My project involved re-designing a course that had been taught for years on land for an online format. The course, PSY645 Environmental Psychology, includes exposure to such topics as climate change, ecopsychology, ecotherapy, environmental justice, and the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. It has in the past required students to engage in personal and in-class exploration of their own political, religious/spiritual, social, and environmental identities, and has necessitated thoughtful management of in-class discussions so that differences were respected and even welcomed. The primary challenge of converting the class to the online format was how best to build community online so that students could comfortably express ideas to and ask questions of the instructor and peers. A secondary task was creating an online classroom experience, through assignments and recorded lectures, that engaged students with the material, stimulated active thought, and contributed to later online forum discussions.
The course is an elective for students from several graduate programs. This class included students from two graduate programs, Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology and Masters of Food Studies. As I designed the course with a focus on the learning objectives listed below, I felt that it was important to find ways to meet the educational and professional needs of students in both programs:
- Define concepts related to environment and psychology
- Define concepts related to health and well-being
- Discuss the effects of humans on the environment, and the environment on humans, in the context of global climate change
- Reflect on and discuss own beliefs, values, and behaviors related to the above topics
- Discuss implications of topics for profession
- Discuss implications of topics for counseling and psychology roles, including assessment, treatment, prevention, and advocacy OR
- Discuss implications of topics for food studies work.
The initial steps in building the online course were as follow:
- Consultation with Lauren Panton, IT Manager, Becky Borello, Instructional Technologist, and Mark Kassel, Director of Online Education, about how best to design and structure the course on Moodle (separate from content).
- Actual design of the course on Moodle in a format that was clean, not visually overwhelming, and inviting with nature photographs.
- Planning about how to sequence the course in a deliberate way to move students through Bloom’s taxonomy from taking in and comprehending information to integrating the various topics studied across the semester to, finally, thinking about how what was studied could be applied to one’s life, personally and professionally, and creating plans for doing so.
- Careful selection of readings for the first part of the semester that addressed ways to embrace and talk across differences, and inclusion of group assignments that would foster intentional practice in doing so.
- Use of VoiceThread to create weekly PowerPoint lectures, which included links to videos and pauses for thinking and note-taking to facilitate discussion. Since the PowerPoint lectures were created week-to-week, it was possible also to integrate specific issues or comments that had been raised in the previous week’s student discussions.
NOTE: The class did include an option for a group field trip OR individual field trip; these experiences were included as a topic in a discussion forums.
Initial planning for the project took place during Summer 2016, and the course was implemented in Fall 2016 with 14 students (12 MSCP and 2 MFS). Changes were made to course delivery throughout the semester in response to student feedback.
Below is a summary of steps taken to address the two tech goals outlined above.
The first goal was to build an online community that fostered brave and respectful discussion of issues that had political, religious/spiritual, or environmental aspects to them. The first two weeks were critical for laying this foundation, as described below.
1. Week 1 – Place Identity and Attachment – Students read articles and watched a video about place attachment and identity, and introduced themselves in a discussion forum by sharing information about and a photo of one of their own special places. This was a relatively “neutral” topic that allowed students to be creative in what they shared and to get to know something unique and personal about each other student.
2. Week 2 – Creating Brave Spaces for Learning – Two readings specifically addressing talking across differences were assigned (Parker, 2011, and Arao and Clemens, 2013, referenced below). In addition, I used VoiceThread to record a PowerPoint lecture entitled “Civil Discourse.” The lecture reviewed both articles and included specific exercises for the students to complete at home that mimicked what might be done in a classroom, but at the same time allowed greater privacy for student contemplation prior to discussion (unlike the live classroom). Examples of questions and exercises that were included in the lecture and then discussed as a group in the forum are described below:
a. Where do you stand? In the privacy of their home, each student was asked to take a large piece of paper and to mark the four corners of the paper with Likert-like ratings (Very Important, Kind of Important, Not Very Important, and Not Important at All – with Neutral in the center). They were then asked to mark where they stood with regard to the relevance of your political identity, religious/spiritual identity, social identity (including race, age, SES, gender, etc.), and environmental identity to their daily lives. I did NOT ask what the specifics associated with these identities were, only the relevance/importance of them to the person. The goal was for students to think, as they completed the exercise privately, about peers whose religious or political or other identity might be different from theirs in content but equally strong in terms of personal relevance. The exercise was designed to build empathy, thus contributing to the development of a healthy and respectful online discussion culture.
