What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – Teaching the Content

I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party this past weekend, and a parent asked what I do. When I responded that I teach history at a community college, he proceeded to tell me about his own experience. He came to this country as a senior in high school and had to take American history to graduate. He then went off to college and took American history there the next year. His comment was that he thought it was a waste of time to take college-level history, as it was just a repeat of what he had been taught in high school. That further convinced me that my approach to teaching college-level history is heading in the right direction, as I know that my class is nowhere near just a repeat of what the students would have gotten in high school. In fact, the top comment that I get in my discussion forums is how the students have not heard much of anything that I teach before coming to my class.

That brings me to the first part here of what I do in the online teaching environment for history. For a long time, teaching history has been focused around the narrative, with the feeling that, if you do not speak about every single detail of American history that you can squeeze in, then you are failing to do your job. I hear that from my colleagues here and elsewhere that, every time we are asked to do something besides teaching the narrative, we are taking time away from what we are supposed to be doing. When I get to Part 2 of this series, talking about my hybrid courses, I will talk about a course where I have started the break with the narrative approach to history. However, for Part 1 here, my online course is still largely a narrative course.

What makes my course different from a high school course is: What narrative are you teaching? My students have to cover the material in multiple different ways online, getting the narrative from multiple sources and perspectives.

In the old style, the narrative came from two sources — the instructor and the textbook. The instructor presented the “true” content for the course, and the textbook covered all the cracks where the instructor either did not have enough time or did not present on topics he or she wasn’t all that interested in. These two sources largely matched in approach, and student success in class came in how closely they could match the instructor and textbook approaches on their multiple-choice and essay exams.

I have so many different perspectives in my class that there is no single source of information. As well, throughout all of it, I do not insist on a coverage model at all, as we will have some material that we will spend a lot of time on and others that we will not. At the base, here are the sources that my students have:

  • My lectures (presented in both a Word document and as audio podcasts)
  • The textbook (1-2 chapters each week)
  • 7-10 primary sources with detailed assessments on each through the semester
  • Crash Course US History videos from YouTube
  • 10-20 additional resources on the web each week.
    • These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
      • documentaries
      • podcasts
      • newspaper articles
      • magazine articles
      • journal articles
      • slideshows
      • online museum exhibits

The only part of the above that is not required are the additional resources, but I know that students are reading them because of what they talk about in the discussion forums (which will be a later post). I will have one student post what they find interesting in a resource, and then another student will say that inspired them to read/watch/listen to the resource. Then, they post about it, triggering another couple of students, and so forth.

It is a lot of material, but, of course, in an online course, I can ask for them to do that material and hope they do it. I try to have assessments tied to all of it except the additional resources, whether it be in textbook quizzes, assessments on primary sources, or broad-based essay questions that cover the lectures and Crash Course Videos. The evidence overall shows that students are definitely accessing some of it, with the better students accessing all of it.

I feel that the coverage that I give them works well, as I hear from them regularly. I have a lot of avenues for students to talk to me about their progress in the course, and they find the material manageable and interesting, which means I am meeting the goal I am looking for.

As I move forward in developing material, I do want to do more.

  • First, I am looking to redo my lectures. They are the ones that I first developed in teaching American history almost 15 years ago, and I know they are dated. They are largely still on the coverage model, and updating them would allow me to have the lectures be more of a deep dive into the interesting material for the subject and allow the textbook to remain as the one source still tied to the coverage.
  • Second, I would like to diversify my assessments to focus more on the skills that I am looking for students to learn rather than just their memorization of the material. I have been fairly successful so far in doing that, but I know I could do more (which I will discuss in the assessment part of this discussion of what I do).

For right now, I am moderately happy with my content coverage, and, if I could do that first one, especially, I think I would have my online history course in a very good place.

Do any of you who read this teach history or another introductory subject? What do you remember from when you took introductory history?

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

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