November 19, 2010

Ebbs honored for online, distance education efforts

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- A plant biology faculty member at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has won an award for his work in developing online courses and facilitating independent distance learning among students.

Stephen Ebbs, associate professor of plant biology in the College of Science, is the winner of the 2010 Course Developer Award from the Association of Distance Education and Independent Learning (ADEIL). The award honors faculty members who contribute to online and distance learning.

Ebbs teaches two courses through SIUC’s Office of Distance Education, both of which he developed. They include a core curriculum general biology course and a major-level course on cell biology.

Sharon Walters, assistant director of the Office of Distance Education, said the office nominated Ebbs for the award because of his forward thinking and innovative approach to education.

“He’s always been so willing to share his expertise in course development across the campus,” Walters said. “He shows others how easy it is to develop courses for distance education and independent learning. He’s been a great advocate for it.”

Walters said Ebbs’ general biology course, for instance, includes an animation module that simulates real-life laboratory experiences, such as peering through a microscope. Such innovations strengthen SIUC’s offerings in the distance-learning arena and help students achieve their goals, she said.

“His science courses are very well structured,” she said.

Ebbs said interactive modules such as the laboratory experience keeps students engaged in the material.

“When developing the course and these features, I wanted to stay away from a passive learning experience,” Ebbs said. “The lab module requires students be engaged. They have to manipulate factors and run experiments and look at the results and the data, just as they would in a real lab.”

Ebbs said distance learning is an important outreach tool for universities, which must always find new ways to serve students.

“There are unique situations with students, where they might be ill, or disabled or deployed with the military,” he said. “That not only represents a niche market, but also a population of students that needs to be served.

“Distance learning allows them to approach the material where they are and at their own pace. We have students in these courses from young soldiers to retirees, and located coast-to-coast and possibly as far as Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said.

Developing online distance learning courses can be a challenge, but Ebbs said he considers it a simple extension of his teaching efforts.

“I’ve had to learn some software, sure, but I’m just taking what I do in a classroom and recasting it in a new venue,” he said.

Online courses, he said, can offer high-quality education.

“There may be a perception with some that online equals easier,” Ebbs said. “We work hard to ensure the rigor is present in both the online and the on-campus courses I teach. There are no cutting corners.

“At the same time, I stay in contact with students and there is ample opportunity to communicate through email and real-time chat,” he said.

The ADEIL is a professional organization aimed at providing support and development opportunities for educators, as well as collegiality and interaction. The award recognizes the educator who develops multiple distance learning courses, using innovative materials and instructional strategies.