2023 Online Teacher of the Year: Tiffany Bourelle, Ph.D.

July 7, 2023 - Rick Robb

News Tips For Success Teacher

Dr. Tiffany Bourelle, Winner of the 2022-2023 Online Teacher of the Year winner proudly shows her awards

Photo by Andrew Bourelle 

Since the 2018-2019 academic year, the Faculty Senate Teaching Enhancement Committee has given a deserving faculty member the Online Teacher of the Year award. This award acknowledges excellence in the challenging teaching and learning arena of online education [1].

For 2022-2023 that award was presented to Tiffany Bourelle, Ph.D. of UNM’s Department of English Language and Literature where she is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition as well as the Assistant Chair for eComp.

Dr. Stephanie Spong, Senior Operations Manager for the Center for Teaching and Learning told me that this year's awards recognized the ways instructors have accomplished one or more of the following:

  • Skillfully and creatively transitioned their in-person teaching to hybrid or remote modalities;

  • Increased the inclusive nature of their classroom by making their courses more culturally responsive, welcoming, or trauma-informed;

  • Broadened access to learning by adopting more affordable or accessible teaching materials; and/or engaged in their own professional development in order to achieve any of these aims.

Committees are often most impressed with instructors who take it to the next level, going above and beyond with their online teaching. As Spong noted, “Lots of folks are adept at following current recommendations for effective teaching, but award-winning online faculty are studying their teaching in order to recognize and implement creative solutions to common challenges.” Nominees might have developed a new understanding about how to effectively teach online or they may have employed non-traditional strategies in their courses that could be useful to other instructors.

In this case, Bourelle was ahead of the competition, having already developed scholarship in the field of online learning.  But “her work went beyond mere pedagogy” Spong added, “one of the things that stood out to the judges was how she stepped in for a colleague who was sick in a way that protected the colleague's autonomy in a course. She was not just thinking about her own students but all the online students in a program.”

Several years ago, when I was a first and second-year writing instructor at UNM, I had the opportunity to take Dr. Bourelle’s eComp practicum which was required for teaching online English courses. That practicum upped my teaching game for the very reasons Bourelle received the award: taking chances on new strategies for online instruction in ways that engaged students. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with her to talk about her career and this prestigious award.

Interview with Dr. Bourelle

Rick Robb: Thank you for taking some time to chat with me today. Can you tell me about your background and how you got to where you are today? I’d like to get a sense of what makes for a strong online instructor.

Tiffany Bourelle: I have a BA from the University of Tennessee in English with a concentration in Technical Communication; after, I went on to work as a technical writer for over a decade, working while I went to graduate school, getting both a master’s and a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition.

I mention my background in technical communication because I think it prepared me to teach online in ways people might not think about. For instance, technical communication is all about audience: How will the audience receive a document or a piece of communication? Online teaching is the same—it’s all about the student experience. How will they interact with the material? What is the best way—the best medium—to present the content? What can I do differently next time based on student feedback?

This is very similar to user-centered design principles that are at the forefront of technical communication. In fact, I look forward to teaching ENGL 535: Ethics in Technical Communication in the fall in a fully asynchronous format. I mostly teach ENGL 1120 online; however, most of my teaching centers around preparing graduate instructors to teach in a variety of online formats (hybrid, online, remote, etc.).

RR: I know that you’ve written quite a bit on the topic. What are some of your publications covering online education?

TB: My most recent co-authored books: Teaching Writing in the Twenty-First Century and Administering Writing Programs in the Twenty-First Century. I’ve written and published various articles on online education, and my colleagues and I won an award for our portfolio assessment of eComp (the online program I created and oversee at UNM) that was published in Computers and Composition. My most recent forthcoming chapter is about offering professional development for digital composition, which is the blending of multimodal composition and multimodal course design.

: What makes you come alive when you’re teaching?

TB: I come alive when I teach multimodal composition—

RR: Can you explain that term? Multimodal composition. I remember using it in many of my lesson plans. How do you see it playing out in your classes?

TB:  Multimodal composition involves challenging students to create projects using more than one mode to communicate, often beyond the text-based essay. I love it when a student says to me, “I hated my composition classes in high school, but your assignments made writing fun again.” I think composition in the twenty-first century is all about meeting students where they are at in life. Many of them use programs like Tik-Tok on a daily basis but might not understand the purpose or audience for their communicative practices or the software they are using; that’s where rhetoric and multimodality come in. Why not harness this tool they are already using within the composition classroom? Why not teach them rhetorical skills in “real-world” contexts? Digitality is only going to keep exploding the way we communicate. In my opinion, we have to teach students to be successful communicators beyondwhat they do in academic spaces.

RR: That’s such an important concept, taking what you’re learning out into the real world. And comments like that really make an instructor’s day. So, what do you love doing when you aren’t teaching?

TB: I have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old, so most of my time is spent with them and my husband. We like to camp, hike, bake, and read together (we’re currently reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to each other). I’m also a runner and have been since I was young and used to go running with my dad as a kid. I love nature, so the best part of my day is often running the ditch trails in Corrales where my family and I live. It starts the day off on a good note. That and a good cup of coffee!

