First Reflections about ECON 201, the Online Version

I just finished the first week in my first fully online course, which I’m teaching in parallel with the same course in a traditional, face-to-face environment.  I blogged about the planning process intermittently, but I want to be more systematic at reflecting on how the course plays out.  I will attempt to polish the notes I jotted down over the week, but I think it’s more important to get them out than sit on them to make them pretty.

As usual, the first day in F2F was exciting and fun.  If anything, this group was more exciting to me than normal.  Maybe it’s because I was aware I wouldn’t have this experience with my online course.  I usually prep well for the first day and I had a couple of new wrinkles to present.  Several students attended who wanted to force-add.  I don’t know if it’s my class which is drawing them (since we have aggregate excess demand), the specific time slot (10am MWF), or what the reason might be for these students.

The online course had a different feel, of course, since we didn’t “meet” per se.  I spent the day waiting for students to “check in” online per my instructions.  I was acutely aware of the students who didn’t check in.  This struck me as very different from F2F, where I’m excited about the students who show up, but don’t really think about those who don’t.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.  I ran into a little technology problem:  the list of students who checked in via twitter pulled in to the course website with an RSS feed was completely different from the list appearing when I searched for the class hashtag on twitter.com.  (The class hashtag is #econ201online.  Feel free to tune in.)  This was very strange, and last night, worrisome since Twitter was to be the main means of daily communication in the course.  Martha solved the mystery for me–apparently the generic search on twitter is only of “top rated posts.” Martha gave me a search string that searches *all* tweets for the hashtag I now have slightly more than half the students checked in after 24 hours.  Don’t know if this is good or bad, but it’s better than I felt yesterday.  One student asked a mechanical question via Skype, though not during my virtual office hours so I didn’t see it until this morning.  One student has posted her intro video on the course website—this first assignment is due by tomorrow.

I think I’m going to follow my students on twitter and invite them to follow me to try to build a little more community.

One other issue arose:  What do I do about students who don’t want to use some of the software in the course?  One student told me she didn’t want to get “another” email account which she needed in order to access a google form-based pre-course survey.  Another said she really didn’t want to use twitter and asked if it was absolutely necessary?  Here was my response to the latter:

Hi [ name ],

You’ve asked a good question so let me try to answer it. Twitter is the way we will communicate in class on a daily basis.  If you don’t follow along, you’ll miss important information.  For example, that’s how I’ll announce a new post on the website.  Each post provides important information about assignments and stuff.  You don’t have to participate in twitter if you don’t want to, but you really need to tune in to the class conversation by searching for the class hashtag #econ201online.  If you just open www.twitter.com, click on the # Discover tab, and then type “#econ201online” into the search box, you can leave that window open and it will show all communications from students in the class or me.  It’s actually pretty easy.

I hope it’s normal to spend the first week trying to corral the students and get them to check in to the course.  By Day 4, I  had one drop and one add and I’ve had 17/20 students checked in (plus the student who dropped).  I sent a “Contact me or I will drop you from the course” email to the two no shows, and a Welcome/let me help you get caught up email to the new student.

After trading emails and tweets with the online students, I felt really excited when they started posting their intro videos.  I found it rewarding to be able to match names with faces (and voices).  The next step (this weekend) will be to ask them to review five other videos and tweet @other-student what they liked and what additional information they would like to have heard (or heard more about).  So far the conversation in the course has been students to me.  I’m hoping this will start student-to-student conversation, and also get students more willing to use twitter in the class.

I learned a lot more about these students from their intro video than I do from having my F2F students in class the first week.  Every student had to speak in their video so I got a sense of who they are—not true in F2F, where students rarely talk about anything other than course work.  Another thing I noticed was that I subconsciously profile students based on what they look like in class, but the videos often upended those profiles with respect to my online students.

I found it interesting to compare the self-introductory videos of my online students with what I did independently in my F2F class—I asked students to do a economic concept exercise, an idea I got from Thomas Angelo who gave a pre-conference workshop at the 2011 Educause Learning Initiative meetings.   The exercise gives a list of a dozen important concepts and asks if the students know them, maybe know them, or don’t know them at all.  It also asks them to enter a definition if they can.  The students do this exercise first individually; then they form groups of exactly three students to discuss their responses and develop a consensus view.  Part of the group work is introducing themselves, and a key part of the exercise is beginning to develop community in the course.  I’ll be interested to see if the video approach and twitter follow-up works better.

After the video assignment, I gave my students the beginning of the first online discussion exercise.  I asked them to identify the key concepts, theories, and institutional facts & findings from the Readings in Topic 1 and email me their responses.   I learned from the course review panel that I haven’t explained this well enough, so I’ll need to do a better job with explaining it my students.  Perhaps an explanatory post is in order.

As I lectured on Friday, I realized that in the lecture I’m giving my F2F class the boiled down version of the content, that I expect my online students to create with my help through online discussion.  The former is clearly more efficient but which group will actually learn better?

Two students dropped at the last possible minute.  I’m guessing this was in response to the deadline for the first online discussion assignment, something that requires analytical thought.

I don’t do that much the first week in a F2Fcourse, but I feel like I’m already behind in the online due to the community building we’ve done.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to catch up over the course of the semester.

Students haven’t really bought into using twitter yet.  There’ve been very few messages using the course hashtag.

While all my online students are traditional in the sense that the attend the rest of their courses at UMW face-to-face, at least three students (15%) mentioned explicitly that they commute to school from more than an hour away, so online courses are a real draw for them.  I’ve heard this story before from DS106 students, too.  I wonder if our administration is aware there’s a need here we can address through our Online Learning Initiative.

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3 Responses to First Reflections about ECON 201, the Online Version

  1. “I want to be more systematic at reflecting on how the course plays out…. I was acutely aware of the students who didn’t check in [online].  This struck me as very different from F2F, where I’m excited about the students who show up, but don’t really think about those who don’t.”

    Steve:

    Good for you for commiting to public reflection! I’ll look forward to reading your updates! (I’ve considered this but never have found the time/energy after soliciting/responding to student feedback on a weekly basis.)

    Yes, I think it’s fairly typical to worry more about the “one” than the “99” in an online course. There’s very much a concern for whether the message has gotten to the student. Does she know what to do/where to go (“is this thing on?!?”).

    I’ve adopted a strategy employed by many of our online faculty: “Week 0” in which we deal w/ technical issues, orienting/community building activities, and make sure we have everyone “aboard” before getting into the course in earnest. That might or might not be useful to you in your next iteration.

    I think the video intros is a great touch! Will the remainder of student contributions to the community be in writing? If so, I wonder how well students will bridge the gap from the “reading” of the video personae to the later textual representations of their classmates’ “selves.”

    Looking forward to hearing more!

    Kelvin

  2. onepercentyellow (Leslie Lindballe) says:

    So happy to see you reflecting so deeply on your unfolding course! What an amazing resource you are creating.

    I love how you’re using the video work to foster the growth of community. This feeling of connection to other classmates improves the sense of responsibility to the class, IMHO. As our online self-building often happens as an extracurricular activity (our FB updates and blogs), connecting students to each other personally increases buy-in. I wonder how many of your students will read your blog!

    I like Kelvin’s idea of a Week 0 as well. The technology curve can be steep and if students don’t have the time to get oriented, I could see the course falling off the desk.

    I look forward to following along!

  3. Pingback: Online Teaching & Learning: It’s harder than it looks | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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