When Ken Hanson began working for a TV station in the Middle East in the ‘80s, he had no idea that his experience creating content across a war border would come in handy for teaching his online classes more than 30 years later.

Hanson, who has been teaching Judaic studies at UCF since the early ‘90s, became interested in the Middle East while studying history as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I was wanting to research the roots of Western thought and culture, way back to the cradle of civilization,” Hanson says. “As a senior, I hopped on a plane and landed in Jerusalem to study ancient civilizations. I focused on the ancient land of Israel because it also happens to be the cradle of the three western belief systems — Judaism, Christianity, Islam are all out of the Middle East.”

After learning Hebrew and completing a master’s degree in television and intercultural communication and a doctorate in Judaic studies, Hanson worked at an American TV station based in southern Lebanon in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War before coming to UCF.

“I commuted over a hostile border every day to broadcast family-oriented television into a war zone,” he says. “We showed a lot of American westerns and championship wrestling, but when anything major happened we had to go into news-gathering mode.”

Hanson credits his on-camera work and travels to the Middle East with inspiring immersive lessons for his online courses. But he wasn’t always keen on the idea of teaching virtually.

Judaic studies is a niche program that students would often struggle to fit into their class schedule due to conflicts with their required courses, Hanson says. So began the demand for online courses in the program, and the need for him to complete training through UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning, a support unit that advances online teaching and learning.

“I didn’t want to go this direction at all because I take my energy from an audience, that being the students.” — Ken Hanson, UCF professor

“I didn’t want to go this direction at all because I take my energy from an audience, that being the students,” he says. “I developed a lot of interactive presentations, anything and everything to make a class pop, but I did it because we wanted our courses to be more accessible to the students.”

Near the end of Hanson’s training in 2015, the CDL video team presented its production studio and he immediately recognized he could put his TV past to use to develop content that could still make his courses “pop.”

“My first semester/course teaching online was the History of the Holocaust,” he says. “My instructional designer suggested I go over and talk to the CDL video team because I was almost in tears about how I could interface with my students.”

Hanson worked with CDL’s video team to create a concept that repackaged his 90-minute lectures into 10 to 20-minute segments while placing him at historic and archaeological sites. Eventually, he began making the productions more theatric — borrowing from his previous theatrical training — to dress up as different characters and use varying dialects for videos across five of his courses.

“Just because I’m a professor doesn’t mean I can’t play act and do theatrics anymore,” he says. “Rather than just reciting a passage from the prophet Isaiah, I’ll dress up as him and recite it in Hebrew and use subtitles so students can hear the ancient language vocalized. In that sense it’s better than a live lecture because we can do things we can’t do in the classroom.”

When UCF transitioned to fully remote learning last March due to the coronavirus, Hanson was already a step ahead of faculty who hadn’t had the opportunity or training to develop immersive content that would be needed to keep students engaged for the next year.

“In that sense it’s better than a live lecture because we can do things we can’t do in the classroom.” — Ken Hanson, UCF professor

“What the pandemic has done is shown how important this technology is,” he says. “We already knew this was the future, so for me teaching during the pandemic was no problem at all. But the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of what CDL is doing.”

With more than 125 TV segments under his belt, and no plans to stop any time soon, creating this type of content for his courses has also proved beneficial for CDL.

“We’ve worked together for so long that both our skill sets have evolved,” says Aaron Hose, media production manager and lead video producer for CDL’s video team. “Ken has become a better writer, actor and on-screen presenter. Our video producers have improved as editors and compositors. We can now deliver his content more streamlined than before. We’ve found this great ‘sweet spot’ now.”

Hanson’s efforts to go the extra mile in his online courses have paid off as he earned the Chuck D. Dziuban Award for Excellence in Online Teaching in 2017.

“Ken has long been a proponent of pushing the envelope with student engagement through video,” says Roslyn Miller, an instructional designer at CDL. “He recently began using a new technology that’s often used in performing-arts education to enhance student interaction with his dramatized video presentations so they’ll engage even more with the content, each other, and him while enjoying learning.”

Not only are students having fun with the lessons, they’re retaining them better too, which Hanson says, sometimes was a struggle for them during in-person courses.

“There are serious learning advantages to this,” he says. “When you lecture, the amount that is retained by students is maybe 20% and [many] students these days are not taking notes, so you hope they remember something. Here I think I’ve solved this because every week I give them a TV show to watch and they take a quiz on it at the end. So, they’re watching and even re-watching because they have that ability.”

“It’s all about teaching and enhancing learning to the best of your ability, and resources here at UCF, like CDL, bring that into amazing focus.” — Ken Hanson, UCF professor

He also worked with UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in 2018 to develop a video game for his Biblical Archaeology course. Through the game students explore an underground cavern and examine pottery fragments, which Hanson says is a big part of the course that was tough to teach online before this development. And when students encountered issues playing the game because of its large file size, he worked with CDL’s Learning Systems and Technology team to make it accessible for all students on as many types of devices as possible, says Miller.

“The technology is there, embrace it,” Hanson says. “It’s all about teaching and enhancing learning to the best of your ability, and resources here at UCF, like CDL, bring that into amazing focus.”

Faculty who have been certified through IDL6543 or the Essentials of Online Teaching course offered by CDL and would like to find out how they can enhance their course materials through video can create a consultation request at video.ucf.edu/consultation.