2015 NUTN Online Student Recognition Award
Alicia Fernandez, an online Open SUNY student at the SUNY University at Albany in the CDIT program, was recognized with the 2015 NUTN Online Student Recognition Award at Network 2015, the NUTN annual conference in Savannah, Georgia.
Alicia’s journey as an adult reentry online college student.
With parents from Argentina, Alicia Fernandez has experienced all the typical challenges faced by many first generation students. At the traditional college-age, formal educational opportunities were not feasible for her due to financial and time restraints. Like most in similar circumstances she dropped out of college, then entered the workforce, got married, and had children. Her dreams of a higher education were dimmed by time and competing priorities. Several decades after first attending a university, she discovered a way to return to the college classroom that had not been previously possible. Public universities in her native city of New York started offering degree programs that were fully online. She was skeptical about whether these online courses would provide comparable educational outcomes to those of the traditional classroom. Nevertheless, she decided to seize the opportunity and enrolled in 2010. Four years and twenty-seven online courses later, Alicia is the proud recipient of a B.A. in Communication and Culture from CUNY, and an M.S. in Curriculum Development and Instructional Technology from the SUNY University at Albany (received in May 2014).
About her academic achievements and accomplishments as an online student Alicia says, “ …as much as these credentials signify accomplishments, they do not convey how online education has changed me. Not only did the learning outcomes measure up to bricks and mortar experiences, the asynchronous online setting prompted me to communicate and reflect more deliberately. I was able to revisit and really process the instructor’s and peers’ contributions in the online classroom. My understanding of the content was enhanced by the requirement to produce comments that were based on academic sources, not just mere opinions. Additionally, I was able to reflect on the online repository of course content as I progressed through the course, and this greatly scaffolded my learning.”
Alicia entered my UAlbany graduate online course in the department of Education Theory and Practice, (ETAP 640) Introduction to Online Teaching, in the summer of 2014. It was to be her 28th online course! Having just graduated in May, she began my course to add the UAlbany graduate Certificate in Online Teaching (COLT) to her credentials.
I had many opportunities to observe and interact with Alicia in ETAP640 and can say without any hesitation that she is the most successful student I have ever had in the eight years that I have been teaching that course online. In my opinion Alicia is an outstanding student and educator, deeply committed to improving her practice and craft of teaching. I found her work as a student to be of the highest caliber exhibiting a thoughtfulness and ability to deeply engage, articulate, and apply what she was learning in the course. Her approach to the learning activities and interaction in the course was consistent, methodical, and organized. She was an enthusiastic, vibrant, and knowledgeable contributor to the ETAP 640 class community, and her opinion was valued by and sought after by her classmates. She demonstrated an exceptional ability to making her thinking and learning visible to me and to her classmates, and demonstrated her clear articulate voice in all aspects of the course – see her course blog, for example, http://afernandez3334.edublogs.org/. She demonstrated a keen interest in exploring and understanding both technical and theoretical issues in online course design and delivery alike. Her willingness to explore technology and social media for instructional purposes, despite her skepticism, led her to some profound revelations about herself and her future students. She even incorporated a speaking avatar using Voki into her online course for additional social and teaching presence very effectively.
Alicia is talented, resourceful, and was highly determined in the creation of an effective online teaching and learning environment for her students in the class project for the course. She said, “When I think of being an online student, I recall the many hours dedicated to completing courses. The course work always seemed more labor intensive than that of the traditional classroom. …Being a talkative gal, I realized that the online realm forces me to stop and think before blurting something out. My classroom communications are more deliberate and thoughtful. This has worked out well for me, because it has helped me develop a communication style grounded in reason and fact. Nevertheless, I think that any student venturing into an online higher education course should be warned that their writing skills will be called upon constantly. “
Reflecting on her experience in my course she said, “[In ETAP640]… I was prompted to go beyond the normal content synthesis and contextual applications. In response to my first post, Professor Pickett encouraged me to teach the class about what I wrote. This forced me to explore the content further, so that I could articulate it to others. I had never been asked to elaborate on a concept in a discussion forum in this fashion. This is what Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, and Archer (2001) refer to as a key component of teaching presence, where discussion facilitation stimulates the construction of both personal and mutual understanding.…ETAP640 is my 28th online college course. I have had mostly positive experiences. However, some courses were not facilitated or designed optimally and felt like more like self-directed instruction. As I reflect on my online journey, I realize that a large part of the challenge of being an online is learning how to be an online student. Many classmates have dropped out because they were frustrated and underprepared. I almost dropped out.”
