UT Tyler

Special Section

Transforming Education

Embracing Innovation to Prepare Students for Life Beyond the Classroom


Imagine a playground on a college campus. What would it look like?

The University of Texas at Tyler will soon be able to show you.

“If a student or faculty member wants to go play with robotics, a 3D printer or Google Glass, they’ll have that opportunity,” said Dr. Julie Delello, assistant professor of education. “It will be like the Disney World of technology on campus.”

She hopes the free and open-to-all playground will be ready for use by the fall.

As much fun as it sounds, the playground represents only a fraction of all the innovative ways UT Tyler faculty are educating students. Professors aren’t shaking up their strategy simply for the sake of change—the purpose is to boost student success, which has always been the university’s primary commitment.

“What’s going to take people into the job market in the 21st century?” asks Delello, and she says UT Tyler has found some of the answers.

Enriching Academics

While innovation can include online learning, it’s not limited to one method of teaching. Faculty have found numerous ways to incorporate technology into face-to-face classes, especially using resources in the Department of Academic Transformation, which was created in 2015 to support the development of new coursework delivery methods.

Schmitt at Lightboard

Above, Dr. Schmitt demonstrates the lightboard, used during lecture recordings. Professors can write on the lightboard without turning their backs to the camera. The writing is then reversed during the video editing process to read properly. In top photo, Dr. Marzilli shows UT Tyler's green-screen technology for recording lectures.

The university offers both equipment and services to assist faculty in making their classes more engaging and accessible to improve student success rates.

For example, faculty are now able to record video lectures in a broadcast-quality green-screen studio for online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. Unlike audio-only, videos provide students a sense of connection with their professors. In only two years, faculty have recorded more than 2,500 lectures, and many have created personalized video-recorded feedback for students turning in assignments on Blackboard.

Professors can also engage students in different venues, such as on Facebook rather than an online discussion board.

“We can get more interactive via social media, so students can post things where they feel most comfortable,” said Scott Marzilli, assistant vice president for Academic Innovation and Student Success. “Students aren’t always connected to an online discussion board like they are on Facebook.”

Teaching Teachers New Ways To Teach

Delello loves brainstorming ways to incorporate technology, such as social media, naturally into the learning experience. In April, she hosted a workshop about using social platforms in the classroom.

“A survey shows that not many faculty are using social media in their classes, but I think we’re just not informed about what people are doing outside our own disciplines,” said Delello, who serves as a Faculty Fellow for Academic Innovation in the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.

The center, created in 2014, is made up of seven Faculty Fellows who concentrate on one of four initiatives: Service Learning, Academic Innovation, Undergraduate Student Research or Data Analytics. These Fellows offer an open-door policy—other faculty are welcome to observe their teaching styles and methods either in or out of the classroom. They also brainstorm new ideas with faculty members and help organize workshops on various topics.

“As a chair of an academic department, I had faculty with really great research agendas, but who had never been taught or mentored how to teach,” Marzilli said.  “Before the university created the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, there was no place for faculty to go for help.”

Dr. Christy Graves, associate professor of mathematics, offers guidance as a Faculty Fellow for Undergraduate Research. Professors from all over the university attend her workshops each semester to learn how she incorporates research into her math courses.

As a Faculty Fellow for Service Learning, Dr. Nary Subramanian, associate professor of computer science, fosters the development of service projects into traditional coursework. He’s seen a marked increase of such activities after having worked with faculty either one-on-one or in workshops.

Nontraditional Learning Styles

Traditional face-to-face lecture and online courses are no longer the only choices for UT Tyler’s students. Faculty also incorporate alternative teaching styles and special coursework, such as service learning, to enhance student education. While some professors have been using these teaching techniques for years, the university has recently been formally recognizing and promoting them to encourage student success.

“Students come to us with different backgrounds, skill sets and learning abilities, and we need to make sure we’re adapting to that,” said Dr. Amir Mirmiran, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “We want to put ourselves in the students’ shoes and facilitate learning.”

Faculty accomplish these goals in many different ways. For example, service learning provides a peek into real-world applications of students’ textbook studies. For these projects, students go into the community to perform and perfect their craft. At the same time, they provide nonprofits, businesses and individuals with services that might not otherwise be affordable.

Another style, team-based learning, banishes the traditional lecture hall environment. In the Ben and Maytee Fisch College of Pharmacy, every single class is formatted around team-based learning, in which students sit in groups to analyze the material, while the professor facilitates and supports discussions.

“It’s an integrated curriculum, not an assembly line teaching process,” Mirmiran said. “Team-based learning allows students to peel off layers of knowledge, like layers of an onion. It’s more effective because students aren’t just remembering what the teacher said, but rather they’re looking at the whole picture.”

Faculty in other disciplines employ hybrid classes—a combination of face-to-face and online teaching—to use class time more effectively. Professors record their lectures with high-quality equipment to post online, which students can view at their convenience. During class time, which is reduced to once a week, students participate in hands-on activities that traditional classes simply don’t have time to accommodate.

Little Things Make a Difference

Many professors also incorporate other techniques to help students relate to each other and develop life skills.

For example, Dr. Rochell McWhorter, assistant professor of human resource development, gives a “Look Up” assignment in which undergraduate and graduate students must unplug from all computer-based methods of communication—social media, texting, emailing, surfing the Internet—for 24 hours and record what they do instead.

“Many students have found this to be an eye-opening experience as they spent time reconnecting with family, friends and hobbies,” McWhorter said. “I help them relate this to the blurring of work-life boundaries as mobile devices facilitate more opportunities to work 24/7.”

Dr. Barbara Wooldridge, professor of marketing, realized many students felt isolated from classmates during online courses, so she set out to remedy the situation. She asked her Healthcare MBA class, “If you were a medical instrument, what would you be?” For other online marketing classes, she might ask, “What cereal would you be?”

These questions might sound silly, but they work. In fact, one student, who was a supervisor at her job, thought the idea was so insightful that she used the technique at her next meeting with her medical team.

“It starts creating a sense of community, and they don’t feel like they’re alone. One student said she was a baker, and all of a sudden, students were sharing recipes,” Wooldridge said.

“Innovative things can be really small, but their ripple effect can be big,” she said. “We tend to think that innovation has to be big and bold, but sometimes the smallest things are the most amazing.”

Next: Professors Restructure Traditional Courses to Accommodate Modern Students


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