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Adapting the Past, Envisioning the Future

Professors Restructure Traditional Courses to Accommodate Modern Students

Even successful, well-liked professors like Dr. Andrew Schmitt sometimes get “stuck in a rut.”

“Lots of professors in their 40s and 50s like me aren’t as comfortable presenting information online because we feel like we’re going to lose the students,” said Schmitt, associate professor of psychology. “But with hybrid classes, we present in a way that students are comfortable.”

Hybrid courses at The University of Texas at Tyler combine elements of online instruction with face-to-face teaching. The goal is to create a class that melds the best practices of both methods. Classroom lectures become high quality videos that students can view day or night at their convenience, and tests can be administered online. Class time is reduced to once a week, but it’s dedicated entirely to hands-on activities, such as labs, demonstrations and case studies, or as Dr. Althea Arnold puts it: “the fun stuff.”

Schmitt and Arnold, assistant professor of construction management, admit their early skepticism about hybrid courses, even when UT Tyler received a $4 million grant through the University of Texas System and matched it with another $4 million in funding to help faculty transition their face-to-face classes into the new format.

Then-Provost Alisa White wanted to provide a support system for faculty not only to develop hybrid courses but also to understand the benefits for students. The idea became Patriots Accessing Technology for Success and Savings (PATSS). She asked Dr. Scott Marzilli, assistant vice president for academic innovation and student success and dean of the University College, to administer the program. To do that, he developed the PATSS Academy -- a three-part program created in 2013 to help professors redesign their courses -- and persuaded Schmitt, Arnold and more than 60 other faculty members to try it.

“They brought me in kicking and screaming, but I changed my mind,” Schmitt said. “I’m a big fan now.”

During the academy, professors attend a one-week workshop to listen to nationally recognized speakers discuss the ways technology can improve educators’ relationship with students.

The next 14 weeks are dedicated to converting an existing class into the hybrid format. This includes one-on-one assistance from instructional designers to find useful and creative ways to present material online. Professors can record lectures in one of the university’s two new green-screen, broadcast-quality recording studios to be posted for the online portion of the class.

The final part of the academy is reflection—professors discuss the outcome of the course with the instructional designer, assessing what went well and what could be improved. Professors receive a stipend to participate in the PATSS Academy.

Marzilli emphasizes that professors aren’t asked to redesign their courses arbitrarily. The first question instructional designers ask is about the goals of the class. Then designers offer ideas to keep the integrity of the course while adding some technology to improve student engagement.

“It’s not about having technology and fitting it into the class,” Marzilli said. “Instead, it’s analyzing the class and adding appropriate technology. We’re not forcing faculty to change the way they teach. Technology makes the students’ experience more fulfilling.”

Redesigning the Redesign

UT Tyler’s construction management department is moving toward a fully hybrid program, and Arnold has adapted all four of her face-to-face courses to the hybrid style.

Althea Arnold Class Shot

Dr. Althea Arnold teaches hybrid classes, which combine online instruction and face-to-face
learning. Her Construction Safety class meets face-to-face once a week. The remainder of the
course is online.

She has improved her method each year, saying that she’s learned a lot since her first redesign, her Construction Administration and Economics course. After reflecting on the redesign, Arnold made modifications to the course delivery.

“I changed just about everything,” she said. “Student comments helped me realize I needed to revamp this one. They said there wasn’t enough time to do the project, or that they didn’t learn anything from certain parts of the course. I said, ‘Okay, let’s dump that part and spend more time here instead.’ It’s a really good course now.”

She stresses that hybrid classes are best suited to students who are self-motivated and keep up with the online portion of the coursework. But as with any delivery method, some students still come to class unprepared and usually don’t fare as well.

“It’s an incredible amount of work (to redesign a course), but it was worth it,” Arnold said. “The students are learning, and the whole workforce is going toward computers, so it’s good for students to be exposed to that.”

From Critic to Advocate

Reflecting on the fall semester, Schmitt admits his surprise with the success of his first hybrid course, Abnormal Psychology. During the PATSS Academy when he witnessed the quality of the audio and video capabilities of the recording equipment, he gained confidence that students would enjoy the course.

“I had a cameraman in my classroom every day recording my class,” he said. “With that kind of support, you can make a good product. It was time-consuming, but my life is teaching, so I wanted everything to be really high quality.”

During class time, Schmitt focused on case studies of real-life interactions with his private-practice patients. He said he accomplished more with his students by posting his lectures online and by using class time for abstract thinking and diagnostic skill development.

At the end of the semester, Schmitt discovered that the students’ grades were on par with the face-to-face classes he taught in the past. Like Arnold, Schmitt also learned a lot from the experience and knows what he’d like to change the next time he teaches the course, including making better use of the online discussion board and adding pop culture resources for extra credit.

“I think they learn more in the hybrid version,” said Schmitt, who now encourages other professors to take advantage of the PATSS Academy.  “If I could teach all hybrid now, I would.”

Dedicated to Student Success

In addition to the other benefits, Marzilli says the hybrid teaching method also makes a UT Tyler education possible for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.

By having face-to-face class time only once a week, hybrid courses allow for “time-sharing” to accommodate students who work full time or who live far from campus. Time-sharing involves departmental faculty members working together to schedule multiple classes at the same time each day of the week.

For example, class time for three different courses could be scheduled from 8-8:50 a.m. three days a week, which helps working students attend class at a fixed time and then go to their job the rest of the day. Or students can schedule all their classes into one or two days a week, reducing the number of times they’d need to drive to campus.

Crystal Zapata, a freshman psychology major, admitted she was nervous when she signed up for Schmitt’s hybrid class. As the weeks passed, she realized how much she was learning while listening to prerecorded lectures at times convenient for her. Living in Longview, Texas, with a full-time job and two young children at home, Zapata appreciated the class flexibility.

"The best part was being able to access my course on my computer via Blackboard while I was on my lunch break at work, on my phone waiting in the parking lot to pick up my kids from school, or even using my tablet while laying in bed,” she said.

Zapata noted there were other benefits too, such as having 24-hour access to lecture videos and being able to watch them again for review if necessary. She also enjoyed getting test scores immediately after completing an exam.

Plus, students are learning skills for the changing job market. “Lots of corporations are moving to a flexible time schedule or work-from-home,” Marzilli said. “We provide opportunities for students to practice time-management strategies.”

With approximately 80 PATSS-approved courses in only three years, Marzilli considers the program a success.

“These aren’t the same students we had 20 years ago,” Marzilli said. “Working with students on their level shows the quality of the faculty we have here at UT Tyler.”

Next: Students Put Textbook Lessons Into Practice for Community Benefit



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