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Rallied by research

Backed by the Ecampus Research Fellows Program, Demian Hommel helps cohere a community dedicated to distance learning

Demian Hommel is sitting in front of a large window and two large potted plants. He gestures with his hands as he talks to Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, the Ecampus assistant director of research.

By Julie Cooper
Sept. 27, 2018

When Demian Hommel applied for the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Fellows Program, he carried the seed of an idea: Experiential education can transform a student’s understanding of a concept into real-world circumstances, so it should be offered equally to learners in online and traditional classroom settings.

What he didn’t know was that sowing the seed of this idea through his research project could help sprout a grassroots community of advocates like him – someone who’s passionate about giving distance learners the hands-on education that will help them succeed.

Become an Ecampus research fellow

If you are interested in conducting research about online teaching and learning, the Ecampus Research Unit will help you plan your proposal for the Ecampus Research Fellows Program.

The ECRU annually funds up to five Oregon State faculty and/or department projects – $20,000 each – to support research in the areas of distance and online education, including hybrid delivery.

Apply by Nov. 1.

Contact Mary Ellen Dello Stritto

“A lot of the research on cognition would say that you have a greater opportunity for transformative learning in situations where students are faced with real-world problems, taken out of the traditional classroom context,” says Demian, an instructor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Demian describes himself as an advocate for place-based and experiential education as well as service learning. He’s seen its direct impacts as an instructor in small field classes and outdoor leadership activities.

He wants the same highly effective learning opportunities to be available to all of his students, no matter where they live.

However, he says, many faculty members are perplexed by the idea of incorporating place-based learning for distance students who are not united by a common location.

In his fellows project – titled “Examining the Potential to Employ Experiential Education in Distance Learning Contexts”  – he set out to unearth the possibilities and best practices by researching the current uses of experiential distance learning concepts and activities.

Joining the 2017-18 Ecampus Research Fellows cohort, he received a year of funding and guidance from research professionals in the OSU Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU) who are dedicated to improving online teaching and learning.

“The field is so new that almost any question is new territory to study. It could end up laying the foundation for understanding not just online learning, but general education beyond.”

With the help of Katie Linder, the Ecampus research director, Demian was linked with faculty from Oregon State and beyond who have applied experiential opportunities such as service learning and internships in their online courses. His new connections gradually began to snowball into a community ready for action.

“It was a real kind of grassroots effort that I don’t think would have had the same impact if I had just sent out a call for interest in this topic,” he says.

Demian’s project grew in scope, and his methods shifted. His original plan to conduct a literature review expanded to include direct interviews with seven individuals spearheading the use of experiential activities in distance learning environments.

“I think it represents some of the best potential of qualitative methods in that the methodology emerges as you learn more about the topic,” he says. “It wasn’t what I originally set out to do, but the process revealed that there’s this real rich community of people out there, but just not a lot that’s been done to study or write about it.”

Demian began his fellowship with the notion that it would be a jumping-off point to something larger. The future he sees is one of action. To expand the framework for experiential education at Oregon State Ecampus, he hopes to publish further research and possibly even host a small conference.

“He has university-scope aspirations for taking what he’s learned and having other people talk about it (and) work together as a group to advance some of these ideas,” says Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, the Ecampus assistant director of research. “That’s what we do with our fellows program. We try to seed the beginnings of research.”

Demian’s white paper and those of his two cohort members will be published next year, accompanying the white papers of the inaugural 2016-17 Ecampus research fellows.

With the application for the next cohort now open and due by Nov. 1, Demian recommends the program to anyone who is interested in impacting student learning and contributing to Oregon State’s leadership in the area of research on online teaching and learning.

“The field is so new that almost any question is new territory to study,” he says. “It could end up laying the foundation for all kinds of different trajectories in terms of understanding not just online learning, but general education beyond.”

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