Larry Rudiger, Senior Lecturer, at The University of Vermont (UVM), has been teaching psychology for almost 20 years. He has a long-standing interest in using the best, most effective instructional technology to improve teaching and learning.
How did you first get into online teaching?
In 2006, I was invited by the UMV’s College of Continuing and Distance Education to teach Introductory Psychology online, and have done so continuously since then. In 2008, I mounted a course in organizational behavior and have taught it during the past four summer terms. I’m teaching it now. I also developed a course in social psychology in 2008, which I’ve taught online three times.
Finally, I converted Introductory Psychology to a self-paced, mastery-based format in the summer of 2012. This approach was developed by Diane Reddy and Ray Fleming at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Students progress through a series of about 30 modules, each equivalent to about one third of a conventional textbook chapter. They take a 10-item, 5-minute quiz and must miss no more than one question to proceed. If they need to re-take the quiz to meet that standard, there are different test questions.
Diane and Ray are conducting a large scale randomized, controlled trial, and I’m confident that it will demonstrate what was shown on prior research: students do at least as well as those in a conventional course. And they have found better learning outcomes among students who are at risk to underperform.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since you began teaching online?
Well, first, the technology is still pretty limited in many ways. During the summer, having very close deadlines can be a challenge for students, particularly when storms sweep through a region and they lose power and Internet connectivity. Making a course self-paced helps, but I wouldn’t use that instructional design for all courses. I always build in bonus points, so if a student misses one or two deadlines, it won’t sink their grade.
Anything to share about getting creative with the curriculum and content?
I have students read four journal articles, and I offer coaching on how to do so. One of the articles has a sustainability angle, which is a UVM signature feature in many courses across the curriculum.
For my supporting materials, I developed online ‘lectures’ that are a mix of talking heads (my head), and PowerPoints, with scripts and captions available to students. In addition, I have ‘concept checks,’ which review the points made in the presentation in a Q/A format. Students answer them, then immediately get feedback.
Do you have any suggestions or tips to help instructors teach more effectively and connect with students in an online/hybrid environment?
I’m most satisfied with the short videos in my self-paced course, as a mechanism to establish presence and personality. Then, I basically write a lot of e-mail. I keep track of all e-mail for a course with a single e-mail address used by me and the teaching assistants (I always have them and recommend them). That way, I’ve got a one-stop e-trail of mail sent and received to individual students.
My other technique is a matter of philosophy: there’s no finger wagging. And you have to wag your finger while saying that! But seriously, I always assume that apparent disengagement is because of something that’s going wrong in the student’s life. I talk to them in terms of their plans and goals, and how are they progressing on those scores. If a student is inappropriate (this is rare), then first I address the issue. Then I let the student calm down a bit. Then I will reflect about the *impression* that the behavior would make on another instructor, or a boss, or whatever. So my coaching and feedback is about that: how can I help you always make the best possible impression?
What would you say to instructors, who care about improving student outcomes, and are looking for a better alternative, but are reluctant to change what they’ve always done?
First, be honest. How good was your prior way of doing things, anyway? How do you know? How can you be so sure of the relationship between learning outcomes and something that you’ve historically done in person?
Second, think about the time typically spent in the classroom. You’ll be spending that doing other things. But if you’re really worried, run a timer or something and again, be honest.
Third, ask students! What’s working for them (or not)? But − and this is somewhat specific to Introductory Psychology − I really make a big push for the use of efficient learning techniques. I have been won over by the work coming out of of Elizabeth and Robert Bjork’s research lab at UCLA.
I’ve had really interesting discussions (in-person and via e-mail) with students, who recognized their own resistance to changing how they learn, and I just try to help them be gentle with themselves.
How would you like to see online learning evolve? What improvements would you like to see?
Basically, more truly effective learning tools and environments that are rationally tied to the type of material (or skills). More granular data on how students are performing on individual learning objectives; and continued use of emerging learning and memory research. And further refinement of the learning environments pioneered by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, now under development at Acrobatiq.