Interaction in a Content-Based Online Course

The more I work on my first online course, the more I feel that one could spend an infinite amount of time on this and still find new things I’d like to add or expand upon.  If you’ve never taught online and you want to know how this feels, think about the first course you ever had to develop to teach.  It’s like that for me.  But, I digress.

The question I’ve been struggling with is how to create an online learning environment that helps my students to:

  • Interact with the course materials/readings,
  • Interact with each other, and
  • Interact with me.

How can I guide the learning process (e.g. these interactions) so that students “get” what they need to from the course materials?  This is roughly analogous to what I do in class sessions.

At the same time I see a complication:  The course has a great deal of content students need to learn.  So I’m not sure DS106 is a good model for that.  I may be wrong (and I’m sure someone will correct me) but it seems like the “content” in DS106 is broad categories, where students have a lot of freedom about what they learn and how they learn it, as opposed to the specific concepts, theories, etc. that characterize a content-based course.

I don’t want to play my “I’m not teaching a humanities course” card.  I love teaching seminars about big questions and letting the class go where it will.  But this isn’t a class like that.  It’s an intro course, a general education course for the social sciences, but also an introduction to the major and required for several other majors.  I love giving my students freedom to learn, but at the end of the day if they don’t learn the content, the course will be a failure.

Here is my current thinking to which I invite your comments.  The course is divided into ten topics.  Each topic includes:

  • A list of questions to be explored [the answers to which satisfy the learning objectives],
  • A list of readings/resources to provide content/expert views on the questions

1. First, I would like the students to engage with the content (i.e. read the readings, watch the video clips, listen to the audio recordings).  As they do so, I’d like them to think about the study questions.  Then they should tweet any questions they have about the content.

2. Next, I would like students to analyze the content using the schema I developed some years ago for my face-to-face teaching.  When I say analyze, I mean answer the three extended questions at the end of the schema and then send me their work.

3. Both of the above items can be done individually, but I’m looking for ways to get the students to interact and to learn from each other.  What I propose to do is ask each student to post [to the as yet undefined collaborative space] one concept, theory or fact/finding from the schema, as well as their commentary per the schema.  The class size is capped at 20, but it’s likely the laggards will find that the early birds identified (& posted) all the items.  In that case, the laggards may add an additional reason or example or present a reason against one of the previously identified items.

4. The last step would be to ask small groups to clean up each submitted item, resolve any issues, and present the results (e.g. on a new page).

In a sense, the purpose of this activity is to develop collaborative class notes.  I see this as a worthwhile activity, because if the students can do this (both individually and as a group), they will have mastered the learning objectives for the course.

Would this work?  What are the pros and cons?  How would I get everyone to contribute productively and not encourage free riding?  Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

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6 Responses to Interaction in a Content-Based Online Course

  1. Wendy Drexler says:

    I definitely see the community of inquiry model within your plan. I agree with you about online learning design – you can spend a life time building because there’s always room for improvement. Delivering the course is the same. You can be there 24/7 if you allow yourself. The art is finding the right balance of teaching presence without burning yourself out.

    Essential questions are a great way to manage a course that requires mastery of content. Your students will still have freedom to learn the content in the way that works best for them, but in the end, they have to provide evidence the learning has taken place.

    Group work is always challenging, especially when members are assigned. Just as in group projects, some people end up carrying more weight than others. In order to keep the laggards from copying others, I suggest the following additions:
    -Find an online resource that further relates to the study question.
    -Pose a question to which others have to respond related to the resource you found.

    Rather than provide all the content for the student, consider providing foundational information and have them dig a bit for the rest. Having the student pose a question to others makes it much easier to further the discussion. It gives other something real to which they can respond rather than cheerlead (just agree). Pulling in outside resources may also enhance the class notes.

    Sounds like this is developing into a great online learning experience.

  2. Lisa M Lane says:

    To add to Wendy’s advice, the forum could have a task rather than defining something factual. That way the first few students can’t dominate or “get the answers” first.

    I also confess I’m struggling with the idea that reading and answering set questions is “interacting”. I agree with Wendy that having students create the questions might be better at furthering discussion. If you want discussion. If you want them discussion and grappling, the activity must encourage that. Answering questions seems more individual and doesn’t lend itself to “discussion”.

  3. Robert S Rycroft says:

    At the start of the semester put the students into groups and require that they submit group answers and not individual answers. At the end of the semester have each student evaluate the contributions of other members of the group as a way to punish free-riders.

  4. Alan Levine says:

    Steve, I got a litle tripped up in the “content” portion but it makes sense in reading your schema, which has a scaffolding structure. There are basic concepts which need to be understood, then applied, then extended as one moves up through the schema.

    I think you alluded to this in the narrative, but would hope besides the questions:resources you provide, part of the work is students adding their own?

    The group work is tricky in the sense of finding the balance of motivation to do ones part, beyond the “if group member x falls short it lands on the others”.

    I wonder about the feasibility of part of the process is building or modifying the work of other groups, so students are not looking to you’re be the reader/judge of quality but each other.

    What is the incentive then for producing the best class notes?

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