Creating Online Learning Communities

Business Management instructor talks about improving online teaching skills

Online Learning Communities

Creating online learning communities

by Harold Torrence, Ed.D

In our Business Management program at Dakota County Technical College, online learning has become a prevalent and preferred alternative for students in recent years. We offer both hybrid (online-enhanced classroom) and online courses—and in fall semester 2014, our online courses filled up faster than our hybrid courses.

Several reasons might explain this new trend; one might be that our adult learners represent a larger percentage of our student population. Our adult learners are trying to reinvent themselves by enhancing their employability skills while pursuing a college experience and degree. Online learning offers an excellent option to balance learning, living, working and surviving in this ever-changing workplace environment.

During my eight years teaching online courses, I’ve found that many things have changed. Experience has shown me that online teaching requires a completely different set of teaching skills. A cornerstone of my teaching is based on shaping a sense of learning together as a community in the classroom so that students can be co-participants in the social construction of knowledge, skills and abilities.

As a facilitator of transformation, I find that I have an easier time igniting the fire and passion for lifelong learning when I’m standing in the physical classroom. When it comes to the online classroom, conveying this message can be challenging. I have tried using different tools to establish the strongest human connection possible. Below are some of the practices I have incorporated in my online teaching to develop online learning communities.

The traditional online discussion forum is where students find commonalities and are able to learn from one another. From the instructor’s standpoint, replying to more than 200 postings per week per class can be almost impossible. Another teaching dilemma centers on finding a way to reply to a limited number of students without creating a sense of favoritism in the virtual classroom.

I had to find a better way to show my students that I was not only reading their postings, but also able to provide the appropriate feedback they required. Five years ago at a faculty meeting, one of our adjunct instructors showed us how to use Adobe Connect to set online meetings, which provided a huge opportunity to change how I taught online. I moved from static, online-recorded lectures to dynamic, live webinars. From that moment on, I started incorporating non-mandatory (magic words) weekly webinars for extra credit. All of a sudden, retention rates in my online courses improved considerably.

In my webinar videos, I can show my face to my students, which is a key first step in forging the human connection. Webinars are my preferred way to explain the syllabus, give assignments and lectures, and showcase excellent student work. Adobe Connect has the ability to record everything live, and I am able to post the hyperlink in multiple places in our online learning platform as well as e-mail the link to my students soon after the webinar closes.

Webinars have enhanced the online learning experience in my classes. Below are comments I received from my students in a recent fall class:

“I really appreciate being able to access the link and watch the webinar during the week. I’m the type of learner that really benefits from hearing in addition to reading the material, and the webinars will be a great tool to use during this course.”

“I wasn’t able to participate in the webinar, but I was able to watch the recording. Not only was it useful to go through what was expected in this class, but your review of the PowerPoint was also very informative.”

“I also appreciated being able to watch the webinar and I think that these webinars will be a great tool to help with clarifying and supporting the weekly lessons.”

In my webinars, I always remind my students about the importance of learning from one another and how their individual contributions help shape strong learning communities. I also use this time to connect with their online discussion participation and include their examples in my lectures. This makes learning relevant and applicable to their knowledge construction process.

Individual and ongoing feedback are critical elements of success for online learners. I have been able to improve my feedback delivery by adding rubrics and oral comments to each assignment in their corresponding drop boxes. Students learn how they are performing both promptly and as often as possible. They know what I expect from them and what they need to do to improve.

Continuing to share our online teaching and learning practices is vitally important. I have been able to learn a lot from my peers on both the DCTC and Inver Hills campuses. I believe this should be a more intentional endeavor. True professional learning communities offer a great opportunity to enhance our online teaching skills in our search to improve our student online learning retention and success. Let’s continue sharing what we learn.

About the author…
Harold Torrence, Ed.D

Harold Torrence, Ed.D

Dr. Harold Torrence is a Business Management instructor. His areas of focus are the Business Administration A.S. degree, the Business Management A.A.S. degree, the Multicultural Leadership Diploma, Multicultural Supervision certificate and the Occupational Spanish program.

