When I was growing up, a copy of the New York Times was on the breakfast table every morning. Even though this is why I feel culturally compelled to maintain my subscription, I suspect I have the same rules that most readers who think like me do: Avoid stories about the denizens of Pennsylvania diners who are sticking with Trump. Don’t click on Bret Stephens’ columns for any reason. Always check the Magazine and the Book Review.
Of course, we college professors understand that the NYT‘s higher education coverage is often terrible, but I always end up clicking on that stuff anyway and then wish I hadn’t afterwards. I’ll assume you already saw this morning’s virus-related example. My first thought upon reading the headline was, “I’m glad that justifiably worried college professors will see that they’re not alone,” but then I saw the “faculty are the problem” framing build throughout the piece. Nevertheless, it was the final two paragraphs of that story that drove me completely over the edge:
“Nine out of 10 are worried,” he said, especially with the recent rise in cases in California. He is not scheduled to teach until spring, he said, but he expects to sit out that course for health reasons and on principle, because he does not think it is fair to promise students something they will not get.
“It’s not possible to replicate an in-class experience,” he said. “It’s a kind of bait and switch.”
If you’re trying to replicate a face-to-face experience in your online class, buddy, you’re definitely doing it wrong. And while the problem of faculty who think this way is nowhere near as big a problem as the coronavirus, at least this is a problem that we have the power to fix ourselves.
Before I started teaching online, I got myself a series of appointments with an instructional designer. Literally, the first thing she told me was not to try to move my face-to-face class online because it wouldn’t work. I took this an opportunity to rethink everything about the way I teach. To blow my survey course up and rebuild from the foundation to take advantage of the online environment.
I understand why when the coronavirus first became a thing, everyone’s first inclination was to just start Zooming their lectures. Now that campuses across the United States appear to be ending emergency remote learning without really fixing the coronavirus problem, if you can use the quality of your online course as a reason to stay safer than you would be otherwise, doing right by your students may just be a matter of life and death. By taking advantage of what an online setting offers you, teaching online will be a lot more like apples and oranges rather than a bait and switch.
If you want to create a good online course, don’t deliver content. Build something useful together instead. Figure out your pedagogical goals; then figure out what tools will help you achieve those goals; then build your course around those tools. Some of them might be in your learning management system. Some of them might be on the open Internet. If you don’t know where to look, there’s probably a center somewhere on your campus that would be delighted to help you find the right ones for you.
When I first started teaching very late in the last century, I specifically remember telling students that the only Internet sources I wanted them to quote should come from the Library of Congress. That’s obviously changed. Particularly when it comes to history, there has been an absolute explosion of high quality sources available on the Internet. There is no reason that your students, no matter what your discipline, can’t contribute to that huge collective pool of knowledge.
I was too old to get a digital humanities education, so instead it was a 2013 JAH article by Michigan State’s Peter Knupfer that opened my eyes: to what’s possible. He created a class around the Civil Rights Movement in Lansing, Michigan with the public in mind:
The students’ previous work in history had been for an audience of one, their instructor, and once that client had been satisfied the students had moved on. When I asked what had happened to those previous papers and projects, in every case the students told me that the materials were either now discarded, or tucked in the recesses of a hard drive or in a professor’s file cabinet. Yet the students were extremely proud of this work, expressing a strong sense of ownership and intellectual investment in what they had done. The knowledge they had gained from the experience was still available to them, waiting another opportunity for expression, but under what conditions and how that might occur was very difficult for them to say. Some indicated that they planned to use an old paper as a writing sample for a graduate school application. No one had thought of self-publishing it, recasting it as a project for a different audience, or condensing it into a piece to submit as an op-ed, blog post, or other form of publication.
Their work product was a resource guide for a library web site.
As technology has improved since Knupfer’s class, I’ve been bringing students to local archives, teaching students the program Scalar and then publishing those projects on the open internet. As long as archives remain closed or unduly risky, I’m going to use Pressbooks to get classes to write large collectives texts. No matter what tool I use, my goal is to have everyone contribute to the mass pool of collective knowledge rather than try to shut the class off from it.
When you build something, you can turn the Internet in your online classes into a benefit from being online rather than something that draws attention from you during your lectures. While learning new computer tools may seem scary, your willingness to explore them together with your students means you’re modeling good behavior rather than depending upon what used to work for you when you were in college.
Even if you don’t end up building something, when you think outside the box, it becomes possible for any professor in any discipline to build a good online class that won’t leave your students feeling cheated in any way.
These days, your life might literally depend upon it.