Eric Ianni, a computer science instructor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, always intended to be a computer scientist, but took a long, winding route to get there.
As a child, he dreamed of being a video game programmer. “I was fascinated that you could take ones and zeros and make something complicated like Super Mario Brothers,” Ianni said. The path seemed simple: he enrolled at Virginia Tech as a computer science major in the early 2000s during the dot-com bubble when tech companies were growing quickly and jobs were plentiful.
But while Ianni was still in college, the dot-com bubble suddenly burst. Seeing the glut of now-unemployed computer programmers, Ianni switched to another of his passions, opting to earn dual degrees in classical studies and history. After graduation, Ianni worked as a high school Latin teacher in Virginia, a path he followed for four years.
Though he loves Latin and teaching, Ianni wanted to make an even bigger impact in the world, so he joined the Marine Corps, becoming a mortarman at the age of 27. During his service, Ianni would suffer an unfortunate injury, forcing him to switch career paths yet again.
It was at this point that Ianni decided to go back to school and get that computer science degree he had started years before, and Oregon State’s online postbaccalaureate computer science program was the perfect fit. Because of his injury, Ianni was unable to sit, stand, or drive for long periods of time, so online learning provided the ideal solution.
The flexibility of the program would allow Ianni to complete the program in just one year, so in 2014 Ianni enrolled at Oregon State using the G.I. Bill.
His prior experience as an educator led Ianni to volunteer to be a peer mentor. “Since I had prior experience and enjoyed being an educator, I decided that I wanted to give back,” he said.
He also wanted to provide students some extra help, so Ianni took the initiative to create supplemental materials for the courses. The program’s leadership team took notice of his efforts and asked Ianni to serve an instructor. After obtaining a master’s degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, Ianni applied and was hired as an instructor at Oregon State in January 2016.
Ultimately, teaching computer science has been the perfect role for him. “I’ve always found that no matter what I’ve been teaching, I really like the mentoring role,” he remarked.
As a result, Ianni doesn’t just teach courses. He makes sure to spend as much time as he can helping students, even if there are 250 of them enrolled in a single class.
“It’s not just the problem at hand,” he explained. “I like to talk to students how they can go about setting themselves up for success for their career as opposed to setting themselves up for success in an individual class.”
While an online experience might cause learners to feel isolated, Ianni works hard to make sure his students feel part of a community by using several channels of communication including Piazza, Slack, and Canvas. “I have an army of TAs and undergraduate learning assistants, and I stress to them before every term that we must greet every student by name and get to know something about them,” he added.
This helps everyone to quickly get to know each other and soon, students start answering questions posed by their fellow classmates. An added advantage to this approach is that it benefits everyone involved.
Not only does a student get the answer to a question, but when they ask for clarification about class material, one of their peers can explain it in a different way than how it was originally presented. “The student who answered the question also benefits because the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else,” Ianni said. In addition, other students in the class are likely relieved to see that they are not alone and that others have the same questions they do.
True to the program’s online roots, it might not surprise people that Ianni also teaches remotely. He and his wife and two children live in Linden, Virginia, where they raise chickens and bees. Their closest neighbors are 300 yards away.
Ianni’s path to his current career has truly come full circle by combining his experiences and passions.
“I’m a big believer in online education,” he stated. “I would not be sitting here today if it weren’t for online education. I couldn’t uproot my family to pursue an on-campus degree, and an online education allows people like me who have disabilities to get a degree and have a career that makes a difference.”
— By Gale Sumida
Eric Ianni’s Top Advice for Online Students
- Slow down. Do not speed up the lectures you’re watching. Pause the video. Rewind the video as often as you need to make sure you understand the material. Don’t just download the transcripts and just read them without watching the lectures.
- Take notes by hand. Taking notes by hand, rather than on a computer, helps you synthesize the information. During a lecture, you don’t have the time to write everything that an instructor says; you have to train your brain to pick out the things that are important and as you’re doing that, you’re storing that information in your brain.
- Over communicate. If you’re struggling or have a problem, let the instructor know. They can be of help or accommodate your circumstances.
- Get to know your professors. Students often ask for recommendations for jobs or graduate school from their instructors, but if the instructor doesn’t know you, they’ll likely decline. The best way is to become an undergraduate learning assistant. Other ways include going to office hours and being active in the communication channels for your classes.