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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 30 · Number 2 · Winter 2013

Classroom to go



More and more in the 21st century, when a student opens her computer she is likely to see her professor staring back.

If that professor is Arnold Bloom, he is speaking to her on video from his home studio where, besides doing the lecturing, he is the director, the cameraman, and the lighting and sound technician for his online course on climate change.

The fact that he does all of the video production work himself “may be obvious from the quality, but then again, I delude myself that it gives the material a more personal touch,” the plant sciences professor jokes.

Yes, his students lose real face time with their professor, but they gain flexibility in their school and work schedules — something that Bloom says can help students stay on track to graduation. Other faculty members, like Katharine Burnett of art history, actually gain face time with students, by putting lectures online and devoting class time to discussion.

The virtual teaching platform offers endless opportunities for the presentation of multimedia material and assignments, guest lecturers (no travel required!) and “field trips” around the world. Not to mention the platform allows students to learn with the technology most of them grew up with, and offers options to address individual learning styles.

UC Online:
Admission optional

“Classroom Not Required.” So says UC Online on its website, promoting classes developed by some of the university’s most outstanding faculty. “We believe that a UC education isn’t about how you learn but what you learn — and how you apply it to make California and the world a better place.”

More . . .

Renata Vidovic, for example, describes herself as “more of a visual learner,” so, she says, she liked having all of Bloom’s lecture slides on her computer, allowing her to review them as needed when she took his Science and Society 25V (“V” for virtual) last spring. She was one of 53 UC Davis undergrads in the class, a pilot project for UC Online. They watched Bloom’s videotaped minilectures independently and participated together in live discussions on the Web.

Vidovic, a second-year biological sciences major from Saratoga, cites this downside: “You don’t really get to interact physically with your classmates, so you don’t get to make any lasting connection. Nevertheless, I would be more than willing to take another online class and am keeping an eye out for more.”

She will have plenty from which to choose, as teachers continue to do what their predecessors have done for generations: take advantage of new technologies, like going from filmstrips to videos, or from overhead projectors to PowerPoints. Today’s teachers, though, have something even more powerful: the Web.

Online instruction can also help with access and tighter university budgets: No more room in the lecture hall for that last class you need to graduate? No problem, take it online. Can’t afford to build a new lecture hall? Use the Web.

Faculty members have been using online “tools” for years, of course — discussion boards and blogs, podcasts and course websites and wikis, for example. “They just didn’t see it as ‘online’ teaching,” says Rosemary Capps, assistant director of UC Davis’ Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

She calls this a “blended” model of instruction on a spectrum that runs all the way to 100 percent online. “Hybrid” instruction, split about evenly between online and in person, lies in the middle.

There is no official count of online classes on the Davis campus, but Capps has some educated estimates:

Fully online — Eight courses offered, with six more under development or in the course approval process.

Hybrid — Eight courses offered, with 17 more under development or in the approval process.

Daphne Koller on
"The Online Revolution: Education for Everyone"

Watch a lecture given at UC Davis by the co-founder of Coursera, which offers top university courses online for free.


“There are likely more of each, because it seems like every time I hold a related event, several more faculty members approach me to tell me about their hybrid or online course or idea,” she says.

Here’s some of what we are already doing or have done, and what’s in the works:

Professor Naomi Janowitz is developing Religious Studies 15, “Reading War, Fighting War,” with partial funding from one of the campus’s first Provost Hybrid Course Awards.

“Part of the time we’ll be reading and discussing The Iliad,” Janowitz says, “but we’re also going to be doing a number of activities that are more about the experience of warfare in America today. . . (with) group work, webcasts, Skype interviews with veterans and activities such as that, that work better outside the classroom.”

Another provost’s award recipient, Professor Jon Scholey of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology says he has been giving “chalk-talk” lectures, by and large, for 30 years, sometimes using PowerPoint presentations.

“I’d never really thought about changing that style,” he says.

Today, he is developing MCB 110V, “iBioSeminars in Cell and Molecular Biology,” in which Nobel laureates, National Academy members and other leading researchers will give all of the lectures, all on video.

A UCSF team does the iBioSeminars filming, the editing and the online archiving — and Scholey is the first person to assemble a selection of the seminars into a course. His students will watch one seminar a week on their own time and subsequently meet in person, as a class, for discussion with Scholey.

Woutrina Miller and Sophia Papageorgiou are developing a hybrid course for undergraduates, “One Health: Human, Animal and Environment Interfaces,” in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Miller, assistant adjunct professor at the Wildlife Health Center, talks about “transporting” students to project sites in Africa and Asia, by video and problem-based learning assignments. The students, she says, can “immerse in a particular problem, and they can try and look at human, animal and environmental components, and how those may interact” in health issues, interventions and policy implications.

Liz Applegate, a senior lecturer, participated in a hybrid experiment last summer, teaching Nutrition 10 — one of the most popular courses on campus — in two formats: live, three-hour lectures, twice a week; and online, allowing students to watch the same lectures, live or recorded.

Students had to choose one or the other; 179 elected to come to the lecture hall and 75 opted for online (although they had to show up for the midterm and final).

“Time and distance can be messy,” says Capps, explaining why some students need the online option. For example, one of Applegate’s online students had time to take the class, but spent the summer in the Bay Area. Other students were on campus, but had scheduling conflicts — usually jobs.

So, on the first day of Summer Session II, Applegate revised her opening remarks for the course she has been teaching for 27 years: “Welcome everyone here to Nutrition 10 and those virtual students that are watching this live video stream or maybe late tonight after they watch the Olympics!”

They could put off the lecture until after the Olympics, or until they got home from work, but they could not put it off very long: Each video — with side-by-side views of lecture and PowerPoint presentation — went into an online archive for only 72 hours.

