The Department of Psychology at Jacksonville State University expands sleep education through an online presentation.

 BrysonAdvances in technology and multimedia presentation have added new and exciting dimensions to both teaching and learning. Instruction via the World Wide Web offers students an opportunity to learn in a way that was practically nonexistent a decade ago. Today, the new methods for presenting educational material combined with the advancements in science and technology have created opportunities to develop new curriculum. One such opportunity has been afforded to the field of psychology with regard to sleep education.1

Over the past century, a plethora of studies have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of sleep in the behavioral sciences.2 Despite this growing body of knowledge, only a few educational institutions offer a course with sleep as the primary focus. This leaves many students without an opportunity to explore the subject of sleep in depth. One plausible solution to this problem is to provide the course through a distance education model.

An online version of the sleep and dreaming course was created with the intent to expand the course’s availability. Two student populations were considered in the design of this version. The first population comprised students considered to be nontraditional. These students are defined as having primary responsibilities that take priority beyond their education. The most common example is a student who is providing for a family. The second group comprised those students attending learning institutions without an available sleep and dreaming course.

Two distinct advantages to online presentation are that students enrolled in the course are not limited geographically or bound by time constraints. Eliminating geographic boundaries is particularly advantageous to both nontraditional students and those enrolled at other institutions, especially those who reside far from the campus. In addition, courses such as sleep and dreaming that are offered on a limited basis (once per academic period) are not always available at convenient times for nontraditional students or those attending other institutions. The distance education model is beneficial in the sense that many nontraditional students have limited time to pursue study through traditional classes due to family or occupational responsibilities. For the students at other institutions, commuting to another location to take a single class would be impractical in many cases. For both groups, online presentation additionally offers the absence of time constraints, which, in turn, allows students to interact with the course materials at times that do not interfere with their existing responsibilities or schedules.

The previously offered traditional and online versions of the course contained the same course components, although there were obvious differences in presentation and interaction style. Suggested course components include an introductory exercise, threaded discussions, research-based exploratory projects, a dream laboratory, and written competency exercises. Each component was used in the overall student evaluation at the end of the course.

Introductory Exercise
It is important to keep in mind that many of the students enrolled in the sleep and dreaming course are new to distance learning. In fact, only 5% of students in the previous online sleep and dreaming courses had taken a distance education course prior to enrollment. The sleep and dreaming course encourages a high level of interaction throughout the course beginning on the first day. Students start this course with the introductory exercise, which offers a prelude to the course and a way to meet the instructor and classmates. This exercise typically involves the students posting autobiographical essays on the discussion board and then presenting their interests and expectations for the course. In addition, students are encouraged to freely explore the course page and links and ask questions as needed.

Research-Based Projects
In the sleep and dreaming course, students write a scientific paper on specific topics pertaining to sleep. These papers are generated from reviews of the scientific literature available from a variety of resources. The research-based projects are designed to encourage participation and involvement, as well as expand the course content in the direction of the students’ specific interests. Since the sleep and dreaming course attracts individuals from a wide variety of academic concentrations, students are encouraged to integrate a sleep-related topic with their major field of study. For example, a student majoring in criminal justice may write a paper discussing recent cases of sleep-related violence. Students are also encouraged to share their findings with their classmates, which are often used to fuel further discussions within the class.

Threaded Discussions
Students are asked to post relevant responses on the Web site’s discussion board regarding the topics and activities presented. Discussions typically address philosophical, conceptual, and/or ethical issues related to each major topic and activity presented in the course. These discussions can be threaded together, allowing for in-depth student and instructor interaction. In addition to the assigned discussions, the discussion board serves as a medium for presenting relevant questions, much like those that would be voiced in a public classroom.

In addition to discussion board assignments, students are encouraged to participate in a specific and more elaborate exercise called “dream lab.” Dream lab encourages students to seek out material available from a wide range of media regarding major dream theories. After reviewing the available information, students are asked to post scientific critiques of historically significant theories of dreaming. A standard dream report is provided to the students at the beginning of class. They are then asked to evaluate the provided dream report in terms of each theory they have critiqued. This exercise is then discussed among members of the class and mediated by the instructor. The primary goal of this exercise is to allow students to apply their knowledge and conceptualization of each theory. This exercise also allows the instructor an opportunity to gain feedback regarding each student’s critical thinking skills as well as their ability to apply the knowledge they have gained during the exercise and in the course to that point; 77% percent of the students who have taken sleep and dreaming rated this activity as their favorite part of the course.

