Photo David Miller, Coordinator of Media Production & Criticism in the Department of Communication at George Mason University

George Mason University Course Achieves High Attendance After Online Migration


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 05, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Writing a fine arts critique piece, or even a TV show review, demands knowledge. In George Mason University’s Media Criticism course, students are able to learn the required techniques to produce quality critical writing through asynchronous online classes, designed with a deep emphasis on Flexible and Experiential Learning. With 40 students per semester, the course is a success not only due to its high attendance rate, but also for the increasing student satisfaction around the learning methods applied by Course Coordinator David J. Miller. The initiative has made him one of the winners of the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Awards for Teaching and Learning.

George Mason University’s (GMU) Media Criticism course – a required class to obtain a Communication degree within the university’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences – used to be taught in a traditional face-to-face environment. This began to change around five years ago, after professor David J. Miller, coordinator of Media Production & Criticism within GMU’s Department of Communication, started teaching the course during summer sessions.

“We had a lot of problems with enrollment for this course in the summertime,” Miller recalls. To be exact, the course was only offered every other summer due to low enrollment – of the 40 available spots, only 15 were being filled in on alternative summers.

This changed when Miller began to offer the course through an asynchronous online environment. With the online classes, the professor turned the Media Criticism course into a hit.

The initiative began with the university providing incentives for faculty to develop more online courses. “I applied for a grant to redesign the course. I was assigned an instructional designer who was an expert in Blackboard, and we spent about nine months completely deconstructing the face-to-face course and rebuilding it for a completely asynchronous delivery system,” Miller says.

The new online Media Criticism course was an instant success: Miller had 40 students sign up right away, and to this day, the course is running in the summer, fall and spring semesters at maximum attendance.

“The most obvious advantage to asynchronous online learning is the ability to work and learn from anywhere. With a course as well organized and executed as Media Criticism, the ability to move through the course content at my own pace is, I think, the biggest advantage of distance learning,” says Adam Gambrel, former Media Criticism course student at George Mason University.

Laura Tarantino, a former Media Criticism course student and a teaching assistant at George Mason University, agrees. “In an online environment, the students have time to formulate their thoughts and exchange them on discussion tabs online. In a way, this gives you more opportunity to learn because students are exchanging links they can access immediately, the teacher is actively monitoring questions, and complex material can be reviewed and assessed at a speed that is comfortable for the reader,” Tarantino affirms.

Learning Effectively: The Benefits of Running an Online Class

Higher course attendance was not the only advantage of flipping the Media Criticism classes from face-to-face to online. From the course design stage, Miller had an objective in mind: offer a truly effective learning experience to his students.

In order to get there, the course design followed the key principles of two learner-centered approaches: Flexible Learning and Experiential Learning. The desired end goal of this initiative was to help online students examine practical criticism of a wide variety of media outlets including television programs, newspapers, articles, films, photographs, and advertisements through the use of these two approaches.

“Since this is a Media Criticism course, experiencing art, music and film firsthand, to me, was very critical. Students need to have a reflective experience, followed by an abstract conceptualization and, finally, the experimentation stage where they apply what they learned,” Miller explains.

Although students were already having those experiences intuitively within the face-to-face classes, doing the course online provided an advantage: it crystalized and formalized the process itself, with the help of the instructional designer who worked with Miller in the online course development. “The asynchronous experience gave me a more formalized approach and structure. Perhaps, when you are doing it on the fly in a face-to-face class, you don’t spend much time thinking about this,” Miller points out.

Engaging Students Through Flexible Learning

The Flexible Learning element is what makes Miller the proudest about the initiative. “Traditionally, professors might overwhelm students with readings and handing in reports in any given week. I believe that overloading students with information does not guarantee that they are going to do well, or even do the work, let alone learn. So, Flexible Learning means providing an array of information that students choose during a given week, and I think that’s important,” Miller explains.

The professor provides readings and viewings in any given module. However, what makes a difference in his approach is that he allows students to choose what they would like to read and watch within each module. More likely than not, according to Miller, what happens is that students end up engaging in other subject-related materials, out of curiosity, or even interest.

“Giving students permission to engage in what they are passionate about does help with engagement. Letting them decide what they want to review – for example, writing a movie review of their choice, or about music that interests them – really works,” he explains, adding that his standards and learning objectives do not change because of the flexible approach.

The online format also forces the professor to rethink his position from an instructor-centered focus, to a student-oriented approach. “At this point, having come to that realization has also affected how I teach my face-to-face course,” says Miller.

Another evidence that proves his students are more engaged now than ever, is the high participation rate in the course year-end evaluation. While the university receives a 40% response rate from online students regarding teacher evaluations, Miller’s Media Criticism class receives a response rate of about 60% of the administered teacher evaluations. “I think you have to develop that relationship from the beginning. That engagement does not just happen at the end of the semester – it is continuous. Doing the year-end evaluation is just one more way for them to communicate with me,” Miller believes.

Using Blackboard Analytics for Learn to Track Student Participation

Blackboard Analytics for Learn was used by Miller to track students’ participation in the course’s Discussion Forums, Ask the Professor Forum, and peer review activities. No less than 100% of the students participated in both peer review activities showing their engagement with the learning activity, while 80% of students participated in general online discussions.

Student perceptions also showed the impact of Flexible Learning in combination with Experiential Learning. The data compared between Summer 2014, when the course was designed mostly on the principles of Experiential Learning, and Fall 2017, when the principles of Flexible Learning were introduced, show positive results. See the graphic to learn the results.

How Flexible and Experiential Learning Approaches Impacted Student Perceptions

Students rated the following items higher, showing their increased positive perceptions about learning:

Clarity of Course Expectations

Summer          2014 – 4,83/5
Fall                  2017 – 4,86/5

Perceived Instructor Availability

Summer          2014 – 4,91/5
Fall                  2017 – 5,00/5

Perceived Helpfulness of Course Assignments for Student Learning

Summer          2014 – 4,52/5
Fall                  2017 – 4,57/5

 Students’ Perceptions That the Instructor Covered Important Aspects of the Course

Summer          2014 – 4,48/5
Fall                  2017 – 4,86/5

On Being Awarded and the Future of Learning

Although being a Blackboard Catalyst Award winner was unexpected for Miller, he says he is honored to be recognized. “I share this award with George Mason University Senior Instructional Designer, Larisa Olesova, who really was instrumental in redesigning the face-to-face course into the online course,” he says.

While already working in new course designs, Miller reflects on the need for new learning approaches to stay current and relevant with students. “Students today are in a completely different place that they were 10 years ago. And that means adjusting our approach to learning. I think the biggest challenge is that they are much more in a social media driven environment. They don’t necessarily read a printed newspaper and they don’t watch news on network television. They are getting a lot of information from social media. The challenge is to incorporate not only new media, but new ways that our students are consuming media. And maybe even integrating those tools in how to present information,” Miller concludes.


Flexible Learning and Experiential Learning

Flexible Learning is an evidence-based, technology-enabled approach, which provides a wide range of materials and more self-paced learning opportunities, while also pursuing student feedback periodically to adjust the course.

Experiential Learning is the philosophy of learning by doing, which provides a wide range of opportunities for students, such as internships, study abroad, field trips, apprenticeships, clinical application, cooperative education, fellowships, practicums, service learning, student teaching, and volunteer experiences, among others.


Photos by: AFP – Taos Katopodis