Lessons from an Online Summer Course (It’s All in the Details #6-#16)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  

These lessons–in no particular order–are about medium-to-small issues that can make a difference.  Everything but the kitchen sink is included here and most are extremely brief.  I may well take up some of these points in their own posts in the future.

#6 Learn By Doing (Student Edition)

Teaching online gave me the opportunity to revisit my goals in an intro course.  What am I trying to accomplish?  What are my primary learning goals?  When faculty ask themselves such questions, we often focus on content; the “things” that we want students to know.  We often think in terms of “covering” material and too often plan assignments and assessments around what students can recall of that content.  But the biggest takeaways from from this sort of course are not the minutia that are easily assessed (and easily graded) on multiple choice quizzes.  Instead, I usually want students to use information in some way–to think critically, to construct arguments, to communicate effectively. For this course, I tried to put more emphasis on what I wanted students to be able to do.

It seemed to me that the best way to cultivate the ability to “see” sociologically was through practice, so course assignments were geared towards simple application of sociological concepts in brief writing assignments that involved analyzing aspects of social life (self, education, pop culture, news, etc.) from outside the course.  I went cold turkey with no quizzing at all in this course…but not without a cost (see #7).

#7  Keep What Works

I’m a believer in the general principle of “all things in moderation” and the classroom is no exception.  I violated that to a degree by dropping any quizzing in this course.  It wasn’t a big deal and the course got along okay without it but I’d probably reintroduce some quizzes in the future.  There are two reasons for this.  First, quizzing about readings helps ensure that students do them, plain and simple. Doing readings is not the goal but a prerequisite for doing the work that matters.  When juggling competing demands on their time, students make strategic decisions and leaving readings up to their discretion can mean they don’t get done as completely as is needed.  Second, good quizzing gives students useful feedback.  In the end of the semester evaluation, two students asked for quizzing precisely for this reason, noting that quizzes help them to check their level of understanding of the material. In the past, I’ve worked automated quizzing into the course, allowing students to re-take the quiz a second time as learning experience.  I’ll probably return to this practice in some modest form next time around.

One area where I did stick to my moderation principle was in keeping my textbook.  I’ve written the textbook I use in this course, which makes it a bit absurd for me not to use it.1  The book gives me a framework for the class, telling a coherent “story” across a variety of topics, and provides some useful additional background material for students.  Just because you’re online on an open platform, doesn’t mean you can’t work in more traditional resources if useful.

#8 Think carefully about workflow and feedback.  Teaching online creates some unique workflows and using student blogs adds to the issue.  Where will student blog posts aggregate?  How will students see and access each other’s work?  How do you want to access their blogs?  How will you–and other students–comment on posts? How much of this will be visible?  Do you want to be able to search by author?  By word?  Thinking through these details will influence how you set-up your course site, as well as the instructions you give students.  It is imperative that you take your site for a trial run in advance of the course and work out any issues that arise as you use it.  You don’t want to be figuring this out as students are trying to use it live.

#9 Stay Flexible

While preparation is important, stuff happens in a course and it’s always important to stay flexible, changing things up on the fly as needed.  For example, unexpectedly, this course turned out to have a large number of seniors in it–some of whom had already walked in the Spring graduation and were simply getting their last 3 credits.  (I learned that this was prompted partly by the addition of sociology  to the MCAT exam; pre-med students realized they probably should take a sociology course to prepare.)  This made some activities I’d planned for first- and second-year students irrelevant.  For example, I had planned on inviting colleagues from sociology to drop in to the course at various points to talk a bit about their areas of interest and the more advanced courses they taught.  This was aimed at introducing students to other faculty and hopefully get some to consider majoring in the field.  With 25 seniors in class, that was irrelevant, so I dropped this plan.

#10 Teach about learning.  Because I was experimenting with new things in this course, I decided to start the course with a brief module on education.  I was also much more explicit than usual in explaining why I was doing various things, including assigning group work.  This ended up being a very useful addition to the course.  A number of students commented on various aspects of it, including never having thought about why they were being asked to do group work. Discussing this up front set up the opportunity for some meta-analyses later in the course.

#11  Digital Natives Still Must Be Socialized.  The notion of “digital natives” typically suggests that merely because they were born into a culture infused with new media, students have some automatic affinity for digital media.  But as any sociologist knows, culture–by definition–must be taught and it’s quickly apparent to anyone teaching with technology that many–perhaps most–students are not very adept in using technology.  I think we vastly overestimate how proficient students are at figuring our how to work with digital media.  Basic media literacies is an area where higher education appears to be failing terribly.  I’m glad I anticipated this an allowed time in the first week or two for students to acclimate to the new technology-based demands.

#12 Encourage ownership of a blog.  I was struck by how many students immediately treated a blog as only a course assignment, rather than their digital space.  The most obvious sign of this was the number of students who titled their blog some variation of the course name, rather than a unique name.  Next time, I’ll more actively explain their ownership of this space and encourage them to personalize it.

#13 Faces Matter. Simple student avatars, typically head shots, in the discussion forum were very helpful to me.  I suspect neuroscientists could explain what’s going on here, but having a face to connect to a name and a series of posts made it feel more “real” and immediate than just a name without an avatar.  Avatars that were not pictures of students were not as helpful.  There are privacy issues to consider but I’m thinking of making a unique avatar–preferably a head shot–a requirement in future classes.

#14 Harness peer feedback.  The volume of blogging can be very time-consuming to read and comment upon.  Next time around, one of my agenda items is to explore how to use peer feedback.  If done well, not only is such feedback a valuable process for both the person giving and receiving the feedback but it enables the instructor to focus on other issues.  It’s an element I didn’t incorporate well this first time out.

#15 Watch your tagging.  If you assign tags for students to use for their blog post assignments, make sure they are unique enough to not get mixed in with other RSS feeds you might be aggregating.  For example, I made a mistake by asking students to use the tag “culture” for an assignment. That’s way too broad and posts from sociology blogs I was also feeding to the website that were tagged with “culture” got mixed in.

#16 Scale matters…a lot!  Reading and commenting on written work is very time-consuming, regardless of the medium by which is is delivered. Forty-two students with two or three written assignments a week (due to the compressed time frame of a summer course) resulted in a fire-hose of content for me to deal with.  Realistically, for this model of course structure to be adopted by regular full-time teaching faculty without TAs, there needs to be some modifications made to keep the experience from being overwhelming.  Using peer assessment and reducing the number of blog assignments are among some of the possible options.


So those are some of the notes I made to myself as I moved through my first online course.  I appreciated the opportunity to teach this class. I have a much better feel for the sorts of issues that arise in this context, as well as an appreciation for the potential of online courses.  If you’re considering an online class, I’ll end where I began, by encouraging you to jump in and learn by doing.

  1. I don’t want to profit from the assignment of my own text, so I always estimate the royalties I’d earn from the class and write a check to a local charity for that amount. []