Online learning: Q&A with the director of digital marketing programs

Samantha Gibson, an instructor and director of digital marketing programs in the Department of Marketing, has over 20 years experience in business, including holding several leadership roles at 7-Eleven, PepsiCo and BP Oil. After two decades in industry, Gibson embarked on her Doctor of Business Administration degree at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. She joined the NIU Department of Marketing in 2018 to direct the department’s digital marketing program at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The program is offered 100% online and focuses on digital marketing strategy, digital analytics and digital technology. Gibson’s teaching approach utilizes her knowledge of the business world in the classroom, incorporates real-life examples and mentoring and teaches students to understand what a career in business entails.

NIU Business engaged in an e-conversation with Samantha to learn her views about some of the challenges and best practices associated with online learning.

Q: Is online or remote learning here to stay in terms of education? 

SG: There’s some evidence that content drives how a class is created. Face-to-face will always be a preferred choice for certain classes that have rigorous content and emphasize the need for face-to-face instruction.

Q:  What are some of the biggest challenges with online/remote learning? Phrased another way, is it fair to say that some issues pertain to keeping attention, fostering active learning and humanizing the online learning experience?   

SG: Absolutely. When I teach asynchronous classes, I feel as if I am on an island. Even though there are discussion boards, it still feels isolated at times, even for the instructor. I have enjoyed Zoom and Microsoft Teams and will always welcome these types of technology to remove that challenge. Students have embraced the environments of Teams and Zoom, as well. It may sound overly simplistic but an obvious way to humanize the online learning experience is to spend time with students.

Q. Are there some steps students can take on their own?

SG:  They shouldn’t hesitate to email their instructor. They should call them, talk with them. They shouldn’t be bashful or afraid.

Q. Is there an obvious or immediate way to create a supportive online course community? 

SG: Students find ways to collaborate. I often allow students to critique the work of others in order to create a discussion. This is not graded as their critique and the discussion are a matter of opinion but it’s all still relevant to the content I am instructing.

Q. Are there approaches for online or remote coursework that you find particularly important and valuable?

SG: I’m a believer in engaged learning. I utilize a variety of activities, exercises, projects. I stay away from quizzes and tests…these are too traditional. I recommend finding creative ways for students to apply what they are learning. This is true across all majors. Even if the class is in chemistry, students could perform an experiment at home and then videotape it, as one example. 

Q: How can faculty be present every day in an online environment, both as teachers and as coaches.

SG: I give my cell phone number to students. They text, email, call. You could also have a blogging page. You can send announcements but sparingly – what you don’t want is to overwhelm students with messages.

Q: By the same token, what are some strategies that students can use to get the most out of their online course experience? 

SG: The best course of action is to find and carve out space in your week to dedicate to your online studies. Break it out into two to three sessions of time. Start early in the module, make a plan for the week, do the coursework and then submit it. Planning is key. Once you have a plan that allows you the freedom to get the work accomplished, you are then very successful. And also ask instructors to open up modules. I do this for my students. It allows them greater flexibility in the planning process.

Q: Where do you see the online learning experience going? 

SG: I see this continuing in certain formats, such as digital marketing — after all that is what it is all about, right — master degree programs for flexibility to get your degree wherever you are located. On the other end of the spectrum, I also see courses such as biology, chemistry, certain accounting courses, legal courses, PhD and DBA programs demanding the continuance of face-to-face instruction.

Q: Beyond or including technical skills, are there other skills that you believe are becoming increasingly important for both faculty and students in the context of remote/online learning? 

SG: If they aren’t already doing so, faculty will need to think about how to adjust their courses away from test, quiz, lecture format. This is not engaging.  Find ways to get the students to participate and drive their active learning. Online learning is only as good as the students who attend. So students really need to have independence and leadership/oversight of their success.

by M. De Jean, Director of Marketing, NIU Business

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