The College of Arts and Humanities leads the way in online learning

Staff Sergeant Guy Barnes leads the “The Commandant’s Own” U.S. Marine Corps marching unit

Photo: Staff Sergeant Guy Barnes leads the “The Commandant’s Own” U.S. Marine Corps marching unit.

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused California’s campuses to close in March, Fresno State moved all courses online. As Fresno State opened in the Fall, just 128 of the over four thousand courses came back to campus. Everything else moved online. The decision prompted faculty to enroll in summer training courses to get all of their courses ready for the transition. 

However, even before the pandemic, the College of Arts and Humanities was already implementing online training and courses across the College. In this article, we explore three of those areas.

Sometimes, life happens

In 2013, Staff Sergeant Guy Barnes had just one course left to complete to earn his bachelors degree in vocal performance when he found out he landed a job he could only dream of, but he had to move across the country. 

“I saw a flyer for musicians wanted in the United States Marine Corps. At that the time I wasn’t confident it was the right decision, but the opportunity persuaded me even more once I was told I could audition for a special ensemble called ‘The Commandant’s Own,’ whose only duty station was in Washington, D.C.,” Barnes said. 

According to the U.S. Marine Corps, “The Commandant’s Own” consists of 85 musicians and is known worldwide as a premier musical marching unit. In the unit, Barnes has performed for two U.S. Presidents and countless powerful figures. It has also given him the opportunity to travel the world. Still, it was a tough decision. Before seeing the flyer, he had never really considered the possibility of joining the armed forces. 

“I knew I would be postponing finishing school for a little while, or so I thought. I knew that I would be going back into instrumental music, which I hadn’t done in almost 3 years,” Barnes said. “I definitely went in with many doubts, but I don’t regret the decision as it has led to many positive benefits and opportunities in my life.”

Staff Sergeant Guy Barnes in front of the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C.
Staff Sergeant Guy Barnes

Some students experience an interruption in their higher education journey that causes them to leave school with an incomplete degree. Like Barnes, they may find their dream job, some may need to attend to their family and others may need to move out to move out of the area. 

“I tried twice to finish the degree I started, that was my original intention. But doing things online was difficult and some of the things needing to be done were nearly impossible to do,” Barnes said. “I was very close to giving up, and transferring my credits to a new school, but I hated the idea of sacrificing well-earned credits.” 

That’s when he received an email about the new Liberal Arts Degree at Fresno State.

“It was such a blessing. I can retain my credits, and finish a degree at Fresno State all online. It was the perfect option for me,” Barnes said.

The program is administered by the Division of Continuing and Global Education (CGE) and academically housed in the College of Arts and Humanities. 

A Liberal Arts degree readies students for a broad range of careers and often gives them the opportunity to move into a management position or prepares them for graduate school in a variety of degrees. Careers options include the communications industry, government, consulting and analysis, journalism, law, health, entrepreneurship or politics. 

While students effectively change their major to complete the program, it does not mean that their previous upper division courses are lost. 

“Students’ previous coursework beyond GE requirements can be applied towards a minor, or will count as electives in order to meet the 120 unit graduation requirement,” explained Dr. Alison Mandaville, associate professor of English and faculty coordinator for the Liberal Arts degree program. “We work to have students be able to complete the program as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.”

Returning to education can be a daunting prospect, especially for students who have been away for a long period of time. 

“We don’t judge! Many students have come to us with a certain amount of shame about having left without their degree the first time—but we don’t see it as a failure. Everyone has different paths for their education,” Mandaville said. 

She said there are also plenty of resources available for students to get back into the scholastic mindset such as advising support, the Writing Center, the Instruction Center and all of the resources in the Henry Madden Library. 

As for the results, the first cohort of 15 students will graduate in Spring of 2021 and Mandaville says they have been doing very well and have been a joy to work with. She said students have made powerful contributions thoughtfully informed by real life experiences. 

“They are, in many ways, better students than traditional age students. They get work done for classes on time, and with a sense of purpose, and of making their learning meaningful.”

