Teaching from a distance

These online professors find ways to draw students closer

By tuning in, reaching out and sharing their own experiences, these four teachers make a strong connection with distance learners

by Betty Lynne Leary

Barbara Plungis will do just about anything for her online students, which recently meant finding an Internet-accessible vacation spot in the wilds of North Dakota for her husband's duck hunting trip this fall.

"I don't shoot anything, but I wear the fatigues and orange vest," Plungis describes. "And I still answer e-mails and return assignments on time. I love this job!"

Her students return the affection.

"Barbara has a warm, personal touch that was totally unexpected," says Greg Lippert, a hospital administrator from Mt. Shasta, Calif., who is working on his bachelor's degree. "One would expect distance learning to be a rather ... prescribed way to learn, but not with Barbara. She imparts criticism in a non-demeaning manner and always infuses some humor, which is so refreshing."

“When someone tells me they’re scared to earn this degree, I tell them ‘I’ve been there and done it and so can you.’”
– Barbara Plungis ’84,’97,
health administration professor

Plungis, a health care administration professor, knows all too well the schedule her students keep. She worked full time as a nurse while earning both her bachelor's in professional arts (1984) and master's degree in health care administration (1997) through Saint Joseph's distance education program. According to her students, many of whom are active-duty military, Plungis has a special knack for connecting with them immediately.

A true nurse at heart, Plungis loves helping people. She strives to answer e-mail and grade assignments quickly. She's also willing to lend an understanding ear when life throws obstacles in a student's path.

"I'm here for them no matter what. We have lots of shared experiences ...," Plungis relates. "When someone tells me they're scared to earn this degree, I tell them ‘I've been there and done it and so can you.'"

Barbara Plungis

“I’m here for them no matter what,” says alumna Barbara Plungis ’84,’97 of her students.

When Kimberly Elzey of East New Market, Md., began working toward her radiology administration degree last May, it was her first college course in 13 years.

"I was a little apprehensive," she says. "Barbara's friendly and caring way made me more relaxed and allowed me to overcome my fear." Another first-year student, Daryl Barta of Georgetown, Mass., describes Plungis as "extremely available," which helped greatly during her first online course.

"I knew I could always reach her and that was comforting," Barta explains, adding that Plungis "directs you on the path you need to follow in order to be successful."

Plungis feels a special closeness with her students serving in the military. According to David McCall, a Saint Joseph's academic advisor, there are hundreds of active-duty personnel working on degrees through Saint Joseph's program.

"Barbara has a great deal of empathy for our military students," McCall explains. "She understands that they are balancing their studies with a commitment not only to their country, but to their families as well." In addition to ongoing reading, assignments, and exams, military students often cope with very limited access to computers and the Internet while deployed.

"I certainly give them credit for trying to continue their education under the most extreme conditions," Plungis says.

Although longtime nursing professor Janet Douglass rarely meets her students, she connects with them by finding common ground.

"I listen to them and try to find out more about them," Douglass notes. "With this population, you always have something in common. I find I'm more connected to my online students than those in a traditional classroom. E-mail helps establish a one-on-one relationship. It's personal."

She enjoys the mid-career, graduate students that populate her online learning community. "These students can apply everything you teach them right away, and that's just a delight," Douglass explains.

“I only teach courses I truly love. I’m engaged in the content, and I try to get them to love it as much as I do.”
– Janet Douglass,
nursing professor

Laurence Topliffe, a practicing clinical educator at Shriners Burn Hospital in Boston, has taken seven online courses from Saint Joseph's and is close to finishing his MSN in nursing education. He notes that his most challenging and productive course was Nursing Research with Dr. Douglass. Topliffe describes Douglass as "a wonderful role model for professionalism and academic discipline."

"She can put herself into the shoes of an average nurse and bring abstract concepts into reality," he explains. "She helps you work through your own mental barriers because we all have them, but we often don't know what they are or how to deal with them."

Janet Douglass

Janet Douglass has taught distance learners at Saint Joseph’s College since 1985. “I love to hear their stories. I can relate to what they’re going through, because I’ve been there,” she says.

Douglass transfers not only her clinical knowledge of nursing to her students, but also her passion for the profession.

"I only teach courses I truly love," she says. "I'm really engaged in the content, and I try to get them to love it as much as I do." Her enthusiasm is infectious, and students are drawn to the classes she teaches.

"I love to hear their stories," Douglass notes. "I can relate to what they're going through, because I've been there."

Vicky Ladd of Ayer, Mass., who is completing her MSN this fall, says Douglass forms a personal connection. "She has actually called me, not just e-mailed, to check on how I was doing. That's not what you expect in a distance learning class."

Teaching online posed an intriguing challenge for John Munroe, a theology professor.

"I had no idea how to even turn on a computer," he says laughing. "But the St. Joe's technology people were very gracious and taught me everything."

