My favorite mistake.

 

When I decided to teach online for the first time this semester, I was determined to throw out my old survey class and rebuild a new one from the bottom up. My main design concept was to create a US history survey class that didn’t do what the web does badly, and take advantage of what the web can do well. The class is built around writing. [You can see my two earlier posts about the structure of the course here and here.] I though those of you who are still bothering to read this blog might be interested in how it’s going.

Without getting into too many student-specific details: Not too bad. I am very fortunate to have a very small class. That gives me the freedom to make mistakes with a minimum of embarrassment. It also means that I’m not burdened with too much grading as I try to to read everything I assigned (often for the first time) and continually reach out to all the students who are having trouble with either the technology or the history itself.

I have certainly made tons and tons of mistakes. Most of them have had to do with the syllabus. I spent most of last summer working on that thing, and (inevitably) there are plenty of sections in it where I could have explained what I want better. For example, I don’t think there’s a better tool out there if you want comment on and discuss student writing than Hypothes.is. I had used it a bit last semester, but after I went to a Hypothes.is workshop in Denver a couple of months ago I was absolutely dying to use it more and to use it differently. Unfortunately, I hadn’t used it enough at that point to explain how I wanted it utilized particularly well. Now that I’m using it a lot, I can assure you that that explanation will be much more clear next time around.

Before that workshop, I was actually thinking about dropping Hypothes.is entirely because there are so many different programs or publications requiring separate sign ins that I’m using in this course. Five actually. With respect to an LMS, I’m using the free version of Canvas (at a BlackBoard campus). I’m also using Slack, Hypothes.is, Milestone Documents and an online textbook. Oh yeah, there’s also a class blog (but all the technical work there is mine). Yes, I knew this would confuse students — but I did it anyway, and this has become my favorite mistake, one that I plan to repeat next semester.

Why? I wanted to use the best tools available. Period. These tools are simply not available under one technical umbrella. Moreover, since all of these tools are outside the direct control of my university, I feel happily free of direct surveillance.

More importantly, I’ve come to believe that this kind of student confusion is in and of itself a tremendous learning opportunity. One of the things that my volunteer remote instructional design coach (the fabulous Debbie Morrison) told me while this course was still in the planning stages is that you have to give up some time at the beginning so that students feel comfortable with the technology. As a result, I planned two weeks of tech work and historical activities that didn’t count towards the final grade before the students had to start writing. Of course, some students got the tech instantly. For others, though, it was a longer struggle than I ever expected — perhaps in large part (but not entirely) due to my poor instructions.

Now that the essays are coming apace, I’ve decided that those first two weeks were in and of themselves valuable. While you really can now Google anything about history and get at least an O.K. explanation eventually, getting over a fear of technology is a lot harder to do. Digital natives my Aunt Fannie. [And I’ve known this for years, not just when I started teaching online.] While I never, ever expected to teach this kind of thing back when I was in graduate school it’s now pretty clear to me that this may be the most important behavior I’m modelling in this whole online survey class.

On the other hand, all those professors in whatever discipline who say things in public like “I don’t do computers” are not only sending the opposite message. They really are  preparing students for a world that no longer exists for every White Collar job in America, as well as an awful lot of the rest of them. They’re also doing a terrible job preparing their students for the outside world – even the world of history graduate school these days (should they be so foolhardy to actually choose that route).

No, I’m not telling you to turn all your courses into computer classes. I’ve basically turned my survey class into a kind of English composition seminar, so it’s not as if I’m abandoning the humanities or anything that heretical. All I’m telling you is that the world is changing all around you whether you like it or not, and all of my colleagues in academia really ought to at least make some effort to get with the program.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

4 comments

Contingent Cassandra

Sounds like it’s working. It also sounds like it probably isn’t scalable (which I don’t necessarily consider a detriment, but others might; there seems to be a lot of pressure to teach English comp/intro lit in survey-size classes these days, and hope that some of those classes can be online. I probably don’t need to say that little of that pressure, or hope, is coming from within the English department).

I would hesitate to take on the level of tech support required to work with so many different platforms (though I do want to try hypothesis.is soon). But as long as you can shepherd the students through it all, I suspect it will work. Whether it would work with a larger number of students is, once again, a different question.

Jonathan Rees

Perhaps I prefer if it isn’t scalable…

Contingent Cassandra

As I said, I don’t consider that a detriment. Small classes can be extremely effective in a number of ways; they just aren’t cost-effective (though sometimes I wonder whether they aren’t more cost-effective than generally acknowledged, once one takes things like retention/graduation rates and — heaven forfend! — actual learning into account).

Hey Jonathon, I scrolled back after making last comment and found this post: you are already doing an Orientation, so that’s great! It sounds very similar to what I am doing with my students.

I also do “Tech Tips” that are an extra credit thing for any week of the semester for the students who are really into tech and also for the students who need some incentive/encouragement to be more adventurous with their blogs, etc. Perhaps that might be useful for you; here’s my current list… I’m debating putting Diigo back on there, although I’ve had such a hard time getting students interested in bookmarking. Anyway, here’s what I used this semester:
http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/12763893/techtips

:-)

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