What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – A Brief History of My Own Teaching

These days, I teach classes in two ways — online courses and hybrid courses. Part 1 of the “What I Do” series will look at how I teach online courses.

I have been teaching online since Spring 2007. I was hired on at my current job in 2006. At the time, I was told that I was to develop online courses for the social sciences department. I was given a year at the time, which meant, of course, that I did not think about it for the first couple of months, as I was just trying to get acquainted with a new place and a new job. I had never taught online before, had never taken an online class before, and had never even seen an online system before. So, I was a complete neophyte in the realm of online education.

Of course, my decision to not think about it for the first couple of months would not last. In November of my first semester teaching, I was told that a decision had been made to move the start date from Fall 2007 to Spring 2007, so, instead of about 10 months, I now had 2 months to get an online course ready. I still had not seen an online course or had any idea what it meant to teach online.

I dove in as fast as I could. We were using the Moodle LMS at the time, and I scheduled a training session with our LMS administrator shortly thereafter. The training was great. I understood Moodle, and I was reasonably confident that I could develop in it at a fairly general level (at least well enough to get started). However, I came out of that training thinking that it was great, but that I still did not know how to teach an online course. The LMS training was great at the nuts and bolts of navigating the LMS, but I still had no idea what online pedagogy was. I did not know how to organize an online course, how to create online assignments that were appropriate for a course, or even how an online course should differ from a face-to-face course. And, as I found out shortly afterwards, that was the end of the training offered at my college. I was told that if I wanted to know more, I needed to go and ask others around the college who taught online.

As a very new faculty member with few connections on the campus (and an office that was isolated from everyone else, as I got the only space open at the time, which was behind the stage in the fine arts center), this was not an easy thing to do. I asked around and got a few examples. Some were bad (just have the students write a few pages on each chapter in the book and give them some multiple-choice quizzes — this online teaching thing is a breeze!) and some were ok (some discussions, quizzes, and exams). However, none really stood out to me as models that I wanted to follow. Later I would learn that there was a whole group of people who had been teaching online well for years, but I would not be introduced to them until later.

Thus, I was left on my own. I had about one month left, and I needed a course to be able to present when the spring semester opened. I followed the one consistent piece of advice I had heard from all over the place — make your online course as much like your face-to-face course as possible. I would never give that advice now, but, over a decade ago, that was the standard. That is what I did.

So, this is what my first course (the second half of American history) looked like:

  • My lectures were from lecture notes that I had typed up. I uploaded them, as well as my PowerPoints and other supplementary material that I used in my face-to-face classes.
  • I had the students read 1-2 chapters a week. I was told I needed to hold them accountable for this, so I had them submit a weekly writing assignment most weeks on what they had read. I have no idea now what those assignments looked like, but I am sure they were fairly basic response papers.
  • I had four week-long discussion forums on primary source documents that were in the weeks that I did not have weekly writing assignments.
  • I had three exams that were made up of multiple-choice and true/false questions.

I mirrored this over the summer in developing the first half of American history course. And thus, my career teaching online courses took off.

How did it go? I actually have no idea. Students finished the course. Students got grades. But at that time, I was not much for self-reflection on courses, as I was always just moving on to the next thing. I also had a raging addiction to World of Warcraft that took up much of my spare time, leaving me basically moving in a world without real feedback or intellectual time to think about what I was doing.

For the next several years, I moved along, adjusting things here, moving things around there. Probably the most significant thing I did in year two of teaching online was to record my lectures as audio podcasts. I still use those same podcasts today, and students still compliment me on them, which I take to mean they are both still relevant and were done reasonably well.

By year three of teaching online, I had kicked my World of Warcraft addiction and had started to come face-to-face with the realization that, while my online course was fine, it was nothing special. Over the next couple of years, I started learning online pedagogy, pushed my department to a textbook that had good online tools, and redesigned my course.

My online course today looks nothing like what it did in 2007, and that is a very good thing. I have grown as a professional and now have a course that both satisfies me and is relevant to students and their success. I certainly will not say it is perfect, and I hope to get to a point in this series where I can start talking about changes I would like to make. Up next in the series, I will talk about the structure of what I do today and then will break out the various assignments that I use today.

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What I Do – Introduction

I am starting a new series here to revive the blog. This series is going to go through what I do as a community college history professor. I am doing this both to share what I have learned over the years about teaching and being an educator and to seek advice and ideas from others regarding what I do and what they do.

This series will look at the two different types of teaching that I do — online and hybrid. I do not teach a traditional face-to-face class, but that does not mean that this information would not be relevant to that format as well.

I will note that I teach history, and so some of this will be relevant to history, but I am going to try and keep much of it at the more theoretical/pedagogical level rather than in the granular workings of teaching American history specifically. The other thing to note is that I teach at a community college in Texas. This may also become relevant as I talk about what I do, why I do certain things, and why I am required to do certain things. When relevant, I will note this.

I hope that you find this interesting. I will try to have a new post every couple of days, and, if I get going well, I will actually set a schedule for the posts. I am not going to commit myself to anything that specific yet, as I am just seeing if I can get back into blogging at this point. Please comment with anything you find interesting, things that you do yourself, or any questions you have along the way.

