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The University of Florida has an ambitious goal: to harness the power of its faculty, staff, students, and alumni to solve some of society’s most pressing problems and to become a resource for the state of Florida, the nation, and the world. The stories chronicled in Gatorbytes span all colleges and units across the UF campus. They detail the far-reaching impact of UF’s research, technologies, and innovations—and the UF faculty members dedicated to them. Gatorbytes describe how UF is continuing to build on its strengths and extend the reach of its efforts so that it can help even more people in even more places. Below, we present two new entries in Gatorbytes.

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b208In No Student Left Behind: Transforming Education in the Online Classroom, Jon Silman, who has worked as a freelance writer for the Gainesville Sun, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Miami Herald, traces the earliest correspondence programs to the most cutting-edge practices of online learning at UF, looking at some of the first implementations of an online class and exploring how the brain works in front of a computer screen.

For many years, higher education was mostly limited to affluent white males, but distance-learning helped open the door to students from all walks of life. Today, the Internet is picking up where distance-learning left off, transforming not only where and how we learn but also who can be a student.

“The University of Florida is no different. That’s why, as a part of the preeminence initiative to become a top ten university, university leaders have hired one of the most prominent researchers around, a woman named Carole Beal,” says Silman.

Head of the University of Florida’s new Online Learning Institute, Beal is at the center of this quest to break down barriers to learning and move closer to the ideal of learning for all.

“At UF, we give access to people who are the best in their field, some of the most brilliant people, but how many people can we sit in a lecture? We’re physically limited by size,” Beal says. “But with online learning we can make these people available to a much larger audience.”

Along with Beal, collaborators from UF’s colleges of Education, Engineering, Journalism and Communications, and the Arts team up to combine technology and pedagogy with the aim of helping students who might otherwise be left behind, including students with disabilities. The interdisciplinary efforts of the institute also feature the work of UF’s Digital Worlds Institute and UF Online, one of the nation’s first totally online undergraduate programs.

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, associate professor of educational technology in the College of Education’s School of Teaching and Learning, collaborates with Beal regularly. “She’s a great researcher, that’s why we brought her in,” he says of Beal. “What she demonstrates is a solid, continuous record of funded research that is very focused.” Together, they’ve been studying how students learn online. Both understand that the online medium requires students to be more self-regulated.

Beal has looked closely at how students study lectures, trying to solve the mentality, “Why should I get out of bed when I can just watch the lecture later?” He is working on an automatic tool that would remind students to spend enough time on readings and assignments.

Antonenko has focused on the issue of engagement. “He found that there’s often a disparity between what an instructor thinks would be compelling and interesting and what the student thinks. The challenge is to reconcile those two ideas,” says Silman.

“The discussions need to be meaningful, not just a surface-level question that won’t lead to a deep discussion,” notes Antonenko. “And there are other interactions that should happen: teamwork, collaborative assignments, and projects. Designing a good online course is not easy.”

They’re also working to ensure that anyone who isn’t able to get a traditional university education can take advantage of online learning, particularly students with disabilities.

The director of distance and continuing education at UF, Brian Marchman, says that making educational accessible to special needs students is one of UF’s top commitments.

Beal has even created an app supplemented with print and Braille materials. Blind students can touch one side of the screen to hear a math problem, and  the other to hear a description of the picture illustrating the problem.

For professors, Beal understands that online education is a lot more work. “It’s way easier for an instructor to walk in and talk for fifty minutes,” says Beal. “Basically the trick of the whole thing is to come up with the things that a student does to learn the material.”

“Ultimately, it’s about the educator,” says Silman, “The University of Florida is committed to using online learning as a tool to reach as many students it can, to give them the opportunities to succeed, and even thrive. With the Online Learning Institute and UF Online, it will continue to do just that.”

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b209The Wind Engineers: Building A Hurricane-Safe House by Jeff Klinkenberg, author of numerous books, including Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators and Seasons of Real Floridareveals the efforts of the University of Florida’s Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, where wind engineers study storm systems and design buildings to better withstand the forces of nature.

Hurricanes and tornadoes—and the devastation they leave in their wake—are feared across the globe, but at the University of Florida these natural phenomena are a fascinating research opportunity. Wind engineers like Forrest Masters and David Prevatt relish the chance to answer questions about how to keep our homes safe from these natural disasters.

Masters, associate professor of civil and coastal engineering and recipient of the 2015 UF Research Foundation Professors Award, has made a job out of purposefully getting in the way of hurricanes. “I take the lab to a hurricane. And then I bring the hurricane back to the lab,” he says.

His close colleague, Prevatt, studies both hurricanes and tornadoes to understand why homes are destroyed and how they can be built to withstand these forces of nature. “If you build a house right the first time, you’ll be better off,” Prevatt says. “A professor of mine used to say, ‘If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we keep a roof on a house?'”

It’s this very thinking that led Prevatt to speak at the Science Democrats Joint Subcommittee on Research and Subcommittee on Technology to explain that keeping people safe from hurricanes and tornadoes isn’t complicated—but that it requires commitment.

 

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In this Gatorbyte, follow these wind engineers’stories as they venture inside Hurricane Wilma with wind gauges, travel to Joplin, Missouri, to assess the wind-damage from the most powerful tornado in more than a half century, and conduct experiments with the lab’s infamous “Multi-Axis Wind Load Simulator,” ominously nicknamed “The Judge,” which can be seen in the video below.

“The Judge doesn’t lie,” Klinkenberg says after learning what it could do. “If your test wall, or test shutter, or test roof, or test garage door, survives an encounter with the The Judge, it may survive a hurricane, too.”

“A garage door often is the weakest point in your house,” Masters reveals. “If you have a garage-door breach, the wind may enter your house, blow out the windows, and take off the roof.”

Prevatt says, “When I go into one of these storm-ravaged areas the first thing I say is ‘Wow.’ Then I start analyzing. Why all this damage? Is it because of poor construction? Did the builder forget to use an adequate number of nails or attachments? Or was it bad luck and the wind?”

Yet the job of the UF wind engineers does not end with this speculation and analysis. They take their findings to the drafting table, build roofs and walls, and test shingles, shutters, and garage doors. Their goal: to make sure our houses are still standing, and we are safe, after the storm.

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These and all Gatorbytes are available on our website.

And, for a limited time, you can read the first three installments in the Gatorbytes series for free.

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