Sam Gosling

Psychology professors Sam Gosling and James Pennebaker are currently teaching one of UT's first Synchronous Massive Online Courses, or SMOCs.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

In the fall of 2012, psychology professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling launched a bold teaching experiment: They moved their face-to-face, lecture-based Psychology 301 course from the classroom to the Internet. They live-streamed the course to an audience of approximately 900 enrolled students. Twenty-five to 30 students were invited to attend each taping, to play the part of the studio audience, but the majority of students took the semester-long course online. The pedagogical, logistical and technical challenges of such an undertaking are enormous, not least because it meant that UT had to ensure that there was sufficient bandwidth available on campus for such a large number of students to access the recordings simultaneously. To facilitate the delivery of the course, the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) worked with Pennebaker and Gosling to design and build an in-house platform called TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research). At present, the functionality of TOWER can be embedded in the CANVAS learning management system that UT-Austin has adopted and begun to implement across campus. The TOWER platform allows the instructor to capture data about how students use the available tools, navigate quizzes and interact with content, thus providing instructors with valuable insights into how students are learning the course content. In a very real way, it has taken a village of coders, graphic designers and a talented audio and video team, as well as two talented faculty, to produce this innovative learning experience for UT-Austin students.

This fall, Pennebaker and Gosling returned to the recording studio with renewed energy, an improved version of TOWER and an even more ambitious plans for their course. They have renamed it a SMOC, that is, a Synchronous Massive Online Course. Their plan is to offer it not only to UT-Austin students but to learners around the state, country and even world for the very reasonable price of $550 — substantially less than a 3-credit, campus-based UT-Austin course. This fall, the students are primarily UT-Austin students, approximately 750 of them, but with some aggressive marketing, that audience could expand to include current high school students, lifelong learners and others. Also this fall, the live streaming course experiment has expanded to include a second large-enrollment course, Government 310L, American Government. The course is led by the veteran teaching team of government professor Daron Shaw and associate government professor Eric McDaniel. It was capped at 700 students, but on the model of Psychology 301, could be scaled up to reach thousands of students at once.

In both Psychology 301 and Government 310L, the twice-weekly, 75-minute class sessions begin with a 10-minute online benchmark quiz that assesses students’ mastery of previous material. The quizzes are individualized and the TOWER platform makes it possible to have previously missed questions reappear in altered form on future quizzes. In the SMOC format, larger-stakes midterm exams have been entirely replaced by these short, formative assessments that require students to stay engaged with the course content on a class-to-class basis. As Pennebaker notes, “There is now compelling research evidence going back 25 years that students learn more and more effectively if they are tested frequently and learn from their mistakes.” The challenge, he continues, is managing the logistics of frequent assessment in a large-enrollment class. Moving the quizzes online, with the capacity to offer immediate feedback, has made it possible to apply this research to the pedagogy of a large class.

Following the benchmark quiz is a live, interactive lecture. Both teams of instructors sit at a desk with their laptops in front of them and discuss the course content, often with a significant amount of entertaining banter, video clips and demonstrations. For the student on the other end (full disclosure: I played the role of student for several weeks in Psychology 301), the experience is somewhat akin to watching an informative talk show. Guest experts visit the studio to speak about their research and there are repeat segments, such as “In the Laboratory” or “Psychology in the News.” The element of synchronicity comes into play when students are asked to take surveys, participate in polls and engage in group discussions. Additionally, over the course of the semester, functions have been added to TOWER that allow students to send in questions. For Pennebaker and Gosling, the fact that their lectures are live streaming is essential. “The live broadcast … allows the class to generate a shared sense of excitement about learning,” Gosling said.

The SMOC is still very much an evolving model of course delivery. With each iteration and expansion to new courses, instructors are learning more about what students need to learn effectively in this brave new online environment. They are experimenting with the interplay of synchronous and asynchronous learning and figuring out how best to engage students during a live streaming lecture. At the same time, as all of the current instructors report, it is a challenge to teach at a distance from students. “The biggest weakness with this is that we cannot read students’ faces,” McDaniel said. “While students have the opportunity to post questions in the chat room, few do … This medium requires the students to be much more active in asking questions.” 

