As the director of the Master of Internet Technology program and the first Certified Online Instructor in the Terry College of Business, Craig Piercy is no stranger to teaching students he’s never met.
In fact, conveying a personal a touch through a computer screen is a specialty of his.
“One of the things you can’t get naturally online is the teacher-student connection. You lose that presence when you don’t see people face-to-face. So when you’re teaching online, you have to help that along. You have to allow students to get to know you as a human,” he said. “A lot of the instructional videos are mostly screencasts, but I always include a little bit of myself, maybe telling some corny jokes and introducing the concept.”
Teaching that transcends time and location is important for Piercy because the MIT program, which prepares working adults for careers at the intersection of business and technology, recently transitioned to a completely online program in fall 2014.
“There are two kinds of students that we typically see in this program,” Piercy said. “They are people who either want to enhance their careers with a master’s degree or switch their careers and move to a new field. We had a young lady who was a high school math teacher who wanted to switch careers, and now she’s a tech consultant for Web development.”
While it’s open to students across the state and the nation for the same price, the MIT program can be partially funded for UGA employees through the Tuition Assistance Program.
The MIT program’s move to an online-only format, Piercy said, is not only a chance to better serve our graduate students, but the teaching lessons learned by the program instructors can also impact our more traditional classes on the UGA campus. This is particular true for classes that are delivered using the “flipped classroom” model of education.
“The whole idea for the flipped classroom is that instead of going into class and lecturing, being a ‘sage on the stage’, we move a lot of our curriculum to a learning platform (like e-Learning Commons), and when students come to class we give them practical activities to work on. So the teacher becomes more of a ‘guide on the side,’” Piercy said. "The learning modules that we create for our online classes can easily be used with our on-campus flipped classes when appropriate. "
MIT students spend five semesters taking online courses at their own pace, culminating in a capstone group project. Courses are divided into modules that students can complete in a week, with quizzes and assignments built in.
Most weeks, Piercy’s classes don’t include any “live” classroom time.
“If my videos are taking the place of the lecture portion of the class, we really don’t need to meet,” Piercy said. “When we have weeks like that, though, I hold Google Hangouts that are kind of like virtual office hours. Students can pop in and talk if they have questions or need clarifications.”
On other weeks, Piercy holds live sessions where he interacts with students through the Internet. Those classes aren’t required – they’re posted online later for students who cannot attend – but he encourages attendance.
“I tend to hold my live classes at key points in the semester, when we’ve finished one unit and are about to start another. It’s a good time to review what we’ve just done and preview what we will do, so that students can make sure they’re caught up at that point,” he said.
Piercy came to his position almost by accident. He started as an electrical engineer with Milliken. And, after a few years on the job, he started to think about MBA programs. He took the GMAT and applied to a few places, but had planned to put off graduate school. That is until a phone call from a Terry College administrator, Don Perry, changed his mind – and eventually his life.
He accepted a scholarship to Terry and found not only did he excel at learning the material; he enjoyed explaining it to others.
“Back in my MBA days was when I really discovered I liked teaching. I was a teaching assistant, but also in my own classes, especially the ones that were more quantitative like statistics, I was quickly recognized as the guy people wanted as their study buddy because I had more of a math background. And when you’re a study buddy, you’re really just teaching your friends. So I realized that I had a knack for taking these difficult quantitative concepts and breaking them down into an understandable level. The other thing I realized is that once you teach something, then you really know it. First you read about something and try to understand it, but if you really want to know if you know something well, try to teach it someone. That’s how you really learn.”