These days, I teach classes in two ways — online courses and hybrid courses. Part 1 of the “What I Do” series will look at how I teach online courses.
I have been teaching online since Spring 2007. I was hired on at my current job in 2006. At the time, I was told that I was to develop online courses for the social sciences department. I was given a year at the time, which meant, of course, that I did not think about it for the first couple of months, as I was just trying to get acquainted with a new place and a new job. I had never taught online before, had never taken an online class before, and had never even seen an online system before. So, I was a complete neophyte in the realm of online education.
Of course, my decision to not think about it for the first couple of months would not last. In November of my first semester teaching, I was told that a decision had been made to move the start date from Fall 2007 to Spring 2007, so, instead of about 10 months, I now had 2 months to get an online course ready. I still had not seen an online course or had any idea what it meant to teach online.
I dove in as fast as I could. We were using the Moodle LMS at the time, and I scheduled a training session with our LMS administrator shortly thereafter. The training was great. I understood Moodle, and I was reasonably confident that I could develop in it at a fairly general level (at least well enough to get started). However, I came out of that training thinking that it was great, but that I still did not know how to teach an online course. The LMS training was great at the nuts and bolts of navigating the LMS, but I still had no idea what online pedagogy was. I did not know how to organize an online course, how to create online assignments that were appropriate for a course, or even how an online course should differ from a face-to-face course. And, as I found out shortly afterwards, that was the end of the training offered at my college. I was told that if I wanted to know more, I needed to go and ask others around the college who taught online.
As a very new faculty member with few connections on the campus (and an office that was isolated from everyone else, as I got the only space open at the time, which was behind the stage in the fine arts center), this was not an easy thing to do. I asked around and got a few examples. Some were bad (just have the students write a few pages on each chapter in the book and give them some multiple-choice quizzes — this online teaching thing is a breeze!) and some were ok (some discussions, quizzes, and exams). However, none really stood out to me as models that I wanted to follow. Later I would learn that there was a whole group of people who had been teaching online well for years, but I would not be introduced to them until later.
Thus, I was left on my own. I had about one month left, and I needed a course to be able to present when the spring semester opened. I followed the one consistent piece of advice I had heard from all over the place — make your online course as much like your face-to-face course as possible. I would never give that advice now, but, over a decade ago, that was the standard. That is what I did.
So, this is what my first course (the second half of American history) looked like:
- My lectures were from lecture notes that I had typed up. I uploaded them, as well as my PowerPoints and other supplementary material that I used in my face-to-face classes.
- I had the students read 1-2 chapters a week. I was told I needed to hold them accountable for this, so I had them submit a weekly writing assignment most weeks on what they had read. I have no idea now what those assignments looked like, but I am sure they were fairly basic response papers.
- I had four week-long discussion forums on primary source documents that were in the weeks that I did not have weekly writing assignments.
- I had three exams that were made up of multiple-choice and true/false questions.
I mirrored this over the summer in developing the first half of American history course. And thus, my career teaching online courses took off.
How did it go? I actually have no idea. Students finished the course. Students got grades. But at that time, I was not much for self-reflection on courses, as I was always just moving on to the next thing. I also had a raging addiction to World of Warcraft that took up much of my spare time, leaving me basically moving in a world without real feedback or intellectual time to think about what I was doing.
For the next several years, I moved along, adjusting things here, moving things around there. Probably the most significant thing I did in year two of teaching online was to record my lectures as audio podcasts. I still use those same podcasts today, and students still compliment me on them, which I take to mean they are both still relevant and were done reasonably well.
By year three of teaching online, I had kicked my World of Warcraft addiction and had started to come face-to-face with the realization that, while my online course was fine, it was nothing special. Over the next couple of years, I started learning online pedagogy, pushed my department to a textbook that had good online tools, and redesigned my course.
My online course today looks nothing like what it did in 2007, and that is a very good thing. I have grown as a professional and now have a course that both satisfies me and is relevant to students and their success. I certainly will not say it is perfect, and I hope to get to a point in this series where I can start talking about changes I would like to make. Up next in the series, I will talk about the structure of what I do today and then will break out the various assignments that I use today.
Well, here we go. Another semester is set to start, with just a little over a day left until we get going. I am teaching six sections this coming semester, three online sections and three hybrid sections. This last week has been the preparation time to get ready for the semester. We were worried over the course of this holiday break because we were updating our learning managements system (LMS), and so there were some cautions about doing too much ahead of time in case there were problems. There turned out not to be any problems, but I scaled back most of my plans for possible changes. In fact, with my online class, I am simply redoing the course I did last semester, meaning that there were mainly just some changes of dates and a few minor updates. Otherwise, that course is ready to go.
I have put together a few more changes for my hybrid class. They have finally gotten my hybrid classes scheduled correctly here, as they are set for meeting only one day a week. In the past, I have always had them scheduled for two days a week, and then I met for one of those. Now, I have one class on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and one on Thursday. The only negative to that, is that I used to meet for both of the days in the first week, which gave me two days to introduce the class. Now, I have to get that introduction done in one day. So, I have developed some introductory materials to show the students how to access my online material and the textbook material. I used iBooks Author to develop the material, making a .pdf file that is set up like a book and includes both images and links. I am hoping this provides my students with the information they need in an attractive and accessible format. If I knew how to attach a .pdf file to this post, I would put an example here, as I am pretty proud of what I did. It is something new I am trying out, and it worked well.
