When it comes to online learning, many professors think outside the box to provide innovative educational experiences in a digital environment. Known by many students for his engaging teaching, Louis Rocconi has found ways to evolve face-to-face teaching strategies into successful techniques for synchronous and asynchronous online courses.
Now in his third year at UT Knoxville, Rocconi is an assistant professor in the evaluation, statistics, and measurement program and mostly teaches online and hybrid applied statistics courses. Prior to moving to eastern Tennessee, Rocconi worked as an assistant research scientist at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, where he provided data analytic support to several large survey research projects, including the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Law School Survey of Student Engagement. He credits his research and graduate experiences for his approach to teaching.
“My teaching style is still developing, as this is only my third year at UT. But I was very fortunate to have some really excellent teachers, and some not-so-great teachers, in the past. I draw on those experiences when working with my students,” Rocconi said. “I gained great hands-on experience working with large amounts of data during my time at Indiana, and that has helped me translate certain concepts into hopefully engaging, easy-to-understand ways for my students.”
Building an online course community begins on day one, with Rocconi uploading an introductory video about himself to the course Canvas site. He encourages his students to do the same on Canvas message boards, so students will get to know others in the class and learn about peers’ research interests and educational goals. In order to maintain a collaborative, engaging atmosphere via Canvas, Rocconi focuses on making the course material relevant and applicable to individual students’ research interests, as well as providing different examples to illustrate the use of the methods being discussed in class.
“I’ve found that some students are very active and communicative in online courses, and some are very silent on message boards. When I make coursework more relevant to the individual students, there’s more engagement in the course. One example to a problem isn’t going to resonate with every student, so especially in an online course, it’s important to customize the learning based on students’ research interests,” Rocconi said.
Rocconi believes that providing consistency and collecting student feedback is key for a successful online course. For example, his course assignments are due on the same day and time each week, and he continually asks students what exercises worked and what exercises were not helpful in their learning.
“I’ve learned not to be afraid to experiment and try new things in my online courses, and I try to be flexible depending on my students’ learning needs. Some teaching strategies work great for one cohort, and those same strategies may not resonate with the next cohort. That’s why it’s so important to constantly ask for feedback and evolve your online teaching style as the semester continues,” Rocconi said.
Teaching online does present challenges and Rocconi’s experiences are no exception. When he first started teaching online, he tried to strictly translate every classroom teaching strategy into the online setting. Through trial and error and with some fine-tuning, Rocconi discovered that some classroom activities were more successful in the online environment than in the traditional classroom.
“After I decided that I don’t have to do every course activity online exactly like I would in a face-to-face setting, I found that some of my classroom activities work so much better for my online students,” Rocconi said. “Online learning has so many benefits. For example, there’s this face-to-face activity that I used in the classroom. Students are expected to determine issues with a particular graph. With Canvas, I can hide other students’ responses from individuals until they post their own answer. Unlike the physical classroom, I can prevent groupthink in the online class, which results in some fascinating conversations and student collaboration that just hasn’t occurred with that activity in the traditional classroom.”
While Rocconi says that first developing an online course can be challenging, the flexibility it provides to him, as well as his students, is worth it.
“Those new to teaching online shouldn’t be apprehensive about it. It’s a fun challenge to evolve traditional learning strategies into an online environment, and it’s rewarding to your students to have the flexible learning opportunity,” Rocconi said.
Faculty interested in learning more about online teaching should check out Teaching & Learning Innovation’s online programs workshop series for Spring 2019.Subscribe to Faculty VOLume