UCF professor redefines online learning

Photo courtesy of Kenneth Hanson. Using green-screen technology and props, Professor Kenneth Hanson teaches UCF students about Nazi Germany in a 20-minute video presentation. Hanson, who also serves as program director for the Judaic Studies Department, has created 10 documentary style videos for his online course History of the Holocaust.

Vivid. Imaginative. Interesting. Fantastic. These are just a few adjectives students and colleagues use to characterize UCF Professor Kenneth Hanson.

Hanson is the current program director of the UCF Judaic Studies Department in the College of Arts and Humanities. Hanson, who has a Ph. D in Judaic studies, began his career at UCF in 1993 and took over as department head in 2015.

Over the past two decades, he has seen many changes in the classroom, including the introduction of online courses. Hanson developed a reputation for his unique teaching style, which he has recently been able to transfer into an online setting.

The enrollment in the department’s courses began to decline partially because the classes count toward a minor or certificate in Judaic studies and not a major degree program, Hanson said.

“We came to realize that the online environment is the way we have to go for our program,” Hanson said. “We are competing with a very busy course schedule.”

Moshe Pelli, the director of the program from 1984 to 2015, also observed a gradual trend among students.

“We noticed that students are more interested in online courses,” Pelli said. “Students save time not looking for parking and fighting traffic. It’s more convenient for the students.”

At first, Hanson loathed the idea of moving his courses to an online environment and thought this move would kill his teaching career.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t teach anymore,’” Hanson said. “Here’s a book, read it. Here’s a discussion board – barf.’”

But Hanson decided that he had to find a way to convey his personality and teaching style through Webcourses, UCF’s online learning environment. So, he decided to script his lectures and produce an interactive video for his students to view and learn from.

Through UCF’s Center of Distributed Learning, Hanson utilized a television studio equipped with green-screen technology, cameras, teleprompters and sets to produce a show for his students to watch.

“It’s the History Channel but better,” Hanson said. “The results are better than ever.”

Beyond just scripting his lectures and reading it into the prompter, Hanson and his team create a documentary style video where Hanson reenacts some of the times in history he covers in his lecture.

Hanson has portrayed biblical characters such as Moses and Joshua, Nazi soldiers for his history of the Holocaust class and other historical figures throughout history with costumes and props.

One student in particular, creative writing major George Gruskin, 62, said Hanson’s teaching style truly makes school fun again.

After a 45-year hiatus from school, Gruskin decided to come back. Gruskin said because of his ADD, it is easier to learn from Hanson’s unique style of teaching than the traditional learning path.

“When I read something, it’s a blur, but when you see a guy in a costume and he talks with an accent, it’s like you’re watching a movie,” Gruskin said. “It’s a much better way to learn – 1,000 percent better.”

Not only does he rewatch the videos to learn more effectively, he also watched Hanson’s videos with his 88-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“She barley knows my name, but every Thursday night I would go over to her house, and we would watch these videos together,” he said.

Gruskin believes viewing Hanson’s videos has brought the two of them closer together.

“We bonded over the videos,” he said.  “This professor is just fantastic.”

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Hanson’s video presentations can be found on his youtube channel.