Cheryl Tkacs

Cheryl Tkacs, instructional designer for Penn State Fayette

This is the fourth in a series profiling each Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) campus instructional designer. Cheryl Farren Tkacs has been an instructional designer for Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, since 2006.

What experiences have you had in educational technology before coming to Penn State?

As an instructor at Westmoreland County Community College, I worked with area businesses to develop courses that would help their employees improve efficiency and productivity in carrying out their assignments and responsibilities. I not only designed the courses based on their needs but also delivered the courses. As I look back on all aspects of my experience in academia before coming to Penn State, I realize I have, at one point or another, been doing bits and pieces of instructional design throughout my entire career.

What made you become interested in education and instructional design?

I was not keen on school when I was growing up; I loved learning, just not sitting in a classroom all day. However, I had some really excellent teachers who inspired me. I thought about what they did that was different and why I wanted to do well in those classes. Those were probably my first conscious thoughts about teaching methods, course design, and motivating students. After I began my teaching career, I found that whether I was creating a course from step one, trying to incorporate learning activities that incorporate various learning styles of my students, reviewing student assessments, or just trying to work with and incorporate technology into courses, I was using the elements that are part of instructional design best practices. Collaborating with other faculty and passing along articles and tips began my involvement full-time as an instructional designer.

What are your primary areas as an instructional designer at Penn State Fayette?

The various positions of instructional designer at Penn State have many areas of focus that are similar, but there are also so many ways that the position changes from campus to campus. Here at Fayette, I try to adapt to what our faculty needs at any given time and am always ready to field questions or offer support to the campus in general. Whether it be working with faculty in adapting instructional materials, creating tutorials for faculty and students, assessing faculty professional development needs and conducting workshops, consulting with faculty on course redesigning, or suggesting a variety of techniques/technology that will fill a pedagogical need, there is a constant need to update my skills and knowledge so I can better serve the needs of our faculty. So much is being written and researched in the field of instructional design, it is important to stay on top of current research and theory to better serve both our faculty and our students.

I think another important component to my position is to promote sharing of ideas, pedagogical discussions, and collaboration among the faculty. Faculty have so many great successes in both their resident courses as well as their online ones that they can help support and encourage each other by relating their successes and setbacks in a collegial forum.

At the Penn State campuses, we also have the opportunity to serve on various committees offering input and serving as a resource for best practices regarding such issues as classroom design, incorporating emerging technologies to help struggling students, and more.

What do you enjoy most about working for TLT?

Being part of a larger entity and knowing you can get reach out and receive input and guidance from your peers on emerging technologies is wonderful. You know that there are other people whose focus is to explore the use of new software or other technological tools and pass along what their research has found. This saves “reinventing the wheel” or having to search, review, and evaluate tools on our own.

What are some of the things you like about working at Penn State?

I am not only a Penn State employee but a Penn State graduate, earning both my B.S. and M.Ed. degrees from here. Is there any better place to be? We are!

What are some of the current projects you are working on?

An ongoing project for me is offering a version of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence’s Course in College Teaching to our faculty. Each year I try to revise the syllabus to include new activities and any new research that has been recently published. In my attempt to both keep up with my reading and research and communicating with faculty, I write a short newsletter for faculty every month. I try to include current trends in educational research, promote any upcoming workshops or regional events, and, for fun, a few tips on using ANGEL and other technology. This activity has become one that I enjoy working on several times during the semester.

Another one of my projects over the last year was working with Schreyer on a SoftChalk pilot for faculty who needed a simple software solution for creating and publishing course content and learning activities with a cohesive and professional look for an online course. The advantage to using something like SoftChalk is that it is scalable for mobile devices and also takes into consideration the need for an accessibility feature to be included. I am also involved with a campus iPad project that involved the purchase of twenty iPads for faculty to use in their courses to further engage the students who may not have a laptop or other mobile device to use in class.

Faculty on our campus will be including a section on their Faculty Activity Report (FAR) that will feature a learning objective from one of their courses, the assessment description for that objective, and a discussion of how successfully that assessment showed student success in accomplishing that objective. To help faculty prepare for this component, I am conducting several workshops that will cover these three items and how to align them with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

As you can see from my list, the focus of an instructional designer is broad and varied depending on the campus needs.

What are some education or educational technology issues you would like to see improved in the future?

Right now, I am looking forward to a final decision on what our new course management system will be. There will be much preparation and training for faculty to become comfortable with a new system, and I am sure this will take over a good portion of my focus for the immediate months following the conversion.

With so many courses being delivered online or even in a hybrid format, I think we have to look at our course materials and make sure that students will be able to access it on any device at any time. I also feel that having all course material accessible to all students is crucial and helping faculty with understanding what that means and how to accomplish it is vital to all students being successful.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wanted to mention?

I think the important thing to note about being a successful instructional designer is the ability to listen, evaluate, and focus on the big picture which, for me, is helping our faculty be successful. If they feel confident in the planning of their course material and activities, they will be able to direct and help the students not only succeed but thrive in an academic environment.

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