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Skibba, Widmer win award for online learning design research

March 18, 2021 By Lisa Bauer

With COVID-19 forcing many academic courses online — some for the first time — quality, accessible online teaching has never been more important, both for students and instructors.

Karen Skibba’s journey in online education began years ago, when she accepted a teaching assistant position while earning her master’s degree at Marquette University. Almost immediately, she wondered, “Who’s going to teach me how to teach?”

Portrait of Karen Skibba

Karen Skibba

Portrait of Maria Widmer

Maria Widmer

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Skibba helps UW–Madison instructors learn how to design and teach quality online courses. Many of the instructors teach adult learners in the university’s professional degrees and certificates.

“I always wanted to work at a research university,” she says. “Working at UW–Madison was always my dream, and when I saw the opening, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

As a program manager for the TeachOnline@UW Program, she seeks to help others create transformative learning experiences and reach new audiences using proven strategies for excellence in online teaching and learning.

For conducting online education research on such an important topic, Skibba and Maria Widmer of the UW–Madison School of Education received the Robert J. Menges Award for Outstanding Research in Educational Development from the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network.

“It shows this type of research is important,” Skibba says. “It shows that a significant investment of time and support is necessary for instructors to engage in meaningful collaboration, reflection, and applied practice through a faculty learning community. These experiences result in an enduring transformation of teaching that is critical to student success in online education. This type of research also provides faculty developers with additional evidence-based strategies to successfully guide instructors through this transformation.”

Widmer says she is honored to share the award, but “the true recognition is owed to instructors at UW–Madison who are committed to creating positive and productive learning environments for their students. The Robert J. Menges Award recognizes that teaching — whether online or in person — is a critically important practice in higher education that is developed through time, support and community.”

Widmer’s work focuses on the intersections of equity, data and innovation in higher education. “As a researcher and instructional designer, I study how university instructors learn to create inclusive, interactive, and equitable online learning experiences,” she says.

The award comes as a result of research the pair conducted for their upcoming chapter in Blended Learning Research Perspectives, Vol. 3, on the impact of the TeachOnline@UW blended faculty learning community on UW–Madison participants’ perceptions of and practices for online education.

Skibba and Widmer found that participants’ course design and teaching beliefs and practices were most influenced by direct experience as online students in programs modeling social, teaching and cognitive presence.