featured Teacher January 2016

Professor Bahiyyah Muhammad


Assistant Professor of Criminology Bahiyyah Muhammad received CETLA’s 2015 Teaching with Technology Award at the 1st Annual Teaching with Technology Conference on January 29.  Judges from the Teaching, Learning & Technology (TLT) Committee selected her because of her innovative use of technology to bring together prisoners and students in her course Inside Out: Crime and Justice Behind the Wall.   Dr. Muhammad was uniquely equipped to develop such a course.   Before joining Howard’s faculty, she directed a prisoner degree-granting program and taught distance-learning courses.  Moreover, she continues to serve on the National Research Committee for the national  Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program launched by Lori Pompa in 2003.

Like other Inside-Out courses, Dr. Muhammad’s course sought to transform the education of learners by connecting those who were incarcerated “inside” with those who were located “outside.”  Thus, her course offered Howard students living outside the prison an opportunity to venture behind prison walls:  The students visited a federal prison in West Virginia each month, and fifteen even spent their spring break living at the prison for a week.  However, Dr. Muhammad enhanced the model by incorporating technology that enabled the students and prisoners to communicate and collaborate when the students were not on the prison grounds. 

To bridge the gap, Dr. Muhammad deployed four different technologies:

First, Dr. Muhammad harnessed Howard’s Blackboard course management system to help Howard students gain a deeper understanding of the prison and its population.  She posted more than half of the course materials online.  These included documents, videos, and hyperlinks to demographic information for each prisoner, information such as the length of sentence, crime committed, location of the crime, age, gender, race/ethnicity, and parental status.  Posting such information online ahead of time facilitated more informed discussions during class. 

Second, Dr. Muhammad signed up for a free 30-day GoToMeeting account so that she could merge the prison and campus rooms into one shared virtual classroom.  She chose GoTo Meeting because (1) it could be accessed via any mobile device, desktop, or telephone, (2) it could record each session, and (3) it satisfied the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ security concerns.  The technology permitted 15 “inside” learners to engage in voice and video dialogue with 15 “outside” learners during a class meeting. 

Nevertheless, Dr. Muhammad selected Skype for conducting office hours with the incarcerated and on-campus members of the class.  Not only was Skype familiar to the Howard students (all already held accounts), but it allowed them to reach out to Dr. Muhammad whenever they needed to talk through a problem. 

Finally, Dr. Muhammad adopted GroupMe for group messaging.  A free group-messaging app that works on any device, GroupMe furnished the class with a private chatroom.  The app proved especially helpful the days that students were required to visit the prison.  Via GroupMe, they could communicate in real-time with Dr. Muhammad, classmates, and prison officials about road conditions, public transportation, or emergencies.

Clearly, Dr. Muhammad’s instructional technologies played a pivotal role in the course.  Without such technologies, the prisoners could not have received weekly instruction since the prison was five hours’ drive from Howard’s campus.  Without such technologies, the HU students could not have interacted with prisoners from the safe confines of the classroom, gradually reducing their anxiety about their on-site visits. Moreover, without such technologies, Dr. Muhammad would have found it more difficult to provide students with the background information, updates, and immediate feedback they needed beyond the classroom.

Student feedback confirms that Dr. Muhammad fulfilled her objective “to create a fluid learning environment that is sparked in the classroom and continued throughout the lived experience of each student.”   Indeed, the experience transformed lives.  A pretest revealed that nearly two thirds of the Howard students had learned about the U.S. criminal justice system from media.  As a result, many held stereotypes of the incarcerated.  Yet three quarters of the students said there was no need to understand prison life through the eyes of the prisoners.  However, at the end of the 15-week course, on the posttest students reported a “transformation,” “a new mind-set,” an “unbelievable experience.”  As the following quotes from focus group interviews reveal, these outcomes were realized by both sets of learners:

“Inside” (Prisoner)

“Outside” (HU Student)

“I was caught completely off-guard by how powerful Inside-Out has turned out to be.  This program has been a learning experience unlike any other that I have had the privilege to be a part of, and it has absolutely had an impact upon the way that I view the world.”

“I didn’t expect to learn so much. I didn’t expect to grow and change as a result of the process….As I reflect on the power of this course I am awestruck and humbled….”

“I will be applying for my degree when I get out of here.  I never saw how exciting college was.  Before this class, I thought it was boring and just for nerds.  I know now that education is power.”

“People in prison are humans.  We are all humans.  Learning about crime and justice from the media leaves out a very important aspect.  The human aspect.  You really can’t believe everything you read in a paper or see on television.  This class changed the way I view my life and the world I live in.”