Mark Lawler, a new faculty mentor in the general education department, comes to CalSouthern with an unusual, yet fascinating academic background in Quaternary paleontology (the study of fossil organisms that lived during the Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs…duh!). He’s also becoming increasingly recognized as an authority on best practices in online higher education. In fact, he has recently co-authored a book on the topic titled, Modern Instructor: Success Stories for the Online Professor.
We caught up with Lawler to learn more about his background, the book, and to tap into his expertise to discover ways in which both student and instructor can optimize their relationship to improve learning outcomes.
CalSouthern: When and how did your interest in paleontology develop?
Lawler: I can trace my interest in paleontology back to the fifth grade when I gave a presentation on dinosaurs to my class. And it wasn’t long after that that I knew it was something I wanted to do my entire life—to be a college professor, do research and study fossils and the natural world. It’s just something that has seemingly always been a part of me; I was the geeky kid in high school doing experiments and studying nature in his spare time.
I started out as anthropology major, wanting to study early human origins, primate biology and evolution. After I graduated, I went out west to the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma, Arizona, then to Colorado, doing research for the Student Conservation Association. I drove through Flagstaff and fell in love with the town and looked into some graduate programs at Northern Arizona University. They had a Quaternary Studies program which combines all my interests—geology, anthropology and biology—so I enrolled.
After I graduated, I was accepted into the University of Tennessee’s doctoral program with the opportunity to study under one of the world’s leading avian paleontologists. Unfortunately, my father had some major health issues at the time, so I moved back to my childhood home in New York to help care for him.
CalSouthern: Do you continue to do research in this area?
Lawler: I no longer do a great deal of active research. I am primarily an educator now, although I certainly utilize my previous research and interest in paleontology and geology, bringing it into the online “classroom” where appropriate.
CalSouthern: How did your career in online higher education evolve? (Please pardon the horrific pun.)
Lawler: About 13 years ago, I was working as a eighth grade science teacher and while I enjoyed teaching, it was very apparent that it wasn’t the right academic setting for me. I took a job as an adjunct geology instructor at a local college in Syracuse. I loved it and knew immediately that higher education was where I belonged.
A couple of years later, I was contacted by another university to teach geology online. I’ve been teaching online ever since; it’s been about a decade now, and I greatly enjoy the work and exploring ways to maximize the potential of the online learning format. I look forward to continuing my teaching career even as I pursue my doctorate in leadership at City University of Seattle.
CalSouthern: What courses will you be teaching at CalSouthern?
Lawler: I am teaching all of the university’s natural sciences courses in its general education curriculum.
CalSouthern: What were you and the other online professors hoping to accomplish with Modern Instructor?
Lawler: This might sound like a corny, canned response, but it’s true: we wanted to share our many years of experience and knowledge with others, not just with newbies who’ve never taught before, but also with experienced educators who are transitioning from the classroom to the online environment. Online higher education is a different animal—whether you’re new to teaching altogether or transitioning from a traditional environment, it can be confusing and intimidating. As a service, we provide teaching strategies that have proven to be successful online.
Also, on a personal note, although I have published many journal articles—and my master’s thesis, of course—I had never published a book. It was fun, exciting and a great learning experience to do so.
CalSouthern: Given your unique perspective and expertise, what are a few of the most important characteristics or traits of the best online educators?
Lawler: First of all, you need to be committed, both to the process and to the students. Specifically, you need to be willing to devote all the time necessary to provide quality feedback to your students and to be available to them so that you can answer any questions they might have or provide other guidance.
Responsiveness is a distinct, but related trait. I’m online almost all the time and do my best to respond to my students immediately. Anecdotally, I know how important it is to students because they tell me so, all the time. Unfortunately, we know that not all professors across all institutions are as responsive as they could be, so implementing and adhering to a policy of providing quick and thorough responses to questions or assignments is an effective way for an instructor or university to stand out and lay the groundwork for a productive learner-mentor relationship.
Self-motivation and discipline are as important for professors as they are for students. Sure, the flexibility of working online is great, but whenever you travel, that laptop has to come along—you’re going to have to work some; that’s just the nature of teaching online.
Finally, you have to ensure that you are not just doing the nuts and bolts of teaching—grading papers, answering questions, etc.—but that you are also acting as the subject matter expert that you are. That means bringing your outside experience and expertise to bear in the course as often as possible, both in your informal interactions with the students and in providing feedback to their assignments.
CalSouthern: Flipping perspectives for a moment, what steps can the student take to get the most out of the learner-mentor relationship?
Lawler: I think communication is key. I always encourage my students never to guess about anything. If they are unsure about any aspect of the course or the assignment, I want them to contact me by phone or email and get clarification. I want them to know that I expect them to use me as a resource—that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to help them get as much as they can and grow from the learning experience. But sometimes that means that the onus might be on them; they might be confused about something and I have no way of knowing. So they need to step up to the plate in those situations and reach out to their instructor.