The Evolution of PimaOnline

Photo of Janice Kempster

Janice Kempster

February 22, 2023 | By Lisa Ganga

Pima Community College in Arizona is a Hispanic-serving institution that enrolls about 43,000 students, many of whom are working and have families. With 40% of students fully online, and more in virtual and hybrid courses, the college ensures that online courses are not just pale imitations of in-person courses and that their design takes into account how students learn.

Janice Kempster was brought on as the dean of Pima’s online division in 2016 and helped transform it into a major unit of the college, with course development, training, and support functions. In 2021, Kempster became Pima’s assistant director of the Center for Learning Technology, which designs and maintains fully online courses.

“We have many students now who complete degrees and certificates fully online and never go to an in-person class,” Kempster said.

The Postsecondary Collaborative talked to Kempster recently about how PimaOnline evolved and how they engage students in online courses. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

How would you describe PimaOnline? Is it just a collection of online courses or more than that?

It’s more than that. It’s evolved a lot in the last 6 years. We have instructional technologists who manage our many learning tools and help teach faculty how to use them. We have a digital media production studio, where we now produce our video content ourselves. That’s a growing part of PimaOnline. And then we have an operations and partnerships area in PimaOnline and they’re involved in innovative ways to bring different student populations to our online courses.

We have an online student success division, which is really critical. And they work closely with our PimaOnline department heads and faculty members to ensure the student experience is always front and center. We have a faculty trainer who is instrumental in providing training opportunities to faculty who are focused on online courses and teaching and learning. And then we have now a whole quality unit and a director of quality assurance who manages our quality review processes for online courses.

Of course, the pandemic accelerated the need exponentially, because our enrollments went from about 40% online, to over 90% during the pandemic, and it stayed that way for a couple of years.

What did you realize you needed after that sudden shift to 90% online?

We needed a lot more resources devoted to faculty training, because we had faculty teaching online who’d never ever done it in the past and had limited skills with the learning management system (LMS) and had never conducted a Zoom meeting. And then, over time, it became more about: How do you set up the course? How do you do things in ways that are accessible? How do you ensure that students are engaged? We did a lot of workshops and more training on that, and our instructional technologists were hired during this time. They addressed the critical need of helping faculty understand how to use these great tools we have, because if they don’t know how to use them, they just sit there.

The Postsecondary Collaborative is studying self-directed learning, so time management, reflection, planning, some of the applied learning tools. How much of that do you build in? Or how do you think about these issues at this point?

Yeah, that’s a good question. We do use things like a time management calculator. That gets embedded in a lot of our standard online courses. It’s also part of the orientation to online learning that students are encouraged to take. There’s also a quiz—Are you right for online learning?—that that does give them information about needing to be self-directed.

We do a lot of this; we just don’t call it self-directed learning. There are a lot of elements of it built into, for example, our Center for Learning Technology course review rubric. We look to ensure there’s some way for students to reflect on the course. We look for a midterm evaluation where an instructor would have a session with a student just to say, “Here’s where you’re at. Are you meeting your goals?” So some of that is just inherent to our standards.

Is there a particular tool you can think of that we haven’t talked about that relates to self-directed learning skills?

We have a tool called PlayPosit that basically allows us to take video and make it an interactive learning experience for the student. So, the video might play for 3 minutes, and then questions pop up and the student has to answer those before the video will continue. It’s a way to keep them mindful about what they’re hearing and seeing, rather than just sitting and tuning out. It’s very popular. You can assign points to it, and it can be a graded video quiz.

We also encourage open pedagogy, which is a way that instructors and students can co-create knowledge that is actually shared in the world. And students are highly motivated by that.

We incorporate open educational resources (OER) every chance we can. We were one of the Achieving the Dream grant recipients in 2016. So that started our OER endeavor in online courses. And it has continued to be a highly successful initiative for us.

What does developing a new online course look like at Pima?

We run two development cycles every year, fall and spring. Those projects get assigned to our instructional designers, and a faculty subject matter expert is identified.

Everyone who teaches fully online or serves as a subject matter expert has to complete a 5-week online training course called TEACH: TE 125, which was created by faculty at PimaOnline. And in that course, they get the fundamentals of how to teach online. It covers a lot of a lot of basics, including the element of responsiveness. But honestly, a person really isn’t selected to be a subject matter expert unless they also have years of online teaching behind them so they really know what they’re creating. We have criteria people must meet in order to be a subject matter expert.

So, the faculty member comes in familiar with online teaching and learning, but they may have never designed a course before. The online teaching course walks them through how to get started. And they are also, during that course, engaging with the instructional designer who’s been assigned to the project. And the instructional designer really starts to help them see ways that they can shape their content and utilize the many tools that we have.

You mentioned an optional orientation for students. Is there anything else you think colleges can do better to support students in online classes?

I think our online student success unit is a model for how you can support students in online courses. It used to be that they were just out there and they weren’t supported. So, investing in positions that are dedicated to the support of fully online students is really important. We have online coaches and mentors that are built into certain online courses to dialog with students and to support them through the process. That kind of thing really helps support their success.

Tags: Instructional Strategies Professional Learning Self-directed Learning Technology