By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind)–Dr. Robert Rennie, assistant professor of history, has been recognized as Faculty Innovator of the Year by the board of directors of the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE).
The award recognizes the effort put forth by faculty who have redesigned their courses or introduced new courses with innovative, research-based approaches to the practice of teaching, using new methods and/or technologies, with an intentional emphasis on how these innovations improved or facilitated student learning.
Rennie topped the field of eight nominees from across the academic disciplines, drawing recognition for his use of popular apps to teach European history.
Rennie employs podcasts, social media and object-based learning to connect with his more youthful students and to make the events of the past more relatable to the classroom of the present.
Rennie was inspired to create podcasts during the pandemic, when the shutdown made in-person instruction impossible. While others relied on PowerPoints and videos to deliver lectures, Rennie found those modalities too cumbersome and long-winded, too data-hungry, and not very practical when consumed on cell phones. They also tended to suppress rather than stimulate ineraction, in his view.
Inspired by a Nike app he used for running, he developed podcasts that were shorter, more casual and thus more easily digestible wherever students happened to be, including at work.
“My lectures helped students learn while working their shifts at Amazon or UPS, or while stocking boxes at Wal-Mart overnight,” Rennie said.
Through the podcasts, he established a better connection to students, enabling him to understand their lives outside the classroom, and to adapt lesson plans and structures in order to teach to the individual.
In presenting the award, Dr. Kelly Ryan, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, praised Rennie’s achievements as exemplifying the spirit as well as the letter of innovation.
“Robert’s adaptation of technology to the classroom is great,” Ryan said. “What I find even more inspiring about his story is the way his innovations are empowering his students to see history as something they can impact.”
While traditional methods are still part of Rennie’s repertoire, his class spends more time immersed in high-impact activities that stimulate conversation. An adherent of object-based learning, Rennie frequently uses art, music and other artefacts to get students thinking and talking about subjects such as the French Revolution and World War I.
Rennie’s innovations have led to improved student engagement and perfomance. More importantly for him, they have helped students understand history as something “constructed and contestable.”
“The practice of learning in my class moves beyond merely understanding what happened in the past, or even developing better analytical and critical reasoning skills,” Rennie said. “My teaching empowers students to realize that they are all agents of change, and that they too will influence history in their everyday lives.”