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Testing the waters for a new kind of graduate teaching

February 26, 2018 By Silke Schmidt

Technology has changed our daily life in countless ways. However, many university professors are still teaching their graduate-level classes exactly the same way as they were taught 50 years ago.

“We have more powerful computers for simulations, but we’re still getting in front of the room to lecture about the research that other people are doing, rather than use existing technology to actually connect these people directly with students across the country,” says Steven Loheide, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

To initiate virtual discussions of a research paper, Loheide asked his students to produce an online word cloud (“wordle”). It displayed, in real time, all the keywords the students came up with and highlighted those mentioned multiple times in a larger font. Image courtesy of Steven Loheide

Loheide decided to change that, starting with his own field of hydrologic sciences, a broad discipline that includes engineers, geoscientists, limnologists and agronomists (just to name a few). Since 2001, this field has had a National Science Foundation-funded umbrella organization, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc. (CUAHSI), with more than 100 institutional across the country.

Loheide, who has served on CUAHSI’s board of directors since 2015, decided to expand the organization’s educational mission by designing a three-credit graduate course in a virtual university format, with live online lectures delivered to remote audiences. Six professors (including Loheide) and 45 graduate students from six institutions participated for the first time in the fall of 2017, and the same format will be offered again in the coming fall.

The CUAHSI Virtual University’s pilot course consisted of six four-week modules that were taught live, two per month, during two 90-minute classes per week.

By combining any three modules from the course menu, the 45 students — from UW–Madison, Michigan State University, the University at Buffalo, University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Delaware, and University of Nevada, Reno — earned three credits at their home institution. Topics ranged from the use of drones for hydrologic applications to coastal hydrology and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

“The unique feature of our program is the target audience of research-oriented graduate students, rather than the undergraduate and professional students for whom many forms of online education already exist,” Loheide says. “The opportunity to learn directly from the people who are at the forefront of their highly specialized research areas is invaluable to these students, since a single campus could never dream of offering access to such a wide range of expertise.”

Toward the end of his module, Loheide paired up students from different institutions for a joint presentation to teach them how to collaborate without face-to-face interactions —a format that has almost become the norm for academic researchers today.

Almost all students and the six professors noted in their course evaluations that they would recommend the course to others. The students especially valued the opportunity to network with this unique community of educators and learners from around the country. Most of them plan to use the course material for their independent research projects and are also interested in using a virtual classroom in their own academic careers. This, Loheide says, may greatly accelerate knowledge dissemination in the future.

“By teaching the frontiers of research to the people who adopt it right away when they become teachers themselves, new findings won’t be buried in academic journals for years until they move into practice,” he explains. “Participation in CUAHSI Virtual University is also a plus for instructors and universities in terms of peer recognition of institutional strengths.”

Additional benefits include a more efficient use of faculty teaching time: Students earn three credits while the instructor teaches one credit’s worth of content in a four-week module. Loheide says it’s an intense four weeks due to the larger number of students and a virtual format that is new for most professors-but in return, they have the luxury of teaching right in their own research specialty to a highly motivated audience.

Loheide has already added three new instructors to the fall 2018 pool, in addition to five returning ones, so that he can offer a menu of eight modules to the next group of students.

“We are pleased with the positive feedback we have received and are now developing best teaching practices to share with the new and returning instructors,” he says. “At CUAHSI, we are actively discussing how to expand the program since we believe the virtual university has real potential to become a new way of teaching in our community, and perhaps beyond that.”

Funding from the Educational Innovation Program at the UW–Madison College of Engineering supported Loheide’s effort in planning, leading and evaluating the pilot course. Mary Thompson of the UW–Madison Division of Continuing Studies conducted an evaluation of program effectiveness through extensive surveys and interviews. CUAHSI provided the learning management system and teleconferencing software and funded a part-time staff member for registration management and technical support.