Dr. Melanie Hernandez, Professor of English agrees, “Students bring a level of thoughtfulness and life experience to their analyses.  Because they’re moving through this program as a cohort, they have established familiarity and trust, and they engage each other as a community.”

The program is entirely online and designed for returning students who are unable to attend in-person classes. There are specific admission requirements for returning students. First, the program is open to the students of good academic standing who “stopped out” of the university for at least three years. Interested students should have completed at least 70 units and completed their general education requirements. For additional requirements, visit the CGE website

For now, Barnes is looking forward to graduating this spring. 

“I’m really happy that I’m reimagining my life and career priorities. I never thought I would work in a field outside of music, but that is the way my life is going and I’m very excited about it,” Barnes said.

The thousand student class

Dr. Miles Ishigaki
Dr. Miles Ishigaki

Dr. Miles Ishigaki began as Professor of Music at Fresno State in 1987. He had seen early success giving one-on-one instruction to his clarinet students who have won awards in international competitions and prestigious academic awards over the years. He began to wonder if there was a way to take the one-on-one instruction model and expand it to teach more students at the same time.

In 2000 Ishigaki got his chance to try his ideas out in a music appreciation course. For years, the enrollment in the class had been at 35 to 40 students at a time. Looking for ways to increase the number of students in his sections, Ishigaki began working with students to find a combination of content, design and delivery to make the class enjoyable and rigorous. Through the process, he increased the number of students in his class to over 200 students in two sections within a few years.

In 2006, Ishigaki started teaching the Music 9, G.E. Music 9 – Introduction to Music Fundamentals course. At the time, the course was taught in a classroom where every student sat at a piano with about 35 students. The class remained at that level until 2010, when the chair of the Music Department asked if he could expand the course.

Ishigaki’s first breakthrough came when he realized the students didn’t need a piano in the classroom. Instead, they could purchase a small, inexpensive keyboard controller that plugged into students’ laptops or utilize the pianos in the music practice rooms. After that, his classes started to grow almost every semester.

Dr. Miles Ishigaki (left) performs in the Fresno State Concert Hall.
Dr. Miles Ishigaki (left) performs in the Fresno State Concert Hall.

President John Welty gave his last lecture to the campus before retiring in the summer of 2013. In that address, Ishigaki said Welty talked about a new education paradigm where the classroom was no longer the “sage on the stage” but a collaborative shift comprising faculty members, staff and the private sector. The talk inspired Ishigaki and gave him a new sense of direction.

Ishigaki began working with Dr. Rudy Sanchez and his summer academy professional development program along with DiscoverE. With Dr. Sanchez’s help, he began to work with outside companies to make his class more efficient and save students money on classroom supplies, books, and fees. In 2014, he was introduced to Hooktheory. Their Hookpad online application allowed him to eliminate the keyboard entirely from the curriculum.  

As the technology fell into place, Ishigaki’s Music 9 class began to grow. In Spring 2011, the class had 37 students. Just three years later, in Spring 2014, he had 196 students in three sections. That summer, he launched his online course with 14 students. In fall 2014, his online course had 316 students, and his face-to-face course had 23 students.

In 2016, Ishigaki received a grant to work with Skyepack to create a multi-media digital course that students could access from anywhere.

“It saves the students a lot of money because of the design on the course using SkyePack,” said Ishigaki.

Students now just pay $37.50 for the ebook. The face-to-face class was at least $175 — the textbook was $150, the practice room fee was $20, or they could buy the keyboard controller for $50.

Throughout the growth of the Music 9 course, Ishigaki worked with DiscoverE, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, his chair, his dean, and the provost. For much of the growth, he also maintained a small in-person section to ensure his larger sections students were getting the same education and experience. It is important to him that standards were not compromised. 

However, in the Fall 2015, Ishigaki taught his last face-to-face Music 9 course. Introduction to Music is now entirely online and taught asynchronously. In Fall 2018, his class enrolled more than one thousand students in two sections for the first time.

There are several vital elements to facilitate such large class sizes. The first is every detail of the course must be clear to students. 