Psychology 301 and Government 310L have been trailblazers in the world of synchronous course delivery. While we still have much to learn about the pedagogy of synchronous delivery, for what courses this mode is best suited and how we can produce high-quality courses at a reasonable cost, it is certain that the SMOC will play a role in the future of UT-Austin students. As McDaniel put it, “Students should still have the opportunity for traditional intro classes, [but] I believe that [the SMOC] can relieve the burden on professors to teach massive lecture courses and give students more freedom in how they take these courses. While there will be trial and error, I believe that its benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Ebbeler is an associate classics professor from Claremont, Calif. Follow Ebbeler on Twitter @jenebbeler.

Photo Credit: Raquel Breternitz | Daily Texan Staff

Social networking interfaces such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are more than just communication catalysts. According to multiple studies, these websites, which many users check before getting out of bed in the morning, are playing a key role in how we form our identities.

Dr. Sam Gosling, a professor in the psychology department, conducted research that examines the role of online social networking sites in personality development and perception.

“[Facebook] allows identity creation to be much easier,” Gosling said. “It allows us to create a much more nuanced personality.”

Gosling explained that while Facebook is handy for creating more refined personalities, it also makes it harder for users to craft different personalities for different groups they belong to, such as work communities and friend groups. He said this is typical of most new technologies.

Dr. Robert Lewis, an advertising assistant professor with a focus on new media studies, conducted research on a broad span of old and new technologies. He agreed with Gosling’s finding about Facebook’s effect on identity creation.

“I think that when new media come around, they can amplify different human characteristics,” Lewis said. “They amplify the desire to maintain a self-image and to display that image to other people. Whereas before there was probably nothing that allowed people to do that, now there is.”

Both Gosling and Lewis said a lot of concern surrounding this sort of online identity management is centered on the idea that people are creating false versions of themselves. Critics claim that users are manipulating their Facebook pages to portray a desired version of themselves rather than an accurate representation, they said.

According to Gosling’s research, this is relatively uncommon. He said most Facebook users display very accurate versions of themselves.

“They want people to like their places, their bedrooms and their music collections,” Gosling said. “Most of the time, people aren’t trying to look good. People genuinely want to be known.”

Users may be displaying their most genuine traits through websites like Facebook, but online interfaces allow for correction and rebuttal that face-to-face interaction prevents.

“If we were face-to-face or over the phone, if I say something and it’s wrong, then it’s out there and you heard it,” Lewis said. “But if I post a tweet, I have a backspace key and I can really shape the message I’m going to send exactly as I want it to be.”

According to research cited by Lewis, Facebook has positive correlations with self-esteem and self-image because it allows one to manage self-presentation more effectively than in the real world.

Websites like Facebook also allow users to form an opinion or impression of strangers or acquaintances before spending much time with them in person.

Lewis mentioned an article that involved showing different people “generic” Facebook pages, in which the only variable was the number of friends a user had.

“They found that [your number of friends] actually does affect people’s perceptions of you,” Lewis said. “When you get above 300 friends, people start to have negative perceptions of you.”

Not only is your Facebook profile affecting how other people see you, but it also affects how users see themselves.

“Individuals are more strongly persuaded by what other people say about you than what you say about yourself,” Dr. Jorge Peña, a communication studies assistant professor, said. “Wall posts mean more than what you write about in your ‘About Me,’ for example.”

Social networking is a rapidly changing field, which has made it hard for research to keep up with it. Over the past few years, it has become acknowledged as an integral aspect of communication and society.

“A few years back, it might have been weird for me to say, ‘Oh, you posted something on Facebook,’ and ask how a certain thing was,” Peña said. “Now it’s more normal. It’s a little bit more common and more acceptable than how it was three years ago.”