Dr. Torrence holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UNITEC, or Universidad Tecnológica del Centro. He also holds both a Masters of Arts in Management and a Master in Public Administration from Hamline University. In 2012, he earned a Doctorate in Education from Hamline University. (read more…)

For more information about the Business Management program at DCTC, contact:

U.S. Senators Klobuchar and Franken Tour Uponor to Celebrate E3 STEM Grant

Eighty Apple Valley High School students participate in Youth CareerConnect program through a partnership that includes ISD 196, DCTC, IHCC, the Dakota-Scott WIB and several top employers

U.S. Senators Klobuchar and Franken at Uponor

U.S. Senator Al Franken and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar toured the Uponor North America headquarters in Apple Valley, Minnesota, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, to spotlight a $2.98 million Department of Labor Youth CareerConnect grant that advances STEM education and helps close the skills gap in the state. Klobuchar and Franken were joined by community leaders and grant participants, the latter including students and faculty from Apple Valley High School, administrators from Independent School District 196, Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College, and business and industry executives. The senators took turns speaking to the group after the tour, emphasizing the importance of partnerships in providing educational and career opportunities in STEM-related fields.

ISD 196 is the lead on the funded program, E³ STEM (Exploration, Education, Employment in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Other partners on the DOL grant include:


Local Education Agency

Local Workforce Investment System

Institutions of Higher Education

The E³ STEM program targets occupations in computer science and information technology (IT), engineering, energy technology, and biomedical technology. Partners in the grant provided more than $2.33 million in matching funds.

Randy Olson, associate dean of design and technology at DCTC, noted that workplace readiness is the key element to the college’s mission. “I can’t think of a more relevant way to achieve that mission than to create pathways for high school students to get realistic, firsthand views of career opportunities,” Olson said. “The E³ STEM grant is a perfect example of providing an on-ramp to a meaningful career.”

Michael Bolsoni, assistant principal at Apple Valley High School, reported that his school is excited to fill a pivotal role in the partnership. “The E³ STEM program provides an opportunity for our students to earn college credits and explore STEM careers, leading them on a path to jobs in high-demand fields,” Bolsoni said. “The student and community response has been overwhelmingly positive, and we are looking forward to the many great opportunities that await our E³ STEM students.”

E³ STEM benefits to colleges

  • Student participation in program pathways
  • Deeper curriculum development input
  • Retention and completion
  • Efficiency
  • Graduate placement rates

E³ STEM benefits to employers and workforce

  • Curriculum input
  • Opportunity to impact workforce skills
  • Opportunity to prepare students for employment at corporate site
  • Cost benefit to employee search processes

E³ STEM benefits to Apple Valley High School and ISD 196

  • Fuels a comprehensive STEM initiative
  • Provides dedicated faculty to lead STEM initiative
  • Supports STEM team to plan and implement STEM initiative
  • Builds industry partnerships
  • Increases opportunities for E³ STEM participants—and ultimately all ISD 196 students
  • Offers concurrent credits for grant participants
  • Allows students to explore a broad spectrum of career fields

Anne Johnson, interim associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Inver Hills and DCTC, related that the E³ STEM program presents 1,000 students in grades 11–14 with a pathway to employment in the high-growth H-1B STEM industry.

“E³ STEM offers students concurrent enrollment for college credit, industry credentialing and general education courses required for associate’s degrees,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that local, national and global employer partners are providing participants with career exploration and real-world work experiences, including job shadowing, field trips, mentorships, internships and more. E³ STEM is open to all students regardless of grade point average or other academic qualifiers. The program will focus on recruiting underrepresented students (students of color, low-income students, first-generation college students, female students, students with disabilities, and/or English Language Learners).

“E³ STEM will operate in a learning community format at both secondary and postsecondary levels,” Johnson said. “Participants will have access to multiple wraparound supports, as well as academic and career counseling throughout the program. The rich history of collaboration among partners will underpin E³ STEM, helping to ensure successful program delivery and positive student outcomes.”

Top photo: Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken with Apple Valley High School students (left to right) Yassin Abasher, Cameron Kirksey and London Jackson

For more information about the E³ STEM grant, contact:

Anne S. Johnson, M.B.A.