On that same note, I have put together similar presentations for my hybrid class weekly assignments. In the past, I had very basic assignments for the students, such as having them watch a documentary, write a response paper, and then discuss it. Over the years I have been doing this, I have come up repeatedly unsatisfied with my students’ preparation and background knowledge. So, I have beefed up the activities, providing background information, helpful links, stronger and more involved assignments, and more detailed response papers. I want the students to be more prepared and to have more engagement with the material. Again, if I had the ability, I would post one of these up, as I do feel that the iBooks format works pretty well for the material and presentation. I am not planning on publishing these to the Apple Store, but I do like the ability to create something that looks nice and can be exported in a format that is generic enough for anyone to use.
So, that is what I have been working on. I have all of the dates in my classes adjusted to the Spring semester. I have all of the Course Outlines done. I have the online classrooms ready to go. The first five weeks of the online course are visible and ready when students get in on Monday. I have the first three weeks of the hybrid course ready to go, and I hope to get the fourth work done tomorrow and have that be my preparation point to get the students in on Monday.
How about you? Are you teaching a class this semester? Are you taking a class? How ready are you for the semester?
I know I missed last week, so I will try to double up this week on posts. This first one concerns last week’s class, which was quite depressing. That is one reason that I did not have the motivation or energy to write about it last week. Yet, I want to make sure to write about my class weekly, and so, I am not going to leave last week out. I just needed some cool down time before I set anything down on “paper.”
So, here’s what happened:
For my hybrid class, I have the last assignments close on Sunday night at midnight. That means that I spend Monday going through and entering grades from the previous week. So, we were essentially heading into Week 3 of my class at that point, and I had a chance to see, before I met them that week, how the previous assignments had gone. In addition to the normal weekly assignments, however, I also had a set of assignments that I call the Initial Assignments and Orientations, which is a basic set of things like reading the syllabus, signing up for the textbook site, taking a few introductory surveys, and the like. To get credit, you simply have to complete these things, at which point I will give you a 100. If you do not do them, you get a 0. It counts for 5% of the overall grade. Largely, I see it as an assignment to get the students going and get them comfortable in the classroom. So, I was entering both the grades for that assignment and for the weekly assignments due just before. What I found was a completely dismal set of grades. This has nothing to do with my online class but is unique to my hybrid class this semester. When the only grade on the orientation assignment is either a 100 or 0, then a class average of 50 means that only half of the people did the assignment. And, I had between a 45 and 55 average with the hybrid sections, meaning that roughly half of the class did not do them. The assignment had been open for the first 12 days of the semester, and only half of the students had bothered to complete it. Then, as I was entering the weekly grades, I noted that not only had a significant minority not done the chapter assignments they had in the textbook website, but that about a quarter of my students had not even signed up yet, even though we were already two chapters into the assignments at that point.
That made me rather depressed right there. The assignments that I have set out as graded assignments, and, not to mention, the first graded assignments of the semester, are not being completed by my students. Then, I took a dangerous turn for the worst. I had set up the students for the coming week to do three things — to access my online lectures, complete two chapters in the textbook, and view some video lectures on an external site. What the students don’t know is that I can directly track who does what in my LMS (Learning Management System), as the LMS allows me to see how many “clicks” there have been on each thing that I have given the students to do. That is always a depressing thing to look at, because it puts directly in your face as a teacher how few students are bothering to access the material you are requiring them to do. What I found confirmed my suspicions, as a dismally small number of students had accessed anything at all in preparation for that week’s activities. They had not read my online lectures. They had not completed the textbook material. They had not looked at the external link to the video lectures. When I say they had not, I mean that the number of clicks in the classroom equalled about 1/4 of the students in the class. That is even optimistic, as it assumes that each click is a distinct student, which is not necessarily true.
The problem with this is probably obvious. I assigned something, and the students did not do it. Beyond that, however, I am currently employing the flipped model of classroom, which means that the students access the central “lecture” material for the course outside of the classroom, and then we apply the material in classroom activities. So, if the students are not prepared, we cannot work.
So, all of that is depressing enough, but what made it a depressing class is that I then had to address this in class. I have to have a talk with students every semester that I teach. It is the nature, especially, of a community college that the students are not ready for college. They do not know what it means to be in college, and most approach it as just an extension of high school. We have a large DFW rate each semester (a D (which does not transfer), and F, or a withdrawal. It usually runs between 40-50% of students in the freshman core classes, like mine. We have done everything we can to try and fix this, and one of the things I have to do is have that heart-to-heart talk every semester about what they are doing here in college. I ask them directly to think about why they are there. I ask them to consider what is making them come to college and whether they are putting out the effort necessary to succeed. I also talk about what it means to be successful in college. And, honestly, I ask them to consider if this is something they value at all. I point out that nobody is making them show up to class, do the work, and so forth. I can do everything on my end to try and get them to succeed, but if they can’t meet me at least halfway, then it will be a failure. This is not high school, and nobody is going to get a C for showing up. I can and will fail them, which is something that most have not heard before. I ask them to consider what it is they are wasting by being in college and wasting the opportunity they have — whether its money, their time, my time, another student’s chance to be in the class, or whatever. I am blunt. I am direct. And, I am not particularly nice about it. I don’t like doing this, which makes for a depressing week, as I then had to do the same thing in all of the other classes that week, which meant that day-by-day I had to drag myself to class to deliver one depressing talk after another. And, sadly, I don’t know if it does any good. I can’t know, really, and that is also depressing.
A week of depressing talk later, and I, as you can probably imagine, really didn’t have much interest in blogging about it. Now, I am a couple of days out of it, and things are a bit further in my mind, leaving me able to talk about it without getting all worked up again.
And, in case you were wondering, after having that talk, no, the rest of the class that day did not go particularly well either.