UNK faculty research group focused on improving teaching, learning

Ladan Ghazi Saidi, an associate professor of communication disorders, leads a class in the UNK...
Ladan Ghazi Saidi, an associate professor of communication disorders, leads a class in the UNK College of Education building. Ghazi Saidi is one of eight people participating in the UNK Online Faculty Research Fellowship program, which brings colleagues from across campus together to address challenges and opportunities in higher education.(Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 12:09 PM CDT
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KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - Eight faculty members from a variety of disciplines are combining their knowledge and skills to enhance teaching and learning at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Launched last spring by the Office of Graduate Studies and Academic Outreach, the new UNK Online Faculty Research Fellowship program brings colleagues from across campus together to address challenges and opportunities in higher education, with a specific focus on digital and online instruction.

“This is a group of people who are excited about research and the opportunity to create more expertise on campus,” said Martonia Gaskill, an associate professor of teacher education, director of the learning, design and technology master’s program and digital pedagogy specialist for UNK Online. “We want to serve as inspiration for other faculty to engage in research and discussions in this area so we can keep the innovation and the conversations about teaching going.”

Gaskill leads the faculty research group, which formed in March and started meeting the following month. Seven people were selected for the inaugural cohort:

  • Shannon Mulhearn, assistant professor, Kinesiology and Sport Sciences
  • Ladan Ghazi Saidi, associate professor, Communication Disorders
  • Janet Eckerson, assistant professor, Modern Languages
  • Phu Vu, associate professor, Teacher Education
  • Dawn Mollenkopf, professor, Teacher Education
  • Marisa Macy, associate professor, Teacher Education
  • Erin Sweeney, assistant professor, Kinesiology and Sport Sciences

“One of the biggest benefits is that we are multidisciplinary; we’re coming from different backgrounds,” Mulhearn said. “Rather than there being a single agenda, it’s really been open discussions about what we all find interesting and what we want to look into. We’re conducting research for the love of education and for the love of what we’re doing, specifically to benefit UNK.”

The first area they focused on is student engagement, a hot topic at all levels of education – both nationally and internationally – since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The past 2 1/2 years have been a difficult time in academia, with social, financial and health concerns adding to the pressures college students already faced.

“Now we’re seeing these students disengaged in the learning process, whether they’re online or face to face,” Gaskill said. “We’re trying to understand the aftermath of the pandemic and how we can bring that engagement back.”

The research team collected data over the summer, conducting surveys and focus groups on campus and gathering feedback from faculty at other institutions across the country.

Ghazi Saidi believes the pandemic created a “new normal” for higher education, with students looking for increased flexibility and more online options that allow them to better balance learning, work and other priorities.

“We will never go back because there are so many changes that happened – people have changed, modalities have changed, expectations have changed,” she said.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Since the pandemic caused schools across the country to shift classes online, more faculty are familiar with the digital tools and technology available to educators.

“It was kind of a forced way of making everybody suddenly explore new ideas and new technology and become creative in the way they teach,” Ghazi Saidi said.

Now, those same tools can be used to improve both in-person and online instruction.

“Society is constantly changing. It’s not a stagnant student body, so teaching practices from 20 years ago aren’t going to be as effective on today’s student,” Mulhearn said. “Part of what we want to do through research is determine what we need to update and how UNK can be at the forefront of innovation and addressing today’s student issues.”

Gaskill shared the research results this summer at the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education’s EdMedia + Innovate Learning Summit in New York City, and Mulhearn is presenting in November during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate conference in Orlando, Florida. The fellowship group is submitting an article for publication, as well.

On campus, they’re connecting with colleagues through the Teaching at UNK: Faculty Presentation Series. The next session, “Faculty Perceptions on Student Engagement: Perspectives and Possible Solutions Moving Forward,” is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Communications Center, Room 101. A Zoom option is available at //bit.ly/TeachingUNKZoom.

The researchers also wrote about a new UNK program that enhances engagement for international students.

Non-English Conversation Tables, a partnership between the UNK Department of Modern Languages and Office of International Education, are hosted from 4-5 p.m. every Thursday in the Nebraskan Student Union food court. Launched last semester, this program gives international students a chance to interact with the campus and Kearney communities while teaching their native languages to attendees and sharing information about their cultures. More than a dozen languages are offered each week.

A similar Conversation Tables program allows international students to practice their English language skills.

“We wanted to share this story from campus, how we’re doing a great job with international students by engaging with them and providing them with a platform to interact,” Gaskill said.

That article will be published in a special “Fostering Connections in Higher Education” edition of the Student Success scholarly journal.

The first cohort of UNK Online Faculty Research Fellows will continue their work through the current academic year before a new group is selected for 2023-24. The program is open to any full-time faculty member, with a $2,000 stipend awarded to each participant.