Thoughts on Teaching – The Bane of Summer Productivity – 8/3/2016

The summer is almost over.  I am a little over halfway through my summer classes, and I feel like I have not done even a quarter of the things that I had planned to do.  This is common for everyone that I see who has a long break like this.  We all have big plans and then get so little of those things done.  I think it’s the dilemma of high expectations.  We expect so much of ourselves in a break, but we fail to take into account the reality of how much time just normal day-to-day stuff takes.

I was asked by a friend how my summer was going, and all I could say is that it was busy.  Just taking this week as an example, I have two boys doing summer band each day from 7:30-4, I have another daughter in an all week summer camp, the other daughter is in summer Montessori three days a week and has yoga one night of the week, and I’m teaching this week and going away to a conference in San Antonio this weekend.  And that’s just one week.  I feel like I have just been running around making sure I get done what needs to get done, while also getting my work done and getting the necessary relaxation for the summer as well.

And that’s where the summer has gone. I had grand plans.  Now, with what time is left, my main goal is to finish out my summer classes and be prepared for starting the fall semester. If I had set that as my goal from the beginning, I would have been very happy, as that would have been a very reasonable and achievable goal.  As it stands now, I am frustrated at how little I have gotten done.  Maybe we should all just not be so hard on ourselves and set more realistic goals and expectations.  If I can just start back in with the fall semester being ready for everything and being reasonably relaxed and clear of mind, that should be enough.

I’m going to keep telling myself that it is enough.  Can you repeat that mantra with me?  Reasonable expectations are good enough!

Thoughts on Teaching – Summer School – 7/14/2016

I have started up my summer session as of yesterday.  Summers are low impact overall, with 50 students in two online sections for the next 5 1/2 weeks here, and the first two days here have largely matched the low-key aspect so far.

As I think about it, I see a lot of value to the summer session for both professors and students.

For students at the community college level, a full load of classes can be quite challenging, as they tend to have at least one job, take care of family members, and have many commitments outside of school that traditional, four-year students do not have.  As well, many are coming in with academic deficiencies that need remediation and many struggle financially to pay for college, books, housing, and transportation.  Many students taking 12 to 15 hours in a long semester struggle with these problems, and yet their reliance on financial aid makes ties them to a full-time schedule.  As well, many students really do not have an idea of what it means to be a full-time college student, as opposed to a high school student, and this shows in their struggles, especially in the fall semester.  In the summer, students can take a maximum of two classes in a summer session, and most just take one.  This allows them to concentrate in on one course and do the best they can in it.  I will say that my grade distribution, the quality of work, and the number of students successfully completing the course are much higher in the summer than in a long semester.  I find students to be generally more focused and able to work around other commitments better with the lower pressure from fewer classes.

From the professor side, as well, the smaller number of classes and students (as an example, in a long semester, I generally teach six sections and have around 200 students) can be a nice break and time for recovery.  The long semesters can wear down even the most dedicated instructors, whereas the summers allow for a more relaxed teaching and grading pace.  Because I have required office hours in the summer (10 hours on campus per week in the summer), I am almost forced to get things done in a way that can easily be left behind in more unstructured summer time.  I plan on preparing my fall semester and reworking some of the material while also catching up on my own professional development reading that I never seem to have time for otherwise.  I can feel productive without feeling overwhelmed, which is something that is hard to achieve otherwise.

What do you think?  Are you or have you ever taken a summer course?  Do you teach in the summer if you are in the profession?

Thoughts on Life – Summer Balance -6/22/2016

I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on.  I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session.  What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.

I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts.  For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer.  I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them.  And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to.  Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting.  I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there.  There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session.  Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.

One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com).  I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to.  I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job.  The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better.  I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far.  The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education.  The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education.  I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university.  I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students.  I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.

Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall.  I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now.  I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one.  I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now.  I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme.  It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together.  So, that is what I am thinking about.

Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update.  I’ll be back for more later.

Thoughts on Life – Work-Life Balance – 6/14/2016

So, hello again.  Yes.  I know.  I have not been on here in a while.  In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014.  Here it is, the summer of 2016.  So, what happened?

Life.

We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house.  In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time.  I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time.  I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about.  We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job.  With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was.  However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working.  I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities.  That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life.  And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.

Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision.  I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them.  I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students.  That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time.  Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well.  After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance.  While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile.  Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.

In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change.  I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times.  It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working.  As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well.  However, the overall effect has been good.  I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home.  As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love.  I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books.  I consider that a success as well.

Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically.  I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance.  I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog.  I would like to take more continuing education-type courses.  I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book).  I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods.  And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much.  So, we shall see how it goes.

I guess you will see this result directly.  If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching.  So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind.  Also, do you have any thoughts on this?

Thoughts on Education – “The Advancement Problem” – July 13, 2015

I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while.  In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.  I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority.  And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read.  I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.

The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education.  So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.

The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed.  It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.”  In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones.  I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring.  This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college.  I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring.  When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years.  Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure.  Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts.  Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.

We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration.  There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation.  They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards.  I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now.  There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up.  I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me.  The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little.  I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.

And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about.  My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire.  I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is.  And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey.  Over and over.  If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years.  I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay.  We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year.  And, I will continue to teach the same classes.

Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey.  We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line.  We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here.  And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best.  Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway.  So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways.  I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats.  To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do.  But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.

I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again.  This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.”  Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end?  Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire.  And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours.  I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say.  But what I worry about is burnout.  I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair.  However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.

What I don’t have are any solutions.  I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life.  But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year.  So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close.  I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.

Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?