At the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference in January 2018, UCI was represented at a poster session led by UCI lecturer Dr. Miryha Gould Runnerstrom of the Dept. of Population Health and DTEI Instructional Designer Janet DiVincenzo.

The poster was entitled Immersing Online Students through Role Plays, a Case Study, and Group Work: Reconceptualizing an Environmental Quality and Health Course and depicted an innovative collaboration between the two presenters. The fully online course —  Public Health 60: Environmental Health and Quality — has been offered online three times: twice in summer and once in Winter 2018. The course is unique in its design in that it features a three-pronged design to engage students: a case study; student role-playing; and weekly mandatory online synchronous team meetings.

Prof. Runnerstrom was motivated to design her first online class with some unique features:

“Online courses tend to lack robust interaction among students. Our goal was to create an engaging and engrossing experience that promoted sustained interaction among all students and myself and the TAs.”

The course design featured students engaging in role-playing inside of a real-world case study, taking interactive online lessons, and participating in weekly team videoconferences. Prof. Runnerstrom chose a case study focused on rainforest deforestation in Brazil, sourced from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. The case study served as a strong thematic and contemporary foundation for student learning. Students were assigned to five-member teams and to one of five roles: a Brazilian logger; a Brazilian farmer; an environmental activist; a conservation biologist; and a policy specialist. In their groups, students had to stay in character as they participated in discussions, assignments, and video conferences.

Highly graphical interactive online lessons introduced key components of the case study and provided character biographical sketches. Weekly discussion forums challenged students to think critically about issues pertaining to the case study and weekly hour-long team video conferences gave teams  a synchronous space to collaborate and debate the issues.

Prof. Runnerstrom comments that “from the start, the design of PH60 online was student-centered. Janet and I started out  with a brainstorming session that focused primarily on what the student experience would be like as they moved through the material and assignments.”

Janet DiVincenzo adds that “It was exciting to partner with a faculty member who wanted to change things up. Using my instructional design tools to bring the five characters to life was especially gratifying.”

The student evaluations confirmed what the two collaborators hoped to achieve:

  •   “The quality of the content in this course is one of the best I have seen.”
  • “This course wasn’t like any other class I have taken, online or otherwise. It was very interesting, interactive, and informative. The course definitely teaches students about the issues affecting environmental quality and health, and how to discuss such issues using key terms. I really enjoyed that it was online.”

Adds Prof. Runnerstrom: “Despite the challenges inherent with teamwork, collaboration is essential in the field of public health and is an important part of an undergraduate curriculum, so I’m comfortable with there being a few challenges. Ultimately, I wanted to get students to think deeply about this real-world problem (deforestation in the Amazon rainforest) and how it impacts environmental quality and health.”

Megan Linos, a Director in the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation, remarks that “It’s exciting to see such a successful partnership between faculty and an instructional designer. This course is a great example of collaboration that enhances the online student experience. We hope to see more faculty take advantage of our services in this area.”

What’s next for this dynamic duo?  They’re currently collaborating on another fully online course, funded by UCOP’s Innovative Learning and Technology Initiative, Public Health 172: Climate Change and Disaster Management.  Adds Prof. Runnerstrom: “It has been a delight to work with Janet again on this exciting and timely new course, which brings together the role-playing and teamwork aspects of PH60 within the context of climate change and disaster management. We are looking forward to guiding students through the course for the first time in Spring 2018.”