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Michael zur Muehlen, Associate Professor of Information Systems at the Howe School of Technology Management and online instructor for the WebCampus department at Stevens Institute of Technology, was the second recipient for the Online Excellence Award at Convocation 2010.

Dr. zur Muehlen believes that distance learning requires more discipline than many students initially assume. “Continual engagement and the encouragement of persistent conversation in online forums are critical to create a sense of community and to keep students engaged,” he said. “The preparation of course material requires more work from the faculty than traditional delivery, but the results are often longer lasting and more meaningful.”

Always looking to improve the online experience, this instructor will test any distance learning technique that he can sample. He particularly enjoys mixed media productions such as podcasts, narrated slides, ScreenCams, recorded video, or whichever medium is appropriate for the content he is trying to convey.

Dr. zur Muehlen spoke at the WebCampus Faculty Colloquium in Fall 2008 to the instructors about all of the podcasting technologies and techniques available. During the presentation, he provided a quick demonstration on how to record an audio podcast using the GarageBand tools that were built-in on his Mac computer. He also included information on the different options PC users have for developing these recordings with alternative software. For his presentation he went through each of the podcasting steps from recording his voice, to adding a jingle, to inserting artwork, ultimately creating a working and presentable podcast.

Another example of the type of online learning approaches zur Muehlen takes part in includes producing short videos to answer student questions. “It is easier to show on screen how to solve particular problems than to write a textual explanation,” zur Muehlen explained. “These videos are short – between five to ten minutes in length – and students seem to enjoy them.”

He also produces longer tutorials to introduce new concepts or software. For example, there are seven tutorial videos in MIS 712 (BPM and Workflow Implementation) that walk the students step-by-step through the use of complex workflow applications such as Sungard Infinity Process Platform , Signavio Process Editor, and Activiti BPM Platform. This comes in handy to keep the online discussion focused “This cuts down on the number of mechanical questions raised in class, and we can focus on the ‘big picture’ during class discussion,” he said.

The students also appreciate zur Muehlen’s approaches. “The most flattering type of feedback is when students send a note after a few months or years and say how useful they find the course content in their daily job,” he said. “One student told me he got an internship at Electronic Arts based on the material covered in one of the courses, and ultimately was offered a full-time staff position. That’s very rewarding.”

Although a fan of everything online learning offers, zur Muehlen does feel there should be more opportunities for hybrid delivery, or at least social get-togethers for the course participants. “I’m hosting a get-together later this semester, because the students miss the socializing and networking aspects of face-to-face classes when they take online classes,” he said.

Dr. zur Muehlen’s 14-year teaching career includes four years as an online instructor. He directs Stevens’ Center for Business Process Innovation and is responsible for the Howe School’s graduate program in Business Process Management and Service Innovation. Zur Muehlen has led numerous process improvement and design projects in the utility, financial services, industrial, and telecommunications sectors both in Germany and the US. He is also the founding director of the AIS special interest group on process automation and management (SIGPAM). He is an active contributor to standards in the BPM area, a fellow of the Workflow Management Coalition, and chairs the WfMC working group “Management and Audit.”

Through all of Dr. zur Muehlen’s experiences, he finds distance learning important for several reasons. “The independence of place, and time in most cases, meets a critical need for many students,” he explained. “The ability to have basic materials available for offline consumption (for example slides with voiceover) leaves room to have meaningful discussions in chat and video conferencing sessions.”

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