b. Think about the current election cycle (Fall 2016). Students were encouraged to apply the readings, in private, to their own experience of the current election cycle, and to think about how this was playing out in relationships, conversations, etc. Again, a goal was for the students to imagine peers who might also have strong thoughts and emotions related to the election, with different beliefs or political orientations.
c. Discussion forum – Students were asked to respond to the following prompt, and then to read and respond to several posts from peers:
-“List and discuss a couple of ideas that would contribute to the creation of a healthy ‘brave space’ discussion forum culture in our class.”
3. Throughout subsequent weeks, students were reminded to review the discussion and readings from Week 2 as they tackled talking about challenging topics.
The second goal was to learn how to create an online class experience that actively engaged students. To do this, I included questions and exercises throughout the PowerPoint lecture that required the students to pause and DO something that would then be incorporated into the discussion forum (as described above). I also embedded videos of varying lengths into the lectures. Finally, the course material included links to online sites that required active exploration, in addition to traditional peer-reviewed academic articles.
The project was assessed through an anonymous survey monkey questionnaire focusing on the online delivery process (administered a couple of weeks before the end of the course), the regular Chatham-administered course evaluations, and a final discussion forum requiring students to describe their “3 Take-Aways” from the course. In addition, comments and suggestions were invited throughout the course. Below is feedback from the assessments.
SURVEY MONKEY (9/14 responded)
1. Have you taken an online graduate level course before?
2. Rate your degree of ease in navigating Moodle for getting information about assignments and making your posts and comments.
Very Easy 44.44%
Pretty Easy 33.33%
Kind of Difficult 0
3. How comfortable did you feel sharing your opinions and ideas with your classmates?
Very Comfortable 44.44%
Pretty Comfortable 55.55%
Kind of Uncomfortable 0
Very Uncomfortable 0
4. What suggestions do you have for improving the online course delivery process? (SUMMARY OF RESPONSES)
- More specific training in tech aspects of class
- Better posting schedule – posting 3x week was challenging, especially when due on weekends
- Have first class in–person
5. Describe least favorite part(s) of course. (SUMMARY)
- Schedule of posts
- Back and forth nature of posts and comments – sometimes confusing
- Required too much time – wish it had been in-person
6. Describe favorite parts of the course. (SUMMARY)
- Able to get into issues in a way that wouldn’t have been able to in person
- Variety of materials – readings, videos, internet resources
- News item discussions (based on a particular assignment)
- Opportunities for discussion with other students
- Course topics and content
7. Any surprises for you in the course? (SUMMARY)
- Amount of time required for online course
- What I learned from content of course
- Learned more than in in-class course because of in-depth discussions and time to think before “speaking”
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM ASSESSMENTS AND EVALUATIONS
The formal Chatham course evaluation comments were consistent with those summarized above.
In addition, students completed a final discussion forum related to their “3 Take-Aways” from the class. Below are some comments that are related to the goals of this project:
- I have rediscovered and even improved my critical thinking skills as a result of this class. (I’m not sure my husband is happy about this. LOL…) I am able to look at events, debates, studies, and see even more angles to what I am analyzing. It has helped me through this election as well as not to argue with people. This is very beneficial to my counseling skills because it also allows me to see more process that is going along with the content.