Interim Associate Vice President of Strategic Initiatives
Inver Hills Community College & Dakota County Technical College

Nandi Rieck

Federal and State Program Specialist
Independent School District 196

Mark Jacobs

Dakota-Scott Workforce Investment Board

Manufacturing Showcase at DCTC

Oct. 9, 2014 • 7:30 to 9 a.m. • Dakota Room

Manufacturing Showcase at DCTC

Manufacturing Showcase

Click invite above to RSVP by Oct. 1, 2014

To learn more, read: “Manufacturing Showcase coming Oct. 9 to DCTC”

Or contact:
  • Marlo Miller
    Manufacturing & Technology Coordinator
    Center for Professional & Workforce Development


Education through a Fast Lens

Photography student Ellie McNamara takes a running start at college

Ellie McNamara

How many students graduate high school in the spring and start college in the fall with 19 college credits? Any number of higher ed research analysts might know the answer, but Dakota County Technical College has one for certain, Ellie McNamara, 19, a 2014 graduate of Hastings High School. As a Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, or PSEO, student at DCTC, Ellie earned 15 college credits while still in high school. The summer after graduating she earned another four credits by taking a couple more college courses, including Advanced Photo Lighting Techniques.

Having been a straight A student in high school, Ellie was up to the challenge of college-level learning. “I didn’t find the classes that much different,” she said. “I liked that scheduling was flexible because I also work as a teller at a bank in Hastings.”

Ellie chose to attend DCTC full-time as a student in the Photography program because she loves the atmosphere on campus and was impressed by the faculty, especially Bill Eilers, one of her photography instructors.

“I like the way Bill Eilers teaches,” Ellie said. “You don’t just memorize facts in his classes; he makes sure you incorporate what he teaches. Learning is hands-on and you take it with you.”

Bill Eilers considers Ellie McNamara a remarkable student. “Ellie is bright and talented,” he said. “She’s a full-time student who also works. She hopes to graduate from DCTC in record time with high marks—and she’s got the drive, dedication and work ethic to do it.”

Ellie’s favorite type of photography is shooting landscapes, particularly sunsets. “I love the colors,” she said. “I love capturing the moment and sharing the beauty of the world with others.” She shoots with a Canon Rebel, likes her 50mm lens and appreciates the work of Art Wolfe, a renowned American nature and cultural photographer.

Two of Ellie’s photos won big in the 2014 Rivertown Days Photography Contest and were featured in the Hastings Star Gazette. Ellie took first place in the Historic Hastings category and second place in the Landscape category.

© Ellie McNamara

First place: Rivertown Days Photo Contest: Historic Hastings

© Ellie McNamara

Second place: Rivertown Days Photo Contest: Landscape

Ellie grew up in rural Hastings and is a farm girl at heart; her grandfather was once a farmer. She loves dirt bikes and four-wheeling and working on her Chevy Silverado. She also enjoys painting, both acrylic and watercolor, reading novels of all kinds, and writing, the latter talent something that comes to her naturally.

After graduating from DCTC, Ellie plans on transferring to Minnesota State Mankato with the goal to earn a B.F.A. in graphic design. She has centered her career plans on becoming a professional graphic designer. Augmenting her photography skills can only accelerate her prospects for success. The same principles apply—and awesome photography invariably relies on an exceptional eye for design.

Ellie McNamara photography gallery

All images © Ellie McNamara

For more information about Photography at DCTC, contact:

Women’s Soccer Update

Blue Knights 1–2 as of Sept. 5

Blue Knights vs Trailblazers

The women’s soccer team at Dakota County Technical College faced some tough competition in the early going of the 2014–2015 season, losing 2–3 to the Rochester Community and Technical College Yellowjackets, ranked seventh in the latest NJCAA Top 20 National Poll for Division III women’s soccer, and 0–9 to the Lewis & Clark Community College Trailblazers from Godfrey, Illinois, ranked 17th in the NJCAA DI poll.

DCTC started the season Aug. 21 away from home in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in a scrimmage against the Viterbo University JV, losing 1–3. The Blue Knights then played a strong game against RCTC at home Aug. 23. During the Minnesota Kickoff Classic, hosted for the fifth year by DCTC at the Ames Soccer Complex, the Knights played two games, starting with Lewis & Clark Aug. 30. The team wrapped up the tournament Sept. 1 against the Red River College Rebels from Manitoba, Canada, winning  2–1.  A game against the College of Lake County Lancers from Grayslake, Illinois, was cancelled.

Women’s soccer preview
Mark Obarski

Mark Obarski

The Blue Knights will be an unproven team to start the season, having just four returners from last season. The returning players will guide the team during the early schedule. Mark Obarski is the team’s first-year head coach. Obarski came to DCTC after coaching varsity soccer at Eagan High School in Eagan, Minnesota, for 14 years.

