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Learn to Discern

Learn to Discern

Harnessing the power of webinars to educate and engage students


When the pandemic hit last year, many people loaded their work and social calendars with videoconferences and virtual gatherings to stay connected. 

Digital technologies, including webinars, quickly became a valuable tool for many educators at all levels as schools, colleges and universities had to shift to remote learning for extended periods of time. 

For faculty at Tarrant County College’s fully accredited virtual campus, TCC Connect, this wasn’t a significant problem. They’d already been leveraging a host of digital technologies to deliver award-winning instruction to students anywhere, at any time. 

Misty Wilson-Mehrtens, assistant professor of history, Allegra Davis Hanna, instructor of English, and Angela Thurman, department chair of economics and sciences, joined forces to produce a free webinar series, Learn to Discern, to help keep online learners engaged in civic and community issues. Wilson-Mehrtens created the series in 2017; she is quick, however, to share any credit with colleagues. 

“This really was a team effort. When developing this webinar series, our intention was to create inter-disciplinary discourse on topics relevant to students,” said Wilson-Mehrtens. “Many of the webinars explicitly make connections between inquiry and critical thinking, or to closely related topics like media literacy.” 

She added that these webinars help students learn how to find and evaluate sources of information; how to question and investigate; and, how to avoid confirmation bias. “We also hope that they see the connections between our disciplines and that you can approach the same topic from many angles.”

Any TCC student can join live or watch recordings of the webinars. Back in 2017, only a few students were watching the recordings. Today, hundreds of students are joining live or watching the recording of the webinars, which feature accomplished TCC faculty who are experts in their fields. 

Currently, more than 30 webinars have been recorded and posted to the Learn to Discern YouTube channel. Previous webinar topics include the 2020 general election, language in politics and generational power in America. 

“During election years, our webinars help students find reliable information about candidates and ballot measures, connect students with voter registrations efforts and model for students how to approach academic discourse,” Wilson-Mehrtens explained. “We also spend a lot of time encouraging them to get involved in their community, whether that’s by voting or by volunteering.”

At the conclusion of each webinar, students are polled to gain insight on topics they’d like covered in future webinars, theme development, events or issues to explore and guest speakers. The goal for the team is to offer between four and six webinars each semester.

Student feedback continues to be positive, with one student stating, “I appreciate the breakdown of demographics, unbiased, facts. The women on the panel were intelligent and did not have a screaming match to have the information put out. I applaud the professionalism, and I was not forced to listen to anyone lean towards one party over the other.” A second student called a Fall 2020 webinar an “amazing presentation,” while another said, “The topic was covered well, and the usage of real-life examples helped to engage the audience.”

Analytics show that TCC students not only like webinars covering topics related to civic engagement, but also those focusing on conspiracy theories, fake news and homelessness. 

“The series has become very popular with students and has grown tremendously in the past two or three years,” said Sherri Matta, assistant professor of psychology at TCC Connect. “Each semester, the topics are relevant to what is happening in our local communities. I believe that these webinars have encouraged students to learn beyond the classroom and engage in their local community.”  

Over the years, Matta has spearheaded several Learn to Discern webinars, including “Sex Trafficking in North Texas,” “PTSD in Civilian First Responders” and “Veterans After Conflict.”

“If I present the topic alone, I create a PowerPoint so students can follow along,” said Matta. “If I bring in an outside resource, I research who the top three professionals are on that particular topic and I invite participation.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, some people were concerned about a drop in student participation. Yet, the webinar series didn’t miss a beat. 

On the production side, TCC Connect faculty moved from conducting webinars from the same room to using Microsoft Teams to complete the same functions, all from home. Faculty collaboration also evolved, as more instructors from across the District began sharing information through the Learn to Discern webinar series once on-campus programming came to a halt. 

“Our instructors are definitely addressing critical thinking in the classroom, but the webinar series adds to what they are learning by engaging them outside of the class and applying it to current events,” said Cristina Sullivan, interim vice president of academic affairs. 

Webinars during the Spring 2021 term focused on social media-related topics. Wilson-Mehrtens expects topics for the Fall 2021 term to be informed by student requests and interests. Sullivan believes there are opportunities for the webinar series to grow in popularity. 

“I truly believe there is a possibility of partnering with community or industry partners to expand the scope of the webinar series because of the collaborative and creative nature of my campus faculty.” 

Some students were so moved by the “Sex Trafficking in North Texas” webinar, they volunteered for internships with Mosaic Family Services and Refuge City, organizations that provide individuals with safe housing, counseling and medical attention.

Learn to Discern on YouTube

Watch any Learn to Discern webinars by visiting the YouTube channel.

Currently, more than 30 webinars have been recorded and posted to the Learn to Discern YouTube channel. Previous webinar topics include the 2020 general election, language in politics and generational power in America.