ENVIR ST 400
Instructor: Adrian Treves, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
This online course covers theory, advanced research, and the professional practice of conservation of biodiversity from an interdisciplinary, international perspective, including biodiversity science and human dimensions of biodiversity conservation.
Within lectures, students learn about biodiversity science; human activities that threaten biodiversity; conservation project planning; conservation interventions against habitat loss, species exploitation, invasive species, and pollution; human values, attitudes, and activities as they affect controversial endangered species; and approaches to conservation research and monitoring. Students also learn to systematically plan conservation interventions with optimal participation of stakeholders, using adaptive management practices.
BLENDED LEARNING COMPONENTS
In teaching a previous iteration of Environmental Studies 400, which originally consisted of face-to-face lectures, Treves recorded audio of his lectures to be transcribed for students with accessibility issues. While the transcripts of the oral lectures, accompanied by videos of the presented slides, were provided for students who are hearing impaired, Treves discovered that many students in the class also preferred to have the lecture transcripts available.
“It’s easier to review, find a certain passage of text, or to both hear it and read it at the same time,” Treves says. “It’s interesting; as we make our classes fully welcoming to students of all learning types, we discover synergies that we didn’t expect. Students who don’t seem to need a particular tool, they like it and benefit from it. It brings the classroom to students wherever they are.”
The course has now transitioned to fully online, but Treves continues to host occasional in-person student hours to allow for additional discussion and peer-to-peer conversations. Treves was inspired to frame the appointments as student hours, rather than office hours, from a conversation amongst the campus initiative U-CLASS (Undergraduate Chat, Learn, and Share Space) – a group convened by the cross-campus Teaching Academy, of which Treves is a member of the executive committee and past co-chair.
“One of the most fascinating things that have come out of the U-CLASS discussions is how office hours can be so intimidating and unwelcoming [for students],” Treves reports. Cluttered offices with minimal sitting space, and a sense that instructors are too busy and students are interrupting, were among concerns cited by students.
“The solution to that second factor turned out to fit my needs for this online class because the students jumped at a suggestion to change the name from office hours to student hours, so it’s explicit that these are hours for the students,” Treves says.
“Calling it student hours seems to be a cosmetic fix that might make it a little more welcoming,” he continues. “And then the attitude of the instructor has to be right too.”
Treves hosted student hours twice in the spring semester, welcoming a mix of online students, students from a previous semester’s in-person class, and graduate student members of his lab. “So I was mixing freshmen with my online students, with my grad students, in a very relaxed way. It wasn’t really about curriculum; it was more about making a bond with the students or cementing it if it already existed,” Treves says.
Online course participants span the age range, including adult continuing education students, and locations including Madison, Texas, and Chicago. The course also includes students who find it difficult to fit a class into their existing schedule – either they’re taking an overload of credits or they appreciate that they can take the online course at their own pace, flexibly scheduled. For example, a scholarship athlete told Treves that the course’s online format allowed her to fit it in with her athletic practice schedule, which prohibited many other courses.
Videotaping lectures for the online course (Treves worked with the Division of Continuing Studies to film in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve) and editing transcripts for accuracy were two major front-end investments. “So huge startup costs, but now I’m reaping the dividends because now my time commitment is a couple of hours each week of touching base with students who have various questions, grading, and checking that the online interface is working and is up to date,” he says.
Each week, students receive about three hours of online instruction and two or three readings. The course also includes four exams, three major writing assignments, practice quizzes, and optional links to related media.
One of the main benefits Treves has seen from teaching an online course is the flexibility it allows. “It has made my schedule very flexible, so I can do research more efficiently,” he says.
But one downside, he notes, is the difficulty of updating course materials, particularly video lectures. “Every once in a while, I find something in the course that’s ongoing – a kind of in-the-background topic – that’s changed,” he explains. In these cases, Treves annotates the lecture transcript and alerts students that the oral video component of the lecture is out of date, but the transcript is updated.
“That’s a patching stopgap that I’m not crazy about,” he says. “If I had a piece of advice for other instructors considering online courses, design it in such a way that the components of your curriculum that change quickly – for example, climate change, law, and policy – can be updated easily by you. “
Treves anticipates he can reuse his current online course content for another year and will then need to overhaul a portion with either patches or complete deletions, and introduce new material and video recordings.
“But it’s worth it,” he concludes. “In net balance, I’d do it.”