English Professor Excels at Cyber-instruction

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Assoc. Prof. Todd Avery of the English Department was recently recognized by a national education organization for online teaching excellence.

By Jill Gambon

Assoc. Prof. Todd Avery of the English Department likes the feel of chalk in his hands for jotting notes on a blackboard. He favors writing longhand, drawn to the tactile quality of pen and paper. So when the opportunity to teach his popular “Monsters, Apes and Nightmares” class online came up, Avery says he was “dubious.”

In addition to his attachment to old-school writing tools, Avery wondered if he would be able to communicate as effectively with students and create the same lively environment for discussing ideas.

“One of the things I love about teaching is the direct interaction with students, individually and as a community. I assumed it was not possible to have the same degree of quality interactions,” he says.

Despite his initial trepidation, Avery took the plunge into online teaching in 2009 after going through training provided by the Division of Online and Continuing Education. Experience proved his assumptions wrong. The virtual classroom offered authentic interaction that he hadn’t thought possible.

“I get to know online students at least as well as students in a classroom,” he says. “To participate, students have to write a lot and contribute to chats and discussion boards. They volunteer a lot of information as they tell their own stories.”

Avery’s success in the digital realm has earned him professional recognition, most recently with an award for excellence in online teaching from the University Professional & Continuing Education Association (UPEAC), a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

“Professor Avery is committed to his students, whether they are traditional day students or his continuing education students. His online course is extremely popular and receives rave reviews. Even students who are initially skeptical of taking an online course feel comfortable in this new venue when working with him,” says Pauline Carroll, executive director of academic services, enrollment management and administration for the Division of Online and Continuing Education.

Avery has found that students often open up in online classes because they can carefully craft a response before they post it, as opposed to answering a question extemporaneously in class.

“Because it’s an asynchronous environment, some students might spend much more time over the course of a week to thoughtfully respond,” says Avery, who is the coordinator for the new online English bachelor’s program, in which students are expected to begin enrolling this fall.

Online education at UMass Lowell continues to flourish, adding students and programs and racking up professional awards. The online Master of Information Technology degree was recently ranked one of the best in the country in a new independent report. TheBestSchools.org ranked the program No. 12 in the nation, based on quality, the breadth of courses and faculty excellence, as well as the University’s reputation for effectively providing online degree programs.

“The recognition that UMass Lowell has received for the high quality of its online program is a testament to our faculty and online professionals for consistently pursuing excellence and demonstrating their commitment to online education both nationally and internationally,” says Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, who oversaw the founding of the University’s online education program in 1995.

Avery’s online classes, which typically have an enrollment of about 27, attract students from all over the world, including a member of the military stationed in Afghanistan. The perspective of students from other countries and cultures has added a new dimension to class discussions, he says.

Looking ahead, Avery is interested in trying out new multimedia components or other digital tools in the class.

“I’m excited to learn more,” he says.