When watching live, the online students had access to a live chatroom with a teaching assistant in the lecture hall.

Applegate, for one, is not likely to go 100 percent online. “I like the interaction, the questions,” she says. “I can see as I’m talking that they get it, and that’s very important to me.”

She has adapted to technology through the years, but says there are some aspects of her class “that need to stay old-school, at least the way I teach it.” Notably: the diet assignment, in which students must calculate their nutrient intake over three days. “I know there are phone apps that do this for you, but not in my class. I want them to figure it out.”

In the humanities, Professor Carl Whithaus is developing a hybrid course for expository writing. “In writing courses, students learn to write, amazingly enough, by writing,” says the director of the University Writing Program.

In the online environment, he says, students have more interaction “that’s directly tied to the writing that they’re doing, and lots and lots of feedback from an instructor.”

UC Davis professor Katharine Burnett discusses her experience with hybrid classes.

Burnett, associate professor of art history, and director of the East Asian Studies Program, switched to hybrid instruction in her “Arts of Asia” course more than 10 years ago, and admits that at first she thought it was “probably a terrible idea.”

But, consider what she was dealing with: a lower division, gateway course that covers 5,000 years of art history, Neolithic to contemporary, for three civilizations: India, China and Japan.

So, with support from the Mellon Foundation, she decided to give hybrid a try — and wound up a convert. “We are guides as much as we are instructors,” says Burnett, explaining how the hybrid format gives her “much more quality time” in discussion with her students.

Burnett splits her class in half, and meets with each half for an hour and a half a week — to assess the students’ understanding of the lecture material and give further instruction. That’s 90 minutes of discussion that she never had before, unless she interrupted her lectures.

Those lectures are now online:

Students hear Burnett lecturing and see the art that she is talking about (accompanied by the lecture text and slide identifications). Each student can go at his or her own speed, forward and backward.

And lest anyone think hybrid means “easier,” think again: “Arts in Asia” went from four units as a traditional course to five units as a hybrid. And, no small point: Students’ average grades have gone up.

Indeed, while hybrid instruction gives students the freedom to do some of their coursework whenever and wherever they like, they still need to be prepared for the real class meetings, “where the work is predicated on students’ dutifully completing the Web materials,” professors Robert Blake and Travis Bradley of the Department of Spanish wrote in an email.

In the introductory language courses Spanish 2V and 3V, hybrid courses that began six years ago, students come to class twice a week. Now Blake and Bradley are developing Spanish 21V and 22V, bringing the hybrid format to intermediate language classes.

“The rationale is not so much to accommodate more students but rather to provide increased learning opportunities for students who have complicated schedules and cannot physically be present five days a week on campus, and who enjoy working with technology and excel at autonomous or self-paced learning,” the professors wrote.

The Spanish 21V and 22V online component, requiring about 13 hours of time per week, will include readings, recordings and videos, allowing the study of grammar and vocabulary in context. Quizzes will be presented, and linguistic and cultural activities assigned — with all work to be submitted online.

In addition, students will use a trimodal chat program (text, voice and video) to interact in real and deferred time with classmates and the instructor.

“A hybrid environment may be the best of both worlds,” Blake says, “in that it harnesses individual study and electronic group study and all the electronic advantages and affordances that exist, as well as also maintaining a classroom presence. So it’s really, I think, a unique format which is being used more and more in American education.”

Professor Arnold Bloom uses green screen technology that allows him, during the editing process, to place images and graphics behind him.

Of all faculty members, Bloom is perhaps the most immersed in online instruction — from his SAS 25V to a massive open online course, or MOOC (

Both are descended from SAS 25, “Global Climate Change: Convergence of Disciplines,” which Bloom has been teaching in the “stand-and-deliver” format for nearly 10 years and which he will teach again in that format in winter term 2013. But he also aims to present SAS 25V all year long for UC and non-UC students.

“Flexibility in scheduling the time and place of instruction is critical for many students,” Bloom wrote in a report to the National Science Foundation, which is providing $1.6 million to Bloom and academics at other universities for a project called CAMEL: Climate, Adaptation, Mitigation, E-Learning.

“Instructors need not be physically present in the classroom and can conduct many course activities asynchronously,” Bloom wrote. “This permits an instructor with extensive experience in the subject area to increase class size and facilitates offering a course from this instructor multiple times throughout the year.”

By doing so, Bloom says, universities can improve and increase access to popular, overenrolled and mandatory classes, helping students accelerate their progress toward graduation.

“At many colleges and universities in the United States, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors require more courses than other majors, and difficulties in scheduling and successfully completing these courses is a factor that many students cite as impeding their attainment of a degree in four years,” Bloom wrote.

With more STEM graduates, Bloom says, “we will have a populace that is better informed about issues such as climate change and who can design policies based on the best science.”

UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter says fast-changing modes of communication and learning make this an "very exciting moment in education."

Sara Garcia Paez, a second-year biological sciences major from San Bernardino, worries that online instruction takes away from the full “college experience,” and “a lot of that has to do with the face-to-face interactions that happen in a classroom.”

But she acknowledges: “I think virtual classes can be very useful if used in the appropriate context.”

Online forums and discussions for a literature class may not give students the best learning experience possible, Paez says. But, “if we’re talking about a lecture hall with 300-plus students … where the personal element is inherently reduced and the potential for individual questions is very low, then perhaps setting up those courses virtually could actually benefit those students.”

The benefit to students is No. 1, agrees Capps, of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

“Learning is the most important thing, she says, “and our innovative faculty are finding new ways, new tools and new media to support the learning of their students, along with the tried and true methods.”



Dave Jones is campus news editor for University Communications.
UC Davis Magazine intern Gheed Saeed contributed to this report.