More mistakes from my first semester teaching the US History survey online.

My first semester as an online instructor is almost over. Who knows where the time goes?

Curating a respectable online survey course experience comes with a lot of responsibility. In my humble opinion, too many online US history survey courses cling to the vestiges of the traditional lecture model. As I’ve explained here and here, mine is more like an English composition class. While I’ve enjoyed teaching it so far, the whole thing is far from perfect. So in the interests of transparency and helping anyone out there who might actually be interested in following my path, I’m going to try to explain more of the mistakes I’ve made (besides this one), as well as all the fixes that I’ll be implementing when I re-write the syllabus over Christmas break for next semester’s students.

1) Many years ago, when I first started at CSU-Pueblo, I asked an Associate Provost whether he thought I should have an attendance policy. “Do it for their own good,” he responded, and I have mostly stuck with that advice. Of course, an attendance policy makes no sense in the context of an asynchronous, entirely online course, but you still need your students to log in to do the work. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have lamented the fact that when I remind students that there is an attendance policy, the people who need to hear it usually aren’t in the room. Telling students to log in and do the work when they never bother to log in is even more frustrating.

That’s why I’m moving to mandatory meetings (in person or via Skype) during the first two weeks of class, when everyone’s working on setting up the various accounts and programs I require. On a human level, I suspect it’s a little harder to abandon a course when the professor is a person rather than screen presence. On the more practical level, my one question during those meetings is going to be, “How do I reach you if you suddenly disappear?” Yes, I realize that online courses have always had higher dropout rates than their face-to-face alternatives, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to make my course something of an exception.

2) Another typical problem I’ve had is with the discussion aspect of the course. For one thing, it proved next to impossible to get and keep a good discussion going with a very small number of students (although things have been better now towards the end of our time together), even though Slack has worked beautifully for student/teacher communications. Besides getting a bigger course, I think my problem here was requiring too little. I’ve been asking for a question and an answer and a document summary for each two-week unit. In the future, I’m going to up that to once a week, and increase the percentage of the grade that goes for discussion. I also need to recommend the Slack mobile app a little more forcefully, as it has been great for keeping track of those discussions that went well.

3) As part of those unit assignments, I’ve been requiring students to bring in a source from the wider Internet in order to evaluate it. I LOVE the fact that I can conceivably do that well in this format, especially after reading the summaries of that bone-chilling Stanford study about students and fake news. The problem in my class has been is that students don’t have any context to evaluate what makes something reliable. Indeed, the best answers I could get all revolved around the origin of the story. “It’s from the New York Times, of course it’s reliable.” Nobody cares where the NYT was getting its info.

My plan is to move the outside sources out of the week-to-week writing assignments and into the pre-exam section of the course, and try to ban them outright for the bi-weekly essays. Too many people were using Google to write their assignments anyway, and not looking at the credible assigned texts. If I move the wider web stuff to the end of the course sections, then they’ll have weeks of assignments and textbook reading that they can compare their outside sources too. If a reliable, already assigned primary source (or even the textbook) corroborates their outside source, then we can all gain a better understanding of what reliability really means.

4) I’m just gonna come out and say it: Online grade books are shit. Yes, the one in Canvas is better than the one in BlackBoard, but if your grading scheme includes something as simple as dropping the lowest grade of any kind of assignment (as mine does) it is impossible to get these systems to do what you want them to do ad still have a reliable total at the end of the row of columns. And don’t even ask me about converting letter grades into points. It’ll just make me angry.

This whole problem reminds me of why I resented grade books for so long back when I was only teaching more conventional classes. Students would constantly ask me what they’re grade was and I’d say, “Do the math.” The math wasn’t that hard, but they were so used to getting their simple running final grade totals on a platter that response made me look like an asshole. Yet there are advantages to not keeping a running total.  For example, I can do crazy things like grade up for improvement over the course of the semester or even curve my results if I decide that my constant pedagogical experiments proved too much for that semester’s students.

So what am I going to do about this? First, I’m going to try to disable the final grade mechanism entirely so all that students can do is read their letter grades. I think that might work if I assign zero points for each assignment and use a separate spreadsheet at the end of the semester. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to stop using a grade book entirely. Sometimes old school is better than dumb school.

5) Read the syllabus:

If you thought reading the syllabus was important for regular courses, it is probably five times as important for online courses because your students don’t get the benefit of listening to you repeat reminders at them all semester. As usual, some students clearly did do so, but others clearly didn’t.

What to do here? At first I was thinking about a syllabus quiz, but that’s so boring. My new idea is an online treasure hunt that will force students to go back through the other programs I’m forcing then to use. [What is in the crazy online GIF that I embedded in the first response in Slack #random channel? Send the response to me as a Slack direct message.] Stick those commands in random places in the middle of the syllabus (and grade them), and maybe I can kill two birds with one stone.

Yes, there are a few more mistakes that I know I’ve made, but the of Gravatars or my my troubles with groups were in no way pivotal to the success or failure of the class. The mistakes covered here are enough for public consumption. In the meantime, your thoughts and suggestions to what’s here would be much appreciated both by me and my fellow denizens of the CSU-Pueblo Center for Teaching and Learning who are teaching online for the first few times and trying to make their courses better too.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.


Thoughtful, thoughtful. I like that you are trying to use the online course to push students toward better evaluation of online sources. Godspeed! I agree with you about digital gradebooks limiting the instructor’s options. I like the idea of zeroing out those point values straightaway and writing into the syllabus that the online gradebook is for keeping track of grades on individual assignments only. (Maybe an item on the syllabus treasure hunt can lead to a nifty math formula.) I see offline grade calculations as an opportunity to remind students that the best performance in every course will constantly integrate prior knowledge, such as how to turn a raw number into a weighted one with some simple multiplication, or how to write a paragraph. Since you are already teaching writing, how bad can it be to teach a little math? :-) ~ Love your blog! What a pleasure to find your wit and lucidity online. tp

Tara Penry? THE Tara Penry, formerly of Tacoma, Fordham and (most importantly) Walla Walla? Really?

Thanks for sharing your experiences here, Jonathon! I am actually in the midst of a week of posting about grades (sort of about Canvas but really mostly about grading) at my new blog: Teaching with Canvas. Perhaps of use:

Especially in an online course where you can really conceive just what “student work” might mean compared to a classroom, using a super-granular, iterative, student-monitored grading process has worked well for me.

Re: making that initial connection with students, my solution has been to do an Orientation week, yes, a full week, where the emphasis is all on our mutual online presence – students connecting to me, me to them, students connecting to each other. Again, I don’t know if that would be useful to you but esp. since I ask students to use tools and do assignments that are different (probably) from what they do in other classes, that Orientation week is well worth it:

That Orientation week really takes the place of a syllabus. So, instead of having them read a syllabus (wake me when it’s over), I have them DO an Orientation. It works. :-)

[…] Rees said that he had the problem of asking too little discussion and writing in his online classes, which led to weak discussions with small classes. I […]

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