- I will also remember the conversation we had about brave spaces vs safe spaces. For some reason, I always thought of the therapy space being safe, but I was neglecting the idea of the space being one where clients feel brave enough to take the next step, or to help to become brave so they can use that quality in their everyday lives.
- The first major take away that I would like to talk about is the fact that we, as a class, were able to work and learn together. We formed an online Chatham community where I was able to learn more from everyone’s contributions than the material itself. I had never taken an online class before and although it’s not my personal favorite style of learning, this was a great experience! I really felt that the creating brave spaces in week two helped contribute to this style of learning.
- I enjoyed the non-traditional format of this course. I felt like I was able to learn more without relying on one textbook, and was offered many different perspectives on environmental psychology within the readings. I also enjoyed that we were able to have thoughtful in depth conversations through the online discussion boards.
Finally, I was able to do informal comparisons of this online class with the many previous times the course was taught in a traditional on land format. First, I heard substantively from every student in every session throughout the semester; in the “live” classes, in spite of my efforts to draw quiet people out, certain students stayed in the background during most of the discussions and did not express ideas that, based on my online experience, might have contributed significantly to the larger discussion. Second, the ideas discussed in the online forums were more thoughtful and detailed than most of those in the on land class; I believe that the chance to think things through privately before posting allowed for careful deliberation of both what to say and how to say it. And third, the requirement that students “talk” to each other in the discussion forums resulted in very respectful and personalized responses. While I weighed in on the discussions, the discussions were really conversations between the students themselves; sometimes it seemed like my own posts were superfluous! This was very different from the traditional format where so many comments, even if I tried to redirect them, were from the students to me rather than to each other.
Fourth, knowing that the online class lacked the energy of the actual students’ presence during the lectures, I needed to make sure there was great variety of materials for students to review each week and thus expanded readings with more internet sites and videos than I had used in the traditional format. I think this helped students stay engaged, and appealed to different ways of learning.
Finally, I want to note a change that I made in course expectations mid-semester. I assigned lots of readings each week. In reviewing early student discussions, I could tell that not every student read every assigned article (which I am sure happens in on land classes as well! It is just harder to track). I had a couple of choices: 1) I could decrease the number of readings and hold students accountable for reading all of them through a grading process, or 2) each week, I could continue to assign multiple readings, videos, etc., and even expand the number of offerings related to the week’s topics, and allow students to choose what to read. The second choice felt less conventional but more attractive to me, as an experiment, so I took it. The result was that – while not everyone reviewed everything, everything was reviewed and posted about by someone, AND students read posts about things they had not chosen to read, learned something, and contributed to the discussion. What I personally liked about this option was that it allowed me to post LOTS of interesting material each week that might otherwise, in an on land class, not get presented; I think the students were thus exposed to more material through the discussions.
Reflections and Next Steps
I was satisfied with this first offering of the online version of PSY645 Environmental Psychology, and with the outcomes for the project. First, I believe that the efforts to structure the course with careful sequencing, specific readings, and a focused lecture on “Civic Discourse” contributed to the students’ abilities to tackle challenging material and to discuss it with peers both bravely and respectfully. I also believe that this experience is one that many students will carry with them into their professional and personal lives. Second, most students seemed to appreciate the multiple formats in which information was presented.
I enjoyed learning how to present an online class and hearing from students about ways to make the process even better. I will be teaching the course again in a six week format during Summer 2017 and will make a few changes in it, including the following:
- I will provide more instruction in online/tech processes at the start.
- I will be more thoughtful about the posting schedule, particularly since students will be doing two class sessions per week.
- I will do a weekly individual check-in with each student via email.
- I will do also quick surveys each week about how the class is going, so that I can make adjustments in terms of pace, content, and load.
- I will be intentional at the outset about the “I am offering scads of material for you to review each week; you must read X and you can choose among the other materials” format.
- I will continue to offer a field trip (group or individual) activity.
Arao, B., and Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: ACPA
Palmer, P. (2011). Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.