It is this first-hand deep sensitivity to the experience of an adult re-entry online college student that led her to choose to develop Online Learning Essentials: What You Need To Succeed In The Online Classroom, as the course project for ETAP 640. Her project was to develop an online course to help students prepare for what to expect and succeed in an online learning environment.
About her future aspirations (Professional or Personal Advancement), Alicia says, “I think it is safe to say that I am a big proponent of online learning. My success as a student in the online modality has led me to pursue a career in online instruction. I am interested in developing online courses that will facilitate instruction for those that are not able to attend traditional educational venues. I am also interested in supplementing interventional literacy education with asynchronous instructional materials.”
The story of how she seized the opportunity afforded by online learning, to further her academic, personal and/or professional goals is told in her own words taken from one of her discussion posts in my course:
“After a thirty year absence, I returned to college via an online bachelor’s program offered by CUNY. I was apprehensive, but excited, to finally have this flexible opportunity to complete this long-standing goal. However, I was not prepared for the intensive research and writing demands. Nor was I ready for the feeling of being alone out there. In that program, the first two courses covered digital communications and understanding academic research. Students take both courses simultaneously and are part of a learning community. This helped ameliorate feelings of isolation.
One assignment asked us to build a class wiki defining certain technological terms. I chose to define cracker and hacker. I was not familiar with the distinction between the two terms and posted the definitions from Webopedia. I was given a zero on the assignment and was very upset. I contacted the professor and she said that I had plagiarized the material and deserved a zero. I explained that I linked both words to Webopedia and was not taking credit for the work. She explained that I needed to paraphrase and synthesize content. I mentioned that coming from the corporate world, I did not realize how strict the rules were for academic engagement. She then recommended that I use the online tutoring service to practice paraphrasing. I did so and the gentleman I worked with was wonderful. I resubmitted the assignment and received a 90.
This episode reminded me of the hurdles of initially transitioning to the online classroom. I would like to develop a course that prepares students for learning in this modality. This specific course will be for students reentering academia, but many of the elements would be applicable to all first time online learners. The course will include sections on annotation and research including citations, references and critical evaluation of sources. Another section will cover academic writing, which includes synthesis and contextual application of content in discussions and reflective posts. I will also cover community building and online resources to scaffold learning. I am still mapping things out but that is the basic premise.
My experience in over twenty online classrooms, has led me to conclude that a strong, clear, organized teaching presence is the most important factor in determining positive learning outcomes. When a student logs in to a course site for the first time, it is imperative that they perceive they are embarking on an expertly crafted and curated learning experience. If there is confusion from the onset, the student will start the journey feeling that the instructor is not able or willing to facilitate ease of use and instruction.”
Alicia goes on to describe her experience as an online student as transformative, “I expected to learn a great deal along the way. However, I was not expecting to be transformed. My experiences in the online classroom have made me a more rational thinker. I no longer make decisions based on preconceived notions. My thought process is now more critical and requires that I base decisions on credible evidence. I have also learned that my viewpoints are contingent to my contexts and may not be suitable for others’ contexts. These realizations have helped me be a better wife, sister, daughter, aunt, friend, neighbor, and collaborator. In retrospect, I believe that I returned to school at the right time in my life. My life experiences enriched the learning process and provided maturity I did not possess thirty years ago. At this juncture, I foresee continuing my evolution in both formal and informal lifelong online learning.”
It was a privilege to witness Alicia’s learning in my online ETAP640 course as she confronted and questioned her assumptions, and explored the possibilities of learner-centered online instruction, and, a privilege to play one small part in Alicia’s amazing online learning journey.
Alicia’s interest in online teaching and learning is clear. I am convinced that she will be successful in any area she chooses to focus on and my sincerest hope that she will pursue a career that includes online teaching and online student support. Alicia is precisely why Open SUNY exists and is so important. Without the online opportunity, her education would not have been possible. She is a real life example of the extraordinary impact that online education can have on an individual that chooses to take full advantage of the opportunities it affords. I am in awe of Alice and humbled by her accomplishments.
It is my honor to congratulate Alicia Fernandez on the 2015 NUTN Online Student Recognition Award. Her passion for learning, diligence, resilience, and successes in online learning all in the face of significant real life challenges exemplify why online learning is so important in the lives of real people, and demonstrate why Alicia Fernandez is uniquely qualified for recognition by NUTN with this award.
Watch Alicia Fernandez’s presentation at the 2016 Open SUNY COTE Summit – What I Have Learned After Completing 28 Online College Courses
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