Dr. Renee Aitken didn't always want to be a teacher. In fact, her initial interest in the profession (she thought about being a K-12 teacher after a brief stint of medical technologist training) was stymied when she couldn't get into the program at Ohio State University. Instead, she graduated with a BA in English and went to work for AT&T as a technical writer.
Twenty-four years later, Aitken had done just about everything at AT&T (now Lucent), including, instructional design, training, project management, travelling all over, and taking advantage of AT&T’s great tuition reimbursement program to continue her education and fuel her passion for learning. Going back to school also marked her first experience with distance education.
“First I went back to Ohio State and got an MA in Organizational Communication,” she recalls. “Then in 1993, I was accepted into a special AT&T program with the University of Colorado at Boulder where I earned a MS in Telecommunications Engineering and Management through a distance education program. At the time, distance education was the equivalent of watching a video of the lecture and sending in our assignments via snail mail. When distance learning started to become more popular, I was selected to go back to school and get a PhD in Education (Adult and Higher Education) from Capella University.”
If that’s not impressive enough, the real beauty of Aitken’s wealth of knowledge and experience is the fact that she loves to share it!
“My career in higher education began as an adjunct online course designer at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, while I was still at Lucent. When Lucent made me a retirement offer I couldn't refuse, I got into education full-time.”
It was during her time at Franklin that she was first introduced to the Sloan Consortium.
“I co-presented with one of the other instructional designers at Franklin University and was hooked on the forward-thinking, well-documented presentations from the SLOAN-C,” remarks Aitken.
Aitken’s latest achievement with the SLOAN-C comes courtesy of her third presentation with the organization. Her presentation--Using Knowles to Support ALL Online Learners—was accepted and added to the SLOAN-C website last year as an Effective Practice.
“My presentation was focused on considering how faculty members view students,” she explains. “There are definitions of traditional and non -traditional learners and most distance learning institutions insist their programs are geared towards non-traditional learners. However, my experience has indicated students are coming to distance learning from a variety of perspectives. From my work with Northcentral University, I have learned a student’s age and socio-economic background does not hinder their learning if faculty take the time and effort to support the student. The One-to-One teaching model at NCU helps facilitate this, and the Applied Experiential Learning process provides even the youngest of our students with the opportunity to “do” as they learn rather than just write papers.”
Effective practices, like Aitken’s presentation, are submitted by members of the SLOAN-C community for consideration and are peer reviewed to ensure quality. The five pillars of quality are: access, learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction and scale (cost effectiveness).
Aitken’s paper was accepted as an effective practice for learning effectiveness. She believes that using Knowles Characteristics of Adult Learners when it comes to course development and teaching ensures that students are served equally, and that by making learning part of life through experiences, students are more effective in applying their education to real life, which in turn, makes Aitken’s job more enjoyable, rewarding and effective.
“I like the way distance learning is structured and assures every student has the same opportunity to learn following the same syllabus,” she comments. “I love that teaching online means I don’t know much about my students and my students come without any preconceived notions about their abilities on my part. I also like the way Learning Management and Assessment Systems can help collect data to assure students are learning and meeting outcomes.”
Of course, course development and teaching are only part of the equation when it comes to student success. The students themselves must take responsibility for their learning in an online education environment. With all of her experience, Aitken believes the most critical factor of student success in an online program is time management.
“Online learners must invest in time management and make sure they schedule time for class every day,” she comments. “I was a single working mother with two teenagers when I started my PhD and I completed it in less than five years by working one hour every weekday night and four hours every Sunday.”
While not in school any longer, Aitken still considers herself a student.
“I believe the quote attributed to Tom Clancy, ‘Life is about learning; when you stop learning; you die.’”
On that front, when she’s not at home walking her dog, feeding her five cats (“Don’t let your daughters adopt kittens unless you want cats!”), or sitting behind the glass at an Ohio State University hockey game (she has season tickets), Aitken loves to read (she still manages to read 2-3 books a week), write, think, and travel.
For this lifelong learner and passionate teacher, life is one of the greatest classrooms of all.