Joanne Christopherson was enjoying a successful career in the corporate world. For more than 25 years, the single mom had worked in the escrow industry, at one point owning her own business, even serving as president of the Orange County Escrow Association. But something was missing.

“I had started college out of high school, but I never finished and that was really my dream,” she says. So in 1995, the California native quit her job, paid off her car, downsized her life and became an Anteater.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a lifelong learner,” she says. “I don’t shy away from a challenge and I like to pick up news skills as I go.”

That attitude served her well on what would become a 12-year educational journey toward a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences. Along the way, she picked up her bachelor’s in psychology, graduating summa cum laude, and her master’s in demographic and social analysis.

“It was so great sitting in class thinking, ‘Gosh, someone is really asking me what I know about anthropology!’” she says. “It was so much fun being able to focus my experiences on my classes and I just loved being there.”

With her high level of corporate experience, Christopherson found herself to be one of only a handful of non-traditional students on campus. But rather than feel like an outsider, she embraced college culture and revived OASIS – the Older Adult Students in School club at UCI. She also became an early adopter of online education, a course delivery format she sees as a great way to reach other lifelong learners who may be afraid to get back in the classroom.

When she was hired on as a lecturer in social sciences, she became one of UCI’s first instructors to teach online.

“We always maxed out on enrollments in our required computer resources for research course, and so we gave a shot at offering it online in the summer,” she says. That first summer, they netted 250 students – a huge response to a learning format that was just gaining traction. She has since been able to teach three to four courses each year online, a delivery format she says allows her to get to know her students better than if they were sitting 20 feet away in a large lecture hall. She is also co-director of the School of Social Sciences’ demographic and social analysis master’s program and the instructor for a critical research methods course in the school’s undergraduate Summer Academic Enrichment Program.

In January, Christopherson was named the 2013 recipient of the R1edu award for online instructors, an honor that recognizes her as an innovator in the distance learning effort.

“Joanne is a terrific asset to the School of Social Sciences, to UC Irvine, and to anyone who is ready to roll up their sleeves and learn new skills no matter what stage they're at in their career or life course,” says Bill Maurer, dean of social sciences. “She's an inspiration to all the students whose lives she's touched, and I'm thrilled that her online courses allow her to reach so many more students and delighted she is being recognized with this award.”

“Joanne is an excellent mentor and teacher and an incredibly helpful trainer and content developer for distance education at UCI,” says Gary Matkin, dean of UCI’s continuing education, distance learning and summer session. “Her students frequently praise her innovative approaches to using current events, real-life situations and pop culture to help explain and get across her ideas.”

Using voiceover lectures, readings, reflection papers, forums, videos and full length documentary reviews, her students are required to interact and become familiar with course material in a way that they may not in a classroom setting.

“Online, students are more willing to open up, whether it’s through shared pictures of family vacations or discussions that don’t require them to talk in front of their peers,” she says. “They can also take the course while they’re studying abroad or living in another country and bring those experiences to the rest of the class.”

In the fall, she was one of four faculty who piloted a massive open online course (MOOC) based on "The Walking Dead" series. Enrollments topped 65,000 students and caught the attention of media around the globe. The group was mentioned more than 1,000 times in news stories and three of the four-person teaching crew, along with the course director, got to fly to the Big Apple to take part in a New York Times-sponsored conference on online education.

“I was amazed at the response we got, considering all of these people were taking the non-credit course just out of an interest to learn something new,” she says. “It was really a nice way to showcase to a wide audience what we’re capable of teaching here at UCI and it ended up being a wonderful forum for lifelong learners.”

She sees the future of online education providing exactly that – a forum where people can interact with others interested in expanding their knowledge base. And as a lifelong learner herself, she’s happy to teach and learn alongside them.

-Heather Ashbach, Social Sciences Communications


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