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As the world of online education grows, so do questions about its effectiveness. By bringing technological innovations to large and online courses, Professor Steve Joordens is demonstrating that students can get a deep and engaging learning experience remotely, online or in the biggest classrooms.

Professor Steve Joordens wants to challenge the conventional argument that large classes or online classes provide a poorer educational experience than a small, brick and mortar educational experience. “To me, it doesn’t matter how large a class is, it doesn’t matter how the lectures are presented, with a little bit of thought and the right toolbox, you can take any context and transform it into a very deep, rich educational experience that gives students exercises and all the other value we experience at the university.”

Are small classes actually better than larger ones?

And that’s what Joordens is doing as a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Known for his award-winning, exuberant teaching style (he often introduces psychological concepts by playing a song on his guitar), Joordens designs and incorporates innovative technology into his lectures focused on building community within the class and deepening engagement among his students.

It was while teaching his first-year Introduction to Psychology class of some 1,900 students and designing a completely online version of it that Joordens began to think of more ways he could get them to think critically and creatively about their work, and create a sense of community in which students are engaging with their peers.

“Part of that process involved creating these tools to encourage students to keep up with their work and test them in a way that reinforces learning, strengthens critical thinking, encourages peer feedback, and self-reflection,” he says.

Focus on peer assessment and feedback

One tool Joordens uses is peerScholar, an online educational software package that enhances cognitive ability through peer-assessment and peer-feedback, created with students in UTSC’s Advanced Learning Technologies lab.

“The model allows students to help each other,” he says. “We literally have students trying to help other students get a better mark, which is great because it gives everyone a reason to buy into the process.”

Adopted by universities across Canada, the United States and Europe, peerScholar is just one part of a broader approach Joordens uses to teach cognitive skills that go beyond acquiring knowledge. In addition to peerScholar, Joordens and the ALT Lab have developed mTuner, an online program that focuses on developing cognitive skills during multiple choice tests, and Digital Labcoat, which teaches scientific methodology.

Joordens’ embrace of technology as a learning tool also led to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a massive open online course (MOOC) for his Introduction to Psychology class that was offered over Coursera. He’s also lent his expertise to the Global Teenager Project, an initiative that brings young people from 40 different countries together to learn about issues of child rights through online learning circles.

Psych 101 MOOC a success

For the MOOC, Joordens incorporated his various technologies into the course and they were well received, retaining 20 percent of its initial students by the end of the course, which is comparatively high. “The biggest challenge for MOOCs is encouraging students to stay with the course, so engagement is particularly critical,” he says. “When we provide a deeply engaging and active learning experience, we find that students stick around.”

Joordens is quick to point out that inside the ALT lab, he and his students not only develop educational technology but also conduct research on those technologies as they’re being developed. “We are intertwining teaching and educational practices in our research at the lab. We’re making sure what we build actually works and is easy to use.”

For example, in a recent study, the ALT lab provided empirical evidence that shows that students who go through peerScholar exercises experience enhanced critical and self-reflective thinking. Another study demonstrated that online courses actually enhance a student’s sense of community. “I sometimes call my class the warm 1,900. Like the online courses I teach, it feels like we are all together doing the same thing.”