OXFORD, Ms. – In the wake of a global pandemic, online learning has seen tremendous growth at colleges across the country. In the University of Mississippifaculty members develop unique and innovative ways to support virtual teaching.
The UM Academic Public Relations Office, which is home to Ole Miss Online, presents the Paragon Award for Excellence in Distance Teaching to recognize these efforts. Winners are selected annually based on criteria such as successful course design, creative use of technology, and commitment to excellence in learning experiences.
Carey Bernini Dowling, Associate Lecturer psychology, is this year’s recipient of the Paragon Award. Laurie Babin, Teaching Associate Professor of Business Administration, and Georgianna Mann, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Hospitality Management were selected for honorable mentions.
The award winners will be presented at the annual virtual event, Toolbox Talks, on March 23 at 10:30 am.
“I am very honored to have been selected for the Paragon Award,” said Dowling. “It feels really great to be recognized by my peers.”
Mary Lea McMillan, Assistant Director of Academic Outreach, welcomes all online faculty nominees.
“The purpose of the Paragon Award is to recognize and reward superior online teaching, foster continued professional growth, and encourage online teachers to serve as role models for academic excellence,” she said. “Dr. Dowling, Babin and Mann embody all of these qualities in their online teaching and mentoring of students.
“In fact, every year that I’ve been involved with the Paragon Awards, I’ve been truly amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of not only the winners and honorable mentions, but all of the online faculty that have been nominated for this award.”
Dowling teaches two online courses: PSY 309: Learning and PSY 311: Psychopathology: Integrative Approaches. Students gave enthusiastic comments in their reviews of these courses, saying that the material was easy to learn and that Dowling was invested in their success.
Dowling used a method called reverse design to create the courses.
“All coursework prepares students to achieve course objectives, and assessments are designed to directly assess course objectives,” she said. “This leads to a variety of types of coursework, as well as a variety of assessment types and a focus on ensuring students meet course objectives throughout the semester.”
Courses are highly structured, which helps students stay on course; This can be especially difficult in online classrooms. Dowling uses a mix of fixed and suggested deadlines to expedite students.
“I design my classes to be like one-on-one classes three times a week,” she said. “I offer recommended coursework completion dates on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week, but allow students to complete almost all coursework late to receive full credit to allow for the flexibility needed in an online learning environment.”
Frequent communication between Dowling and her students is a key factor in the success of the courses. Dowling ensures this through weekly announcements, answers to questions and participation in Slack, a communication platform.
“Even though there are 150 students enrolled in both majors, I try to create a sense of community for the students,” she said. “Students share an introduction with me and their classmates, and there are several methods they can use to communicate with each other.”
An example of this is a 20-question interactive game on Slack that Dowling uses in her PSY 311 course. In the game, which the students play several times during the semester, they have to ask and answer each other’s questions.
Trained as a clinical psychologist, Dowling received a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in New York. Her teaching philosophy is based on her education, knowledge and experiences inside and outside of the classroom.
She believes that improving as a teacher is an iterative process.
“I strive to grow as a professor and become more effective each semester while working to help my students meet course goals,” she said. “As a result, I frequently attend teaching conferences and workshops, read journal articles and books on pedagogy, listen to teaching-oriented podcasts, and draw from the broader psychological literature.”
Teaching online courses has many benefits, but the biggest benefit is accessibility for students, Dowling said.
“Some students in my online classes would not have access to in-person learning,” she said. “I had office hours with students who were at work during their lunch break. Even if they are not physically present, they can still complete aspects of the course when it is ideal for them.”
Dowling, Babin and Mann are scheduled to present at the Toolbox Talks event, which is now in its fourth year. The event will feature creative ideas and recommendations from several members of Ole Miss’ online faculty.
Dowling’s number one piece of advice for new online trainers is don’t make big changes all at once.
“Try a little change every semester,” she said. “If it works, great, and if it doesn’t, you can go back to the previous semester. You can make pretty big changes over several semesters, but not a complete redesign of the course, which is overwhelming and time-consuming.”
To register for the Toolbox Talks event and learn more about teaching online at Ole Miss, visit this page.