Time has come today.

Long before most of us ever heard of MOOCs, I was taking cheap potshots at online education (and my personal all-time favorite).  A lot of those cheap potshots were accurate with respect to a large number of online courses, but certainly not all of them. I’ve since “met” (in the online sense of that word) a fair number of extremely dedicated online teachers who have created the kinds of courses that put many face-to-face courses to shame.

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?

2. Keep control of my own monster.

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.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Paul Harvey


    First, kudos for the music clip. I always love your clips, but somehow wasn’t familiar with this one. Heck a couple of times I’ve just followed your clips and then forgotten to read the post.

    Second, funny we are following almost exactly the same trajectory here, as I’m gearing up an online course to beta test next summer, and I also recently had to produce a list of onlines and hybrids, and no not because anyone thought there were too many of them.

    I may as well ‘fess up and admit I’ll use Blackboard. IT’s like Microsoft — may be bad in many ways, but it’s so standard here that students will freak if you avoid it, because they are required to use it for so many things that they pretty well know how to do it. Plus the time I would spend devising my own course, I guess I would rather spend on the content. Plus I can use BB well enough to know what to avoid because it’s so awful that it’s useless, versus what works well enough to use.

    That being said, I’m really eager to hear what program you will use for the course, and I hope you’ll update here so I can follow.

    I’m doing an upper-division online (WAr and American Society), so I’m curious to see how students interact with the kinds of readings you would normally do in such as class (several books along with documents, et al). Going to start with doing it as a hybrid first just because I think that might make the beta test more meaningful.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      On music: That’s growing up with Philadelphia album-oriented radio. It’s so much more than just Springsteen! Oddly enough, the only song I ever wanted to use that didn’t have a decent video up on YouTube was Todd Rundgren’s “The Road to Utopia,” but then he was basically a local boy…

      On lists: Do you think Hickenlooper is about to go all Jerry Brown on us? I don’t think Joe will let him call for automated courses, but I can see the whole administration telling all of us Colorado factory schools to get online yesterday.

      On Blackboard: The thing about that freakout is that it presents another teaching opportunity. Websites in the real world are not uniform, so why should online classes be that way too? Yes, you have to spend some time teaching students tech, but in some ways that’s a more practical lesson than anything they learn in history class. I can’t tell you how many thank yous I’ve gotten for teaching digital skills in class that I thought everybody just knew in this day and age. It’s not what I expected to be doing when I went to graduate school, but it’s valuable nonetheless.

      1. Paul Harvey

        As for HIck — who knows, I don’t. These put everything in the universe online crazes come and go periodically, I’ve seen it happen a few times and then come back (Western Governor’s University et al). The demand is real, but it is also limited. I have a colleague who is doing a MOOC that I think would meet all your requirements — main point there is to crowdsource/teach medieval paleography.

        I totally hear your last point. I’m also finishing a couple o’ books (and I know you are too), Chairing the department, and and and . . . so trying to teach myself enough digital history skills to be able to then use and teach it to students is a goal but not sure yet when I’m going to get there.

  2. Michael Berman

    Jonathan, good luck – I love the quote from Rosenzweig & Bauer – I’ve said a number of times to faculty members and others that if the people who truly care about students and the good of their communities are not the ones who respond to the challenges of technology, we cede the ground to those who want to make a profit or achieve political gain, and the results will not be pretty. I admire you for taking on this challenge and I look forward to seeing the results. Michael

  3. Leslie M-B

    I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of course you craft.

    For similar reasons to yours, I just opted to teach my first entirely online course in spring 2016. I’m going with a new-to-me course (History 100: World History) because I wanted to make something entirely from scratch.

    I spent last week in a face-to-face course design institute, and yesterday I started University Extension’s course design and development seminar, which is entirely online, but with face-to-face visits, as needed, with a designated instructional designer. At 8 hours/week for 12 weeks, it’s a substantial undertaking.

    I’m torn on Blackboard. I don’t like what I’ve seen of it (which is not much because I’ve been building my own course sites in WordPress for years), but I also kind of want to try to build a robust course in it, to push it to its limits and see where it breaks down. It would be nice, I admit, to say “I told you so” after giving it the ol’ college try.

    Most interesting about the online course-design seminar: it doesn’t teach us how to use Blackboard or any other technology, even as extension expects us to build our courses in Blackboard. (Thank goodness I now supervise five instructional designers and share an office suite with the Blackboard management and support team.)

  4. pat

    Teaching online is much cheaper than the overseas campus, but UK Unis went overseas early on (and I doubt state unis could justify this? Warwick is openning a Californian campus soon, which is so odd.

  5. pat

    As for how to teach online – raid History MOOCs – you’ll see bad stuff and good stuff in equal measure (enrol in the last week so you can see it all and see student feedback).

    If Blackboard is crap (not seen for years, but course sites looks bad) then just link out to stuff hosted outside it. Lots of cool timeline tools out there for example – we did interesting googlemaps stuff for ww1 (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/tag/interactive-maps/ )

    Also I was in Bodie last week, and I took a pic of the ice house for you. Will dig out and tweet it

  6. Kate Bowles

    Welcome to the dark side!

    One of the small herd of elephants in this kitchen is workload: how students can demonstrate what they’ve learned by creating densely linked materials, while we can keep on top of this dense and much more dispersed output—and manage expectations in relation to comments and responses. The small virtue of the pile of papers for grading is that they’re tightly contained. What’s on the page is what’s on the page.

    This is why otherwise very dull systems like Blackboard exert their appeal: everything you’re looking for is in one spot. Even with as few as 40, a co-authored WordPress environment risks being swamped; looped together, 40 separate blogs and all their associated links risk swamping you.

    I’ve been working a bit in Federated Wiki, which Ward Cunningham has been developing and Mike Caulfield has been promoting as a teaching environment. It’s not very pretty but it really is a simple way students can learn and demonstrate the historical skill of associative thinking. I found it worked for me as a way to sift through early patents for ouija boards while writing short summary notes linked together.

    The strength of writing in Federated Wiki is the way that you have to think ahead about how things you’re researching break into parts and link together.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      Thank you for the suggestion. The big question I have about my currently non-existent online course is “Where is the writing going to occur?,” so I’ll definitely give the Federated Wiki a look.

      I actually have used blogs, but for much smaller classes. Getting them set up would be too much for the forty people I eventually expect here. What I have done for the ten or twelve blog classes is use PressForward to aggregate student work. It’s a WordPress App from the nice folks at George Mason’s CNMH. It started kinda buggy for me, but has gotten better each time I’ve used it.

      BTW, I’ve been sending ten to fifteen students per semester to Reclaim Hosting this way. A year of hosting for less than the price of nearly every textbook? They don’t bat an eye. I just got an e-mail from a student I had last fall who was afraid that her blog would be cut off if she didn’t pay the Reclaim Hosting guys immediately. The fact that she was still using it just made my day.

  7. Matt_L

    I have spent the last three years developing and teaching an on-line survey course about the history of East Asia. A couple of things really helped me a lot:

    1) the tech and education people at our campus center for learning and technology. They have a wealth of information about all kinds of tools, assignments, and pedagogy for on-line teaching. Even better they have lots of models and templates that you can copy so you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Even more importantly they have a lot of experience developing courses and can help you avoid common pitfalls and problems.

    2) Our teaching and technology people are big advocates for the Quality Matters program run out of the University of Maryland. The have a whole rubric and checklist for course design that is based on actual research. Its been very useful for developing and organizing my courses. QM can take on a cult like aura sometimes, but its been incredibly useful and helped me even improve my face to face courses.

    3) Don’t eschew “factual” understandings of history. I think that every professor underrates their own grasp of the factual material and its place in their understanding of history. Asking a history professor about names, dates, events, concepts is like talking to a fish about water. A mastery of names, dates, and concepts makes it possible to make connections between these facts and to analyze them. My intro to East Asia class ended up emphasizing a lot of factual material early on because the students had not heard of it before. I could not rely on them to Google every unknown name or concept that came up in a primary source about Tokugawa Japan. I’d say half of my assignments are really “fact” driven and the students have to demonstrate a knowledge of the basic historical narrative. This was not the way I wanted to teach the material, but its proven to be more effective than my early approach which over emphasized analysis of primary sources.

  8. Clay Shirky


    I missed this in the end of semester crush, but this is great news. Here’s some additions from me.


    Because this medium allows for ‘ridiculously easy group forming’ (h/t Seb Paquet) you can give collaborative or cumulative assignments that the students can work on asynchronously.

    This relates to Kate Bowles’ observation about “how students can demonstrate what they’ve learned by creating densely linked materials, while we can keep on top of this dense and much more dispersed output.” I’d like to second her suggestion of wikis. (I can’t vouch for Federated yet, but Ward did invent the wiki and all.)

    Wikis allow for dispersed linking plus visibility under a single student account, but the also introduce shared work, which is something we often shy away from, because of the assessment difficulties. Wikis are one way to have your cake and eat it too. (“The five of you should create an introduction and timeline to the spread of U.S railroads. Half your grade will be on the quality of the whole, and half on your individual contribution.”)

    That principle of ‘dispersed but visible student activity’ is more general. Sometimes, what you want is a single document, rather than a linked collection. Here, students can use Google Docs et al., which gives you editing plus an ability to assess individual participant’s work. Sometimes you want to let students work alone, but suggest changes to each others work. Github is good for this (though they have to learn a bit of Markdown.)

    Github also lets you set up a shell of something that students should work on, and have each of them (or each group) fork a copy, letting you see how the different versions change, etc. Whatever tool you use, the great freedom here is not having to choose between group work and individual assessment.


    One of the many tensions in online education is that students _overwhelmingly_ respond to the promise of ‘Work at your own pace’, but perform better in a class with schedules and deadlines. Speculatively, the way to split this difference is to make the ‘work at your own pace over spans of ~72 hours, and work at class pace at spans of weeks and above.

    You can help this by making the syllabus say something about order and pace: “Read Horatio Hornblower on the history of ice delivery; make initial notes of questions you’d like to explore. You should have this part done by Monday.” etc.

    Similarly, being consistent in your own digital interactions helps (and I say this as someone who struggles with this.) If you create some consistent time at which you post notes or interactions, it will help the students tune their own expectations about smoothing out work.


    Ugh. What can I tell you about writing that you don’t already know? Students will write 5000 words a week on social media, but getting them to write for your course can still be hard.

    Online writing prompts occupy a spectrum from conversation to annotation. In a purely conversational form, you post something, and students talk to each other about it, moving quickly from your original provocation to reacting to each other. This is hard to get going, but is great when it works.

    Annotation is when you ask a question or put forth an observation, and each student responds to you, but not to each other. These are like mini papers. These are easier to get going (they fit the template of ‘The teacher said I should do this’), but can have the same static feel of being written for no one and everyone. (“Without refrigeration, it can truly be said that the American nation would be missing several of its national forms of dessert. Yet when we ask, ‘What is a refrigerator?’ we can see that…”)

    ConversationAnnotation is a spectrum. Having each student blog, and the others comment is a mix, as is having a debate on a wiki, where there is both content and argument about the content in the same page, something true, _mutatis mutandis_ for Tumblr comments, github edits, and so on.

    In my experience, college writing seems special to students, because they don’t understand the point, and attempts to make it relevant by copying forms they are familiar with, like blogging or journaling, without changing their motivation, produces poor results.

    There is no silver bullet I know of, but in my experience the following things help:

    1. The college paper has become a vague but comfortable form. Using new tools disrupt that. (Everyone knows, without even thinking about it, that writing on Medium, WordPress, and Tumblr feels different.) This brings in questions of tone and style that need some context for the students to navigate.

    Make it clear who the audience for a piece of writing is, even if imaginary. Write a prospectus explaining why Seward should not buy Alaska. Write a guide for your fellow students, explaining which city on the Mississippi is the most vital for commerce, and why. Write me a memo explaining in one paragraph what your paper will be about.

    2. Make it clear when you are asking for formal vs. informal writing. Writing is (surprise!) anxiety-inducing for students, so the are often very focussed on ‘Is this a finished product, or am I thinking out loud.’ I find when I ask my students for a short (1-2 paragraph) description of what they want to do for a project or paper, and I emphasize that I only want it to understand their interests, not to grade it for grammar, I get better responses, and the writing comes in pretty clean anyway.

    3. Even though the system is set up so that we are the people they are nominally supposed to be impressing, I have found, for years now, that turning over the last two weeks of class to making the students read and comment on each others final papers, and having the author reply, raises the quality far more than any encouragement or snarling from me. (Poor grades are a disappointment, but mainly hit extrinsic motivations. Having your peers look askance at something you wrote is embarrassing.)

    So to the degree that the (non-LMS-ish) tools you adopt allow for annotation, editing and comment, you can make that part of the assignment, and take advantage of the fact that that sort of work is in many cases easier and more polyphonic than doing it in class.

    And good luck!

  9. Contingent Cassandra

    I, too, will look forward to following along. While I’ve already taught online by moving my particular approach to a gen ed writing class online, I’m thinking of taking another, lit class, the conception of which is more my own, online. It would be nice to get some support for doing so from various sources at my university, but that does, indeed, raise questions of ownership, among other things.

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