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The University of Tennessee at Martin


A True Partnership in Instructional Design

The University of Tennessee at Martin’s partnership with RNL is in its second year and spans two initiatives. After engaging RNL to facilitate a Strategic Enrollment Planning (SEP) process, institutional leadership determined that they needed help in designing the highest quality online courses and programs.

RNL’s new Teaching and Learning services help institutions ensure that their online courses reflect both the expertise of the faculty teaching them AND the critical ingredients of the highest quality online learning experiences. Provost Phil Cavalier said that it was clear in both instances that RNL doesn’t employ a “cookie cutter” approach, which was incredibly helpful in “selling” an instructional design partnership to colleagues. But while this was important, the most important was that from the SEP process they knew that “RNL is an excellent partner—and that’s first and foremost, what we needed.”

Why Partner with RNL on Online Instructional Design?

As with most other institutions, UT Martin did the best job it could after the pandemic hit in the overnight transition to remote learning. Cavalier soon realized that while they were successful in “continuity” and made it through the transition, there were some problems that should be addressed—not just during the pandemic but even more for the long-term viability of the institution. These concerns were validated by the results of student satisfaction surveys at the end of the fall semester. Cavalier said:

“It became really clear that the most important missing piece was a deep dive into the pedagogy of online course delivery. We had folks who were doing the best they could, but they didn’t really know how to do online teaching differently to make sure students stayed engaged, to build the modules in those courses within the LMS. They were learning on the fly.”

RNL’s Rob Green spent more than a decade building online courses and programs from the institutional side and knows that developing a strong relationship with the faculty who “own” the course work is really important. “We meet instructors weekly to review content and ensure that each course is being developed with the instructor’s vision, content, presence, and is following pedagogical best practices. We are there to ensure we translate the instructor’s vision into an effective online product. We also provide faculty with a one-on-one multimedia consultation to guide them as they build out their own multimedia. You can think of our team as a way for institutions to effectively augment their staff.”

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Addressing Faculty Concerns

Cavalier is also well-versed in the typical concerns of faculty when a consultant comes near anything in the academic sphere. He needed to find a partner that would be clear—from the outset—that the faculty were the experts in the content and the consultant’s primary responsibility was to translate that content into the highest quality online learning experience possible. After the SEP process, Cavalier was confident that RNL’s approach would fit his institution’s culture:

“I was most surprised after the first meeting with RNL’s instructional designers how quickly our faculty members saw that there was real value in the process. Again, faculty members can be skeptical about instructional designers. For them to have so successfully turned that conversation from, ‘I’m not sure that they’re really going to stay away from what I do’ to ‘wow, I really see that what they do is going to help me deliver the content that I want to deliver’ was very surprising. Frankly, I thought that would take more time.”

RNL’s Impact on the Institution

UT Martin is not only well-positioned to see itself through any new flare-ups of COVID-19, but by focusing on and investing in the creation of the highest quality online courses – without losing any of the unique expertise and knowledge of its world-class faculty – it has also positioned itself for success over the next several decades.

As the pandemic has eased (for now) and institutions begin to return to “normal,” there is a growing consensus that as much as students (and faculty) want to get back to the classroom – the experience with online education has likely increased (as opposed to decrease) long-term demand for online learning. Now that everyone has experience with online learning, why would they not expect that it would be available if circumstances prevent them from being in the classroom, for courses they don’t think need a face-to-face experience.

Institutions that are prepared to meet these emerging demands will have a headstart over those who do not.

Cavalier’s final comment indicated that he thought there was also another advantage to all that they have learned in regard to generating the highest quality online course experiences:

“Some of the insights folks here have gained over the last year—through our work with RNL—about how they can take what they’ve learned and perfected in their online courses and apply it to the advancement of their face-to-face classes is an exciting prospect.”

A Planning Process With Immediate Applicability

The university was in the middle of an RNL Strategic Enrollment Planning (SEP) process when the pandemic hit, and Cavalier thinks that that was the “silver lining” in a very tough year. Why? “We were all very concerned about what was going to happen next with enrollment. Because of SEP, I was able to say to the chancellor, to our board of trustees, and the UT System presidents that we are as prepared as we can be to both take a strategic approach to enrollment and bring forward new programs that will help stabilize or increased enrollment. Having a clear plan for what to do and when to do it was of immeasurable help in that time of crisis.”

The first thing Lew Sanborne—who leads RNL’s SEP process—says about the service is that it has to be re-invented for every client and cannot have a “cookie-cutter approach.” Sanborne goes on to say: “One of the reasons that the SEP process occurs over many months is that part of our credibility is developed through the relationships that we develop with leaders, staff, and faculty, and the engagement of those constituents takes time. We can also play the facilitator role in a way that an internal leader has a hard time doing.”  Cavalier agrees:

“The RNL SEP process allowed us to open up conversations that would have been hard to do, if I had raised it simply myself. Having a third party see what we were doing and say, you know what? That is a very bad idea. Really helped us to tackle some of those bad ideas in a way that would have been difficult before, so I think the challenges were very few, but I think the RNL consultant challenged our campus to think differently about some of the things we were doing.”

Why did UT Martin choose RNL’s SEP process?

Since arriving at UT Martin, Phil Cavalier realized that long-term institutional health required some new thinking. UT Martin was looking year to year in regard to new enrollment projections and new program development, and they needed a longer horizon in terms of planning. The university also needed a very intentional and structured planning process, and Cavalier wanted to create a “culture of planning.” They also didn’t have a good handle on what data they actually had—and how to use it effectively to plan for the future. Cavalier closed by saying, “We didn’t really know what we needed to do next. We knew in a general way about the demographic cliff, but we needed more direction in terms of what programs we should/could add and what their impact might be.”

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