Online Teaching Part II: Ten Items to Help Guide a New Online Art History Course
Recently the New York Times published “The Trouble with Online College,” in the opinion pages. The article highlighted two specific problems with teaching online: retention and lack of contact with professors.
It noted that this is particularly problematic at community colleges, where students “are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes.” The last two sentences particularly struck me: “The online revolution offers intriguing opportunities for broadening access to education. But so far, the evidence shows that poorly designed courses can seriously shortchange the most vulnerable students.”
Having just completed the design of my first online art history course for community college students, I read this op-ed and wondered what advice I would give to someone designing their first online course. Here are some of my ideas.
1). Start preparing for the course at least three months in advance
Online courses are often poorly designed. This is in part because the professors creating the courses do not give themselves enough time to develop the materials. All of us have, at one time or another, decided to teach a particular subject at the last minute, and we scratch together a few scribbly notes ten minutes before the class and, somehow, it works. This really does not work, however, for an online class because the nuances of how you might explain something in person are lost. And it isn’t possible to put together a full voice-enhanced power point presentation of a whole textbook chapter in an hour. Of course I had many of my power point presentations already created, but they just weren’t good enough for an online version of the course. More details were necessary – arrows were needed to point to details; captions needed more information; I needed to add my voice to the slides. You may decide not to do voice-enhanced Power Points, but you do need something with images and make them understandable to someone who is not physically in front of you. All of this takes a lot of time. Start creating your materials at least one semester before the course goes live. Take stock of what you have that can be easily uploaded as-is and what really has to be recreated from scratch.
2). Do not overload the course with too many bells and whistles
I think there is a misconception amongst professors that if they don’t use Prezi, Turnitin, Vimeo, VoiceThread, WordPress, and ten other applications as part of the course then it isn’t going to be any good. This is not true. The more applications students have to learn how to master, the more likely they will get lost in the virtual mess. It is up to the professor to choose the best applications and stay focused on that method of information production and dissemination. It’s like a dissertation: you chose one methodology and you stuck with it. Choose one method that works and stick with it.
3). Contact each student by e-mail (or phone if necessary) at the beginning of the course for a “check-in”
On the first day that my online course went live, I had no idea if any students had looked at the course site, the platform for which was Blackboard 9. You can track views, for sure, but in the case of certain online course software it’s not always as easy to track specific people viewing the site. I did what any professor would do – I e-mailed every student in the class through their university e-mail. I received one reply. Frightened to death, I asked the secretary for every students’ telephone number, and I called each one of them and gave them a number at which to call me back. I spoke to all of them eventually that first day, and I had a lot of nice conversations, and I was able to put them at ease. They became real people to me, and I to them (I hope). Almost all of the students told me that they do not check their university e-mail. I asked them to send me a short e-mail from their preferred e-mail account just to “check-in” to the course and to make sure I had their preferred e-mail address in my contacts.
Don’t assume students are checking their university e-mails. Yes, they are required to do so. Wake up: they don’t. Most students today enter college with a personal e-mail that already forwards to their smart phone and that’s the e-mail they are comfortable using. Ask them for it and copy all messages their university e-mail as well as their personal e-mail on all official e-mails. This way the administration is happy that everyone is using the university e-mail for official correspondence (not), and everyone else can go about ignoring the university e-mail and still get their information where they are most comfortable receiving it.
4). Give the students a tech troubleshooting checklist
There will be tech issues. Guaranteed. Some students will not have the latest version of Power Point, so they won’t be able to see some features. Some students might be using an out-of-date browser. There might be issues that Mac users have that PC users don’t, and vice-versa. This is particularly true of community college students, who may not be using the most expensive, up-to-date equipment and software, or are dependent on buggy lab computers.
Keep track of the issues that come up, troubleshoot them, ask the students how they fixed the problem (if they fixed it), and create a checklist of common tech issues and how to deal with them. Include the e-mail and telephone number of the office of Tech Support for the students on the checklist. Give this list to the current students as it develops, and link it with other “first day” documents that you post online when the course runs again. Make sure that your IT manager knows what applications and programs you are using for the online course before it starts, in case they are not available in the on-campus labs. This issue of tech problems is, I think, one of the main reasons (if not the MAIN reason) students drop online courses.
