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John Boyer Discusses Successful Online Courses

Monday, March 4, 2013

On the slide being beamed onto the wall, John Boyer gazes out on his class in Virginia Tech's Burruss Auditorium, and they gaze back at him. The old complaint of being just a number may be applicable in this course, with 2,700 other students attending with you, but Boyer has embraced new ways of teaching that allow him and, more importantly, each of his students to interact in ways more personal then even a small class might offer. On March 4, he visited UT Arlington to explain how.

"I believe that the world is going to online classes whether we like it or not. Higher education is at a juncture where tuition rates are rising, and massive, open online courses (MOOCs) are becoming more prevalent. We need to figure out what it is that we're giving people. There are tons of free classes online. Providing content is easy. What do universities offer that adds value to education," Boyer asked.

When he first taught his World Regions geography course in 1998 there were 50 students enrolled, making it one of his department's largest courses. Before long, it filled the largest classroom with 575 students. Then, he started seeing more than 1,000 students on the waiting list, so as an experiment he found a way to accommodate all of those students. The rest is history.

"I thought it was going to fail, but it worked," he said. "We've had successes and failures as we've gone along, but mostly it's been working."

With the assistance of three teaching assistants, Boyer relies on video lectures; social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and creativity to keep his students engaged and help them learn the concepts in his course. He grades based on a "menu" of points from which students can choose, giving them nearly all control over their grade based on the amount of work they choose to do.

Based on his experiences, he has three general strategies for teaching extremely large classes: Increase the bandwidth, use technology to expand options, and build a learning community.

Strategy 1: Increase the Bandwidth

This means communicating with students in their language, using their media. "I want to be where there eyeballs are," Boyer explained, whether that is on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, UStream, or any of the other options available. Interestingly, for his students email is a third or fourth option for communication, and he uses it sparingly.

Using social media increases teacher/student and student/student interactions because they happen in a venue where students are comfortable. It also gives Boyer the ability to get instant and continuous feedback during a lecture or after class hours. His office hours are completely online using video chat software, and they’re often attended by hundreds of students, even if those students don’t all ask questions. It's about being part of a community and stopping by to see what others are doing. It also creates a powerful perception of availability that makes students feel valued.

Strategy 2: Use Technology to Expand Options

In a traditional classroom, instructors face barriers in delivering their material to all students. The same may be true in traditional online courses. Because of his use of technology, Boyer has the flexibility to deliver content in a way that accommodates his students' schedules, and also their needs. His lectures are recorded and archived so students can refer back to them to reinforce a point or to catch up after missing a class. The flexibility he offers in assignments and assessments helps different learning styles and may be helpful for someone with learning difficulties.

Strategy 3: Build a Learning Community

All of Boyer's efforts go toward building a community of learners that help each other through the course, leading to a greater understanding of the subject matter. It also helps him focus on teaching the course because students take a greater role in policing each other and answering the myriad mundane questions that get in the way of a real discourse.

Some in the audience expressed skepticism, saying that engineering is not the place to experiment with learning because mistakes in bridge building are catastrophic. Boyer agreed in principle, but he is not changing the fact that his students need to learn the material he teaches. Rather, he is changing the method of delivery to a way in which he can most effectively get that information to his students so that they will remember it and, more importantly, leave the class with the skills necessary to function and compete in the workforce.

"This is a fantastic time to be in higher education! I teach world geography. I can't teach the whole world in one semester. No one can. But I try to get my students engaged and interested in world affairs so that they have another tool in their tool belts when they enter the workforce and have to perform," Boyer said.