This past spring Eric Gampher, Ph.D., went to the one group he thought would know best what he should do in his first online psychology course this summer — his students in the classroom.

Eric Gampher has his hands full with his summer project — teaching UAB psychology courses online.
Their request: Be relentless.

“Some of them basically said they wanted me to crucify the online students,” Gampher says. “If you ask faculty members what they think about online classes, I think the general response would be, ‘Oh, that would be easier.’ That’s the same thing for students. They view it as easier, but if they take an online class they will more than likely find out it’s not as easy as they think.”

Gampher and his students are learning that and more this summer as the Department of Psychology began hosting its first online course, “Drugs & Human Behavior.” Gampher is teaching the summer course and will teach more online courses in the upcoming semesters, including “Sports Psychology,” which will be offered in the fall.

Part of the reason the department decided to offer online courses is accessibility, says David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate professor and vice chair of psychology.

“The primary benefit is for students,” Schwebel says. “I think online coursework enables students who could not otherwise attend classes to enroll at UAB and to further their education; this includes students with busy work and family lives, students who are stationed abroad in the military and students who for any number of reasons cannot attend traditional classes on campus.”

Questions, concerns
The decision to move psychology courses online didn’t come without questions and concerns.
Would students learn the same amount of material? Would something be lost in the lack of face-to-face contact between professor and student? How would they be able to prevent academic cheating?

It was the latter issue that most concerned the students in Gampher’s spring course. They wanted to know how he could be sure the person on the other end of the computer was the one taking the test. And what about using the book while taking the test or Googling for answers?

Their questions were enough to drive doubt into Gampher’s mind as to whether or not moving courses online would be a smart move.

“The students seemed to be very concerned about grading and inflated averages, so I was concerned,” Gampher says. “That was the first thing I started asking Aeron Gault in Information Technology about — cheating. Even after we set all of this up I knew I had to see the student scores to believe whether or not it would work.”

Gampher and Gault set the course up in the BlackBoard Vista 4 system. Mechanisms were installed to ensure the sanctity of the course, including trigger mechanisms that penalize students for minimizing or switching their Web browsers, placing time limits on questions and randomizing test questions were a few of the provisions. Scores also are not released until everyone has completed the test.

“You can’t have somebody take it and tell you all the answers,” Gampher says.

The best news for Gampher came after the first round of test scores; they were right in line with his in-class averages.

“I thought even with all of this stuff you would still have outrageous scores, but that’s not the case,” Gampher says.

Going live online
One of the things Gampher loves the most about teaching is interacting with his students; not being able to do that online concerned him.

Gault has spent time helping Gampher develop ways to deliver content to his online students effectively and implement the best online pedagogical practices with the new developments in Wimba Live Classroom. This technology offers many more tools for professors to teach online courses and makes the content more interactive for students.

The technology has enabled Gampher to have virtual class time on the Internet for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday. He does a lecture live online during that time, and students can log in and participate if they choose. All lectures are saved on the class Web site so those who cannot be a part of the live discussion can still download and listen to it at their convenience.

“Students can feed on your energy and enthusiasm for a topic, and you as a professor can feed on your students’ enthusiasm,” Gampher says. “The challenge of online teaching is discovering how to do that. How do you create that atmosphere and get them involved? The virtual lecture has turned out to be a great tool.”

Gampher says there is a tremendous amount of work involved in setting up an online class for the first time, but he’s confident the course will be a benefit to his students. “I think faculty interested in jumping into this will enjoy what they can do with the online classroom,” Gampher says.