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A 30-Year Dialogue That Inspired a New Online Course

November 27, 2013 by Kelly Paul |
Kelly Paul
2013 5 John Young and Bob 4 26 2012 WEBUNCG Emeritus Professor Bob Miller and Dean Emeritus John Young, co-creators of UNCG's new MLS 630 online course Revolutions in Scientific Thought, aren't quite like longterm comedy duo Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, but they're close. They've been friends for a long time, they work well together, they struck up the idea for the course in an odd place, and they can both be, well, funny. Why else would Young call Greek philosophy an attempt to explain the "Big Buzz of Life" or label two pre-Socratic factions "The Sicilian Mob" and the "Boys from Ionia"?

But they are serious about education - enough so that they came out of retirement to work together creating the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies' (MALS) innovative new online history of science course.

Where did they get the idea for the new MLS 630?

"Men's room," Young laughs. The two became good friends when they worked across from one another in the old Foust Building and chatted outside their offices. "Bob was my administrative mentor."

"I was teaching a course inspired by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Miller says, "asking the question, 'Where did all the ideas come from?' The Greeks were the ones who came up with numbers, the Pythagorean theorem, and so on. John sat in on my course and-"

"Held forth on Greek thought," Young grins. The two team-taught the course face-to-face in Spring 2012. "The online course starts as a conversation. Well, we've had a 30-year conversation."

The course explores how science grew out of attempts by ancient religion and mythology to explain why the world came into being and how it worked. From Copernicus onward, however, the focus shifted to the "how," not the "why." The course chronicles science from its origins in ancient Egypt and Greece, up through Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein. The content prepares students to read original documents by these important scientists.

How to translate this to the online environment?

Enter UNCG's Division of Continual Learning (DCL) and Instructional Designer/Project Manager Matt Loyd. Loyd worked closely with the duo to discuss learning goals, prep materials, suggest interesting activities, and to make sure their ideas translated effectively to the web.

"He came to my house to work with us," Miller said.

"He even got down on the floor with us!" Young adds. "Basically, he herded cats."

Loyd said part of his job was to digest the course like a student, which required lots of conversation. "Finding visuals and resources for the course was fun." The professors were especially impressed with small animations put together by multimedia specialists Bryan Higgins and Patrick Griffin. "The clips on Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan were also very helpful, and well placed," said Miller. "If I had a medal, I would give it to Matt. He somehow made this course digital."

Both men admit developing and teaching the course was a lot of work. The biggest challenge was a tight development deadline - from last November to course opening on March 18. The second challenge was finding the right amount of work to require from students. Young admitted, "We mistakenly thought the discussions would run themselves. But students expect feedback! There was a small angry group. We played some catch-up." Both are reconsidering class size and assignment load as they look forward to the next iteration. "This was sort of the beta run of the course," concluded Young.

Still, both instructors delighted in the experience as a whole. "I've learned an enormous amount from this," said Young. "I didn't fully understand Aristotle's contributions to science until Bob introduced them to me. It was one of the rewards of working on the course."

"It worked both ways," his old friend agreed.

But perhaps the definitive words about MLS630 came from Bonnie Miller, Dr. Miller's wife of 37 years. When he showed her the online version, she exclaimed, "Wow! Did you guys do that? I want to take your course!"

Story by: Coventry Kessler 

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