Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tweaking the Web Course

So as you all know, for the first time last semester I taught a course online. The course is in a program adjacent to my discipline, and let's be clear: my main motivation for teaching the course was that it would a) get me out of teaching traditional composition courses, and b) it would allow me to have a 3-day-a-week schedule without running myself totally into the ground. Another benefit of doing the course is that it's letting get my sea-legs in this medium, so that ultimately I will abandon this course when I've finished with teaching it for the agreed-to semesters, and I will then develop a course for my own discipline online where I won't be working out the same sorts of kinks with the medium.

So. The first time around, there were a lot of things that could have been better, but I do think that I learned a great deal, and so now this weekend I'm trying to take the great deal I learned and to change the course to take those things into account.

1. Many students seem to be under the impression that an online course is in fact a correspondence course, in which they just need to putter along on their own turning things in if and whenever they please and not necessarily working consistently throughout the semester.

This was a real problem for me last semester, and given the fact that I designed the course to emphasize a lot of interaction between the students, there were things that just didn't work properly because students weren't doing their part. For example, one of the biggest assignments in the course is a course blog, to which students are to post (with very explicit guidelines for the assignments) three times. Some students just didn't bother to do one or more of these assignments. The problem is, these assignments were essential to their classmates getting participation credit for blog discussion, so if a student blew off this assignment, it meant that the rest of the class couldn't do what they were supposed to do. Unless of course I wanted to be the primary poster on the course blog, which, I'm sorry, no. So, this time around, I have done the following: 1) I've stated even more forcefully that students need to be spending 6-9 hours per week on this course each and every week in order to succeed in it; 2) I've instituted a policy that if a student misses one written assignment that they will fail the entire course. Period. No exceptions. No late submissions. They have the assignment schedule from the first day that they log into the course, and if they're concerned about something going wrong, they should do their work early so that there's time to fix anything that might get in the way of timely submission. I would never have such an inflexible policy in a traditional classroom, but I really see no other way to have a course that is so student-centered and yet where I'm not in their faces work. So we'll see how that works.

2. Trying to accommodate student schedules and student preferences a) made everything confusing and b) made more work for me.

Typically, I like to give my students a lot of choice in terms of writing assignments, deadlines (if assignments are staggered), etc. I also like to be accommodating in terms of scheduling things like interaction with me outside of class. The problem in the online environment was that all of this led to a lot more work for me (I needed to be available for real time discussion every single week, whereas they only needed to show up four times in the semester) and a lot for me to keep track of (students wanting to change when they posted to the course blog because of their schedule in a given week, etc.). So, this semester, 1) there will be fewer scheduled times for real-time discussion; 2) there will also be a "discussion board" component that will supplement the real-time discussion; 3) I am just telling students when they must post to the blog, and they are getting no choice in the matter (which I hate, but it makes my life easier).

3. In some ways, I made the course too dependent on me and my feedback, and I wasn't really prepared to give it in a timely and organized way.

This problem is much more about my typical teaching practices in the traditional classroom than anything to do with the students. The fact of the matter is that in the traditional classroom it's pretty common for me to assign too much, but because I can be more flexible in how I respond, I can manage responding to students in creative ways that end up working. This did not at all work in the online environment. Instead, I just felt totally overwhelmed by how much I'd assigned, I was crappy at getting feedback to students in a timely fashion, and, well, things just didn't fit together properly. So, I've cut out one assignment, I've cut back on the number of weeks in which students submit assignments, I'm going to make sure I've got feedback sheets for all assignments ready to go before the first assignment comes in, and I'm going to be more regimented about knocking out grading and responding each and every week. It's the only way.

4. Students need me to teach them the technology.

This makes me want to cry, but I've now built in more infrastructure in the course for this, and I'm counting it as part of the time that I spend teaching it. I've also cautioned students that if they are uncomfortable with the technology, that they should strongly reconsider whether taking a course in this medium is for them, which is mean, but come on. I cannot give a course on taking an online course while at the same time I'm actually teaching the content of this particular course.

So, we'll see. All in all, I think that trying these things out will be helpful, and I'll see how they go. I don't like how autocratic and inflexible I'm finding I have to be, but I think it's the only way to be looser in other areas. The bottom line is that this experience is showing me how much I rely on my personality and my general demeanor in the classroom, and in this medium, I just can't rely on the likelihood that they'll find me intimidating or challenging to get them to do their work. I have to actively be intimidating and challenging. Or so it seems.

Now, I may find that this new and improved approach fails, but I've got to try it to see. At any rate, even if this doesn't quite work, the awesome thing is that I've got two more semesters to continue tweaking and maybe to get it right. Rome was not built in a day, nor was a strong class.


Belle said...

Great post. I'm going to having an onlline component in my survey classes (gah) and am once again struggling with the platform myself. Can you give me a hint as to which platform you're on?

I particularly like the way you're addressing each element here. That's really helpful.

DrGunPowderPlot said...

I've been teaching online for a while, and one great idea I was given early on was to create an orientation quiz. The very first item in the semester is a quiz on how the class is run. I include things about the technology, the timeline, and that this is NOT a correspondence course.

I also was really resistant to the asynchronous discussion, but I've grown to like it a lot. It gives students plenty of time to consider their answers, and the really active students will return to the discussions several times. I also have deadlines for each individual discussion topic, so that all the students stay together.

Good luck! I've found that it does take some time to get where you're comfortable with the medium.

Sherman Dorn said...

You're asking the right questions. I'm still struggling with this and probably need to blog my current thoughts so I have a record of them later...

Cranky said...

“I've instituted a policy that if a student misses one [online] written assignment that they will fail the entire course. Period. No exceptions. No late submissions.”

You must be in a charmed land! Here in the Northeast some of us have had multiple power outages, some for as long as 14 days due to ice storms. By the way, if there is no power in an area, you often can’t get gasoline for a generator, and the phone lines are on the same poles as the power so they are out as well, and cell towers only last about 3 days till the diesel runs out.

Dr. Crazy said...

Cranky: The only stated exception is if for some reason the university server is down. That said, I would of course make a retroactive exception if there were some major catastrophe with power (as there was this past fall) - but it says in my syllabus that any exceptions are made at my discretion. It's not that there is COMPLETE inflexibility here - just that there isn't EXPLICITLY STATED AND OFFERED FLEXIBILITY because that killed me last semester. Again, this may not work, but I want to see whether being more rigid will help with keeping the course running smoothly. I'm not against changing things up in the middle if things don't work, but I think going more hard-line earlier will serve not only me but also the course as a whole.

Also, they have all of the assignments on the first day of the course. They have all of the necessary materials on the first day of the course. They are welcomed to do things early if they're concerned about freak accidents of nature (and in fact encouraged to do so).