As Online Learning Evolves, Core Education Principles Persist

Carol J. Johnson, PhD Assistant Dean and Faculty Director of MBA@Denver

Carol Johnson is the Assistant Dean and Faculty Director for MBA@Denver and has previously served as the Chair of the Department of Marketing at the Daniels College of Business. Johnson played an integral role in designing the new MBA@Denver program, drawing on her research on adult learning in online environments to create a curriculum that supports and challenges students in growing as business leaders.

We spoke to Johnson about the importance of including real-world applications in coursework and how her research has shaped her approach to online learning.

In the entrepreneurship coursework, students are tasked with creating their own businesses, and in the capstone course, students are encouraged to create a social capital project for a local business. Why do you think these real-world applications are important for students in the program?

These classes provide students the practice and experience they need to discover the root cause of a problem. Often the client will tell you the problem is A but it’s really C. This gives them practice in determining a solution that supports the firm’s ethical positions, and to do it quickly because our quarter system is only 10 weeks long, and they have even less time than that to solve these problems. Having a time consideration requires really high-performing teams. They are crucial to completing the project on time, professionally and in a way that the client can use immediately.

So we don’t look for straw-man solutions; we look for things clients can actually use in budget. These courses pull together what the students have learned in the rest of their program, delivering an integrated and complete plan that has a high likelihood of providing immediate help to the client. When you come out of Daniels, you are taught to give back to your community and these courses really allow them the opportunity to do that very thing.

What has been the response from local business leaders as they’ve partnered with students? 

At Daniels, we are very concerned with giving back, and so generally we work with small businesses or nonprofits, which have trouble affording expensive consultants. We can give them the tools they need to solve a problem and be transformational, without having them spend a lot of money. I’ve worked with probably a hundred different organizations in the 22 years I’ve been here, and I can’t think of a business owner who wasn’t pleased with the outcome.

How do you track the success of students’ initiatives with local businesses?

We have very specific ways to grade both oral and written work here in the program, but we also look to the client to talk to us about how the students did. I’ll give you an example from the MS Marketing program where I taught the capstone: When the students were finished with their project and had made their presentation to the client, the client said, “This work is transformational to my business.” And the students were awed by that — they responded, “Oh my gosh, really?” And that’s what I look at — that’s success.

When you have completed a project for a client that truly solves the problem in budget and they can implement it, that’s pretty awesome. So that’s the acid test: Is the client that excited about it?

With your work with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), how do you think the field of e-learning is changing at universities?

I think it’s definitely correlated with the technology advances that we’ve seen over the years. I mean, when I was first doing distance learning, it was paper and pencil and an envelope.

When we are working with the OLC, we’re trying to get our instructors to be very organized, very student friendly, very tech savvy, yet not use tech for tech’s sake. One of the things we also stress that has improved the organization of the courses is backward design, where you start with the learning objective, and you go backward into how are you going to assess it and what activities you are going to use, rather than covering the book.

There’s work by D. Randy Garrison and his colleagues about defining a learning community, which has social, cognitive and teaching presences. If those three things are there, then the community can learn together. One of the things that I love about working in this technology space is it allows the students to do both asynchronous and synchronous work. In asynchronous, we’re selecting content and curating what the students are going to learn. But we’re also addressing cognitive presence, because in the live sessions we’re having discussions that are supportive. And the social presence is there because the students all have their own [online] rooms, and they can talk to each other as well as to the professor.

To me, the online experience now is even a higher level because you’ve got this great technology that can facilitate those three presences in the classroom and help the students feel that they are face to face even though they’re not.

Last year you co-authored a study on the use of conjoint analysis to improve educator evaluations, considering diverse factors that impact teacher performance like course load and research contributions. What factors do you think need to be considered when evaluating online teachers’ performance in particular?  

I’m working to redesign the evaluation instrument to something that makes more sense for adult learners in the online environment. I can think of four things that would help me understand if the instructor was meeting student needs. One of them is that they demonstrate up-to-date knowledge about the subject matter. Another one is that they provide extensive feedback that the student feels is useful to them in learning the material, and a third one is that the instructor provides timely feedback on course assignments. Because this course is 10 weeks, you can’t wait two weeks to give grades and feedback. The fourth criteria, which is very important to us here at DU, is that the instructor actively invites diverse perspectives because the reason students are in this program is to hear different ways of solving problems. 

But if you’re sitting there and you’re actually talking to your students as much as you would in the regular classroom, my experience is there isn’t a whole lot of difference. You need to have that same caring tone that helps the students see you value them as individuals and encourage them to think more broadly about things.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.