“If you have a thousand students, if you get a thousand questions, that’s a lot of questions,” Ishigaki explained. “So it motivates me to look at every aspect of the design of the course to eliminate any question. So if the design is refined and clearly stated, and it’s comfortable, so there is no confusion, the chances of eliminating an unnecessary question will be beneficial. The class can move on. So if there is a harder, conceptual question, it will be addressed.”

Also, when students do have questions, Ishigaki said it’s essential to respond quickly. 

“The key issue for online learning is to respond quickly,” said Ishigaki. “If you think about it, if a student has a question at 7 p.m., and if you don’t respond until 12 hours, or 24 hours, or 36 hours later, they’re going to probably forget about what the question was. So if we can respond faster, which is hard to do, it gives the student a chance to be in that mind frame to proceed in their studies.” 

For every 200 students, faculty are assigned a student classroom assistant. Ishigaki and his team of five students work to respond to students quickly. The students also assist with grading using a rubric.

President I. Joseph Castro (left) and Dr. Miles Ishigaki at a Bulldog football game.
President I. Joseph Castro (left) and Dr. Miles Ishigaki.

In Fall 2020, Ishigaki’s Music 9 course has 1,095 students enrolled, and he is still looking for ways to grow.

“I think we can hit 1,100 to 1,200 every semester. That’s without losing the quality.”

Ishigaki credits his ability to experiment and push the class’s growth to the support and training he has received at Fresno State.

“It’s kind of a joy to be at an institution where you can take advantage of those conversations and get the time and resources to see if it works out,” he said. “I appreciate Dean Chapman for being supportive. Without her support, the class would not be possible, and before that, Provost Jiménez-Sandoval, too.”

The CSU Online Course Reviewers

Because of the COVID-19 campus lockdown, in Spring 2020, faculty members across the CSU system scrambled to move their in-person classes online. Over the summer, those who had never taught online received training and quickly translated all of their courses to the online environment.

While this was going on, a group of faculty in the College of Arts and Humanities who had already gone through the basic online classroom training sought to take their training to the next level and enrolled in the “Reviewing Courses Using the QLT Instrument” course provided by the CSU. This training, along with a few other qualifications, allows faculty to be part of the CSU Online Course Reviewer team and they are assigned to review courses across the CSU system. While faculty members from around campus are course reviewers, the College of Arts and Humanities has more than any other academic unit—about 25 percent of the reviewers.

According to Dr. Shane Moreman, professor of communication and certified CSU online course reviewer, the review process has several benefits. The feedback from the reviewers helps the professor provide an online learning experience that is student-centered and pedagogically elevated. Once the course is approved, it can be available to students across the CSU system.

“For example, Communication majors could register for Professor Morrison’s Theorizing Communication course at San José State University if they are not able to take my Theories of Human Communication course here at Fresno State,” Moreman said. “Professor Morrison’s course is QA-Certified so both students and CSU colleagues can have confidence that the course demonstrates best practices for online teaching.”

Dr. Shane Moreman
Dr. Shane Moreman

The review process also gives faculty the opportunity to establish cross-CSU relationships that encourage the sharing of expertise and insight.

“This training had colleagues from other CSUs and I was able to offer and gain deep thinking and inspiration from colleagues at universities like Humboldt State, San Francisco State, CSU Northridge, and others. This type of cross-university dialogue throughout our 23 campuses provides a way to build and enhance pedagogical philosophies and techniques. The more our 23 campuses can commune with one another, the better the educational experience will be for our almost 500,000 CSU students,” explained Moreman. 

The ultimate result, according to Moreman, is the online class offerings are more humane and focused on student needs. In addition, his experience as a reviewer has also helped him improve his own courses.

“The overall impact is that my students are getting a better education, without a doubt,” said Moreman.

For many in the College of Arts and Humanities, learning is a lifelong endeavor, and the new world of online instruction has opened enhanced opportunities for both teaching and learning. From offering new options for those who were unable to complete their degree, to teachers who are testing the limits of what’s possible in the online environment, to a new area of review and collaboration, the college is dedicated to exploring innovative pedagogical methods and the new opportunities they create.

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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