The Tyranny of the Contact Hour (or is it the Tyranny of the Text?)

I am in involved in a project to develop online courses in the liberal arts & sciences, and I’ve run into an interesting question, a variant on something I’ve written about since the beginning of this blog: What defines a college course?

If one plans to teach a standard course in the traditional face-to-face way, it’s easy enough to adopt a text and then decide how much of the text one can reasonably cover in the length of a term, defined as X minutes per class meeting times Y class meetings a week times Z weeks in the term.  Most texts contain more material than can be covered in a single course to allow the instructor to take the approach/cover the material they think is important, so the content of the course is essentially defined by the amount of contact time.  I suppose it’s possible to “cover” all the content in a text, but in my experience it’s rarely possible for students to learn it all.

Which brings up the interesting question at hand:  What content defines an online course?  The approach taken by most of the participants in our project is to take an existing face-to-face course and convert it to an online environment.

Most would agree that an online course consisting of the text and all the assignments and examinations from a face-t0-face course does not make for a quality learning experience, certainly not one comparable to a quality face-to-face course.  After all, a significant part of a course is the lectures or class sessions.  This may be one of the straw men behind the widely held view that online courses are inferior to face-to-face.  (This is not to say that most online courses are like this, only that for people who don’t teach online, this may be the model of online teaching that comes to mind.)

Which raises another interesting question: How does one “move” lectures online?  More precisely, how does one take what is done in the classroom and provide a comparable learning experience online?  Well, that depends on what exactly is done in the classroom.  Clearly a 50 minute class session is not 50 minutes of lecture.  What then does it consist of?   It’s probably some combination of:

  • Introductions: Welcoming the students and reminding students where we are in the syllabus, what we did last class.  Answering any questions students have about the previous material, upcoming assignments, anything else.
  • Direct Content Delivery, e.g. lecture.
  • Indirect Content Delivery or Content Construction, e.g. Class Discussion or similar student collaborative activities.
  • Problem solving or laboratory activities (individual or collaborative).
  • Closing: Wrapping up the session, giving students assignments, reminding students of previously assigned tasks or upcoming events/quizzes/exams.

How can these things be done online?  This is one of the key questions our group is exploring and not one that I’m going to answer in any detail here.  One direction that I think worth pursuing–in recent years, I’ve thought carefully about how to make the best use of scarce class time.  My conclusion has been that in general, spending class time to lecture from the book is not the right choice.  Rather, I lecture only on things that I know students have difficulty learning on their own.  I imagine the same approach, though not necessarily the same answers will work for online teaching and learning.

So let’s return to the original question I posed: Suppose one created an online course that one had never taught before?  How would one define the course content?  How would one determine how much of a text should be covered?

I suspect that since we don’t have the scaffolding of contact hours, we need to use something more substantive.  What ultimately defines a college course is the collection of things (knowledge, skills and experiences) a student should learn by the end of the course.  For example, what should students learn in an intermediate microeconomics course?  While that’s a standard course, taught in every undergraduate economics department in the U.S., exactly what is taught almost certainly differs from one department to the next.

I think the only way to determine the course content (and some readers are going to hate this) is to clearly define the learning outcomes of the course.  This is true for face-to-face courses, but it’s even more true for online courses, especially those which one has never taught before in a face-to-face mode.  The learning outcomes need not be mechanistic, but I believe the instructor needs to be able to articulate what they are, ideally to at least the second level of detail.  For example, one of my two course objectives in my intro course is for students to learn how to analyze issues & problems the way an economist would.  A second level learning objective (i.e. a specific example of the course objective) would be for students to learn how to analyze the effects of a change in demand or supply on the market for some good or service.   These second level learning objectives essentially define the course.  Once one articulates those, one can determine what learning activities are necessary for students to learn the objectives.  Those activities comprise the content of the course.


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2 Responses to The Tyranny of the Contact Hour (or is it the Tyranny of the Text?)

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