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Smeal teaching support specialists pave the way in the online classroom

October 25, 2019

Former online students become mentors using Smeal's new learning model 

The Penn State Online MBA Program, which is led by the Smeal College of Business and a World Campus partner, has developed and incorporated a new learning dimension by integrating teaching support specialists (TSS) into the online classroom.  

Since online education has become increasingly popular, Janet Duck, Penn State Online MBA faculty director, wanted to find a solution that would give students a high quality education and better promote engagement in the online classroom setting

Cheryl Horten
Cheryl Horten facilitates a discussion among Penn State Online MBA students during a residency week on Penn State's University Park campus.
“The TSS has two primary functions: to drive engagement in the online classroom, and to inspire learning through contemporary application of content," Duck said. "The TSS role is varied based on course content, teaching preferences, course format, and course design; however, common TSS responsibilities include facilitating rich online discussions, providing feedback for students on formative assignments, guiding team projects, and moderating live video sessions.”

Creating the role of teaching support specialists has not only allowed for former Penn State Online MBA (OMBA) graduates like Cheryl Horten and Dan Opstal to impart wisdom as former students, but also help students by providing perspective from their respective fields.

For the past 15 years, Horten was employed in the pharmaceutical industry. She recently left her position as a territory business manager at Bristol Myers Squibb in order to pursue a career with Penn State full time as a TSS.

Although being a pharmaceutical representative allowed her to continually learn and exemplify her commitment of helping others, Horten said she wanted to pursue her long-time goal of a career in higher education. She used her experience to not only help with the understanding of lesson content, but give perspective on how that content is transferable to real-world application in industry.

“Having completed Penn State’s iMBA, which is the previous incarnation of the OMBA program, I not only have a love for Penn State, but an appreciation and understanding of what it’s like for these students,” Horten said. “I can empathize with working all day and coming home to do school work, while taking care of your family – this is an opportunity for me to help these students be successful.”

Dan Opstal
Dan Opstal, seen here at the White House complex, uses his 18 years of military experience to support other online students who might be in their own challenging circumstances as they obtain their degrees.
With an 18-year background in the U.S. military and Department of Defense community, Opstal said he aspires to help students who were once in the same position as he was because of the impact Dr. Duck had as an instructor for the iMBA human resources course and additional residencies.

“I appreciate that students are often obtaining their degrees in challenging circumstances as do all the OMBA faculty,” said Opstal, who is currently employed as a partner engagement officer in the Department of Defense and as a reserve U.S. Air Force officer.

Opstal’s passion as a TSS reflects his love of teaching online. He enjoys being able to provide practical examples in threaded discussions and engage with students via Zoom, Penn State’s video conference platform. His leadership experience and engagement with various military and civilian audiences give him a good perspective to share with future students.

“There are always new angles to explore,” Opstal said of issues discussed in OMBA 815 (Ethical and Responsible Business Leadership). “Leadership often presents classic wicked problems - there are only better or worse answers and always a shade of grey.”

Horten merits the importance of interacting with students. Being able to build relationships with her students is the most rewarding part of her job. Horten said she finds helping her students understand the content of the material to be tremendously gratifying, knowing she played a role in that success.

With mentorship at the heart of Horten’s goal to have a positive impact on students throughout their Penn State career, she views her role as a way to conceptualize information, encourage higher order thinking, and facilitate discussion and reflection around course concepts – all in a nonthreatening, “safe space” kind of way. Additionally, she thinks having the opportunity to work with other TSS’s, instructors and the OMBA staff is an amazing experience.

“The physical distance between us is no hindrance to the strong team environment that we are operating in,” Horten said. “We are working together to ensure the OMBA program exceeds exceptional expectations. And I am a better person for having worked with these people.”

In order for students to be successful though, Opstal thinks it’s crucial to take advantage of the support specialists. They can play a vital role in helping identify practical insights and providing perspective on the curriculum. He believes these are things students can take in their proverbial "toolkit" anywhere they go.

For this collaborative partnership, the TSS can guide students to apply classroom knowledge in modern-day business and industry. Not only does Duck know that they can inspire students, but also aspires for TSS’ to become the norm throughout our teaching community. 

“Online education is a team sport that requires many experts working together to produce a high quality teaching and learning environment,” Duck said. “This combined skill set provides the platform for course innovation. Ongoing peer-to-peer sharing and identifying professional development needs will be key to growing and evolving a customized student experience.”

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