Mary Hylton is a relationships person, admitting that relationships define practically everything she is involved with.
“A key to my teaching, and to everything I do, is relationships,” says Hylton, an assistant professor of Social Work. “In Social Work, relationship is the backbone of everything we do.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hylton’s approach to teaching online courses. For a person who truly enjoys the give-and-take of the classroom, where it is important to see and understand the reaction of her students to particular material, you would expect that online communication wouldn’t necessarily translate into effective teaching.
Hylton thought that would be the case: “That was one of the reasons why I taught an online course; I didn’t think you could do it. I was a true skeptic.”
Like any good communicator, though, Hylton has mastered online teaching in ways that have been meaningful to her students. She encourages her online students to have discussions not only with her, but with each other. She follows through with added content or suggestions for further reading. She personalizes her online persona by letting her students know that in addition to being their professor, she is an unabashed dog and football lover.
She smiles as she remembers one student, who, noting Hylton’s love of dogs, wrote to her that, “I don’t have any dog stories, but I have great llama stories” (the student having raised llamas).
“I enjoy following through,” Hylton says. “So, I wrote back, ‘What are some of your llama stories?’ He then provided me stories and a lot of links to llama stories. I thought that was great.
“It all goes back to my teaching philosophy, That’s where I start with everything: How do I engage this person through relationship.”
Although it requires a lot of extra work to make an online course much more personally engaging for her students, Hylton doesn’t mind it in the least.
“When I teach a Gay and Lesbian Lives course, I’m able to reach students who might not otherwise take this course on campus,” she says, noting that many of the online students live in rural Nevada, and use the course as a capstone, or diversity, course. They often sign up for the course less for the content and more to fulfill a requirement. “So from that standpoint, the online course has been wonderful. That’s a really good thing to me, to think that because of online, I’m reaching students who might not ever, ever care about this topic.”
Hylton’s talents have been noticed by her students and the campus. She is past runner-up for the campus’ highest teaching honor, the F. Donald Tibbitts Teaching Excellence Award. Not surprisingly, reaction to her courses has been outstanding. Wrote one former student of learning online from Hylton, “Her online class is far more superior to the previous online classes I have taken. … The level of discussion in this class even surpasses a class in person. Mary is also very personally supportive for students, taking the time to listen through difficulties and provides much encouragement to help them meet their goals.”
Hylton, who joined the Nevada faculty in 2002, is the former coordinator of the campus’ “3 + 1” program, which has helped the state meet the incredible shortage of social workers in rural areas. Through the program, students complete three years of coursework through Great Basin College in Elko, then finish with senior-level coursework (though distance education) at the University.
In typical Hylton fashion, she says that it is the smaller accomplishments that stand out.
“We had a student in Owyhee (on the Duckwater Indian Reservation in the far northeastern corner of the state), and for us that was a really, really big deal,” she says. “That is obviously a very rural area, and she was able to get her degree without having to leave Owyhee.”
It was yet another example of the power of relationships. Or, as one of Hylton’s students might tell you, another example of a teacher encouraging, stimulating, motivating and inspiring – whether in person, or online.