Home > Teaching, The New Media > Teaching Online: A Report on History 101 after One Week

Teaching Online: A Report on History 101 after One Week

There have been quite a few reports on online teaching in the last month, the most significant of which is probably this massive 2 volume study produced by the American Association of Land-grant Universities (here’s an article about it in the Chronicle).  And, no, I haven’t read it all, but I thought that I should still chime in on the subject as I am teaching my very first online class this fall and have a week of experience under my belt.  (That should provided a different perspective to the extensive and sophisticated study by the AALU).

First things, first.  Here’s a link to my syllabus.  I’d offer you a link to the entire class (and I will make much of the content available as soon as I get the time).

Five points:

1. The prep time was enormous.  I have talked on this blog and over at Teaching Thursday about the time involved in preparing lecture style podcasts.  The 17 podcasts that make up the core of my class took at least 70 hours to prepare.  The smaller, quick hit, podcasts took about 15-30 minutes each to account for an additional 4 or 5 hours.  Lecturing to a notional audience is bizarre and every pregnant pause or misspeak appears more glaring when converted to an MP3.  From the lectures, I also compiled a set of 15 indexes.  Each index was composed of key terms that the student would encounter during the podcast.  These ranged from places (e.g. France or the Levant) to people (e.g. Julius Caesar, Hammurabi) and concepts (primogenitor, subinfeudaton).  Each index took about 3 hours to produce and link.  So that was another 50 hours or so.  Then came the quizzes.  I include weekly objective (i.e. multiple guess) quizzes designed primarily to keep the students honest.  I had prepared a substantial test bank over the previous few years of teaching, but converting them into the proper format to be integrated into Blackboard (our online teaching interface — more on that below) and adding questions to weeks where I did not have an extensive quiz bank took, on average, about 2 hours a quiz.  That’s another 30 hours.  Various other formatting issues and the like took probably another 10 hours.  So at the end of this all I estimate that preparing an online class took around 170 hours.  And that’s for a class that I had already prepped for lecture.  In other words that’s a 170 hours ontop of the basic course construction.  But I’ll admit that I am fussy and to be fair, I was paid extra by my University to prep the class.

2. Lecturing to the void.  One of the key aspects of my lecture style is constant interaction with the class. This is crucial to how I produce and deliver my lectures.  In general, I lecture from an outline rather than a prepared text.  I then adjust my presentation in response to the class.  I suppose I have a rather approachable style, in that students feel quite comfortable interrupting me and asking questions.  So if there are lots of questions, I slow down.  If there aren’t many questions, I ask: “Does this make sense to everybody?”  If there is convincing silence (i.e. no non-verbal cues like looking down or restless fidgeting), then I move on along to my next point or argument.  In my online lecture, there are no cues, no questions, no hints as to how much what I am saying is making sense.  Sure, at the end of a particular week, I might notice that the class discussion board is filled with queries, but by then, the lecture is over.  And, of course, I realize that I can prepare my lectures in ways that allow students to respond in real-time, but these all defeat some of the benefits of online teaching.

3. In the real world, I am on time.  I don’t mind due dates (and, in fact, I often set them for myself and then keep them!).  And whatever I lack in creativity or intellect, I desperately attempt to make up for in discipline (e.g. this blog).  My students on the other hand, seem to be almost resistant to due dates.  Providing a due date almost ensures that grandparents die, best friends get sick, cars break down, computers crash, et c.  Considering the economically and emotionally devastating consequences of due dates, I have generally phased them out of my larger classes.  Or set up a series of due dates to spread the disaster out (and prevent a run on laptops or the horrendous stories that you read in Thucydides about the Plague in Athens where the bodies of deceased relatives piled up the streets because of a universal due date).  In any event, my online class is completely asynchronous; all of the course material is visible and accessible from the first day.  There are two due dates.  A due date for an optional midterm and a due date for the final.  If you take the midterm, you don’t need to take the final and vice versa.  Students can engage the class at whatever rate they want.  It’s not only more humane, but I think (kidding aside) better for the students.  It gives them a better chance to take the class on its own terms.  If you have three exams on one day, it is fair to think that none of the tests reflect accurately how much a student could know about a given body of material.  What that kind of environment tests is how well a student can juggle responsibilities.  An important skill, to be sure, but not as important as learning the material that I present in my class.

4. Less time in the classroom, more time evaluating work.  When I teach three classes a semester, I generally research 10 hours a week per class.  That typically involves 3 hours in the classroom, an hour or so (on email or in person) dealing with students, a couple of hours preparing material, and a couple of hours grading (more when there are major assignments).  Teaching online has allowed my to reclaim about 5 of these hours.  I don’t lecture in real time and I have all my course material prepared and deployed (see point 3).  As a result, I have twice as much time to deal with particular student problems (and with an online class there are many) and to evaluate written work.  Evaluating written work is the most time consuming part of any class that I teach.  Having more time to comment on writing, is a great benefit to me as an instructor.  More importantly, I pass that on to my students by spending more time evaluating their work.  In effect, I lose some of the classroom teaching experiences, but make up for this through having more time to comment and evaluate written work.

5. Finally, (and you knew this was coming), there is Blackboard.  On some levels, it’s very, very good.  The automated grade book and quizzes are wonderful.  It’s ability to handle almost any kind of material from podcasts, to text, to images, to webpages, and video is great.  And, it’s seemingly bug free interface (except on a Mac with Firefox 3.5) is remarkable.  But it’s super ugly.  The interface is inflexible from a design stand point.  As you can tell by this blog, design might not necessarily be my highest priority, but it is important nevertheless.  For example, my class is divided into 15 weeks.  Each week is a folder.  I wanted to arrange these folders into a nice grid so that they’d all be visible at once on the screen.  This is hardly a revolutionary design.  But the clunky, frames-based, interface of Blackboard forbade it.  Or made is sufficiently difficult that I could not work out how to do it.  I would love a WordPress style “template” collection for Blackboard. 

A more significant criticism is that Blackboard is so self-contained that it makes it
difficult to make even parts of a class publicly accessible.  Of course, you can do what I do, which is put large parts of my class on an external server and just link them into Blackboard (and since Blackboard is fugly, you might ask why would I want to make my class visible to the public… yes, not only was the food bad but the portions were so damn tiny!).  As the web is becoming more and more concerned with access, mashups, and convergence, Blackboard remains firmly entrenched in its frame-driven, un-mash-up-able web 1.0 interface (with a host of Web 2.0-like options that are basically what Velveeta is to cheese).  Maybe Blackboard 9 will be better.

Ok.  I promise that I won’t provide weekly updates on my History 101 Online course, but do stay tuned for how it turns out.

Categories: Teaching, The New Media
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