Several years ago, Samuel Gosling and James Pennebaker began to experiment with the idea of offering online education courses
at the very same time that they were teaching a course on campus. What would happen if they could live stream the course to a large number of students at once over the Internet? What kind of activities would that class size allow them to create for their students? What sort of research might be possible to determine if this type of course delivery had a positive impact on student learning?
Lecturer from afar vs. screen inches away
With the support of LAITS and the Center for Teaching and Learning, Pennebaker and Gosling created TOWER, the Texas Online World of Educational Research for LIVE course delivery
. TOWER is a suite of online educational tools including quiz software, academic honesty tools, and custom chat room services that enable the professors' vision to be realized. Compatible with the campus’ CANVAS Learning Management System using an accepted standard called LTI, or Learning Tool Interoperability, TOWER can be used in whole or in part for other online education courses. Earlier iterations of the course included instructions to students enrolled that they must to have access to a device that could access the Internet, and a warning not to include personally identifying data in online interactions with other class members. The entire environment was to become a research project, as well as a learning lab, one of the benefits of offering such a program through an accredited online university.
Showing up on time is required
Now fully developed, a typical class includes about an hour's worth of streaming videos featuring the professors, special guests, and students pulled from a live class
studio audience. The video stream is punctuated with short quizzes called benchmarks that comprise the bulk of the grading system. Other interactive activities include moderated chat room discussions, polls on topics of study with real-time group results, and online personality and writing tests that provide immediate feedback to the student’s response.
Side conversations and support built-in
Do these activities make a difference? Research shows that they do. In a paper published by PLOS One, TOWER resulted in a 50% reduction in the achievement gap that commonly appears between affluent students and those of lower socio-economic status.  And overall, all students did better with the TOWER system than in control groups taught in a traditional lecture format.
The TOWER system allows The College of Liberal Arts to offer Introductory Psychology and Government to up to 2000 fully enrolled students at the University of Texas at Austin at a time. It also allows Psychology LIVE to be offered as a SMOC, or Synchronous Massive Online Course, through University Extension to non-admitted students. While the public interest in LIVE SMOC online education courses is still untested, the original online learning method, TOWER, is already a valuable way to increase educational effectiveness and efficiency on the Forty Acres.
1. Pennebaker JW, Gosling SD, Ferrell JD (2013) Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance while Reducing Achievement Gaps. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79774. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079774
by Emily Cicchini