Monday, July 21, 2014

Recent MAA Grad Mark Henderson on Work as Instructional Technologist

What do I do?

July 21, 2014 at 1:17pm
Today marks the start of week eight of my new career as an Instructional Technologist. I’ve found that many of my friends and family have no idea what I do. I’ve also found that a number of my correspondence in the education and technical worlds want to know more about how the online school works at Columbia College. So, here we are.
First, a little overview. While Columbia College is based in…..Columbia, MO (shocker!), the school has more students around the country than they do locally. They have a number of satellite campuses across the country, many of them on military bases. They also have around 14,000 undergrad and graduate students taking online classes from coast to coast. With the high number of online students, Columbia College has decided to spin off their online campus to a separate entity. I actually don’t work on the Columbia College campus, but rather about 10 minutes away in lovely downtown Columbia.
My job is roughly a 50/50 mix of education and technical work. I will address the education side first, as I know some of my teacher friends are frightened by technology.
The Education Side:

I serve as the middle-man between course instructors and their students. Some instructors are local and we meet to develop courses, while others are around the country and we rely heavily on email. I present professional-development (although it’s not called that) to the instructors to help them create quality online courses. This includes presentations and online activities. I recently designed an interactive web training module on creating online discussions that spark critical thinking. All instructors will be required to complete the module at the start of the next session.
One of the requirements of online courses at Columbia College is that they contain multi-media to enhance learning. This doesn’t mean simply finding cute cat videos on YouTube and sharing them with students. This means spending a lot of time searching for quality videos, podcasts, infographics, etc. that align with the course’s goals. Occasionally, an instructor provides the materials, but usually I have to seek out GOOD multi-media and then persuade the instructor to use it.
Columbia College holds online instructors to high accountability. This means that we are often monitoring the 800ish courses to ensure instructors are keeping content fresh, communicating with students, and updating grades. On the other side of the building, there are online advisors who handle complaint emails and calls from students. Often times, they will run to me to answer questions or fix situations when an instructor is not readily available. This is a bit stressful because some instructors are control freaks (rightfully so) and can get upset if I have to make decisions without their prior consent. I’ve had a couple of heated moments, but for the most part instructors are happy that I’m here to help.
While I’m not teaching any online courses of my own yet, that will happen down the road. They didn’t want to overwhelm me with too much at once, but I am looking forward to teaching online. I will most likely teach some 100-level writing or 200-level literature courses. The good news is that this means more money. The bad news is this means more work!
The Technical Side:

I was a bit nervous about what I would be expected to do tech-wise with this job. I had prior experience with HTML/CSS and a number of Adobe programs, but I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. Fortunately, I was given account access to on my first day and told to have at it. Lynda is a video-heavy how-to site, with professional training on just about every program or application out there. I did a little refresher on CSS and SnagIt, but spent most of my time learning about Photoshop. I’ve always wanted to learn Photoshop, but never had the time or money to buy it for myself. It turns out that it’s not as overwhelming as I imagined. Thanks to my access to Adobe Creative Cloud, I can actually use Photoshop (and many other programs) at home as well.
We use Desire2Learn (or D2L as the cool kids call it) as our Learning Management System. It’s by far the best LMS I’ve seen. When I’m assigned a course to develop or redevelop, one of the first things I do is work on a visual design for the course. Each course has a unique banner, color scheme, and CSS layout. This gives each course a unique experience for the students. This is probably the most fun part of my job, as I get to be creative.
Once the syllabus for a course has been finalized, I create weekly HTML pages, where students find their assignments, readings, and multi-media. I also create discussion threads, quizzes and tests, and gradebook entries. D2L also has checklists that I have to create for each course. This is a place where students can literally check off what they’ve accomplished and assure they have everything completed. Since courses repeat each session, I have to manually go in and change all of the due dates on assignments, which gets old quickly.
Columbia College is in the process of building a very nice video production lab in the basement of my building. This means that we will soon be able to do many exciting things with multimedia to enhance the courses. Since I just happen to have worked at a TV station for six years, I know a thing or two about video production. Since it’s been a few years (okay, 8) since I worked in TV, I do have some refreshing to do. Fortunately, also has tutorials for the types of software that I will use for this.
One of the toughest parts of my job is dealing with accessibility. All materials presented in courses must be accessible for all students. That means documents must be coded correctly for screen readers and all multi-media must be transcribed. I’ve learned that creating subtitles and inserting them into videos is tougher than it looks. Columbia College was sued a few years back by a student with disabilities who had troubles accessing online materials, so they are very serious about all of this.
Reflecting on Grad School:

I’m sure a few people would be upset if I didn’t take time to mention how Missouri Western’s technical communication graduate program helped me get here. In spring 2012, I went to Dr. Adkins’ office not really knowing what tech com was, but thinking that I wanted to be a part of it. I was afraid of switching careers because I didn’t want to abandon all the work and experience I had accomplished in the education world. I was thrilled when she explained that my education background could actually help me get a job in the tech com field. When I started taking courses in the department, I quickly clung to instructional design. When it came time to choose a thesis topic, eLearning was an obvious direction.
One of the most important things I learned in graduate school was how to teach myself how to use programs and complete tasks without someone holding my hand through the process. While I have great co-workers at Columbia College, they we are all loaded with work of their own and don’t have time to answer endless questions or sit me down and teach me how to use a program. I didn’t come to this job as a master of any program, but I do possess the skills to learn and find the solutions I need.
I’m also grateful for the collaborative work that I did in graduate school. Even though I spend the majority of my day working by myself on the computer, this job requires a lot of team work. I’ve learned how to work as a leader and follower, how to communicate with clients, and how important clear communication is in getting the job done.
If someone had asked me what my dream job would be a few years back, I would have described what I’m doing now. I get to work in education, while doing challenging (and usually fun) technical work at the same time. While there were certainly parts of being a high school English teacher that I enjoyed, I never felt like it was really what I was supposed to do with my life. Just two months into being an instructional technologist, I know that I’ve found the field that I’m supposed to be in.

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