Saturday, August 30, 2008

Blogger as Online Teacher

So as you all know, I am, for the first time ever, teaching online this semester. And now that the semester is actually getting underway, I've got some thoughts (scattered though they may be) about how I feel about teaching in an online - rather than in a traditional classroom - environment. This post will probably be boring for those of you who've already done online teaching or who already do it, but since it's new to me, well, I'll be writing about it.

I suppose I'll begin by talking about why I've not taught online before now, especially given the fact that I'm pretty comfortable with technology and universities so love people who are willing to teach online. (Remember the space constraints of my uni? You can imagine how jazzed they are to have us do web-based courses.) I guess there are a few things that stopped me to this point. First and foremost, I was worried about the time-sucking potential of online teaching. I was both right and wrong about that, I think, but more on that later. The second is that there are very real issues about teaching online and intellectual property at my university. See, when you teach online here, the university "owns" the course. So if ever I stop teaching this course, they can take my shell and just hand it over to somebody else to teach. Nobody's entirely sure about what counts as part of the "shell" and so this has made many people in my department reluctant to teach online here, particularly when it comes to entirely original courses that they've developed that relate to their research areas. So, for example, I'd probably never teach any of my upper-level courses online, or my intro-to-lit course online, because everything I do in those courses is so intrinsically related to my research area and to the stuff on which I publish or may publish in the future. Third, the pedagogy that drives my teaching (god, how pompous does that sound?) depends a lot on interaction between me and my students. I'm not big on lecturing, and I'm not big on a model for instruction that is about me giving students material and them spitting it back at me. For a long time, I didn't really see how I could emphasize a student-centered instructional model in an online environment.

With all of this in mind, I sort of said, screw online teaching. I don't need to do it, so I won't. But then last semester, the opportunity to teach an upper-level course for a program outside of my department came along, and I thought, you know, this would be the perfect chance for me to try this whole online instruction thing out. I don't care that the university will "own" this course, and this will give me the chance to experiment with my teaching and to think about my pedagogy in ways that my typical teaching assignments don't allow. And so here I am.

The course is basically an advanced composition course. The point is to get student thinking about how to bring the methods and approaches of multiple disciplines together in their writing, and while I have chosen a content-based theme for the course, really that's just to give us stuff about which to write. So, with this in mind, the challenges before me were (and are) the following:
  • How do I get students writing regularly enough for them to see real improvement in their writing over the course of the semester?
  • How do I choose primary text material that inspires an interdisciplinary approach as well as models such approaches for students?
  • How do I encourage conversation in a course in which students never lay eyes on one another, which I think is an essential first step in getting students to think about writing as an entryway into certain kinds of conversations?
  • How do I keep the course "student-centered" when I am the "administrator" of all of the technology? How do I stop the course from becoming one in which I pontificate and students regurgitate?
  • How do I make the course user-friendly enough that students with varying levels of comfort with technology can easily access the materials and engage with the assignments of the course? (This is actually a huge problem: a lot of students sign up for these courses just because they don't want to spend time in class because they have other commitments, and they don't necessarily feel comfortable with an online environment at all.)
  • How do I make the course appropriately challenging without making too much grading work for myself? (This is another huge issue: many students enroll in these courses thinking that they will be less work than traditional courses or that they will be easier than traditional courses.)
  • How do I design a course that students find rewarding and that uses my expertise without giving up ownership of that expertise by putting it all online, and thus giving the university ownership over it? (In other words, how do I make the shell of this course completely inhospitable to the course being taken over by easily exploitable adjunct labor, who would potentially be required to teach the course with a higher enrollment cap, etc.?)
So where even to begin with all of those challenges?

Well, where would any blogger begin? With a class blog. The blog is really at the center of the course, and I've set it up so that students are doing most of the blogging. The idea is that the blog is taking the place of what I'd normally do in the traditional classroom: presentations and response-type writing assignments. Each blogging assignment is very clearly structured, and the idea is that students will do writing of medium-formality in this space.

The second thing is that commenting on blog posts is worth a good chunk of the final grade. In an online environment, I don't know how else to make sure discussion is central, really, and with the commenting requirement, I'm hoping that students really engage with one another's ideas - if not exactly as they would in a traditional classroom setting than at least similarly.

Now, this is a lot of student-generated writing. How to evaluate it? Well, as for the comments, if they are commenting substantively a certain number of times per week, that's how their grade is determined. Basically, I'll just quantify their participation, and that's where the grade comes from. As for the blog posts themselves, I'll respond to each with a rubric, a brief comment, and a grade. If they want more feedback than that, they'll have to come to online office hours.

The rest of the grade comes from their final project, which is a typical research paper assignment sequence. That will be the biggest chunk of the grading work, but should look like the typical grading work that I do in my traditionally-housed comp courses.

I'm not sure how the whole thing will turn out, but so far, I think, so good.

As for the time-sucking properties of the course, well, it's both more and less time-sucking than I'd imagined. More in the sense that it gives me license to waste time by sticking stuff up on the course blog and Blackboard site, checking email, fielding questions about the technology, etc. Things that usually don't take up so much time with my traditional courses. On the other hand, the bulk of the prep for the course is done, and because the class is really designed to put students at the center of producing the "knowledge" of the course, it takes less time than my traditional classes, or seems as if it will. There is less improvisation on my part in terms of delivery, if that makes sense. The "discussion leading" stuff that normally takes lots of my time to design for my traditional classes is already taken care of by the assignments, and I've already prepped all of the readings, so it's just a matter of showing up and guiding them along when they encounter all of that.

I have planned to include some brief "mini-lectures" about aspects of the writing process, and I'll be doing those as the semester goes along. That said, these things kind of take half the time, because normally I'd need to write this sort of thing up and then present it in class. The whole "presenting" thing is built into the writing in the online environment.

All in all, I'm pretty happy with what I've put together. I think the class is challenging, and I think that it does keep students and active learning at the center. Let's hope that these are not famous last words :)


helenesch said...

I'm impressed that you've taken this on, given that your initial attitude about online teaching seems similar to mine (though I've not had much--any--pressure to do it). I hope you'll let us know how it goes!

CogSci Librarian said...

Thanks for the thoughtful piece about teaching online. I'm going to be teaching "blended" (half online & half face-to-face) next semester; I hope you'll keep blogging about your experiences!

In the meantime, I'm curious about your comment rubric. In my f2f classes, I require students to post twice per semester, and I bascially grade on that alone -- "did you post twice?" check. If not, I pester them.

I do this in part because I don't know how to grade online comments in finer detail than that. My questions are ... Will you grade *each* comment? How will you track the # of comments? If you'd be willing to share your rubric with me (either privately or publicly; I'm cogscilibrarian AT gmail DOT com), I'd really be curious to see it!

Look forward to reading more!