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John Boyer braves the new frontier

| September 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

While US colleges debate ‘flipping’ the curriculum to include online classes, John Boyer, a legend at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, combines ‘mega classes’ – lectures to more than 3 000 students – with savvy digital tricks.

Boyer teaches courses called Intro to the Planet and World Regions – and students fight to get into his classes, which meet weekly for four hours, with a one-hour break. During class, they’ll all participate in Skype interviews – the most famous one was with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi – and in the Twitter and Facebook feeds with which Boyer floods the learning space. When students enter the lecture theatre, they’ll see a giant screen displaying a revolving triptych of social technologies. One is an international music space set up on, another shows student tweets, and the third invites them to respond to today’s poll, which is ‘What international news should Mr Boyle cover today?’.

During the rest of the week, Boyer is online and available during office hours, using the hashtag #wrvt. Perched behind his computer screen, he fields questions ‘pinged’ in as instant messages. Boyer responds on Ustream, a free web platform that lets people broadcast a video feed through a webcam.

Boyer is popular because he’s passionate, but his approach makes serious sense too, say some educationists. Budget cuts mean that more lecturers will have to deal with larger classes – Boyer makes his succeed because he provides a large menu of activities related to the real world, and makes it clear to students that their input and collective knowledge are appreciated. While detractors call his class a ‘circus’, studies done at Virginia Tech’s educational research centre indicate that plenty of authentic, life-changing learning is taking place in Boyer’s class. And in perhaps the most telling assessment, student after student say that Boyer’s the best teacher they’ve ever had.

Category: e-Education, Spring 2012

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