5). Use the online assignments as the weekly attendance
One of the ways universities “sell” an online course to students is with the idea that they can do it at their own pace. While this is true to a certain extent, it’s not really honest. A semester lasts only a certain amount of weeks, and there are benchmarks that need to be reached at specific points during the semester. Professors at community colleges have to certify student attendance by a certain week to comply with Federal regulations. Some academic programs need to know if a student is passing or failing at a particular point in the semester so councilors are prepared to move in. So, telling a student, particularly an overburdened student, to “do it at your own pace,” is wrong because you don’t really want them to do it at their own pace, you need them to do it at the university’s pace.
Certainly you should make sure to give students the freedom to do the work when it is most convenient for them, but also make sure that they know they must do something (a discussion assignment, a blog, a response to a weekly question, etc.) at least once per week to be considered “in attendance.”
6). Use an eTextbook or, even better, scanned documents and links
Online courses should be completely virtual and there should be no physical tree-farmed paper involved. If you are teaching this course on-the-go, assume your students are as well. The days of the 500-plus page physical textbook are quickly coming to an end anyway, and you should help them out the door. If you can assist with the demise of the predatory on-campus bookselling business, there will be a place for you in heaven too.
ETextbooks are accessible through the publisher’s website, and can be purchased directly online. They are often half the price of their hardbound twins. It is silly to have a fully online course and then saddle your students with a $200.00 hardcopy of a book no one really wants to carry around (or read for that matter).
7). Do not assume that the students are technologically savvy
In our traditional classrooms, we see our students playing with their phones, or looking at their iPads, iPods, and laptops, and we assume that this means they are comfortable with current technology. This is a fallacy. Just because they know how to upload a picture to Facebook does not mean that they can create a presentation in VoiceThread using video links from three museum websites. Most of them will have never used the educational applications currently available. The good news is that this generation of new college students takes to new technology very quickly, so once you explain to them how to use the technology, they will get it.
8). Remember that online courses require self-motivated students and self-motivated professors to be successful
The op-ed piece mentioned earlier noted that “courses delivered solely online may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed.” This is true, but ignores the fact that both the students AND the professor need to be highly self-motivated. Truth be told, some students sign up for online courses because they aren’t motivated enough to take another traditional class, and some professors agree to teach an online course because they’re not motivated enough to teach another traditional class. The online course is disguised as a place where people can hide out, where everyone can participate when the mood strikes them. It needs to be impressed on both students and professors that if they are not self-motivated enough to do the work, then online courses are not for them.
9). Make yourself available to the students through e-mail
Make sure whatever e-mail your students contact you on easily forwards to your smart phone. Obviously professors aren’t on call like surgeons, but if they are going to check only their university e-mail and only on Tuesdays between 5:00 and 5:55 am, then maybe they shouldn’t be teaching an online course. Part of the benefit of teaching an online course is that professors don’t have physical office hours; the tradeoff is that professors need to make themselves available more frequently via e-mail for their online students than they might be for traditional students for whom they keep a physical office hour.
10). Multiple interactions with each student and the class as a whole are the key to a successful course and successful students
This is key to any online course and, when done well, can solve both the problems mentioned in the op-ed piece regarding retention and lack of contact with the students. Each week professors should be prepared to send a minimum of three sets of e-mails: a group e-mail to all students in the class explaining what they are expecting the students to accomplish that week; a group e-mail later in the week as a reminder before assignments are due; and individual e-mails to all students who did not do the work and have been marked absent for the week. Additional follow-up e-mails are very important because they show that the course is a real course, work is really due in the virtual world, and students are being held accountable for it.
Multiple interactions between the students and the professor show, as corny as this may sound, that the professor gives a damn if the students pass the course or not. Professors also need to answer students’ e-mails and respond to their work ASAP, and not whenever the mood strikes them. If the student cared enough about the class to do the work and/or send an e-mail, the professors should care enough about the class, and the student, to respond in a timely fashion.
Online courses have the potential to spread knowledge around the globe. They also provide access to education to so many types of students, especially disabled people, overburdened parents of young children, full-time workers, and others who have traditionally been denied access to higher education. Let’s embrace online learning, but let’s get it right over the next five years and prove that it is the revolution we’ve been waiting for.