From what I can tell, here are the traits of these kinds of courses:
1) They do not try to duplicate the face-to-face experience. Instead, these courses try to emphasize the kinds of online experiences that can only be done online.
2) They make sparing (if any) use of learning management systems. Instead, these instructors have tried to find tools on the open web that will help them teach the kinds of skills that they want them to learn.
3) These courses are very labor-intensive. Rather than use the online experience as a way to automate tasks that face-to-face instructors must do themselves already, the best online instructors actually make work for themselves.
4) These classes are relatively small. Why? See 3) above.
Last week, I made a decision, ran it by my department chair and, of course, she was thrilled: The time has come today for me to offer my first entirely online course.
OK, maybe not today. It’s gonna take me a while to blow up my 1877-Present history survey class and put it back together again online right, but I think I can get one up and running by next summer (so that I can beta test it) and get the whole thing running up to speed in Fall 2016.
Why do this? After all, it’s not as if anybody’s making me…yet.* Did you see that article in The Nation about the University of Arizona? Here’s what I think is the key paragraph:
Tuition has gone up almost everywhere, and in some places—particularly community colleges and lower-tier four-year schools—class sizes have increased and course offerings have been cut. At flagships like the University of Arizona, however, the effect is more complicated, and in some ways more insidious. Instead of fulfilling their historic mandate to democratize access to elite education for their residents, these schools are relying more heavily on out-of-state students who can pay higher tuition. (In the school year beginning in 2014, in-state tuition at the University of Arizona was about $11,000, while out-of-state tuition was $29,500.) To lure students who can afford to pay that bill, campuses are investing in resort-like amenities, even as they cut academic departments and financial aid. Thus universities meant to ameliorate social inequality are instead exacerbating it.
So what we’re left with are two kinds of schools; those with their own pinkberries and those without. [Read the article and that’ll make sense.] Or to put it another way that doesn’t require you to read that whole article, in the near future there’ll be two kinds of universities: factories and country clubs. I work at a factory. Most of you reading this probably do too.**
Fortunately, working at a factory need not be a cause for despair because you can still work at a factory where you control the shopfloor. By doing so, you can ensure that it is one of the best darned higher education factories available for students who can’t afford to attend a country club.
In that spirit, rather than wait to find out that my shopfloor has gone online and all my students have followed it there so that they’ll have the time and flexibility to actually finish their degrees, I’m going to move early and stake a claim on the US survey course I currently teach in the non-virtual world. If I don’t do this, two things will probably happen a) Somebody far less-qualified than I am will do it anyways and b) eventually I won’t have any face-to-face students left to teach.
And my online survey class is going to be good. From what I know now, here are the things that I know I’m definitely going to do with this course:
1. Emphasize writing and reading over specific factual knowledge.
I’ve actually been headed down this path for a while now. I wrote this all the way back in 2011:
After all, you can look up just about any historical fact you want on Google and get a pretty decent description of what you’re inquiring about if you’re at all discriminating about picking the web pages where you get your information.
I’ve been teaching American history for over fifteen years now, and even as my lecturing skills have gotten better – much better, actually (and I’m not bragging, it’s just that they were pretty awful to begin with) – my student’s ability to remember historical facts has gotten much worse. This pains me as I believe in the tired old saw that a basic understanding of US History is essential to good citizenship. However, in life you really can Google anything. Why not in history class too?
We’re a Blackboard school and I hate Blackboard. It’s big, it’s clunky it’s full of things I don’t need and it doesn’t do what I want it to do well at all. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll use the gradebook, but that’s it.
It’s not just a matter of principle. It’s a matter of educational quality control and a matter of self-preservation.
3. Stick with Milestone Documents.
Primary source documents (many of which I suggested), an online textbook (which I edited) and great customer service all for $19.95. Need I say more? I’ll also make ample use of all the resources available out there on the old WWW, but you gotta have a home base, don’t ya?
[Now Neil, old buddy, is there any chance that you can get me a gradebook by next year?]
4. Cap the Class at 40.
That’s actually the cap for our face-to-face courses. So it should be easy to keep that online too. If it’s not, I can always go back to face-to-face courses, right? And if I keep my stuff off of Blackboard nobody will be able to teach my course in my place.
As part of my reading for the digital history class that I’m debuting this fall, I’ve been going over Clio Wired, the late Roy Rosenzweig’s article collection published by Columbia. In 1994 [1994!!!], he and Steve Brier wrote:
“Although a Luddite resistance to technological change may seem appealing at times, we would argue instead that it is worth engaging with these new technologies in an effort to try to insure that they indeed become badly needed tools of empowerment, enlightenment and excitement.”
Anybody who wants to help me with that last part, tell me what else I need to know about teaching online (especially teaching history online) in the comments, my Twitter mentions or just send a tired, old-fashioned e-mail.
* Indeed, just while writing this post I got an e-mail from the dean asking for a list of all online and hybrid courses taught in our department. Ten bucks says they’re not compiling that list because they think we have too many of them.
** Do you have a pinkberry (or similar upscale frozen yogurt place) on campus? A lazy river? A climbing wall in the gym? Answer “no” to any of those questions and congratulations, you probably work at a factory.