Written competency exercises are designed to assess student knowledge by asking them to evaluate and provide written responses to paragraphs depicting principles of sleep. Examples include paragraphs about theories, biological and psychological processes, pathological versus normal sleep, developmental issues, ethics, and methodology. These exercises are then graded based on the inclusion of expected information that the student should discuss within the answers.

For the purpose of these assessments, the geographic location of each student is addressed prior to the beginning of the course. Most students reside close to campus and independently complete these exercises at a predetermined location at the university. The available times for these exercises are listed on the course Web site and proctored by a faculty or staff member. There is, of course, always a potential that some students enrolled in the course will live far from the campus. Travel to the campus to complete these exercises would be impractical for many of the students in this group. For these students, educational facilities near their residence are contacted and arrangements are made for proctors to be available. Since many of these students are transferring the credits to their institution, finding a proctor has not been a problem.

Traditional and Online Versions
One major concern in applying two types of presentation to the same course is the preservation of the quality of education. The sleep and dreaming course is currently available in both traditional and online versions. Table 1 offers a comparison and chi square analyses of the traditional vs online presentation.

d02b.gif (9593 bytes)

Chi square analyses between the traditional and online versions yielded significant differences in the number of nontraditional students, c2 (N=23)=12.565, P=0.000, and those enrolled at other universities, c2 (N=5)=5.00, P=0.022. In both cases, more nontraditional students and students enrolled at other educational institutions participated in the online version of the course. Both of these student categories were the target audience for the online version of the course. There were no statistically significant differences in the number of students taking the online version compared with the traditional version. In addition, no significant differences were found for the number of students classified as traditional, enrolled at the host university, psychology majors/minors, and nonpsychology majors/minors (see Table 1).

Student grades between the traditional and online versions were compared with independent samples t-tests. The grades for the sleep and dreaming course could range between zero and 100. No significant difference was observed for the scores on the written competency exercises between traditional (mean=91.45, standard deviation=5.21) and online (mean=90.18, standard deviation=5.35) versions of the course, t(120)=1.316, P=0.191 (two-tailed). Final grades for the traditional and online versions of the course were also compared and yielded statistically similar results between the traditional (mean=91.98, standard deviation=3.77) and online (mean=91.76, standard deviation=4.80) versions, t(120)=0.284, P=0.777 (two-tailed).

The conversion of the sleep and dreaming course from a conventional class to one presented online has thus far been successful in reaching its target student populations. In particular, nontraditional students have been able to participate in the sleep and dreaming course without compromise to their existing responsibilities. Students at universities that do not currently offer a sleep-specific course have also been able to gain access to sleep education through the online version. Again, relatively few educational institutions offer a course exclusive to sleep and, for now, online presentation will serve as a means to compensate for this limited availability.

As stated before, the preservation of educational quality is a major goal when presenting a course in alternate versions. In this case, the two versions of the course have yielded similar outcomes with regard to student performance on competency exercises and overall final grades. Additionally, the suggested course components were successfully applied to both versions of the course.

Continued efforts to expand sleep-specific education in academic programs are needed. It will be the responsibility of educators with specific knowledge and interests in sleep to fuel these efforts. Online courses such as sleep and dreaming are easily designed and maintained with today’s instructional media programs. Any educators interested in developing sleep-related courses are strongly encouraged to do so.

W. Jeff Bryson, MS, is an adjunct instructor and sleep research team coordinator in the Department of Psychology at Jacksonville State University, Ala; assistant director of clinical services at Mountain View Hospital in Gadsden, Ala; and a PhD student in the clinical psychology/behavioral medicine program at the Fielding Institute, Santa Barbara, Calif.

1. Bryson WJ. New curriculum benefits undergraduate psychology students. Sleep Review. 2002;3(2):10-12.
2. Stepanski EJ. Behavioral sleep medicine: a historical perspective. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2003;1:4-21.