Tag Archive | online classes

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?

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.

Thoughts on Teaching – Snow Days – March 5, 2015

So, here we stand.  Our third snow day in the last two weeks.  All of them in late February to early March in Texas.  Yes, that is unusual.  It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester.  Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms.  Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.

I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school.  Still, it poses interesting challenges.  I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.

The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material.  For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like.  Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal.  And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class.  Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected.  My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic.  We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed.  If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments.  Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do.  There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone.  I do have some safeguards built in, however.  For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete.  So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week.  As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material.  What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material.  Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them.  One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class.  The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now.  That is a long time to carry over material.  The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material.  We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power.  Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost.  As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material.  What’s the effect of all of this for the students?  They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class.  But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover.  By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period.  Sigh.  I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.

The other side is my personal experience with the snow days.  It seems like an unmitigated good.  A day off from school.  No travel, no obligations.  But it never works that way.  Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal.  The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off.  But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work.  The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing.  An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel.  I have the day off, why should I work?  I have to force myself to get something done.  For example, take today.  If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30.  I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11.  I would have taught from 11-12:15.  Lunch until 1:30.  Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30.  On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork.  The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong.  But I have a lot to do.  I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation.  I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them.  But I find it hard to get any real work done.  That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time.  Isn’t the human brain wonderful?

The solution to this?  Treat a snow day off from work as a work day.  Or, treat a day off from work as a day off.  I have to choose one or the other.  If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.

Those are my thoughts on it.  What do you think?  Do you enjoy unexpected days off?  Do you get anything done?  Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?

Thoughts on Teaching – Pre-Semester Preparations – 1/10/2015

Well, here we go.  Another semester is set to start, with just a little over a day left until we get going.  I am teaching six sections this coming semester, three online sections and three hybrid sections.  This last week has been the preparation time to get ready for the semester.  We were worried over the course of this holiday break because we were updating our learning managements system (LMS), and so there were some cautions about doing too much ahead of time in case there were problems.  There turned out not to be any problems, but I scaled back most of my plans for possible changes.  In fact, with my online class, I am simply redoing the course I did last semester, meaning that there were mainly just some changes of dates and a few minor updates.  Otherwise, that course is ready to go.

I have put together a few more changes for my hybrid class.  They have finally gotten my hybrid classes scheduled correctly here, as they are set for meeting only one day a week.  In the past, I have always had them scheduled for two days a week, and then I met for one of those.  Now, I have one class on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and one on Thursday.  The only negative to that, is that I used to meet for both of the days in the first week, which gave me two days to introduce the class.  Now, I have to get that introduction done in one day.  So, I have developed some introductory materials to show the students how to access my online material and the textbook material.  I used iBooks Author to develop the material, making a .pdf file that is set up like a book and includes both images and links.  I am hoping this provides my students with the information they need in an attractive and accessible format.  If I knew how to attach a .pdf file to this post, I would put an example here, as I am pretty proud of what I did.  It is something new I am trying out, and it worked well.

On that same note, I have put together similar presentations for my hybrid class weekly assignments.  In the past, I had very basic assignments for the students, such as having them watch a documentary, write a response paper, and then discuss it.  Over the years I have been doing this, I have come up repeatedly unsatisfied with my students’ preparation and background knowledge.  So, I have beefed up the activities, providing background information, helpful links, stronger and more involved assignments, and more detailed response papers.  I want the students to be more prepared and to have more engagement with the material.  Again, if I had the ability, I would post one of these up, as I do feel that the iBooks format works pretty well for the material and presentation.  I am not planning on publishing these to the Apple Store, but I do like the ability to create something that looks nice and can be exported in a format that is generic enough for anyone to use.

So, that is what I have been working on.  I have all of the dates in my classes adjusted to the Spring semester.  I have all of the Course Outlines done.  I have the online classrooms ready to go.  The first five weeks of the online course are visible and ready when students get in on Monday.  I have the first three weeks of the hybrid course ready to go, and I hope to get the fourth work done tomorrow and have that be my preparation point to get the students in on Monday.

