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U of L professors go online

July 24th, 2006

By Janene Zaccone

Green screens, FAQs, chats: University professors are learning a new vocabulary and teaching methods and taking their classrooms online.

Three University of Louisville professors recently received awards for their online courses from Kentucky Virtual University.

Jane Goldsmith, School of Public Health and Information Sciences; John Welsh, College of Education and Human Development; and Julia Dietrich, College of Arts and Sciences, are among the 115 to 120 professors who teach online at U of L each fall and spring semester, said Joni Allison, assistant director of the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning. Center staff work with faculty to help them develop and implement online courses or classroom supplements.

The KYVU award committee selected recipients based on their course’s attention to criteria for student engagement and interaction, active learning, expectations and feedback.

All U of L recipients received kudos for meeting the criteria. The judges commended them particularly for making the course materials accessible to all students through text captioning and audio presentation. Goldsmith also received praise for her use of humor to make difficult content interesting.

Biostatistics for Public Health online: They said it couldn’t be done

“Statistics is a difficult, technical subject, and students can become discouraged,” Goldsmith said. “In the classroom setting, the instructor can see their gloomy faces and offer encouragement on the spot.”

Online, they have to anticipate students’ feelings.

“I tried to use humor to keep the subject cheery,” she said. “I told my usual statistics jokes on the PowerPoint audio and also used funny cartoons and clip art on the slides.”

The Delphi Center helped Goldsmith record Blackboard “radio shows” with Frequently Asked Questions, interviews with statisticians and Q&A sessions. She made motivational recordings to encourage and reassure her students, used an interactive teaching approach and encouraged students to work in groups.

“The largest challenge was to teach biostatistics successfully to a group with diverse backgrounds,” she said.

Goldsmith pulled off the impossible. All students not only passed, but they also received good grades.

“The experience and outcome has been so positive that I am now convinced that online education should be promoted actively for the good of humanity,” she said.

Repeat recipient

The “Two-Year College” is the third course Welsh has taught online. His first earned him a KYVU Online Excellence award in 2003.

Welsh said his goals for teaching online and in the traditional classroom are much the same: mastery of the material, critical thinking, quality writing and proficiency in scholarship.

“But, you have to address the goals differently,” he said. “You have to ask, how can I use the technology or the online environment to ensure that the course is taught effectively and to ensure that the students learn effectively?”

Welsh said he has learned to use the difference between teaching online and in a physical classroom to optimize learning.

For instance, with online classes, writing takes on greater importance as a way to develop analytical skills and critical thinking abilities, he said.

“If a student is expected to write something that will be scrutinized not only by the teacher, but by 20 or so other students, the tendency is take more care with what is written,” he explained. This is different from discussion in the face-to-face classroom. I have found that writing abilities improve dramatically. Critical thinking abilities improve commensurately,” he said.

Beowulf for the 21st Century

Dietrich had taught British Literature I for 25 years when she decided to go online with it. The challenging course encompasses everything from Beowulf to Alexander Pope, and it took all summer to write out her lectures so students could read them. But she didn’t stop there. Dietrich worked with the Delphi Center to record audio so her written lectures would be accessible to people with vision problems.

As a first-time online instructor, Dietrich said she was surprised that students felt there was a “there” when it came to connecting with her and with other students; they did not feel as if they were a solitary figure in a correspondence course.

She also noted that professors “can get good discussions online because you really can require everybody to weigh in.” The virtual classroom is not confined to hourlong time slots.

“What I hope to do better this year is to get students responding to each other and not just to me,” she said.

Dietrich gave credit for her online success to the Delphi Center.

“When they give these awards, they give them to the professors. But believe me, there wouldn’t be a course up there if not for [the Delphi Center].”

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