John Monroe

John Munroe takes a mentoring approach when it comes to teaching his distance students. “That really breaks down the guard of the typical professor/student relationship,” one of his
students says.

Munroe's meticulous nature made him a natural for distance education.

"What makes John successful is the detail in which he works," says David Dziena, a 2005 graduate with a master's in pastoral theology. "He describes in detail what he likes about your work, and when you need improvement, he is very encouraging. He puts everything into a positive light."

A self-described easy-going sort, Munroe strives to be open with his students and share with them his 73 years of life experiences.

"There must be a relationship established for learning to take place," Munroe explains. "Students get a lot of help by learning my life story in bits and pieces. I'm not smarter than them; I've just been around longer."

That personal approach to learning attracted Dziena to several of Munroe's classes.

"He brings the material to life by making it personal," Dziena says. "He takes a mentoring approach that really breaks down the guard of the typical professor/student relationship."

Another recent alumna, Marian O'Brien '09, found a kindred soul in Munroe's attention to detail. "His knowledge of the subject matter is fantastic, and he will do anything to make your learning experience as fulfilling as possible," she says.

Judy Michaud '07 appreciates that Munroe always respects his students' opinions even if he might not agree with them. "John's very relaxed about his teaching. He's not puffed up about being a professor," Michaud says. "His openness and informality provide a very nurturing atmosphere for learning." 

Creating a class where students feel part of an active learning community is one of the greatest challenges in distance education. Michele Hinton-Riley, a Saint Joseph's professor who designs and teaches American history classes online, has been researching that issue since she began teaching online in 2005.

"The challenge is in building community and helping students not feel isolated," Riley explains. "You have to help them realize that they're not out there trying to master this course material alone." Riley will be presenting a paper she co-authored titled "Building Virtual Bridges; Utilizing Technology to Promote an Online Learning Community" this month at a conference in Rome.

Michele Hinton-Riley understands that many of her history students face the demands of full-time jobs, families and life’s unexpected detours. Her empathy stems from her own experience as a
military wife who finished her graduate degree while her husband was at war.

One of her students, Atlanta resident Diana Potts, feels very comfortable interacting on e-mail. "In fact, I might share information about myself in an e-mail that I may hesitate to share in a classroom," she admits. "I also like having the opportunity to share personal perspectives on the discussion boards."

Nancy Smith, who has been taking online courses for two years from her home in Assonet, Mass., enjoys Riley's enthusiasm.

"Michele has so much passion for U.S. history and for her students," Smith says. "She shares stories that add to the student's insights, showing her love for the history of our country. By the time I finished her course, I felt I had made a friend."

Kathleen Lawrence, a nursing student from Derry, N.H., says that her online professors really do form a connection with students by sharing about themselves as well as their knowledge of the subject. After a hectic summer in which she began to fall behind in Riley's course, Lawrence relates that Riley e-mailed her some encouraging words.

"She e-mailed my grade to me with the comment to ‘hang in there and hopefully the fall will bring some peace,'" Lawrence relates. "I really appreciated her sincerity and her concern for me."

Michele Hinton-Riley

Michele Hinton-Riley lives in Florida but reaches out to her students across the country to make them feel part
of an active learning community.

Riley, like most online professors, understands the demands that many students face, including full-time jobs, families, and life's unexpected detours.

"I've learned a lot from my students and how they juggle their lives," Riley notes. "I know how passionate they are to finish that degree and how many sacrifices they make." Her empathy stems from her own experience as a military wife who finished her graduate degree while her husband was at war.

"I was an adult when I went back to school, too," Riley says, "so I can sympathize with anyone trying to earn a degree, raise children, and work full time. "Every student has an opportunity to learn. I’m there to help and support them.”

When you're not in a classroom

Because online students don't see their instructor or fellow students face-to-face, teaching with a personal touch can help them feel connected and part of a "classroom community."

Ann Cohen, who teaches Educational Leadership in the Master in Education program, sends out personalized welcome letters to new students. She deliberately uses a conversational tone and invites them to ask questions. Throughout the course as she responds to their homework, she also tries to call them weekly, shares her own teaching and leadership experiences in e-mails, posts favorite quotes, poetry and book recommendations, and even sends online greeting cards with encouraging messages. This is in addition to weekly online chat sessions and responding in a timely manner to their assignments.

Laurie Spaltro, a project coordinator for course design at Saint Joseph's who earned her degree online, says students are very relieved to get support. "Promptness and willingness to respond really lessens that isolated feeling," she says.

Spaltro says Barbara Plungis manages to infuse her personality into e-mails through simply using a smile icon or adding audio pieces so that students can hear the inflections in her voice. Plungis and the other professors highlighted in the adjacent article have been course designers, which Spaltro says leads to a deep understanding of what students need to be engaged. "They bring that into the online classroom," she says.

Overall, Cohen says she tries to be both professional and personal, using a reassuring tone and developing a connection with her students. "I try to be human ... all the while showing each student that I care."