How about you?  Are you teaching a class this semester?  Are you taking a class?  How ready are you for the semester?

Thoughts on Teaching – Third Week of Online Classes – 9/14/2014

This has been a mixed semester so far.  I really thought it was going to be a rough one after the first week, which I referenced in my last post.  I got everything cleaned up from my first mistake of having the incorrect link up for my classroom, and things have been fairly smooth since then.  I always forget from one fall semester to the next how clueless about how to work online many of these students are in their first classes at college.  Many students get shuttled into online classes as they work well with any schedule and are often perceived as easier than face-to-face classes.  Yet, many have had no experience with online classes and really have trouble in those first weeks of classes.  So, I end up doing a lot of technical support and repetition of information to the students as they try to grasp what they need to do.  Luckily, by the time you get to the third week, most of that is behind, and the rest of the next couple of weeks is mostly maintaining the course and keeping it going.

What is interesting is how these first weeks are the same every semester.  If I could somehow get it through to all of my students, I would set up a couple of things:

  1. The reaction I get from students who are taking their first online class with me is that my class is complicated and hard to understand.  By contrast, any student who is coming into my class from other classes (and often the same students who were confused at first by the end of the semester) comments on how well laid-out and straightforward it is.  I wish I could tell those students more directly that they will get used to it.
  2. Read the course outline.  Again, read the course outline.  And, read it again.  Have a question?  Read the course outline.  Have a specific question?  Look in that section of the course outline and see if I have answered it already.
  3. If you have a question that you can’t find the answer to, let me know as soon as possible.  Do not wait until the second or third week to ask me a question that you had from the first moment in the class.  By then, assignments will have come due, and it will be harder to fix things.
  4. Come by and talk to me if you have any questions.  I can show you how everything works, and it often works better to show you how things are done rather than tell you.

You might think, well, why don’t you just say these things.  The issue is that I do.  In fact, I say them over and over.  However, here is an example of what I am up against.  Shortly after I wrote my last post, I got an email from a student.  He said that some students (including him) were have trouble getting to the correct assignment and I should really tell the students about the problems there.  If you will remember from my last post, the issue was that I had two contradictory links on how to access the textbook site in the classroom.  I discovered this on Tuesday and corrected it at that point.  So, I am getting this email about a week later telling me that I really needed to tell the students about this.  As I then pointed out to that student, I had sent out 4 different announcements to students addressing this issue.  I had also answered two questions posted in the questions forum in the class about this issue.  I had answered about 20 different emails from students about this issue.  So, when this student emails me telling me that I had not done anything to inform the students about this problem, I just had nothing left to say.  And, this is the problem, no matter how many times I say anything, I can’t say it enough to reach every student.

So, what really is the answer is that I just have to keep my cool and remember that every student is new to this.  Their problems are unique to them and they do not have the eight years of online teaching experience behind them.  Unfortunately, this is not something I am particularly good with, as I get easily frustrated after dealing with issues over and over everyday.  I just have to remind myself over and over about this.

The good thing is, by the third week, this section of troubleshooting and explaining is pretty much done.  Some scattered issues with my online classes will come up, I’m sure, but things should be fairly stable until the first set of big assignments are due.  I can’t say as much for my hybrid classes, but that will be another post.

Thoughts on Teaching – First Week of Classes – 8/30/2014

Well, the first week of classes is drawing to a close.  I went from not at all ready as of the middle of last week to making it through the first week with minimal problems.  I can’t really complain about that, as I know many people have many more problems come up in the first week of classes.  

I found out about midway through last week that I, once again, have a double overload this semester, with 7 class sections on my schedule.  I did not ask for the seventh, and I had specifically said that I did not want a 7th class.  But here I am, teaching this semester with 2 hybrid sections and 5 online sections, and there’s not much I can do about it at this point.  Luckily, I only have two actual preps, as I am just teaching sections of each of the halves of the American history survey.  

