Meek School Professor Wins Paragon Award

Honor recognized faculty members who use technology to create successful distance learning courses

Debora Wenger

Debora Wenger

OXFORD, Miss. – Debora Wenger, an associate professor in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, is this year’s winner of the Paragon Award for Excellence in Distance Teaching.

The university’s Department of Online Design and eLearning gives the award annually. Wenger, who was honored for her Journalism 102 class, said she’s grateful for the help she’s received from the department to make the course successful. 

“I am honored and thrilled to receive this award,” Wenger said. “I have loved the challenge of figuring out how to make this writing-intensive course meaningful for the students who take the class online. Frankly, I think I get more excited when their stories get published in the Daily Mississippian or than the students do.”

The Paragon Award recognizes UM faculty members who use technology to transcend traditional classroom instruction. The award recipient receives a $1,000 reward and a trophy. Their names are engraved on a plaque listing previous winners, which is on display in the J.D. Williams Library. Wenger was honored at the Online Design and eLearning Recognition Luncheon on April 15 at the UM Jackson Avenue Center.

The class is a key component of a journalism minor, which is a big help to students majoring in other fields, Wenger said. Several Meek School faculty members have developed online versions of their courses so anyone enrolled in the university can get a journalism minor without having to visit campus. Will Norton, dean of the Meek School, said distance learning courses are crucial for universities like UM. 

“I think distance learning courses are vital, particularly for universities that are not situated in metropolitan areas,” Norton said. “That professor Wenger is so facile at developing a required course that teaches basic skills is a reflection on her talent as a teacher and her understanding and ability to manipulate technology.”

Anne M. Klingen, director of online design and eLearning, said Wenger’s students in the online class receive lots of feedback and attention from her. 

“Deb’s commitment to students is evident; she has an extraordinarily high level of interaction with the students in her online courses,” Klingen said. “Her course is designed so each assignment builds on another, and she gives them guidance and feedback throughout the process. She also requires the students to produce stories that will be submitted for possible publication to media outlets, which motivates and challenges the students to constantly improve.”

Robin Street, a journalism lecturer, also received a Paragon Award honorable mention for her public relations distance learning class. Street’s Journalism 391 class introduces students to the public relations profession, which involves being a communicator for an organization. She said the recognition is greatly appreciated.

“This recognition is especially meaningful to me because when I first heard I was going to teach an online class, I was worried that I would not be able to learn how to build the course,” Street said. “Then I worked long and hard to learn the skills and techniques that go into creating a successful online class. To go from that initial worry to being honored for the class is very gratifying.”

Rich Gentry, assistant professor and director of the Center for Innovation and Entrpreneurship, also was recognized with an honorable mention. Gentry’s Professional Master of Business Administration 613 course is the capstone for the online MBA program at UM. The class helps them connect the information they’ve gathered over the previous two years and apply it to critical decision-making problems.

“For me, being recognized as a member of a cohort of strong online instructors is very meaningful,” Gentry said. “Laboring for hours constructing a blackboard site or meticulously going through each element of the course to ensure that it is intuitive and helpful can be a very unpleasant experience. It is nice that the award committee recognizes the people who put in that kind of effort and encourages them to keep improving.”