What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – Teaching the Content
I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party this past weekend, and a parent asked what I do. When I responded that I teach history at a community college, he proceeded to tell me about his own experience. He came to this country as a senior in high school and had to take American history to graduate. He then went off to college and took American history there the next year. His comment was that he thought it was a waste of time to take college-level history, as it was just a repeat of what he had been taught in high school. That further convinced me that my approach to teaching college-level history is heading in the right direction, as I know that my class is nowhere near just a repeat of what the students would have gotten in high school. In fact, the top comment that I get in my discussion forums is how the students have not heard much of anything that I teach before coming to my class.
That brings me to the first part here of what I do in the online teaching environment for history. For a long time, teaching history has been focused around the narrative, with the feeling that, if you do not speak about every single detail of American history that you can squeeze in, then you are failing to do your job. I hear that from my colleagues here and elsewhere that, every time we are asked to do something besides teaching the narrative, we are taking time away from what we are supposed to be doing. When I get to Part 2 of this series, talking about my hybrid courses, I will talk about a course where I have started the break with the narrative approach to history. However, for Part 1 here, my online course is still largely a narrative course.
What makes my course different from a high school course is: What narrative are you teaching? My students have to cover the material in multiple different ways online, getting the narrative from multiple sources and perspectives.
In the old style, the narrative came from two sources — the instructor and the textbook. The instructor presented the “true” content for the course, and the textbook covered all the cracks where the instructor either did not have enough time or did not present on topics he or she wasn’t all that interested in. These two sources largely matched in approach, and student success in class came in how closely they could match the instructor and textbook approaches on their multiple-choice and essay exams.
I have so many different perspectives in my class that there is no single source of information. As well, throughout all of it, I do not insist on a coverage model at all, as we will have some material that we will spend a lot of time on and others that we will not. At the base, here are the sources that my students have:
- My lectures (presented in both a Word document and as audio podcasts)
- The textbook (1-2 chapters each week)
- 7-10 primary sources with detailed assessments on each through the semester
- Crash Course US History videos from YouTube
- 10-20 additional resources on the web each week.
- These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
- newspaper articles
- magazine articles
- journal articles
- online museum exhibits
- These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
The only part of the above that is not required are the additional resources, but I know that students are reading them because of what they talk about in the discussion forums (which will be a later post). I will have one student post what they find interesting in a resource, and then another student will say that inspired them to read/watch/listen to the resource. Then, they post about it, triggering another couple of students, and so forth.
It is a lot of material, but, of course, in an online course, I can ask for them to do that material and hope they do it. I try to have assessments tied to all of it except the additional resources, whether it be in textbook quizzes, assessments on primary sources, or broad-based essay questions that cover the lectures and Crash Course Videos. The evidence overall shows that students are definitely accessing some of it, with the better students accessing all of it.
I feel that the coverage that I give them works well, as I hear from them regularly. I have a lot of avenues for students to talk to me about their progress in the course, and they find the material manageable and interesting, which means I am meeting the goal I am looking for.
As I move forward in developing material, I do want to do more.
- First, I am looking to redo my lectures. They are the ones that I first developed in teaching American history almost 15 years ago, and I know they are dated. They are largely still on the coverage model, and updating them would allow me to have the lectures be more of a deep dive into the interesting material for the subject and allow the textbook to remain as the one source still tied to the coverage.
- Second, I would like to diversify my assessments to focus more on the skills that I am looking for students to learn rather than just their memorization of the material. I have been fairly successful so far in doing that, but I know I could do more (which I will discuss in the assessment part of this discussion of what I do).
For right now, I am moderately happy with my content coverage, and, if I could do that first one, especially, I think I would have my online history course in a very good place.
Do any of you who read this teach history or another introductory subject? What do you remember from when you took introductory history?
Thoughts on Teaching – Class-Testing a New Book – 6/4/2014
I am teaching this summer. The summer sessions are always interesting at a community college, as we get a completely different crop of students. While there are certainly a number of continuing students from the semesters, we also get a significant population of students who are attending a four-year university who take a class or two from us over the summer. Thus, in many cases, we get students who would not normally be in a community college here over the summer. I am not saying they are better students, although some certainly are, but they are definitely a completely different group of students.
This summer, I have decided to class test a new textbook. So often, the textbook choice time catches all of us completely off guard. We choose a new textbook every three years, and, so often, we start making that choice essentially at the last minute, relying on a quick glance at the book, a demo of the online material, and a visit from a rep. Sometimes that is enough to get a sense of a book and to choose a good one, but it has also led to some duds over the years. When approached this year about a new textbook from a different company than the one we are currently using, I decided to take it for a test drive to see how it might compare. I will leave the names of the companies out of this, but they are all major publishing companies for college history textbooks.
I am not trying out the new textbook and company because I think that what they offer is superior, I am trying it out because I do not have any idea if they are superior. We have used two different publisher’s books so far since I have been in my current teaching position, and I strongly disliked one and generally like the other. When this third company approached me, I couldn’t help but be interested because I want to see what is out there. I certainly have the time to go out and explore on my own, but if nothing is forcing me to, I probably won’t. So, a class test forces me to delve into a different book and online system in more detail. It also allows me to see how it actually works in practice.
