The Fall 2020 Semester has been unlike any before at BYU, and students and faculty alike are feeling the strain of hours-long, sometimes mind-numbing online activity. For courses with high enrollment, classes have been held exclusively online in a variety of formats. Some faculty post prerecorded lectures, others host live Zoom meetings, and all are just trying to do the best that they can. So, it may come as a surprise that BYU’s infamous American Heritage course has found a way to have a little fun with online learning.
Understanding that their teaching would be moved online, Professors Chris Karpowitz and Kelly Patterson began brainstorming a new style of class back in April. They knew that many of their students would be freshman, and that these students had likely either lost out on their senior year or had been reassigned or released early from missions. They wanted to make American Heritage a memorable part of these students’ day, while preserving the academic rigor of the course. They also knew that they couldn’t take on this project alone; they needed a team of help.
Karpowitz and Patterson decided to consolidate the six sections of their class into one lecture session, held on Monday and Wednesday at 11AM, where they deliver an interactive online lecture for around 2,400 students. Bruce Burgon, database manager at FHSS who has been helping with the course, says “The two professors are team teaching, but they discuss with each other the principle. They can put each other on the spot and ask tough questions that would normally embarrass a student. They can build off of each other’s energy.”
The class is designed to look and feel like a tv show. Ron Ralston and his production team from OIT have taken the American Heritage review room in the library and transformed it into a stunning learning studio. Every Monday and Wednesday the team starts work at 9:00 am to make sure that everything is ready for the broadcast. As part of the design, students are able to engage with the lectures through polls, chat, and a panel of students connected to the lecture via Zoom.
Kristen Betts, administrator for American Heritage, says “Students have really loved the new style, especially the chemistry of the professors. The dialogue between the professors has been really great. It’s fun for students because it’s really engaging.” She and her team make sure that students have access to all the resources they need to succeed in the course. This interactive format means more students are tuning in and working with the material instead of just passively listening to the lecture. In addition, Teaching Assistants still provide scheduled labs on either Thursday or Friday and online review sessions for students who need extra time with the concepts taught in class.
One student says, “The implementation of remote/online learning is something that is fairly new to me as a recently graduated high school senior. Until now, I wasn’t really exposed to it, but I would say that the professors Patterson and Karpowitz [and team] have made the transition very seamless. As a class that emphasizes student participation, your ability to explore concepts and apply them into current events is something that really cultivates your capability to learn.”
Another student, Josh Rueckert, reflects, “This semester has definitely been a big change, I’m not used to taking classes online.” He goes on to say, “American Heritage has surprised me with the lectures, I feel like I have fun watching the professors engage with the students remotely. Overall different doesn’t always mean bad, new experiences can surprise you.”
The production team had a little fun and came up with the surprisingly catchy title “Patterwitz” to refer to the two professors. Some students have taken the moniker and “are distributing t-shirts of it on the black market,” according to Burgon. While walking through the library, Dr. Karpowitz was surprised to meet a student who enthusiastically displayed her “Patterwitz” t-shirt to him.
A meme page has also popped up on Instagram, with captioned pictures based on that day’s lecture posted regularly. The students running the Instagram account said, “It started after my first day of class when I was like ‘these guys are kinda funny’ and made a meme about them looking exactly the same.” They went on to say, “I like that I get a better understanding of American values and history. I feel like a more effective American citizen and that I can contribute to democracy with the right educational background. It also is cool that we’re learning all of these things while an election is happening.”
American Heritage is inspiring excitement where students once felt mostly dread because of its reputation for extensive readings and challenging exams.
While the professors enjoy the new format, they realize that none of this would have been possible without Kristen Betts (American Heritage) and
Ron Ralston (OIT) and his production team. These people, according to the faculty, deserve all the credit for the course’s successful integration into the online format, saying “They took our idea and transformed it into something exciting and engaging. They have gone above and beyond to make American Heritage what it is this semester… we think it is a significant example of the different ways by which individuals throughout the university demonstrate their devotion to the educational mission of the university.”