace classroom learning.  

Can you, please, transmit a message for our members, some of them being UMUC's faculty for Online Education?

To my fellow educators in the Romanian e-Learning Community: I commend your desire and commitment to teaching and making a difference in this world through the lives of your students.  Do not become discouraged when there are too many papers to grade, too many computer glitches and crashes, and seemingly not enough time and energy to meet these and other life demands.  Reach out to one another for help, for new ideas, for a safe place to simply express how you feel and you’ll find that we CAN get through it all! :-)

Dear Pamela, thank you so much for sharing all these with us. I wish you many, many successes in your future endeavor.

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