People are coming to the “acceptance” phase of finding out that their Fall semesters are going to be online. I’ve been teaching an entirely online course for five years now and I’ve had a few requests to discuss the nuts and bolts of how I built my course. I’ll do that here but first some caveats: 1) I don’t know how you should teach your course – like face-to-face teaching, people have to figure out what works for them and that takes time; and 2) when I built this in 2015, I had lots of support. My department gave me a TA for when the course went live and the Educational Development Centre at Carleton provided me with training in online teaching (thank you, Samah Sabra!) and an instructional designer (thank you, Isa Gulka!). I know others won’t be so well-supported so make of this what you will.
In 2014, I realized I had to increase enrolment in our third-year “European Women’s History” course or risk having it cut from the program. The first step was to reconceive of it as a transnational, thematic course and accept that this would require some different content and framing. It became “The History of the Body.” The second step was to put it entirely online (the Winter 2018 version of the syllabus can be found on the CHA Syllabi Central website). Sixty-five students (the maximum) enrolled in the course and things got real. I had two months until the course went live.
Carleton was using Moodle so the first thing, Isa, my instructional designer, did was change the course format to “Grid.” The course became 15 boxes and this overlapped with a lot of weekly face-to-face course design.
Isa agreed that weekly modules would facilitate a weekly asynchronous group discussion board. Students could be divided up into groups of six at the beginning of the course and would stay in those groups for the whole course. The TA would be put in charge of making these groups work. There would be a rotating group leader and folks would discuss the assigned reading amongst themselves every week (similar to face-to-face discussion sections). We mandated a minimum of two posts per students to happen between Wednesday and Sunday nights. Weekly and bi-monthly assignments (discussion boards and reflective blog entries) would ensure that students kept up with the course material. Then Isa said to me, “If you want them to take these discussion boards seriously, you have to make them a serious percentage of the final grade.” This holds for face-to-face as well as online courses: if you want students to engage with a component of the course, you need to pay them for their engagement with marks that matter for the final grade. Who can blame them? I think of the stuff I skip in anything online I’ve been made to do – if it counts for the final outcome, I pay attention, if not, I click through.
We decided that all the weekly boxes would be visible at the beginning of the course but content within the boxes wouldn’t be available until a week before the unit was supposed to start. The first time around, I was really only a couple weeks ahead of the course (if that) anyhow.
So what about content? The thing about online teaching is that you’re not just competing for attention with other courses, you’re competing with everything else on the internet. And with transnational topics, if you’re not teaching with or against the development of a nation, what/whose stories are you telling and why? I tried to come up with a catchy angle and the discrete grid boxes gave me the idea: body parts; one part per week (see the image below).
Bones became about the theme of agency and the history of ossuaries; Eyes was about ableism and ideas of blindness. Every unit argued that the body was political and culturally constructed in intersectional ways and had case studies that involved the body part. The units more or less operated chronologically and talked a lot about “modernity” and what’s packed into that idea.
I embraced the strengths of the online world: asynchronicity.
Story-telling (framed as lecturing in face-to-face courses) is one thing that students love about history courses; I didn’t want to lose that but I needed to avoid long lecture videos. So I ended up doing a bunch of smaller videos. The videos were me talking while a powerpoint presentation showed onscreen.
On Isa’s advice, I made sure the basic structure of each week looked the same: intro video where they could see me talking (shot in studio at Carleton but could have been done at home); lecture videos (done at home in my basement using the paid-for version of Camtasia and a Yeti Blue microphone, luxuries that I know not everyone can afford; I always tried to aim for 10 minutes videos and often failed; a reading; group discussion board; more lecture videos or a podcast or an online movie; a quiz on the lecture videos/podcast; and an optional course-wide discussion on a current event. The structural consistency was designed to help students settle into the flow of the course.
Below are two examples of module content (Eyes and Legs). When a student clicked on a module box (shown in the previous image) another box would appear containing a table of contents and a lesson link (see below). The student would then click on the Lesson icon and be led through the contents in a linear way. The other links below the lesson were just there for convenience:
I didn’t want to have quizzes in each unit because I thought they were anathema to fostering historical thinking. Isa told me to come up with meaningful questions that tested historical thinking as well as the module content and said that students wouldn’t watch the videos if there wasn’t a quiz right after. Subsequent student feedback has told me that she was right.
As the class went on, what made me believe in online teaching were those group discussion posts. The groups were able to get to a sophisticated depth of analysis in ways that would never have happened face-to-face. The posts were well-crafted, articulate, and insightful, and they came from many and diverse members of the groups, not just the face-to-face-confident, verbose few. Again, this didn’t happen by accident: those posts were worth 24% of the overall grade and a TA helped to foster them.
I also required a short research paper (for which I made up several support videos on the difference between primary and secondary sources, where to find sources online, how to cite things, how to write an essay – useful in other courses!) and a take-home final essay question. I required a short research proposal to be handed in mid-way through the course; this was to cut down on plagiarism.
With online teaching most of the work of teaching is done upfront, before the class even starts (or at least before that week starts), which means I had to anticipate problems and think hard about how students would interact with the material. While the videos were a lot of work, the business of teaching wasn’t categorically different from face-to-face instruction, for me. Students’ questions and challenges were more or less the same and the range and quality of their work was too. Online teaching wasn’t such a foreign country, after all, and had (and continues to have) some really significant learning payoffs for me and for the students.
Danielle Kinsey is an assistant professor in the department of history at Carleton University. She can be reached at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca.