Interview with Dr. Thomas Cavanagh, Associate V.P. of Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida
About Thomas Cavanagh, Ph.D.
Dr. Thomas Cavanagh is the Associate Vice President of Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF), the second largest university in the nation. There he oversees the distance learning strategy, policies, and practices. Dr. Cavanagh is also an award-winning instructional designer, program manager, administrator. His experience has earned him positions on a number of state and national online learning boards and made him a frequent presenter at industry conferences. His research interests include e-learning, technical communication, and the societal influence of technology on education, training, culture, and commerce.
Prior to joining UCF, Dr. Cavanagh administered e-learning development for both public and private academic audiences, and for industrial audiences, including Fortune 500 and military organizations. He is not only an online learning leader, but also an award-winning author of mystery novels. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Miami, an MBA in technology management from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in Texts & Technology from the University of Central Florida.
[OnlineEducation.com] Prospective students without previous online learning experience often wonder what it is truly like to attend online classes. Can you please describe a typical online student’s day-to-day experience while attending the University of Central Florida (UCF)? Are large courses handled differently than small courses, especially with respect to lectures, discussions, and collaboration?
[Dr. Cavanagh] An online student’s experience will be a combination of consistency and variety. UCF maintains a consistent set of defined course modalities. These modalities help students know the differences between a face-to-face class and a blended (or mixed-mode) class and a fully online class and a lecture capture class. In addition, the courses are all delivered in the same learning management platform, and we maintain certain design standards for quality purposes.
However, each faculty member brings a unique set of experiences, content, pedagogical styles, and interaction strategies. This combination makes each course distinctive but consistent with an overarching theme. Each course is designed to let the content determine its treatment, meaning that the emphasis on lectures or discussions or readings or any other instructional element will be highly variable, yet always focused on accomplishing the objectives. Online students are given the opportunity to learn about success strategies, experience several guided course tours, and take a brief tutorial on the use of the platform through a variety of resources available on UCF’s website.
[OnlineEducation.com] How do UCF’s online students take quizzes and exams, and what steps are taken to prevent cheating? What about research projects, theses, and any other capstone experiences, if required?
[Dr. Cavanagh] UCF uses a variety of assessment strategies and methods. First and foremost, faculty are encouraged and supported to incorporate authentic evaluation strategies into their courses such as papers, presentations, portfolios, and projects. In other cases, instructional designers work with faculty to design other kinds of assessments, quizzes, and tests to evaluate students against the course objectives. The instructional design team also works extensively with faculty to implement a variety of exam strategies to help mitigate academic integrity concerns. A few examples include timed tests, question pools, delivering one question at a time, randomized questions, randomized answer choices, password-protected tests, IP address-restricted tests, and proctored exams. In addition, UCF has developed a proprietary video proctoring system called ProctorHub, which, unlike commercial products, we have been to make available to students at no cost. Faculty have embraced the use of ProctorHub to help ensure student identity when taking exams.
[OnlineEducation.com] Prospective students researching online courses and degrees may come across unfamiliar terms and concepts that significantly impact the student experience, such as cohort programs. Can you please explain how UCF views such programs? What should students consider when researching them?
[Dr. Cavanagh] A cohort model is one where a group of students is admitted to a program at the same time and progresses through the curriculum together. None of UCF’s undergraduate programs are cohort-based. Some graduate programs may have a cohort expectation. However, whether a program is based on a cohort of students who are admitted together and progress together through the curriculum or is more open, allowing flexibility in course selection and number of courses taken concurrently, the more important factor is that students find a program that meets both their curricular and lifestyle needs. The program should address the reason why they are going to school. It should also fit their family, work, and other lifestyle needs—whether that means a traditional, on-campus program, night classes, fully online classes, blended classes, or some combination. Part of UCF’s success has been this flexibility that gives students agency to choose the best path for them.
[OnlineEducation.com] Your previous experience as an instructional designer and faculty member must give you a unique insight into what it is really like to design and teach online courses. What are some of the most important factors faculty members should consider when preparing their first Web-based class, and how does the University support them during this transition? How might experience teaching online impact one’s face-to-face instructional methods, if at all?
[Dr. Cavanagh] The most important factor we repeatedly hear from students regarding online courses is that they have a consistent structure. Having the course be well-designed in a consistent format with regular expectations regarding the location of content, due dates, and workload allows students to exert their instructional energies learning the material rather than deciphering this week’s expectations. UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning provides a comprehensive suite of services for faculty including instructional design, assessment and evaluation support, technical support, programming, graphics, video, and many other offerings. The core of our services is our set of faculty development programs, including the award-winning online faculty development course, IDL6543. We have a significant amount of evidence that faculty who complete our online faculty development course often fundamentally change how they teach all of their classes, including face-to-face courses.
[OnlineEducation.com] As an active member and former board chair of the Educause Learning Initiative, you research, write about, and deliver presentations on a variety of topics that shape online learning and success. Drawing from this experience, what advice would you offer prospective students assessing online schools and degree programs? How might they evaluate the quality of a program? Are there certain factors they should research when considering best fit?
[Dr. Cavanagh] Interestingly, despite the fact that the internet is unconstrained by geography, research has indicated that most students select an online program from an institution within 100 miles from where they live. This implies perhaps that students put the most trust into institutions that are familiar to them. In general, I would encourage students to consider the overall reputation of the institution combined with the amount of experience the school has offering online learning. A respected and well-known school may have an excellent reputation but may be very inexperienced delivering online programs. Talk to other students. Ask to speak with faculty. Review websites to see if there is just a lot of marketing spin or if there is real substance serving as a foundation of the online program. Cost is an important factor but so is quality and value. Higher education is major investment with the potential to transform your life. Do some research ahead of time to be sure that you have selected the right institution for you.