Some thoughts on fully-online history teaching

2014 February 25
Computer gone haywire, from the movie Desk Set (1957)

That feeling when Blackboard just isn’t doing what I want it to.

I haven’t posted here in a while, largely because I’ve been busy boot-camping myself on fully-online teaching. I’ve been learning a lot! I’ve taken advantage of the professional-development training I have available, both for online teaching and from our campus teaching-and-learning center. I have staff support from a wonderful instructional designer who helps convert my course designs into clickability on Blackboard. Still, there’s always a gap between theory and application. I haven’t really known how to write about I’m doing, largely because I’m still up to my ears in figuring it out.

In general, historians have been very skeptical about the idea that we can teach our discipline well without face-to-face, real-time classroom interaction. Well, skepticism or not, I’m doing it.

Part of my teaching assignment involves at least 1 fully online course with an enrollment cap of 50 each semester. Usually it’s the US-after-1877 survey, which is a writing-intensive core-curriculum course; I’ve committed myself to revising and teaching it each semester until I feel like it works fairly well. (I’ve taught an upper-level US-since-1945 course in a fully-online format also, but that was my first semester, and it will need revisions before I teach it again.) Over the past 3.5 semesters, I’ve been practicing a certain amount of reflective writing, which is useful for my own self-improvement purposes but should never appear in public.

I’ve been stymied about how to write about what I’m doing on the open web. Some of what I’d like to be doing is sharing my assignment designs— both so others can learn what I’m doing and so I can get feedback about how to improve. Let’s face it: historians’ professional associations don’t give the same kinds of credit to teaching-related issues as they do to research activities. There aren’t many established scholarly genres for writing about pedagogy, unless you’re carving out a niche as a history-education specialist (training future history teachers). And, as I’m learning, online teaching is almost purely an art of course design.

In a typical college history classroom, if you’re in your first few years of teaching, there are some common approaches for moderately-sized courses.

  • You can rely on interactive question-and-answer for walking students through a set of primary sources while practicing core skills: sourcing, close reading, contextualizing, corroborating.
  • If you’re teaching the course for the first time, you can outline a series of lectures in your syllabus and then write the actual lecture notes, just-in-time style, throughout the semester.
  • You can put 3 paper due-dates into your syllabus and trust that you’ll write the paper assignments themselves as the course progresses.
  • If there are exams in your course, you might not write the exam questions until you know what you’ve actually lectured on and what kinds of essay topics these students will be prepared to tackle.

These might not be (shall we say) best practices, but they’re certainly time-honored early-career experiences for teaching at the college level. If you’re designing and teaching a fully-online course, all of those approaches are, to put it mildly, bad ideas. To wit:

  • For the whole thing to work well, you need to know where you want your students to go by the end of the semester, in detail. What skills and topics do you want your students to master? These are course-level learning objectives. Every single thing your students do has to relate back to one of these items.
  • You need to be able to itemize, in relatively close detail, what you want students to be learning each week (aka weekly learning objectives).
  • You need to have a good idea of how to get students to understand these topics/skills using active-learning approaches. Assigning readings and video lectures and evaluating students using exams and/or papers isn’t necessarily going to work.
  • You need to understand the practical psychology of writing discussion prompts for online forums that students can carry without your intervention, and you need to have grading rubrics that will encourage them to practice the behaviors you want them to practice. (Unless you’re teaching a small enough number of students that you have time to interact with them on the discussion forums during the week. That’s not the case for me.)
  • You may or may not be able to lecture for your online course, but lectures aren’t a very efficient way of delivering information, and recorded lectures require lots of time to do well. Moreover, giving talking-head mini-lectures via YouTube is not the same as being able to ask the room a question and then write up their answers on the board to tease out the complexities of an issue.
  • And teaching asynchronously is a whole different ballgame than having a scheduled time each week where you’re all in the same web-based teleconferencing system. (I teach asynchronously because most of my students work 20-40 hours a week, take other classes, and have family responsibilities too.)
  • You also need to write pretty much all your assignments before classes start. (Ask me how I know… but buy me a beverage first.)

This is just the beginning. There’s a lot more floating around in my head:  thoughts on what works and doesn’t, curiosity about how to get more learning out of students with less grading time on my part, grading rubrics as a tool for time-management sanity… the list is more-or-less endless. I want to share what I’m doing, and I want to get feedback from professional peers about how to do it better.

