Interview with Dr. Diane Reddy, Professor of Psychology, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

About Diane M. Reddy, Ph.D.

Dr. Diane M. Reddy is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). She co-developed the award-winning U-Pace, a self-directed, mastery-based online instructional method. She is Principal Investigator (PI) for a randomized controlled trial funded by the U.S. Department of Education (DE) evaluating U-Pace, and co-PI for the DE’s Funds for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant establishing the National Distance Education and Technological Advancement Research Center at UWM.

Dr. Reddy has won numerous awards for online instruction, including the 2015 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education/Brightspace Innovation Award in Teaching and Learning, and the 2014 Online Learning Consortium Excellence in Online Teaching Award. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. in Health/Medical Psychology from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] Being a professor and co-developer of the U-Pace instructional approach must offer you a unique perspective of postsecondary online degree programs. What are some of the defining trends, technologies, and other efforts at work in the field today?

[Dr. Reddy] Through new methods of online instruction, such as mastery-based learning with proactive learner support and competency-based education, student engagement, learning, college persistence, and degree attainment may be improved. These promising approaches to online education offer accessibility and flexibility to traditional aged students who work significant hours to pay for their education, students balancing family responsibilities and full-time study, students with disabilities, and non-traditional adult learners enrolling in colleges and universities to acquire 21st century skills needed in today’s workplace. In both models of online instruction, students can progress as quickly as they like or as slowly as they need. In the case of mastery-based learning with proactive support, the flexibility is usually within the bounds of a semester, but the flexibility in competency-based education is typically in a time frame other than a semester. In both models, students determine when they are ready to demonstrate mastery or competency. Both reflect the growing focus in higher education on requiring students to demonstrate their learning outcomes.

[OnlineEducation.com] Institutions are always looking for new ways to serve students online. U-Pace embraces a mastery-based approach to online learning. Can you please describe how this approach works on a basic level and how differs from competency-based programs?

[Dr. Reddy] U-Pace instruction integrates mastery-based learning with proactive support in an online learning environment. Competency-based approaches also focus on knowledge mastery and provide support to students, but in contrast to U-Pace instruction, competency-based learning requires alternative tuition models (other than the semester).

U-Pace instruction’s two components–mastery-based learning and proactive support–work together to shape student success. Requiring mastery (scoring at least a 90% on each content unit) facilitates long-term memory storage while strengthening the link between effort and positive outcomes as students consecutively master each content unit. Proactively supporting students through help with concepts not yet mastered and authentic behavior-based praise shapes student engagement, enhances motivation, and bolsters persistence during the process of working to achieve mastery.

[OnlineEducation.com] U-Pace is an asynchronous, self-paced approach to online learning. What role do instructors play and how do they ensure students keep up with their studies? How do they communicate and mentor their students?

[Dr. Reddy] Instructors play a large role in U-Pace instruction and in competency-based learning. They directly support students as they tackle challenges and advance toward their educational goals. Instructors not only provide personalized help with content, but also recognize students’ efforts and their achievements toward mastery or completion of competencies. They foster growth in their students. Instructors carefully monitor student performance and engagement (e.g., log-ins, time spent on activities) through information in the learning management system to ensure students do not fall behind. Colleges and universities across the United States are using such learner analytic data from learning management systems and student information systems to identify student needs, assess student risk, predict student success or failure, personalize instruction, and improve the effectiveness of interventions for at‐risk and under-performing students. Learner analytic data is allowing us to recognize problems and risks earlier, and respond sooner and more effectively by reaching out to students using whatever tools (email, phone, Blackboard Collaborate, Facebook, and Twitter) make sense to communicate with and mentor students.

Advancements in learner analytics will increasingly make monitoring of student progress and behavior and delivery of personalized instruction easier. The challenge is to effectively act upon learner analytic data. To really scale student success in higher education, what is needed is a technology-data-instructor-student solution that allows for truly personalized interventions that inspire students to take control over their learning, and motivates and empowers them to complete their education.

[OnlineEducation.com] In 2013, U-Pace received D2L’s Desire to Excel Award for Impact. D2L attributed the honor to U-Pace’s success improving learning outcomes, but also in making higher education more accessible to nontraditional and underrepresented students. How do online programs like U-Pace address that divide?

[Dr. Reddy] U-Pace instruction provides accessibility and flexibility to students, which is important because nontraditional and underrepresented students are often balancing school, a job, and other responsibilities. Disengagement is common when students struggle and is visible at an early stage when there are frequent low-stakes assessments. Recognizing changes in students’ engagement and performance signals opportunities to intervene proactively. In U-Pace instruction, all students receive instructor-initiated help with concepts and motivational support at least weekly or more often as needed. U-Pace students do not have to request help if they need it. U-Pace instructors act upon learner analytic information standard to learning management systems by creating supportive email messages to help students with concepts not mastered yet and to help them get going again. The supportive email messages reward students based on their actual behavior. They focus on their present strength rather than past weakness, and emphasize effort/work process in line with principles of effective motivation.

[OnlineEducation.com] You often contribute to online learning publications like EDUCAUSE. Even when you are writing or presenting about U-Pace, student success remains an important theme. Instructors must often rely on different technologies and instructional methods. What are some of the more universal factors that drive online student success?

[Dr. Reddy] Online student success is facilitated by creating an interactive, data-driven learning environment. Holding students to a high performance standard, while proactively supporting them in reaching that high performance standard, potentiates online student success.