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Integrating Online Teaching Modality in Public Administration Program—A Perspective from Strategic Planning Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Yan Xiao
March 20, 2023

When the reality of the Coronavirus pandemic arrived in Spring 2020, the emergency transition to online teaching modality (OTM) at CSUF was completed within two weeks. This unprecedented transition caused public administration faculty to consider permanent integration of OTM in our programs. Although we believe the traditional on-campus experience will continue to dominate classes, there will be more online course offerings going forward.

CSUF is situated in Orange County where the average one-way commute takes 27.6 minutes based on FRED data. Universities may encounter challenging events at regional, national and even international levels such as earthquakes and wildfires, work stoppage through strikes, political events and health pandemics. The OTM will allow greater flexibility for practitioners to join at their convenience to enrich topics on management, policy, value and politics. Our program has built productive a partnership with the Orange County City Manager’s Association. Including more guest speakers will enhance our mission as a theory-embedded and applied degree. Moreover, almost all our MPA students work fulltime. A large proportion of undergraduates work as well. An issue we typically have is that course schedules conflict with students’ work schedules. The OTM would better meet the needs of students and in turn improve retention and time to graduation. Therefore, integrating OTM strategically prepares our program for emergent situations, and for regular and long-term program flexibility and enhancement. It is the latter that we want to highlight because we should arrive at these programmatic decisions strategically. We are not switching to an online program. However, the capability of remote education is important. The fundamental questions are 1) to what extent is OTM implemented and how, 2) how to adapt it to routine course offerings and 3) how to assess online teaching/learning.

Cognition regarding OTM is new to traditional PA programs. Acquisition of the new pedagogy, technology and experience is at the soul of strategic planning. Embracing OTM involves a thorough reflection of our program and development of systematic strategies. Virtual instruction sacrifices face-to-face interaction which is the most important feature, including the professional networking and support that occurs between students. How to make up for this, and construct rigorous online courses demand continuous practice. We think the following elements are essential to a conceptual plan: 1) student readiness, 2) faculty readiness, 3) constructs of comparable rigorous online courses, 4) rotational arrangement in coordination with curriculum arrangement, 5) pedagogical and technical training and support, 6) institutional support, 7) constructs of assessment.

Faculty and Student Readiness

Readiness first implies acceptance and willingness to undertake the challenge. It further means being prepared pedagogically, technically and environmentally. During the pandemic, conversations at our meetings easily turned to how to engage students in online discussion and how best to use Zoom breakout rooms and whiteboards. One of our colleagues said he made teaching videos in his garage using a white board. Students’ preparedness comprises online learning strategies and autonomy, technological proficiency and an online learning environment. Many students reported weak internet connections and difficulty finding adequate and quiet study space. As we emphasize the creation of opportunities for communication with students, a positive and sufficient learning environment is essential. All these promote motivation, autonomy and engagement in online learning. The transition tells us we do not have to be fully ready to begin building constructs. Achieving readiness is an on-going process, with all the rest of the above elements working together.

Rigorous Online Courses Constructs, Training, and Assessment

Strategic planning can mitigate stress and anxiety, increased workload, weak communication and management in Zoom and social isolation with colleagues and peers that both faculty and students experienced during the emergency transition. A music professor at CSUF said in Daily Titan half of her students had never heard of Zoom and they needed an email telling them what to do. Instructors, to some extent, are directors who have manager roles. In-person teaching can enrich all aspects of teaching due to its effectiveness in pedagogical, managerial and social functions. How to enhance virtual instruction, communication and management needs practice, reflection and training. These are new competencies that we can build to improve online class rigor. The assessment of the online teaching/learning needs to be taken constructively rather than judgmentally or conjecturally. It serves as a measure to see where we need improvement and support.

Course Rotation and Institutional Support

They are critical to the successful integration of OTM. One challenge is how to provide coverage for the comprehensive program while deciding which courses are offered online each semester and how to rotate courses as well as online and classroom options. For instance, each PA course needs to be offered the option of online instruction. The required courses may need to be offered in different modalities in a year, and two sections of one course may focus on the same option in a semester. These factors add complexity to curriculum planning and require institutional support in multiple aspects. The process helps faculty become more efficient in online and classroom teaching and provides broader vision and more convenience for increasingly non-traditional students.

Author: Yan Xiao is an assistant professor of public administration at California State University, Fullerton. She can be reached by email at [email protected]

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