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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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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.

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?