How do I write about what I’m learning? What can I say on the open web about the interesting parts, the frustrating parts, the complex-institutional-politics parts without making any… career-limiting moves? I’m never sure. I’d love to be providing full text of my assignments via Github for adaptive re-use by other faculty, but I have no easy way of limiting access to keep them away from current and future students. Add to that the fact that I’m still busy revising a major writing project, and you have a good set of reasons for my relative silence here. But suffice to say: I’m doing something hard and interesting, and I’d write about it more if I knew what genre(s) to use.

What do you want to know about teaching history in fully-online formats? How can I make my experience useful to you? Where should I look for models of how to write about these topics? I’d welcome your thoughts.

2 Responses
  1. Jack permalink
    February 27, 2014

    I teach history fully-online, and in person at a community college in Minnesota. Have you considered a private social-network for sharing thoughts, such as Glassboard? It would require a public invitation from you, say on a blog, but then you could control who could see your material.

    Similarly, the project management cloud software Basecamp just went free for educators. It would still require you to add people rather than have folks self-select, but it gives you more options.

    Reading this entry I sense you are two years ahead of me in your use of technology, but a couple years behind me when it comes to online pedagogy. So, I’d be open to chatting. All the issues you’ve raised above I’ve seen and addressed, so a dialogue might be useful for both of us.

  2. Edward O'Neill permalink
    March 19, 2014

    Having designed and facilitated six or so online courses for a number of years, I have my own take on this, which I hope will be useful to you.

    When the course is online, and the course is not pre-built, you are not teaching.

    You are designing and then facilitating.

    Teaching is (in Weberian terms) charismatic. You, the professor, hold the information. You plan the curriculum: what’s read. You plan the assignments. You communicate expectations. And you grade all that. And manage it as it happens. And support the students.

    When ‘teaching’ moves to a different platform, and is no longer “live,” it ceases to become charismatic and becomes bureaucratic.

    That sounds bad but isn’t always.

    Online courses have what’s called an “instructional designer.” This means that someone plans how the material will be learned. That is the new role in which you find yourself.

    The most basic unit of work for the instructional designer is: the learning objective. What will someone *do* in order to *show* she has learned? (And to what standard or degree?)

    When we teach, we tend to think of knowledge as something occult or hidden. When we read their papers, we know if they know or not, and to what degree.

    But when the learner is remote, and we are not simultaneously present with the learner, we have to think more in terms of *behavior*. What kinds of performances would demonstrate learning? And how will these abilities be acquired.

    The shortest answer is: through smaller, simpler performances of the same type.

    We do it face-to-face: write a short paper, then a longer one. Draft something, get feedback, then revise.

    It’s this kind of structuring and process that carries over to online courses.

    So one set of skills might be: recognizing arguments, identifying evidence, debating the relevance of the evidence, identifying the scope of the argument, developing counter-arguments, supporting arguments, etc.

    And these behaviors might be practiced on different platforms in different combinations: in discussion forums, blog posts, short essays, even multiple choice questions (“Is this or is this not an argument?….”)

    This breaking down of a larger performance into smaller, preparatory performances–like rehearsals for a big show–is called “scaffolding.” My own little contribution on the topic is here:

    Basically, if the learners need to do something big, complex and difficult, start small simple and easy.

    Break down the final performance into its dimensions. Invent activities (of gradated sizes) to practice those dimensions. Find platforms for those activities (quizzes, forums, etc.). Develop simple gradated criteria for these smaller activities.

    The last point (simple gradated criteria) allow you to communicate expectations clearly and to simplify your own grading process.

    Finally, remember that every online assignment is fundamentally a reading test: if they can’t understand the directions, they won’t do the assignment correctly, and the opportunity for them to learn what you intended is lost entirely.

    Therefore it’s always a good idea to repeatedly use the same assignment types, highlight any changes to the procedures or criteria, and give students multiple chances to do the same types of work. Good students will improve. Poor students will at least get a chance to practice the appropriate skill, despite not having understood the directions the first try (or two).

    Sorry for such a long “comment”: as you’re experiencing, it’s a complex subject, and more than one thing needs to be said. I limited it as much as I could. “If I’d had more time, I’d have written shorter letter.”

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