Reflections on Teaching Online

As most readers are aware, this summer I taught my course on the Bible online for the first time. Now that it is complete, I want to offer some reflections on the experience, beginning from what I brought to the course, the preparations, and the actual delivery and implementation.

Prior experience:

I had some prior experience with “online teaching,” but it really was much more along the model of distance learning. It essentially involved students studying on their own according to a course packet that they were given at the start of the course, which happened to be online on Blackboard, but which otherwise was much like the sort of packet one might have received through the mail back in the era of “correspondence courses.” My role was simply to grade students’ assignments. And so teaching an online course in the sense that that phrase now has, with the full extent of current options and opportunities for full-fledged interactivity across a wide array of digital media, was still something new to me.

Preparations:

I was fortunate inasmuch as the idea of “flipping the classroom” has caught my attention several years ago. And so I had begun recording my classes using Panopto, which captures audio plus whatever is on the screen, in my case usually Powerpoint. When I began to develop the online course, I used those recordings, editing them as necessary, and also recorded some reduced lectures in my office, omitting the parts when, in the classroom, I would normally have paused to allow for discussion. I used both “live” and “studio” recordings for the class. Having used some Michel Thomas Method language courses, I knew that it could be pedagogically useful for students to have recordings which included not only the professor speaking, but also students. Many blog readers will have heard some of those recordings which I posted to YouTube and shared here on this blog.

Butler’s Center for Academic Technology provided a development or “sandbox” course where I could try things out and develop the course over the year prior to its being offered in our new Course Management System, Moodle. I found that Moodle actually allowed me to offer something that I had long wanted to implement, namely interactive course materials. I thus set up the introduction to the course as a module which asked students questions and presented introductory material that was customized based on their answers.

I put in place a syllabus, details about assignments, discussion boards with prompts, readings, and additional text to try to cover things which I might simply say in class at some point. I was somewhat anxious about whether I had actually explained, introduced, and otherwise said all that needed to be said, prior to the class starting. The final exam involved a question pool from which a random subset would be offered to each student, from which they had to choose one to answer. This allowed the exam, like the rest of the course, to be asynchronous. In fact, I allowed several days over which students could take the final. While certain components of the course, such as discussions, were scheduled for specific days, students did not have to do them at specific times.

Implementation:

It was rather nerve-wracking to make the course available. The thing that I was most nervous about, other than general technical issues, was discussion, which is normally a major component of the in-classroom version of the course. Would discussion boards be able to provide the same communal learning experience? Would students really engage and discuss in this manner?

That part actually went much better than I could have hoped. There were, as is typical in the more traditional form of the course, a small number of students who were eager to discuss and tended to get things started. Most students joined in, and even though I expected discussions to take place on specific days, students could get partial participation credit by posting late, and also boost their participation grade by continuing the conversation even after the scheduled day.

Now that the course is over, it is particularly the use of discussion boards that has me wondering how I should allow this experience of teaching online to change, transform, and influence what I do during the semester. In-class participation and discussion is so hard to quantify and grade. Through the use of discussion boards, students were writing more than they might have in the in-classroom version. And it was so much easier for me to quantitatively and qualitatively assess participation. In small group discussions in a classroom, a professor cannot hear everything that is said, or really tell who is participating fully, beyond a few clear cases and a larger number of vague impressions.

I might integrate discussion boards during the semester. And moving lecture to outside the class also seems to make more sense. And so the question becomes what I will do in class. Fun activities that work better face to face or can only be done in that setting? Work on assignments and graded projects, along the “flipped classroom” model?

I found the offering of my class online rewarding, and the number of students who enrolled (we had to open a second section!) encouraging as an expression of enthusiasm. I found the fact that a few students chose neither to withdraw nor to participate saddening. And I am wondering how to best use technology that I utilized for the online course not only the next time I offer a course in that way, but also during the regular semester.

have you taught a course online? Taken one? Signed up for but never completed a MOOC? Had online teaching methods and technologies impact your more traditional in-classroom course? Please share your experiences!

 

 

  • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

    Thank you for sharing this insight. It is fascinating to see what works and what doesn’t.

    To answer your question at the end. I sign up for quite a lot of MOOCs through Coursera, but I have never gone through to earn a certificate. That’s because I enjoy listening to lectures as a form of podcast, and am not particularly interested in the assessment side. So I’m sure I show up as one of the many disappointing statistics for Coursera. As more courses run, they provide more material from previous courses, so I’ll have to sign up for fewer courses running live. In comparison, I devoured every online course Yale put up before that, and they were video only with no presumption of any other activity. I think it is important for MOOC organizers to understand that, just as people are now accessing courses in different ways, they are doing so for different reasons.