The Blue Knights will focus on an attacking style of soccer while relying on a more cautious approach to defense. The goalkeeper position will be a competition between returning starter Hannah Smith and newcomer Jordyn Briebarth. The midfield will be under the control of Kenya Macias and Anna Giles, both incoming freshmen. Mary Gonzalez and Stephanie Walters, both returners, will lead the defense. The Blue Knights play a tough schedule that will ultimately benefit the team during the always difficult regional playoff in late October and November.

Head Coach Mark Obarski and Assistant Coach Chris Petersen are excited to work with a college-level team with so much promise. They coached together for 11 years at Eagan High School. “Our team is young and inexperienced in a number of positions,” Obarski said. “That showed against Rochester and Lewis & Clark. We played very well against Red River. Our goalkeep, Jordyn Briebarth, played an exceptional game.”

Blue Knights vs Trailblazers gallery

For more photos from the game, visit DCTC on Flickr.

Player spotlights…

Mary Gonzalez

Mary Gonzalez

Mary Gonzalez

Sophomore defender

  • Age: 19
  • High school: Apple Valley
  • Hometown: Minneapolis, Minn.
  • Current residence: Apple Valley, Minn.
  • Academic program area: General education courses with a focus on Exercise & Sport Science
  • Jersey number: 9
  • Playing experience: Played fours years for Apple Valley, two on varsity; club soccer with Valley United and Lakeville; freshman year at DCTC
  • Favorite part of soccer: Knowing that really playing as a team allows you to match the skill and experience of a stronger opponent
  • Favorite soccer team: Chivas (CD Guadalajara)
  • Favorite player: Leo Messi, FC Barcelona
  • Career plans: Transfer to St. Catherine University and earn her doctorate in physical therapy and exercise science; hopes to play soccer for the Wildcats
  • Family: Two sisters, one older and one younger; older sister has two children, making Mary an aunt with one niece and one nephew
  • Pastimes and hobbies: Relaxing and hanging out with her boyfriend, Jose Andriano, a midfielder on the Blue Knights men’s team

What brought you to DCTC?
“I wanted to play college soccer and DCTC has an Exercise & Sport Science program.”

What do you like about the college?
“I really like my classes. My instructors are great. My physics instructor was amazing. I got an A in the course.”

Quote about upcoming season:
“We need to work as a team. When we connect as a team, we will succeed.”

Mikaela Reisgies

Mikaela Reisgies

Mikaela Reisgies

Sophomore forward

  • Age: 19
  • High school: Rosemount
  • Hometown: Rosemount, Minn.
  • Current residence: Apple Valley, Minn.
  • Academic program area: General education courses with a focus on health care
  • Jersey number: 2
  • Playing experience: Freshman year at DCTC; ran 100 meter and 200 meter on track team at Rosemount H.S.
  • Favorite part of soccer: Sees team as family; loves the footwork and shooting
  • Favorite soccer team: Arsenal
  • Career plans: Transfer to the Minnesota Alliance for Nursing Education (MANE) at Inver Hills Community College after DCTC; eventually earn her BSN and become an RN in hospice care
  • Family: Twin sister, Marisa, attends the University of Kansas; three brothers
  • Pastimes and hobbies: Eating chicken wings and ice cream; hanging out with boyfriend, Titus, a nutrition major at Inver Hills

Why did you go out for soccer at DCTC?
“Cam [Stoltz] asked me to join the women’s soccer team my freshman year at DCTC. I said yes, but I was nervous at first. I needed to learn the basics. Now I love it.”

What do you like about the college?
“I enjoy working in the college’s Athletics department. We support each other.”

Quote about upcoming season:
“We go out to win every game.”

The Blue Knights compete as an independent in NJCAA DI women’s soccer. All home games are played at the Ames Soccer Complex on the DCTC main campus in Rosemount, Minn. The DCTC Alumni game is scheduled at Ames Saturday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. The next home game is against the Bismarck State College Mystics Sunday, Sept. 14, at noon.

For more information about women’s soccer at DCTC, contact:
For more information about NJCAA athletics at DCTC, visit GoBlueKnights.com, or contact:
  • Cam Stoltz
    Athletic Coordinator
    Men’s Soccer Head Coach