RR: Sounds like a nice life! I believe you came to UNM from Arizona State University and were involved in getting their online programs off the ground; am I remembering that right?

TB: Good memory! I was hired at ASU to start their Writers’ Studio program, which has completely taken off since I helped create it.

RR: ASU has a very robust selection of online classes and degree programs. What models for online pedagogy did you bring from there when you came from there?

TB: The concepts of the program are heavy collaboration and multimodality. The collaboration is with the instructors; almost all of the courses are team-taught. Instructors work together to create the online curriculum and then teach the course together with a few sections combined under one Canvas course. I have taken that concept with me in that I encourage my graduate instructors to design their own curriculum, and we often collaborate on the design of our template courses that new instructors use to teach our first-year writing courses.

I also learn a lot from my graduate [student] instructors from the interesting ways they teach and the new ideas they bring to their courses. In fact, when I first came to UNM, I was insistent that graduate instructors had control over their own curriculum, with professional development from me in the form of a practicum/pedagogy course that teaches them effective practices of teaching online. This is one element that defines eComp and makes it inherently different than the Writers’ Studio at ASU. We didn't have graduate instructors at ASU, only lecturers. I believe that graduate instructors are the future of our field, and I hope the professional development I provide can guide them in their endeavors.

The courses at ASU are also based heavily in multimodality. I often joke that ASU was like a post-doc for me because I didn't know what multimodal composition was until I was hired there. I still think it was like a crash course, as I only thought about assignments and how they could be multimodal in that students were creating podcasts, videos, and websites. Now I realize that multimodality in online education is about assignments and course design. Students have varying learning styles and require information in different formats. I try to design my courses using UDL and UX principles for greater access to the course and content within while encouraging my students to think critically about the technology they are using. At the same time, I have to consider the rhetoricity of the online space. Why am I, the instructor, using certain technology? What challenges and affordances does the technology provide? More importantly, I need to make sure that the technology and media within the course is accessible for all students.

RR: I had the pleasure of taking your online teaching practicum a few years ago. Can you tell us what the impetus was for developing that practicum? How have you seen the fruit of those labors, both in how instructors from the practicum teach online courses and how online students respond (comments, retention, etc.)

TB: I like how you call it a pleasure! I hope I’ve answered the impetus for it earlier. One student recently told me that he thinks that the course prepared him to be a better teacher overall, not just in the asynchronous format. This is my hope. We often hear about how onsite classes can inform our online courses, but I like to flip it the other way around. What can we learn from effective practices of teaching online that can benefit any teaching environment? I also believe that all classes are online now in some capacity, so the practicum has changed over the years to teach graduate instructors to design and use a Learning Management system to its fullest digital capacity to enhance students’ learning no matter the course environment.

RR: We still sometimes see a stigma attached to online learning, especially in the area of online degree programs. What do you feel is missing from online education?

TB: Professional development of teachers is the number one thing that is missing. I’ve seen a lot of bad online courses out there, and I don’t blame it on the teachers. I think there is a common misconception from a lot of people in higher education—students, administrators, and teachers—that online education is somehow easier than onsite classes. And if it’s supposedly easier, or you can just move your onsite curriculum to the online space, then why do teachers need professional development? Because there is a fundamental difference between teaching in online spaces and teaching in front of the classroom. There are theories about how students learn and even approach learning in an online space and how reading text in online spaces requires different thought processes. Teaching online takes understanding how pedagogy and instructional design can be blended together, and can work in conjunction, to retain students. I’m not suggesting that an online teacher can’t use what they do in onsite classes; however, I think it takes rethinking, and that rethinking often requires help, collaboration, and guidance.

RR: What is one big thing you want other instructors and/or academic departments to know about creating or teaching online courses?

TB: Online classes are hard work! They aren’t for everyone, and I don’t think they should be. I never force my graduate instructors to teach online if they don’t like it. I ask that they try it first, but they are never required to teach online again if they find that it’s just not for them. The same goes for students.

RR: When I taught online classes, I found that some students thought online learning was the best way to take classes while others struggled, especially in 8-week courses. What are a few things prospective online students should know before registering for an online course or degree?

TB: That you will have to spend time in the course to be successful. You have to put in just as much if not more time in the online course because you’ll have to be motivated to learn, make and work toward goals, and keep track of progress. Online students have to be prepared to take control of their learning, to figure out things like technology, and to reach out when they need help. Of course, the teacher is there to guide them and coach them along; however, much of the online course requires students to find information for themselves and do the research. Reading is a huge component of online learning. Even in a highly multimodal class that utilizes media, students are still reading a lot. Read and watch everything more than once if you have to, and reach out to the instructors when you need help or are falling behind.

RR: Thanks again, Tiffany. It was fun catching up!

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About the writer: Rick Robb has been at UNM since 2006 as an undergraduate, grad student and for ten years, taught first and second-year college writing courses in-person and online. He has been with UNM Online since early 2020.  

[1] All lecturers, clinician educators, adjunct faculty on a current contract, and tenure-track and tenured faculty who have already taught at least one fully online course are eligible for a variety of awards with one recipient selected for Online Teacher of the Year and a monetary award of $1,250 from the Center for Teaching and Learning.