Professor Daniel Stokols
“As an instructor, it’s exciting to present information to a broader audience,” says Chancellor’s Professor Daniel Stokols, who made his lectures on environmental psychology available through UCI’s iTunes U channel. “I enjoy hearing from people all over the world who are enrolled in the course.” Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Daniel Stokols has taught an environmental psychology class at UC Irvine since 1973. He figures that’s about 8,000 students over almost 40 years. Since his course went online in June, however, a staggering 150,000 more have taken it.

A Chancellor’s Professor of planning, policy & design and psychology & social behavior with joint appointments in epidemiology, public health and nursing science, Stokols is thrilled at his increased reach. He enjoys introducing people to the field of environmental psychology, which focuses on the interaction between human beings and their surroundings.

“As an instructor, it’s exciting to present information to a broader audience,” Stokols says. “I enjoy hearing from people all over the world who are enrolled in the course, and in many cases, we’ve exchanged information about research findings, publications, degree programs offered at UCI, and some of the ways they’re applying course content to their own work and living situations.”

In everyday terms, environmental psychology explores such things as how traffic congestion, crowding and pollution affect people. Scholars in the field also look at the ways in which architectural design and urban planning foster or inhibit social interaction; encourage or discourage physical activity; and promote or alleviate obesity.

Last spring, with the help of UCI’s Teaching, Learning & Technology Center, Stokols recorded and edited his classroom lectures in environmental psychology, then posted them to UCI’s iTunes U channel and the center’s YouTube channel. UCI Extension also included a link to Stokol’s iTunes U class on the campus’s OpenCourseWare site.

The free online course, which consists of lecture videos, presentation slides and study guides, is not taken for degree credit, as there are no tests or homework assignments. Subscribers learn about seminal research in environmental psychology, such as Stokols’ 1981 study on the effects of aircraft noise on elementary school children.

He and his research partners found that students going to schools under the LAX flight path had elevated blood pressure compared with students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds attending schools in quieter areas, and they performed less well on academic tests and cognitive skills assessments.

Published in journals and a book, the study prompted the Inglewood and Lennox school districts to implement noise abatement measures, including the installation of soundproofing materials in classroom ceilings.

“The course also gets students to start thinking about environmental justice concerns and why undesirable land uses tend to be more prevalent in low-income, minority neighborhoods,” Stokols says. “It can be very difficult for communities without political power to redress those problems.”

He initially had misgivings about distance education because of its lack of interpersonal contact among students and instructors. However, his interactions with students taking his iTunes U course have been very gratifying. Stokols has received enthusiastic emails from a diverse group – many of whom had never heard of environmental psychology but, after his lectures, were now interested in delving deeper into the subject.

Enrollees have included a public health professional in Toronto, a professor of organizational psychology in China, a retired couple in Quebec, a photographer in Berlin and a community organizer in South Africa, as well as undergraduate and graduate students at other universities.

Although the experience has been satisfying, Stokols doesn’t plan to go “online only” as an instructor. “I enjoy working directly with students in the classroom and firmly believe there will always be a need for face-to-face mentorship and apprenticeship in higher education,” he says.

Stokols’ course is one of 10 offered on UCI’s iTunes U channel and has the highest number of subscribers, says De Gallow, director of the Teaching, Learning & Technology Center. “Our goal is to create content that is user-friendly and valuable,” she says, noting that the audience for online lectures is very different from traditional 18- to 21-year-old undergraduates. “Students access these courses because they find the subjects interesting and want to learn more.”

Valerie Jenness, dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology, praised Stokols for embracing the creative use of technology to reach out to a wider group of students. “It’s exciting to see just the right professor engage with just the right venue to lead us into the future – and all with an ongoing commitment to access and excellence.”

Stokols’ environmental psychology class is available through iTunes U using the free iTunes U app for mobile phones and iPads or via the following Web link: