Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Thinking about teaching online II

I am once again revising the way that I teach online classes, a process I previously documented here. For a while, I have been doing discussion-based online classes, but I have cut more and more from the course, and now it has become a very simple thing. I’ve slimmed the class down to a single imperative: do you know how to ask and how to answer historical questions about the period this class covers? If students can do that (which means at least a familiarity with a variety of different skills and knowledge), I will feel like I have done my job.

When I first started teaching online, I had students take weekly quizzes (always multiple choice, because that’s what works for online quizzes), and I never felt like they really learned anything from it. All it proved was that students were familiar enough with the textbook chapter to look up vocabulary terms before the time ran out on the quiz. I never really liked giving quizzes in the first place, online or face-to-face; they have always felt punitive, a way to force students to do the readings. Being a historian isn’t learning an unconnected series of facts (though of course you do have to know things to do history). But like a lot of people, I gave quizzes because I took quizzes when I took a history class, so that’s what you do.

I cut quizzes from my online classes two years ago, but I think I was letting that mentality influence my approach to the online class. Last fall, my on-campus American history classes wrote review essays (of The Marrow of Tradition and Why We Can’t Wait, both of which I recommend for use in the survey), so I had my online class write the same essays. Great! Except, no, not great. Those books worked as a way to bring in and discuss primary sources and how we understand what we know about history and all sorts of other history-class-type-questions. But access to primary sources isn’t a problem in an online class: If you have the internet, you have access to more primary sources than you can ever use. In my online classes, we already look at primary sources every week, so adding these two books to what we were doing broke the rhythm of the course. It wasn’t clear how the assignments belonged to the class or furthered its learning goals, because they didn’t. I know very well that an online course is different from a traditional one, but it’s so easy to let what we’re used to doing creep into teaching in new environments, even when we’re being careful about how we do it.

I think students do the best in any class when it is clear what the point is. Why are we reading this book or asking these questions? It has been evident at times that students did not understand the point of discussions, for example, because they did not understand how a particular essay or primary source related to the larger historical context. To make sure that students understand what we’re doing, I have taken what I think is the most important single part of being a historian and made it the entire class.

So, what does the course look like now? It’s all built around asking and answering historical questions based on our textbook (The American Yawp, which includes some primary sources) and some outside readings, videos, and additional primary sources I provide each week. Except for the first week (which is about how to ask a good history question and the famous Five Cs), students are required to write one good history question and answer it, in the form of a shortish essay. My history students are writing weekly essays. Since you can look up anything on the internet now, there are very strict requirements that this be their own words, because writing something in your own words means you have to understand it (ideally), and cited. In addition, students have to respond to three other students’ posts, expanding on their questions and essays and discussion in some way. The essays and discussion are collectively half the grade (30% questions and essays, 20% discussion).

I have done something similar to this in the past, but all due once a week. This made discussion worse, since frequently a big chunk of the class wouldn’t post until the day of the deadline. So, this semester, questions and essays are due on Wednesdays, with discussion taking place by Fridays. This means slightly less time is potentially available for discussion, but I found that most of the discussion takes place in two or three days anyway; it’s hard to sustain conversation much longer than that. Will students be confused about multiple weekly deadlines? I hope not! There is always a bit of a learning curve in the first couple of weeks of an online class; my expectation is that everyone should understand the groove by the end of week three.

Jonathan Rees said that he had the problem of asking too little discussion and writing in his online classes, which led to weak discussions with small classes. I think I had the opposite problem: I have in the past asked students to write three questions and answer three other students’ questions; this resulted in some students writing hurried answers, and it led to a scattershot discussion which saw lots of questions but few good answers. My hope is that fewer “starter” posts will result in more substantial conversation. I also hope that the responsibility of having to answer their own questions will lead to be a more thoughtful formulation of each student’s question.

In addition to the questions and discussions, two exams make up the other half of the grade. The fun part: These exams will be, as much as possible, made up of the questions that the students themselves wrote; I will be going through the discussion each week and pulling out the best questions and the things students are the most interested in to make up a study guide for the midterm and final exams. I may have to provide them with questions if they miss important stuff, which would (hopefully) be a learning opportunity about how to ask the right questions about historical material. But the goal is to get to a situation where students know how to ask the right questions about historical material, and then the tests determine how well they know the answers to those questions.

I am trying to boil my online classes down to the essence of history as a discipline. This semester, I have all the work laid out ahead of time, but if it goes well, next time I will only lay out the first half and give myself the option (should the students be ready for it) to add more sophisticated assignments in the second half. That means more work for me, but it would be enjoyable work.

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