How do you build a respectable all-online US History survey class?, Part I.

On Friday, Chronicle Vitae published an essay I wrote in which I argued that tenured professors ought to start teaching online (especially if they hate the idea), since they have the power and the knowledge to do it right.  I’ve been planning my own effort to put my money where my mouth is for a few months now so I thought I’d share exactly where I am.  But before I do that, I need to extend many thanks to my very own volunteer instructional designer, Debbie Morrison (whose extremely helpful blog is here), for her excellent e-mailed advice.

My first decision was to jump in the deep end.  What does that mean?  Yesterday morning, I was tweeting with Claire Major of the University of Alabama (who literally wrote the book about teaching online). She noted something that I had already figured out for myself:

That’s why I’m going to go entirely Lendol Calder on this thing. In other words, kill the fact memorizing entirely since you really can Google anything – at least anything that might end up on an American history survey course. There’s also the basic security issue, I’m afraid that the only way nobody can be sure that you aren’t a dog on the Internet is to set up a mini police state so I want to structure the whole thing like an extended writing seminar rather than a series of lectures punctuated by quizzes and tests.

We have fourteen-week semesters at CSU-Pueblo. With all the outside the LMS apps I want to use, I imagine one week of nothing but dealing with technical issues, ten one-week modules and three weeks where students will have nothing to do except write longer essays that will be akin to papers. A post will go up on the class blog every Monday morning at 9 am. It will start with a single broad essay question and a link to a very short intro video on YouTube about the topic.  Yeah, I hate the idea of taping myself at all [I was on a frickin’ BBC radio documentary in February and I STILL can’t work up the nerve to listen to my own voice], but I saw that study that says online classes with intro videos from the professors get better results and I can’t think of a better way to personalize the course. As Debbie noted:

Students love hearing the prof of the their course—one prof I worked with said his online students liked him far more than his F2F students.

Of course, this will also make it harder for anyone to replace me…[He looks around in an extremely paranoid fashion to see if anybody is watching].

Then students will have to work their way through a series of primary and secondary sources. For example, each week will include a few Milestone Documents for them to read because Milestone Documents is the best primary source collection I’ve ever seen (and I suggested most of the ones used for my time period myself), then some links to documents, pictures and videos around the web.

I’m also thinking of using a textbook for the first time in a long time. While this is very un-Lendol Calder of me, it’s not really a textbook in the traditional sense of that word. [The best thing I can do is point you to this post by Lisa Lane, which I’m pretty sure is all about the exact same thing.]

Yes, that’s a lot of reading. Yes, students can’t possibly get through it all. I actually don’t want them to get through it all. I want them to have enough historical content at their disposal in order to write one 400-600 word essay per week related to that week’s historical subject and (more importantly) I want them to navigate the enormous amount of reading together in groups using Slack so that they can find what they need to answer the question that I asked them however they see fit.

I wrote about Slack here, but for purposes of this post let’s just say that it’s structured the way that every single LMS’s discussion page SHOULD be structured, especially since it allows students to break off into groups. With this class capped at forty, I’d establish arbitrary groups during tech week and then let them change up over time based on their experiences. Another tool related to the content that I think want to use is something called which allows for web annotation, but I haven’t tested it yet. To substitute for the Dropbox-like functions in any LMS, I want to try what Kelli Marshall is doing. I’ve begun experimenting with it already. The only thing I’d use from our actual LMS is the grade book.

The broadly-worded essay question is what will tie all this together.  I imagine something designed to force students to take off a chunk of what they’ve read and digest it into a manageable argument. I originally planned ten weekly modules with one 400-600 word essay each, but Debbie strongly suggested switching some of those assignments out to something that doesn’t involve writing. I’ve had an animus towards PowerPoint assignments since the global arm of our university system “bought” my US 1945-Present syllabus and turned my research paper assignment into a PowerPoint, but I wouldn’t mind doing something with curation for at least a few of those weeks.  [I guess I better figure out what Pinterest is soon, huh?]  The “midterm” essays would be twice the size of the weekly essays and include material from earlier modules. The final exam essay would be 1200-1500 words and cover the whole course.

Under this possible future. most of my work in the class would be answering questions, helping students find arguments for that week – possibly reading drafts for people who can work particularly fast. I would also participate in discussions about the material on Slack or in the annotations about what any particular issue happens to mean. And, of course, I’d be grading and commenting upon completed essays or whatever other assignments I require. With forty people that’s a lot essays, but then again I won’t have to stand up and talk at forty generally uninterested college students for three hours per week.

So what do you think? Does this sound nuts so far? Debbie responded to those questions with, “Ambitious, not nuts.”  Really, what do you think?  I’ve got lots of time to make changes before next fall, and I’ll try to report them here in subsequent posts.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. David Zwart

    We met at your “book talk” at the AP US history reading this summer. This framework for the course is how I am running my face-to-face world history course this fall. I assume that I can translate the framework online and perhaps even get better results. But I have found in the f2f version that students need lots of guidance in close reading, contextualizing, etc. . . I would imagine my videos for an online class would be both overview intros to the essential questions as well as tutorials on close reading of primary and secondary texts.
    I’ll look forward to more posts about your course design and implementation.

  2. Shawn

    This sounds very good. I’ll be interested to hear how Slack works out for you. I’ll be using it in my own online course, ‘crafting digital history’ in the winter, so I’m hoping to learn from others how best to use it. Is your course underway now?


    1. Jonathan Rees


      The online survey hasn’t started yet, but I’ve been testing the apps in other courses. Slack is absolutely incredible, especially for group work. Follow that link (if you haven’t already) to see my explanation why.

