Faculty Spotlight: Ken Novak, PhD

UMKC’s criminology professor builds community on the streets and online

Professor Ken Novak, Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, UMKC

Award-winning criminal justice professor Ken Novak

At the intersection of crime intervention, policing, and intelligence networks you’ll find award-winning criminal justice professor Ken Novak, whose work on focused deterrence makes the streets of Kansas City safer for us all. Ken shares his insights on what it takes to teach effectively in the online classroom.

When and how did you first get involved with online teaching at UMKC? I taught my first class online in 2012. About this time our department recognized many of our students were struggling to fulfill courses in order to graduate due to work or family obligations. About this time online education also became a priority for the College of Arts and Sciences. So several faculty members, including myself, identified existing courses to convert to an online modality to enhance recruitment and retention within the BA-CJC as well as the Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree program.

What is your field of research or area of study? What’s the most exciting thing happening today in your area of study or the most exciting project you’re currently working on? I study criminal justice and criminology, with a particular focus on policing and the exercise of officer discretion. Several high-profile events in 2014 between the police and the public (i.e., Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Baltimore, and more recently in Baton Rouge) thrust policing into the media spotlight, and some of my existing research on racial profiling, the exercise of force, and citizens’ attitudes toward the police became particularly relevant. Additionally, I have served as the research partner for the KC No Violence Alliance (NoVA) since 2012. This is a gun violence reduction strategy that permits me to work closely with the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Kansas City Police Department, Missouri Probation and Parole, Mayor’s Office and US Attorney’s Office to enhance and research gun violence prevention in Kansas City. In 2015 the FBI recognized our involvement in this community collaboration by awarding UMKC the FBI Directors Community Leadership Award.

What do you feel are the qualities that make for a good online instructor? The same qualities that make for a good face-to-face instructor – effective communication, recognizing students have different learning styles, being responsive to students’ questions, and patience. Online instruction utilizes these same principles, but is just adapted to the online modality.

Do you have a philosophy of teaching? If so, what is it? Critical thinking, problem solving, and communication are key skills I try to develop, and I strive to create opportunities for students to improve their skills in the classroom (face to face or online). Encouraging students to think more critically about the social world around them is important and translates effectively to life after college.

What do you like most about teaching online? What do you find most challenging? I enjoy the fact that online teaching is providing greater access to busy students – many students are taking online classes because their commitments do not permit them to attend class sessions on campus consistently, and I take satisfaction knowing online coursework is helping students complete their degree programs. Also, some students are more comfortable engaging in online discussions – this is especially true for people who are uncomfortable with public speaking.

Related, some people need more time to think and develop their thoughts before sharing them with others (I am one of these people). Classroom discussions sometimes can be dominated by strong personalities or those who are comfortable thinking on their feet, leaving some students who need time to let thoughts marinate behind. Online environments can accommodate and provide more valid assessments of these students. But when teaching online I miss face-to-face interactions with students. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can alternate teaching face-to-face and online.

What principles, techniques, or tools do you use to engage students? I strive to create an online community in my classes, therefore consistent communication and engagement is critical. I utilize discussion boards throughout my courses, and work hard to engage students (and encourage them to engage each other) in these forums. This takes considerable effort and time but it pays off in the long run.

Who has inspired you in your life and why? James Frank, my professor and mentor in graduate school. Jim taught by example, and from him I learned how to be a fully functioning academic. He taught the mechanics and skills to conduct research, how to be an effective and responsible teacher, and how to be a good colleague and member of the academy. He took great pride in his job, worked extremely hard, never took shortcuts in his work, and was always a very patient (and critical) mentor, and his example inspires me to do the same.

What’s your best advice to new online instructors? Plan on dedicating more time and effort to online instruction than you would in a traditional face-to-face class. Teaching is easy; teaching effectively is difficult; teaching effectively online is difficult and time consuming. Anticipate that course development will take longer than you think. Teaching strategies and assessments can be translated to the online environment, but can take considerable effort to develop. Related, keep it simple. Blackboard has a lot of bells and whistles and it can be tempting to incorporate many of these into your course. Start with a solid foundation, then develop additional assessments or learning aids as you teach the class again.