I have launched on this with full openness to my students that this is a class test. They have to know it anyway, as only this class has a different textbook than the others, as we use a common department textbook. However, I also wanted to let them know, as I want their feedback as well. It is just as important to me that the textbook and online system be manageable and accessible to them as it is that it be something that works for me. It could be the best book in the world, but if they can’t deal with it, it is a failure.
The summer session started this week, and I have kept the students completely informed about the changes and expectations. In my course outline, this is how I explained it to them:
Over the course of the summer session, we will cover the first 15 chapters of the textbook, which is what is included in Volume 1. This section is what I am class-testing this summer. Thus, all of the assignments in this section are new to me, just as they are new to you. I will be working through them along with you, and I will be evaluating them from my own historical perspective as well as looking at your own responses and performance in this section. We class-test material such as this both to ensure that we are using the best possible material for our classes at Weatherford College and to evaluate new content that we have not seen before.
What that means for you is that the material is presented to you in a way that explores all of the different options available from XX [censored to not show what book I am using]. What I have seen appears to be a manageable amount of material, but I will be evaluating as I go along in case what is here is too much. I am very happy to change if necessary, as this is all about testing out the material, both in quantity and quality. I also will be looking at how the material is assigned and accessed. It appears to be fairly obvious what material is due when, and it appears to be clear what assignments you need to do. If there is a problem, I will work with the material to try to figure out what is going on. As of right now, the material is organized by chapter, with the exception of the introductory assignments at the top.
Again, I want to be as open with them, so that I can evaluate the book and they can evaluate the book. That way, when our choice comes up next spring, I can talk about not only the book we are currently using but another one as well. We can all make an informed choice at that point and come up with the best possible outcome for our department and our students.
Thoughts on Education – Teaching Mistakes I – 8/1/2013
I came across an article recently that had me reading a long list. I’m not crazy about lists, but when I use them, I try to keep them short (under 5-6). I also write a lot in general, so a long list format doesn’t work great for me because I tend to make each item way too long. But this one was interesting to me, and should be interesting to anyone who teaches or takes classes. The article is The 67 Worst Teaching Mistakes. What was interesting to me was that the list was not produced by some editor at an online publication somewhere, as those types of lists tend to be so vague and general as to be completely useless. Instead, this list came from user submitted mistakes, all submitted by current educators with both their names and institutions included in the list. This makes it inherently more interesting and worth looking at. Here are some of the highlights that I agree with:
3. Always standing behind the lectern – This is something I have come more and more to do as I move forward with my teaching. In fact, I believe teaching from any single spot is a drawback, as it easily lulls the students into a torpor upon looking at the same spot for 75 minutes. I may walk around excessively, but it is better than standing still the whole time.
7. Talking too much or doing too much – I fail at this every day I teach. I am a talker by nature, and I have a hard time controlling myself in a classroom setting. I know I say too much, and I know I don’t leave enough time for the students to speak.
26. Telling students they must read the textbook or other materials and then not following up on that requirement – I have been working on this one, but it is something I do not do well. I don’t like having my students read a textbook, but it is something that is a requirement in my department, and so I have to. My feelings on textbooks in general are mixed, as I don’t find them to be very useful, and I think students rarely get much out of reading them. At the same time, however, I can’t assume that my students have a strong level of knowledge on my subject prior to my classes, so there has to be something there to give them the basics. As well, since I do a hybrid, flipped classroom, they have to get this information from outside of class in some way, and the textbook is the least objectionable form for it. Because of all of this, I am not good at integrating the actual material into my course. There are chapter quizzes, but they are separate from anything else in my class, making them disconnected. This was the biggest negative comment about my class from last semester, and I am working on ways to improve the integration of the required readings into my course.
30. Testing for knowledge and understanding of course content through multiple-choice tests and exams only – This is what inspired me to move to a hybrid, flipped model of teaching, as I strongly believe that rote memorization is an abject failure of teaching in the history classroom.
65. Believing that you are the answer person for the students, that you should never admit that you don’t know something, because students might lose respect for you as the professor – Although this one is directly contradicted by some of the other mistakes here, I do believe this one is spot on. I teach my class in a way that has the students question everything, and I could not do that and then set myself up as infallible. I admit when I don’t know the answer, and I usually hedge a lot of my answers with something like “My understanding is . . .” or “This is how it is currently understood . . .” The key is that history is changing, and there are many topics that we don’t know the answer to. If you present history as a completed subject, then you are just asking the students to memorize the accepted answers. I want my students to think, and the course is centered around that. I want them to question what they know, what they are told, and what the “truth” is, and I would be failing them if I presented myself as the ultimate source on everything.
Those are the ones that stuck out to me as ones that I have tried to work on or agree with very strongly. That’s not to say that others aren’t relevant as well, but I don’t want to just sit here and comment on all of them. As this post is already of a pretty decent length, I’m going to make this one part 1. In my next post, I’ll go through the same list and talk about the ones I disagree with. So, keep an eye out here for part 2.