Online Teaching Garners Professor Top Honor from College of Education and Health Professions

August 3, 2023  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Alissa Blair
Alissa Blair

Just three years into teaching at the University of Arkansas, Alissa Blair took home the College of Education and Health Professions' annual award for outstanding teaching. Blair, an assistant professor, teaches courses in the master's degree program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which is delivered online.

The six academic departments in the College of Education and Health Professions offer 50 undergraduate and graduate degrees and employ more than 160 full-time faculty members. The college ranks third in enrollment among the academic colleges at the state's flagship institution, according to its 2022 annual report.

"This is a chance to show the power of online learning," Blair said. "That award is a testament to the amazing learning that can happen. My students are working teachers grateful to further their skills. They have to feel like it's worth their time. The courses need to be really coherent, explaining what the goals are and the purpose of the assignments. Students don't want to feel like they are just checking off a list of to-dos."

In addition to the master's degree, which is a 33-credit hour program, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction offers a 15-hour graduate certificate in TESOL. Both are offered 100% online. Online courses allow the TESOL program to reach teachers living outside Northwest Arkansas, where the need for the specialization is also great, Blair said.

Blair is not new to teaching online, having done it at several other universities before coming to the U of A. The collaborative nature of working with instructional designers at Global Campus made a significant impact on her online teaching, she said. The award recognizes "outstanding teaching technique, strategy, method, or assignment — in terms of both creativity and effectiveness — implemented within the past year."

The Global Campus supports U of A colleges and schools in the development and delivery of online, distance and workforce education programs and courses. It provides instructional design services, technology services and assistance with marketing, recruiting and strategic academic development.

James Martin
James Martin

Blair worked with instructional designer James Martin to rebuild two online courses and create one new course. She learned more about features she had not been using in Blackboard, the university's learning management system, and Martin guided her in trying low-stakes testing, a concept he has studied recently.

"One thing I love about working with instructional designers," she said, "is they know about pedagogy behind online learning. James talked to me about using reading quizzes to incentivize work, giving students points for what they are doing anyway, not penalizing them."

Blair said that, because she teaches in an education-based program, she enjoyed getting "to geek out" with the instructional designers.

"Every time I tried something a little different, it was an exciting process," she said. "I teach a lot of the same students, so I want to make sure the courses feel different and are distinct enough, whatever is right for those courses. It's fun to have a sounding board and learn about new technology to have variety."

She called the process a truly collaborative effort.

"I'm an expert in content and I know about teaching," she said. "They have online teaching expertise; that makes for the best course."

Online teaching is not easy and it's a lot of work, especially on the front end, Blair said.

"It's still important to have instructor presence," she said. "You don't just design a course and it runs on its own. Students want contact, not just copy/paste.

"I felt like the instructional designers never try to force a practice or pedagogy onto anybody," Blair continued. "They readily recognize content experience and try to be a true support. Biweekly meetings with them helped me learn as an instructor how to tailor things. I did myself a service by trusting the process and going through what they suggested. It gave me a lot more peace of mind when the course was actually running."

The Global Campus instructional designers offer a documented process that provides milestones for faculty members to ensure their courses are built for the best possible learning experience, Blair said, and they hold a kickoff meeting with other faculty members to build a community among online instructors. Blair said instructional designers called her one of the more dutiful students because she faithfully met every other week with them and kept her focus on the design work while also teaching other courses.

The designers also build a reflection process into the back end of course development, Blair said, such as collecting information on times students were logging into the course.

"I could probably find that information, but I never did," she said.

She encourages other faculty members to put aside feelings that they are not good with technology.

"That's not an OK excuse," Blair said. "We're all retooling our skills. The instructional designers are pretty responsive to where you are. Whatever your level of comfort with technology is, they will help you one up it a little. They will not tell you to put 15 new things into your course. It's a collaboration."

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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Master of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Earn your master’s degree while gaining tools and learning strategies to help English-learning students succeed. About 8 percent of children in Arkansas schools in preschool through 12th-grade are English learners.

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Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

School systems today address a growing population of non-English-speaking students. You can gain the skills and knowledge needed for future teaching success by earning a Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

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