It has been a bit of a rocky start so far in what should be my least problematic sections, the online ones.  I had recycled the class from last year, and I neglected to remove one link that had the students going to the textbook website.  I did not realize this until the second day of classes, meaning that I have a bunch of students who initially got into the wrong section (the one from Fall 2013).  So, I have had to deal with the issues of getting everyone to the correct place, which takes time and patience. It would be easier if students actually read the announcements that I posted rather than me having to deal with each of them separately, but, considering this was the most problematic thing I had to do in the first week, I really can’t complain too much.

I’ve got the online courses fully ready to go for the semester, with just having to open up each thing as it needs to open.  Of course, I also have to grade the things as they come in, and, since I am a grading masochist, that is three papers and three essay exams from each student this semester in my online sections.  The hybrid classes are planned out for the first 5 weeks.  I set up the class last fall, and I am doing things a bit differently this semester, which is why I can’t just run things as they are.  I have actually added more class meetings where I will be having activities for the students to do.  That means that I am actually doing some real creation of materials and assignments.  Thus, in the time that I was working to get ready for the semester, I had time to get the first five weeks ready.  So, over the next four weeks, I will be preparing the rest of the material for the later ten weeks.

So, this semester, I am teaching 195 students.  Of those, about 45 are high school students.  We are teaching a lot of high school students in dual credit sections, and almost all of mine are in my online sections.  There are 4-5 in my hybrid sections, but the 9:30 in the morning start makes it hard for many more high school students to make those classes.  

Thoughts on Teaching – A New Semester and a New Beginning – 1/31/14

It seems like I am always starting blog posts off with an apology for not having written in a while.  Since the birth of our daughter 15 months ago, spare time has been harder and harder to come by.  However, she is settling down into a good routine, so I hope to do better this semester.  I had hoped, after the post in November to be back on track, but shortly after that, we had a major family health issue come up that pushed out non-essential items.  Now I think things have settled down, and I hope to be going again with my blog.

So, here we are, with a new semester (three weeks in but, hey, what can you do about that).  I have, yet again, been given a double overload in classes, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester for the second semester in a row.  I have 4 online sections and 3 hybrid sections.  My online sections are running as they always do.  I am in roughly the 5th year of my current configuration of my online class, as so they can largely run without much effort on my part.  That is one of the truths about online classes, that they are very involved and difficult to get going, but they can run pretty easily once you get them done.  However, if you have followed my blog so far, you will see that I am rarely satisfied with how my classes are going.  My online class is far overdue for a reworking, and I hope to start thinking about it this summer.  I have made some changes over the last 5 years on the margins, moving assignments around and changing a few things here and there.  However, I think it’s about time for an overhaul soon.  And, the model that I will use for my overhaul are my hybrid classes.

I have started getting my hybrid class really going in the direction that I like.  I am in the second year of working with this new hybrid format, and I am adjusting and working with the class as it moves forward.  Following what I worked with last, this semester, I have moved into a model of weekly work and a long paper at the end.  There are no exams, although I do have some chapter quizzing going on.  The big part of the grade (about 45% overall) is discussion based, both online and in-class.  Then, to keep the students on track, I have weekly, one-page response papers.  I have returned to this model from what I did the first year, because I tried not having response papers last semester, and I found that students did not do the work if I did not hold them directly responsible.  So, I am hoping that this semester they will do more of the work I expect them to do outside of class.  I don’t have any great desire to grade weekly papers, but I want my students doing the work, and their grades will improve (hopefully).

As I have this hybrid model settled in well, I think I can use a lot of the ideas from this format in my online course.  I would like to move beyond the exam model and include a lot more activities and discussions.  Right now, the online class is primarily made up of reading lectures and the textbook and taking quizzes and exams.  That is exactly the format that I have moved away from in my hybrid class, and I would like to move the online class beyond it as well.  I hope that I get it together relatively soon.

Anyway, that’s a good start for the semester.  Wish me luck.