Social networking is a common topic of conversation. Whether a user is commenting on a status someone posted or asking if they saw a certain picture, many face-to-face interactions are influenced by things we’ve seen on these websites.

“I think social media have indeed altered the way we communicate,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of added a social layer on top of reality that I don’t think is going to go away.”

Some UT professors are integrating technology and online tools like social media with traditional teaching methods to encourage participation and performance in class.

Psychology professors Sam Gosling and James Pennebaker have aimed to encourage student involvement in class by offering online discussions. This fall, the professors require students in their Introduction to Psychology courses to bring their laptops to class to take quizzes, complete assignments and participate in small discussion groups. Some professors in the School of Journalism have also embraced the technology route and require students to use social media in class.

According to an October survey by education services company Pearson and the Babson Research Survey Group, nearly 34 percent of 4,000 professors surveyed use social media in their teaching. The study found blogs and wikis were professors’ most preferred social media tools. Eighty-eight percent of faculty also use online video in their classrooms.

Gosling said he has seen an improvement in performance from students in his introduction class, a large-format class with more than 1,000 students in the course. He did not require students to purchase a traditional textbook, instead using online demonstrations, TEDTalks, journal articles and other online texts.

“Generally students like not having to buy a textbook,” Gosling said. “Especially when it comes to saving money.”

Wanda Cash, School of Journalism associate director, said encouraging student participation in big lecture classes is a difficult task.

“It is always difficult to encourage student participation because some students are shy about speaking up,” Cash said. “When students tweet comments I can look up on the Twitter stream and answer some of their questions without singling them out.”

She also requires students to tweet comments about lectures during class and created Facebook pages for her classes where updates and relevant articles are posted. The School of Journalism now requires students to create a digital portfolio, which Cash said functions as an online resume.

Journalism senior lecturer Robert Quigley said he uses a variety of tools in his social media class, including Facebook and Twitter.

“This way of learning is unusual for students, so getting them to participate is not that easy,” Quigley said. “I hope to get more participation in the class as students become more comfortable.”

Printed on Monday, October 29, 2012 as: Professors use Web tools to engage large classes

Samuel Gosling, professor of psychology, started a study in 2002 which concluded that the certains objects displayed in one’s spaces - bedrooms, offices, and social network profiles - accurately reflect specific personality traits.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: This is the first in a biweekly series showcasing the many fascinating projects undertaken by UT faculty.

We take for granted that the environments people construct for themselves - from bedrooms to Facebook profiles to music preferences - can help us understand who they are. Why else would we poke through someone’s stuff, Facebook-stalk an acquaintance or deride a friend for listening to Creed?

Ten years ago, UT psychology professor Sam Gosling, author of “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says about You,” set out to see if people really learn from others’ personal spaces as much as they think.

“We all form these impressions,” Gosling said. “The studies I did were asking ‘When are those impressions accurate?’”

In 2002, Gosling conducted a study where he had a group of observers rate others on five personality dimensions judging solely from the contents of their physical environments — either their bedroom or work spaces.

He then compared these ratings with the occupants’ self-rating and ratings of those who knew the occupant. It turned out that the stuff we own really does say a lot about us.

For example, Gosling found that rooms with distinctive objects, a wide variety of objects and original art on the walls are likely to belong to sensation seekers who are open to new experience, while a tidy and organized space suggests an occupant who is dependable, hardworking and task-focused.

Though the study, by and large, affirmed what Gosling calls our “snooping” abilities, it also showed that people are better at snooping out certain personality traits than others.

In both offices and bedrooms, observers were best at rating occupants on a trait called openness, which denotes creativity, adventurousness and a readiness to challenge authority. In his study, the possessions of these sensation seekers represented broad interests and were often odd.

For example, in one room, Gosling found a bedside lamp made out of a bottle of vodka and Prozac containers.

People also make many of the same mistakes when judging character, usually based on common, false stereotypes, Gosling said.

Observers who knew they were in a woman’s room often overestimated how sympathetic and considerate the occupant was.