  • Norm Englund

    I hate graded discussion boards. They’re dominated by two types. Those that think or type faster than I do and those who will barf out anything because they’ve got to get those participation points. In a classroom, the instructor can cut off the gabby (if often fascinating) types and give us slower types a chance to form our ideas. On discussion boards, I’m still reading and contemplating what others have written when the next three points get made. I’m reduced to thinking “exactly” and “I never thought of that” about the erudite comments or searching for any real meaning (which is occasionally there) from those who post just to post. Meanwhile, other students keep typing away. So you “found the fact that a few students chose neither to withdraw nor to participate saddening.” Perhaps they’re in my situation. If so, they’re getting a lot out of the class, even if the discussion board format doesn’t let them show it.

    Graded discussion boards that I’ve seen often have a minimum number of posts per class or week to get credit. I’d like to see them have a maximum number of posts as well. This might be frustrating to the truly gifted, but I believe that they’d adapt to posting only the best of their thoughts. It might be frustrating to instructors who get their ego stroked by the number of intelligent comments, but hopefully these instructors will get over it if they find more students making significant contributions to the discussion.

    • Marta L.

      Norm, I actually do a variation of that: minimum of two posts a week (for full credit) but maximum of two posts per day. They can address more than one person in a post if they like but most don’t do too much of that. And if they want to continue the discussion, they’re welcome to do that – they just have to take a break and come back. I can’t speak to the student’s experience, but as the instructor, it generates more thoughtful, better-quality posts in my experience.

      • Norm Englund

        Marta, that sounds good. It’s been years since I’ve taken an online class, with the discussions a major reason for my avoiding them. I hope your approach represents a trend.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thank you Norm! I’m not sure that I would enforce a maximum per day, but I certainly do indicate that, while more participation can counterbalance another weaker day or boost the overall grade, what I am looking for is consistent intelligent participation.

      I unfortunately did have students who tried to make up all their participation at the end of the course, despite there being clear instructions that participation ought to at least begin on the specified date (I am happy for it to continue beyond that, and to give credit for doing so).

      I am not sure that there is any way to prevent a student having others post what they were thinking before they do. It happens in all discussions, including those in the classroom.

  • Marta L.

    I teach intro philosophy courses and I also have a real difficulty connecting names and faces on the fly. So having students do as much of their participation online seemed like a natural move, for all the reasons you mentioned – it is so much easier to grade this kind of work online than in the offline environment. In a normal semester (not summer school because it’s so condensed) I require students to participate to our online discussion board, either by writing a text comment or, if they’re more comfortable, recording a video and posting a link. One thing I like a lot about the online discussion boards: it really helps people who aren’t comfortable speaking on the fly or just speaking in person at all find a way to contribute to the course.

    You didn’t mention the kind of low-stakes group work where the instructor might want a sense that all students are actually participating in. For example, I have my students lead in-class debates on the texts we read, where one student defends the text and the other critiques it, and then they lead a class discussion on whether the critique is valid. One common problem I have (and James, I’m certain I’m not the only instructor/professor who’s run in to this!) is student A will approach me a little tentatively wanting to give me a heads-up that student B has not helped prepare the presentation. I have no way to verify this or correct for it because I usually only hear about it after the fact. It also puts A in the position to accuse her fellow with very little evidence. This last year I’ve required students to give each other short “progress reports” on a Blackboard forum that only they and I have access to. I don’t grade them on the substance of what they say, but I do keep an eye out that they both seem to be pulling their weight. At a minimum, it documents everything in case there’s a problem after the fact.

    I don’t know that I’d move lecture online. There’s something to be said for people working through a text together as a group. But then philosophy lectures aren’t really lectures so much as guided discussion where I point to important sections and the class discusses what they think is going on there, whether they agree with it, etc. But I think continuing the discussion online, combined with pointing to outside resources online, has greatly enriched my classes. In fact, I’d love to try a class that was more blended. Perhaps a single class meeting a week, combined with more extensive online requirements? I think that would actually work very well.

    But I don’t know that I’d want to go all-online, because of the retention problem you mention. If a student is getting overwhelmed or left behind, I can usually spot this when we meet face to face. They also are more likely to come to me for help if they have to physically face me every week or however often. With online or I suppose any asynchronous situation, the at-risk students are more likely just not to log in or let things build up until the problem is really too big to work through. This is why I am skeptical of MOOCs and even online courses generally as a solution for nontraditional students. They’re the ones who really need to look the professor in the eye periodically and have a brief word after class. It’s much rarer in my experience that a student will come to class and not participate in the offline paradigm, than in a purely online course.

    • Marta L.

      And to be clear, when I say “nontraditional,” I don’t actually mean the student with a career and a family as opposed to the straight-out-of-high-school student. At least in my experience, those are increasingly the traditional, average student I work with. I mean instead students who would never take a class otherwise. In higher education journalism, online courses are often touted as a way to make college accessible to people who would never take a college course otherwise. I’m expressing skepticism that those pupils will actually flourish online. (And yes, I know this isn’t precisely what James was asking. His concern about the student who neither drops nor participates is what called it to mind, but this is a bit of a tangent.)

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Thanks so much for sharing from your experience! My lectures are in fact short lectures to provide a platform and grounding for discussion. Philosophy and religion are probably not that different in this regard.

        I will be giving some serious thought to your comment about group ir collaborative projects before I next teach the class online.


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