By Marcy Burstiner
Teaching an online class offers the promise of flexible scheduling and gives an instructor the ability to teach the class from any location. That has obvious advantages. At the same time, many people are leery about the idea of an online class. How do you know the students really read the material you put out? How do you communicate with them when they log on at different times? How can you replicate in-class discussions? How can you show the videos you show in class or go through the Powerpoints you use? How can you have questions and answers?
That’s where the Course Transformation Project Comes in. Offered on-campus through the Center for Excellence in Teaching, it is designed to help faculty members redesign a course so that it becomes an effective way of teaching a subject.
See, you can’t just teach a class online. It doesn’t work that way. You need to understand how people learn online and that means you need to rethink how you teach. Consider my class JMC 302: Mass Media and the Popular Arts. It’s an upper division Area C General Education class that I have taught several times in the lecture hall, and it is one of the most popular classes the Journalism Department offers. I currently teach it in a three-hour session once a week in Siemens Hall. In that class, I have each student watch 10 movies of their own choosing over the 15 weeks of the term and analyze those movies for various themes. For the midterm and final they must read each other’s analyses and pull out similarities they find across movie genres. The magic in that class comes from the give and take in class discussions as we examine such things as portrayals of women and minorities in movies and television, the effects of prevalent themes such as reinvention in story lines, whether movie violence is bad for society, and so forth.
I first applied for a course transformation grant for the class, because I felt that if any class could be structured for online learning it was that class. Since it focused on popular entertainment, many of the examples I use in class could be linked to on the Web. And since students select their own media to analyze, they can do that from their home as well. Moreover, the students already post their analyses on Moodle, so in a way the class operates partially online.
But it wasn’t until I found myself in the Course Transformation Project that I began to understand the full capability of online teaching, using interactive tools.
Here is an example. In the first week of my term this year I gave the students an in-class exercise. I showed various examples of what is considered art and I paired them with examples of things considered popular art: Monet v. graffiti, Henry James v. Dan Brown, Mozart v. Rap, etc. and in small groups, the students had to decide whether each example was art or popular art and identify why they had made that choice. How can you replicate that online?
Well, one way is to have the students, in small groups on-line, do that in wikis – collaborative documents. I could upload the same images that I show on Powerpoint slides onto wiki documents and students could discuss their ideas with each other there. Or I could use an interactive tool called Tablefy (“Art vs. Popular Art” ) and have them discuss various media in small groups using discussion forums and then input their findings into a comparison chart.
In the discussions I had with the folks from CELT and with my colleagues in the course transformation project – who were working to transform their classes in math, nursing, international business and other subjects – I realized that the trick was to have the students do online what I used to do for them in the classroom. So instead of my talking them through Powerpoint slides, I could instead assign them subjects to research or articles to read and have them put together their own Powerpoint-like presentations using presentation tools available for free and share them with their online classmates, who would then be required to discuss the material in forums.
I also found a site for doing collaborative mind-mapping exercises I think will help the students work through their movie analyses. (Mindmap Exercise )
But the most valuable thing I gained from the Course Transformation Project was the idea that if lessons are not carefully structured, not only would students likely lose interest in the class, but the instructor teaching the class could find the work daunting; with some 100 students in a class or more, you could find yourself reading post after post after post after post. Personally, that’s not something I want to do. But I learned that with careful design, you can break students into groups and minimize the amount of grading. This has the added effect of connecting students to their classmates, which gives them a greater connection to the class.
So the bottom line is that the course transformation project has transformed the way I now approach the concept of online teaching. It isn’t as easy as stuffing all your material on Moodle or recording your lecture into a podcast. A boring lecture in the classroom will be just as boring online. But an energetic, creative and challenging class in the classroom can be equally energetic, creative and challenging online. It’s all in the thought that goes into it and some careful structure and design.