Online psychology: moving from courses to curriculum

Keith Renshaw, Psychology Department Chair
Keith Renshaw, Psychology Department Chair

Psychology department chair Keith Renshaw on the surprising rewards of offering quality online education.

by Anne Reynolds

George Mason University is on a mission to bring quality education within the reach of more students. In its drive to lead a diverse population of learners to their educational goals, Mason is building a robust and varied program of online education.

The Department of Psychology has embraced the move to online education, with an array of courses, and even programs, that will be available remotely within the next year or so. In fact, the faculty decided to formally develop or re-develop enough courses to make the entire major available remotely.

Psychology chair Keith Renshaw describes the process of working with the department to make this commitment, and the university’s support for the change. “We talked about it as a faculty and basically looked at a few different factors,” he says. “It really is a way to not only fit the needs or desires of our current students, but a way to reach additional students, students who can’t attend in the sort of ‘normal’ campus experience… we’re trying to give access to adult learners all across the commonwealth who haven’t been able to complete their education.”

He notes that the faculty also supports Mason’s role as a leader in accessible education. “This is definitely a direction that higher education is headed … if this is what’s going to be happening, how can we be involved in a way that makes it as high-quality and high-impact as possible?”

The psychology department’s commitment to developing an online curriculum was backed by comprehensive support from experienced instructional designers and faculty within the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning, Office of Digital Learning. This support allowed the faculty members to evaluate their process of teaching, helping to ensure that the department’s online offerings reflect the best practices in learning.

The process “forces you to think about your teaching in a very intentional way,” says Renshaw. “You don’t talk about online, you just talk about how you want your class to run. What do you want the students to learn? How can you build them up to be able to learn that?”

Renshaw himself has worked to redesign an introductory psychology class into an online course. “I’m streamlining some of the content I’m covering to make sure I’m emphasizing the main point even more, and really just rethinking the way I go about it. And I think it’s going to be a benefit for the students who take the class … they’re going to get more out of it. In the end, students will have a much more interactive experience in the online version than in the standard lecture format.”

As one of the largest and most popular programs on Mason’s campus, online instruction has been an excellent fit for psychology. “We have really tried to approach it by thinking about how this is consistent with our own mission and values,” explains Renshaw. “It’s more about how can we actually use this to fit with what we do: we really value research, and applied research, and so we’re able to draw on the literature on education, online education, and online learning to inform what we’re doing in terms of best practices. … It really has forced a lot of us to think about our teaching in a way that we haven’t in quite some time.”

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