UH Hilo psychology instructor and Texas State colleague win international award for digital course

The innovative distance learning course is collaboratively designed by Alexander Nagurney (UH Hilo) and colleague Patrick Smith (Texas State).

By Susan Enright.

Patrick Smith and Alex Nagurney.
(l-r) Patrick Smith and Alexander Nagurney

The Apereo Foundation announced last week that Alexander Nagurney, a psychology instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, and colleague Patrick Smith, an instructional designer at Texas State University, received a 2016 Apereo Teaching and Learning Award (ATLAS) for their digital social psychology course.

The Apereo Foundation is a non-profit based in New Jersey that supports software used in learning, teaching and research at thousands of educational institutions worldwide. The Apereo Teaching and Learning Awards recognize teaching innovation using open technologies that allow end users to modify the source code of software to fit their needs.

The winning social psychology course (PSY322) is offered online as an undergraduate UH Hilo distance learning course. The software used allows developers (including students) to evolve a program in step with the needs of the students, faculty members and organizations it serves. Nagurney and Smith are the primary collaborators and developers of the UH Hilo course with both of their universities providing support.

The ATLAS selection committee felt the PSY322 course is “a strong application that combines game-based learning activities, to deliver a course in which the students communicated more frequently, thoughtfully, and collaboratively. The innovative use of a real world problem (hidden within the guise of a fictitious client) engages the students in team based problem solving and individual reflection. In addition, the use of Lessons [software tool] for student-created content allows flexibility and variability in the final project.”

Other 2016 Apereo Teaching and Learning Awards went to Marcella Oliviero and Andrea Zhok from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, for a project-based learning approach to teaching Italian that made heavy use of student-created content. Leanne Scott and Stefan Britz of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, won an award for integrating online and conventional teaching for a large introductory statistics course that carefully scripted combinations of online and face-to-face resources to significantly energize student engagement and participation.

The second award in as many years

This is not the first time the duo of Nagurney and Smith has earned an award for developing and using innovative digital teaching technology.

Last year, the Apereo Foundation awarded them with the 2015 Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award. Sakai is a free educational software platform designed to support teaching, research and collaboration. The award honored Nagurney and Smith’s excellence and innovation in teaching and learning for their introductory psychology class (PSY100), a freshman-level course that successfully uses digital game-based elements to engage students in course content.

The two educators collaborated on designing the face-to-face PSY100 course with the aim of improving student attendance, performance and satisfaction. (See video above for a joint interview where they discuss their experiences and share the results of the gamified course.)

Nagurney and Smith are the first people ever to win an award from Apereo twice, and they did it in consecutive years.

2016 Apereo Teaching and Learning Award for PSY322

PSY322 is an undergraduate level course required for psychology majors at UH Hilo. The course’s goal is to provide students with an understanding of the breadth of social psychology and its various applications to everyday life including interpersonal relations, social attitudes, group dynamics, intergroup relations, and class and cultural influences.

“Social psychology is a course that I love teaching because of its relevance to students’ everyday lives,” says Nagurney, who also teaches statistics and research methods.

When he taught PSY322 online for the first time in the summer of 2014, he noticed that his students’ level of engagement in the online discussions, which served as an important assessment tool, was less than ideal. Smith, an instructional designer with research interests in game-based learning, collaborated with Nagurney to combine elements of social psychology with game-based instructional activities to create a more engaging and collaborative course design.

The newly designed course was initially field tested in the summer of 2015 with 12 students. Survey data were compiled and revisions made to improve the online course’s effectiveness. The course was then offered again in the fall of 2015 with 38 students who were surveyed once again to confirm earlier results. Comparisons of the new and previous designs of PSY322 showed a drastic increase in the frequency (+143 percent) and quality of student interaction.

“Patrick and I were thrilled to see that the innovations we utilized in the course had such a strong impact on student engagement,” says Nagurney.

Digital delivery

Laulima, the delivery platform for PSY322, is a software program powered by Sakai and used by the entire University of Hawaiʻi System for online course management and interdepartmental communication. The PSY322 course is designed using the Lessons tool (or Lessons Builder) as the chief delivery format for content. Within Lessons, the instructor can organize text content, video lectures, assignments, tests and quizzes in a centralized location.

There also are student pages that allow teams to embed media and present final projects to classmates.

The ATLAS award nomination notes that forums play an invaluable role as a vehicle for student-to-student and student-to-instructor engagement. Students can discuss collaboratively, and sometimes competitively, within teams that are managed using the groups function.

Web content also is used to deliver an innovative progress tracking system, complete with digital badges that appear when students reach specified levels of achievement.

Other components that enrich the online course are sound instructional designs that increase levels of student engagement, measurable learning objectives to ensure students’ mastery of the material, student autonomy, a clear progression system, and a focus on fostering intrinsic motivation within students.

Open Apereo conference

Recipients of the ATLAS teaching awards will be center stage at this month’s Open Apereo conference, to be held May 22-25 at the New York University Washington Square Campus. Nagurney and Smith will be attending to receive their award and present a session on how the PSY322 course was taught.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.