  3. Matt_L

    Sounds cool, but the first thing the students will want to know is how you are going to grade the weekly essays. As an instructor, I’d worry about the mechanics of the feedback and assessment, How much time you expect to spend evaluating 40 weekly essays and what sort of feedback you plan on giving the students? Will it be individual feedback or are you going to give collective feedback? Are you going to get them that feedback before they turn in the next essay so they can improve?

    On a related note, are you assessing their discussions in Slack? Even grading weekly writing assignments is a ton of work.

    I’ve taught an East Asia survey class on-line three times now, twice as a compressed summer session class and once during the regular semester. The course prep was time intensive, but I also ended up spending a lot more time giving feedback on assignments than I had expected.

    I think the most exciting part of your class is doing away with the LMS. I’ve had to use my school’s LMS as part of the design criteria, but I am starting to look around for other tools to get away from it. The more features they add to D2L the worse it gets.

    Good luck!

  4. Contingent Cassandra

    My thoughts are along the same lines as Matt_L’s: in terms of delivering a high-quality course in an ideal world, this sounds excellent. In terms of creating a manageable workload for you (and thus a good experience, in terms of both content delivery and timely feedback for the students) under real-world conditions, I’m not so sure. Maybe if you had 15 students, and didn’t have 3 other sections (you’re still on a 4/4, with no reduction for doing this, correct?), it might be possible, but even with straight rubric-based grading and group feedback for the essays, I don’t see how you’re going to do it. Remember, even rubric-based grading/group comments generate questions, and, unlike in a face to face class, you’ll probably end up answering them one by one, via email (even if you have some sort of group question-asking area, grading questions are likely to, and probably should, end up in email, because FERPA).

    Is there any possibility of having students produce group products (perhaps with identifiable individual parts) rather than individual essays? I’m not much for powerpoints, either, but perhaps individual contributions to a timeline or annotated map? (The neatline plugin of Omeka allows for this, but it’s probably not the easiest or most direct route). I wouldn’t want to grade even those weekly, however.

    Just for reference, I teach 4 sections of writing-in-the-disciplines each semester, usually at least 2 of them online (or 2-4 of them hybrid). Because the course is already project/activity based, it’s actually not that different online (I’d face challenges more like the ones you’re facing if I taught a literature class online). Still, I think there are some parallels in terms of workload, and what’s manageable. My students produce one major individual essay (a review of the literature) and one group project (an investigation of how research and writing work in their discipline) in the course of the semester. Each project has many smaller pieces that make up the week-to-week work of the class, and add up to the eventual whole. Now that I’ve set up the assignments and discussion board prompts (which still require some semesterly updating/reposting, I spend most of my time responding to those pieces (often after students have provided first-line feedback, with my guidance, to each other). That seems like the equivalent of keeping up with, and providing some credit and feedback for, what your students will be doing on Slack; I can’t imagine adding grading of weekly essays to that load (though I can imagine the less-formal group work feeding into maybe 2 or 3 formally-graded individual projects, or twice that many formally-graded group ones).

    tl; dr: you really do have to figure out your feedback/grading schedule at the same time you’re figuring out the assignment sequence, and make sure that the two work together, and are realistic for both you and the students. Students need to get feedback in time to apply it to the next similar graded assignment; even if you can grade all one week’s essays in under a week, that probably adds up to biweekly rather than weekly essays (or alternating two different kinds of assignments), since the students need time to absorb, question if they feel the need, and then apply the feedback to the next task.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      We’re actually back to a 3-3 this semester and hopefully until the end of time. As I’m basically the only person in the entire College of Humanities and Social Sciences who’s contemplating doing this, I’m hoping this will actually serve as a form of insurance that they won’t do that to me again even if disaster strikes. We have a new provost since those days and he’s a friend. I’m hopeful.

      Nonetheless, of course you’re right about the load. That’s why I’m gonna take Debbie’s advice about finding something else besides writing that students can do with the material. This piece by Lee Bessette makes me wonder about collective editing through as an assignment by itself. Apparently, Milestone Documents is going that way already and I just offered to Beta test for them. Reading your very worthwhile comment a second time now makes me think about making better use of groups (at least during module weeks) in order to lower my grading load and make the whole thing seem more real world. After all, group work is a lot more common than individual 500-word essays outside academia.

      So much to think about…headache coming already.

  5. af

    I am currently teaching an online course on US religious history, and it’s going surprisingly well. However, I have found that the open-ended questions I asked about the primary source documents I assigned were great for the better students but less useful for the ones who struggle more with the material. I took a survey about 6 weeks in and a number of them asked for “guided reading responses” – one of which I had designed for the Maryland Toleration Act, which is somewhat difficult to read for our undergrads. It took a while for me to put together and was tedious to grade, but I’m trying to develop a few more of these.

    I also do simple weekly reading quizzes based on 10-20 question reading guides on their secondary source (textbook-ish book), which seems to have actually gotten them to read it. My initial plan was to use this to keep them honest, but I have quite a few nontraditional students who are genuinely interested in the material, and I think they’ve gotten a lot out of this part of the class.

    The Library of Congress has some great online exhibits that I’ve tried to take advantage of (including one on Jewish American artifacts), and I have also sought out other digital archives that have been fun for the students to look through. Professional blogs – in my case, Religion in American History – help them to get a sense of the field, so they are doing some summaries of those as well.

    If I teach this again – which I probably will, since it’s enrolling a lot better than most of our upper-level classes do – I may look into better systems, but the simple discussions on D2L have been okay. But I need to be convinced that the investment in tech knowledge is worth my time.

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