When she began to design the University of Nevada, Reno’s first fully online capstone course, Women’s Studies Professor Rosemary Dixon had no idea her creation would eventually be an international success. Women’s Studies/Sociology 453, better known as Gender and Society, has been named a Blackboard Exemplary Course by Blackboard Inc., which annually recognizes faculty who construct innovative and exciting “e-learning” classes with its Blackboard Catalyst Awards.
Gender and Society explores social institutions, from work to family to education, with a gendered lens. “It applies to students’ real lives,” Dixon said. “It gives them a new way of looking at things they’re already familiar with, like that Disney movie they’ve seen 27,000 times.”
The class uses YouTube videos, movie clips, online discussions and surveys and even a virtual tour of the course site to keep students engaged, all of which helped Gender and Society stand out in the Blackboard competition. Eight courses were honored this year after rigorous evaluation by faculty judges from institutions around the world.
There are four major criteria upon which the courses are appraised. One is course design: Is it consistent, and can things be found easily? The next is interaction and collaboration: Can students easily and meaningfully connect with each other, the teacher and the material? The third is assessment: Are there measurable objectives, and do the students have a chance to get frequent feedback? And the last is student support: Are there resources made available to the students to help them succeed in the course?
Alina Solovyova-Vincent, an instructional designer with Teaching and Learning Technologies on campus who helped construct Gender and Society, said determination played a big part in making the course exemplary.
“Gender and Society went through a Course Makeover Program last year, in which a team consisting of instructional designers and professors from several departments reviewed it and offered suggestions,” she said. “Usually, teachers will implement about 15 of the suggestions before entering the new semester, but Rosemary wanted to get through all of them, and there were over 100 suggestions.”
Shannon Brown at Independent Learning also played a large role in the development of the course by giving it a standardized, easy-to-read format.
“Before Independent Learning took a look at it, the formatting was a bit of a mess,” said Dixon. “Shannon and her team gave the course a face-lift by a giving the content consistent styling.”
All of those adjustments called for much more preparation time than most classes require, and Dixon carried that work ethic through the rest of the semester by keeping in daily contact with her students by email and instant messaging to ensure that they felt connected to the class.
“I think there’s this myth that online classes are sort of canned, and that you’re in it by yourself,” said Solovyova-Vincent, “but in many ways they allow you to be in more contact with your fellow classmates and teacher than face-to-face classes do because instantaneous communication is always available.”
Dixon, who has worked with online classes since 2003, agreed. “The format also allows you to be more of a facilitator than a lecturer,” she said. “You direct students to where they can find their own information instead of just giving it to them, and they perhaps have more of a stake in what they learn that way.”
Solovyova-Vincent and Dixon both attended the Blackboard Annual Conference July 14-16 in Washington, D.C. to be recognized for their hard work and to give a poster presentation on the Gender and Society course, which is now being used as an example for university faculty of an ideal online course. In the meantime, they are continuing to develop their course; they have already made more improvements since the spring semester ended.
“We want to add more videos of lectures, for example, and to show whole movies instead of clips,” explained Dixon. "It’s an evolution process.”