This is not the whole story, though. Stereotypes sometimes lead to errors, but they also help us categorize our objects and people in essential ways we hardly notice because, as Gosling put it, “they are so obviously right.”

“Take this chair,” Gosling said. “You just assume using a stereotype of chairs that it is alright to sit on, that it won’t collapse or swim away or catch fire. I don’t say, ‘Well, how oppressive of you to make those judgments about that chair. You should get to know each chair on its own individual merits.’ For most objects, we just don’t need to do that.”

After researching physical environments, Gosling began looking at environments in a more general sense, studying people’s impressions of Facebook profiles and music preferences. In a Facebook study, Gosling tried to find out whether people strive to accurately represent themselves in their Facebook profiles or try, instead, to project an enhanced version of themselves.

The findings showed no evidence that people successfully misrepresent themselves in their profiles. Of course, it’s possible that they are trying and failing, said Gosling, but it is more likely that most people on Facebook aren’t trying to be something they’re not.

Instead, he said, the control people have over their profiles mirrors the kind of control we all exercise in everyday life, during face-to-face conversations and phone calls.

“People sometimes think, ‘Oh, you’re just creating a false impression,’ because you only check in when you’re at the cool place, not the cheesy place, and you have photos of you doing fun, cool, interesting things,” Gosling said. “But that’s no different from what we do in everyday life and everybody knows it. It’s part of the social norm.”

For Gosling, his research on personal spaces has always been about more than finding out how well someone can snoop through someone’s stuff or draw inferences from Facebook photos. It is about seeing how people relate to their environment, he said.

Gosling is currently collaborating with Christopher Travis, a local architect and creator of a website called that helps architects take the client’s psychology into account when designing their spaces.

According to Gosling, Travis uses psychology in a way that is unprecedented in architectural profession. In “Snoop,” Gosling describes how, in his home plans, Travis labels rooms with the feelings he wants the space to evoke for clients. In one plan, for example, a dining room was meant to evoke “friendship” and a bedroom was labeled “privacy, passion and reflection.” Research in psychology lays the groundwork for practical innovations like Travis’, Gosling said.

“It helps us understand how people construct the spaces around them in a broader sense,” he said. “It tells us how we use space to regulate how we think and feel, and to put out messages in the world around us that are consistent with our moods and our thoughts and our values and our goals.”

The Blanton Museum is hosting a free evening of art and activities, with main events including a screening of John Berger’s 1972 BBC television series “Ways of Seeing,” yoga in the galleries and a book club discussion on “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” led by Sam Gosling, UT psychology professor and author of the book.

WHAT: Third Thursday at the Blanton
WHEN: July 21 at 5 p.m.
WHERE: The Blanton Museum

Lead by Austin’s swanky six-piece jazz band The Copa Kings, the HighBall is traveling back in time to the sophisticated days of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with straight scotch over ice, swing dancing and some scat singing.

WHAT: The Copa Kings
WHEN: July 22 at 7 p.m.
WHERE: The HighBall

Classically-trained pop cellist Ben Sollee and his bandmates are making a pit stop in Austin, perhaps hot off their bicycles. Known for their quirks — from touring across America and hauling their instruments on bikes to intertwining American folk with pop and classical music — the band is the perfect dose of flawless musicality and youthful fun.

WHAT: Ben Sollee with Thousands
WHEN: July 23 at 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Parish
ADMISSION: $12 online, $15 at door

The deliciously greasy vegan food trailer, Iggi’s Texatarian is celebrating its first birthday this Saturday with live music from DJ uLovei and DJ Fredster and bands such as Coma in Algiers, Wicked Poseur and The Bang Bang Theodores. There’ll also be some yummy food from Iggi’s and Asian fusion trailer Me So Hungry and face painting!

WHAT: Iggi’s One-Year Anniversary Party
WHEN: Saturday, July 23 from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
WHERE: Cheer Up Charlie’s
ADMISSION: Free, 21+