Is the RMU Online Team Short-staffed?


Anthony DeSimone, Contributor

The Robert Morris University online team, which once had three curriculum and instructional designers for their online and off campus programs, now only has one.

Adam Sullivan is currently the only curriculum and instructional designer for online courses at RMU. Previously, Sullivan was accompanied by Mark Kassel and Chris Gribschaw. Kassel and Gribschaw worked alongside Sullivan to develop online courses and train faculty members on how to teach in an online setting. However, with their departures from the university, Sullivan now handles all matters related to online curricula and faculty training.

“I’m wearing every hat and it is overwhelming at times,” Sullivan said.

With over 700 fully online students at RMU, the online classroom “is one of the biggest revenue streams for the university,” Sullivan said.

To put this into perspective, each fully online undergraduate student pays $705 per credit. With students taking 12 to 18 credits per semester, and a traditional school year consisting of two semesters, a single student can pay anywhere from $16,920 to $25,380 per year. This means that the university can generate anywhere from $11.8 million to $17.8 million a year from their fully online students.

With the online learning environment generating this kind of revenue for the university, Sullivan personally believes that there should be an instructional design staff and a training staff for online courses.

Sullivan explained that, “playing faculty support, faculty design and faculty trainer, I don’t really have time to think.” He is currently developing online courses for the spring 2016 semester. He explained that there are currently 18 courses that he is working on for the first eight weeks of the semester and another six for the second eight weeks of the semester.

Additionally, Sullivan explained that he hosts one or two training sessions, per week, for faculty members. These sessions are utilized for teaching faculty how to use discussion boards, create and grade tests, build assignments, post lectures, and use other various functions of Blackboard, the online website that is used for online courses. The issue with being the only instructional designer is that, when he has these training sessions, they do not go as smoothly as they used to when there were two instructional designers.

Sullivan explained that he works with multiple faculty members at a time during the training sessions. During the session, if one person becomes lost, he has to stop the session to help that individual, which causes the other faculty members to wait.

“One person can only do so much,” Sullivan said.

One person can only do so much.

— Adam Sullivan

Tina Gitelman, manager of online and off campus student services, explained that the online team, herself included, is aware of the workload that Sullivan has.

“It’s all on one plate, and I’m sure it is very hectic for him (Sullivan),” Gitelman said.

From the faculty perspective, Anthony Moretti, director of the center for innovative teaching and engaged learning, or CITADEL, and a communication professor at RMU, talked about the “naive assumption” that faculty members tend to have when transitioning from an in class setting to an online setting. He talked about how he thought that he could simply move all his in class material over to the online setting without changing anything. He mentioned that he was not, at first, aware of how much is involved in the transition.

“We spent a lot of time going over what needs to be on that Blackboard shell,” Moretti said. “I gained a real appreciation for how complex it is sometimes.”

Moretti is referring to the standards that must be met for an online class to be approved. Quality Matters, or QM, defines themselves as, “an international organization representing broad inter-institutional collaboration and a shared understanding of online course quality.”

QM has a set rubric that must be followed in order for a class to be deemed acceptable for faculty to use to teach students online. They have eight general standards that must be met. Additionally, RMU has their own standards that must be met as well in order for a class to be approved by the university.

With all these standards that have to be met and all the training that is necessary for faculty members to teach online, Sullivan explained that sometimes everything is not ready when it comes time for classes to start. He explained that it has happened before in the past few years. However, Sullivan said that he does have a contingency plan in place should that happen for the spring courses in 2016.

He talked about a “rolling build” concept where, if the entire curriculum for a class is not ready for the first day of classes, he will work with the faculty member to get the first few weeks up and running. From there, they would work on the rest of the material for the other weeks of the class while the students begin working on the first few weeks.

“The end game is always the student,” Sullivan said. He explained that he will do everything that he can to ensure that the online student is not deprived or given a lesser learning experience than the traditional classroom student.