It has been said that no plan survives first contact and that has certainly been my experience teaching online this semester. I thought I was well prepared to teach this course, as well prepared as anyone can be who has never taught a fully online course before. I have explored teaching with different digital technologies in my otherwise face-to-face courses since about 1992. I have used groupware, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, and other tools. Admittedly, I am writing this during final exam week, so I may not have enough distance yet for an objective look, but looking back it appears that many/most of the components of my course that were intended to differentiate it and make it a genuinely liberal arts & sciences experience were ultimately jettisoned in an effort to save time and cover the content.
Let’s start with my plan to use twitter to create social context for the course. I figured this would be easier than my earlier experiments with twitter since Millenials have now “discovered” twitter, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Early on it seemed clear that my students didn’t really want to use twitter. Some even told me so.
Most students tweeted using the class hashtag no more than five times over the course of the semester. Only one student really used twitter daily while a few more did weekly. That doesn’t seem like much of a social presence to me. After a couple of weeks, I became worried that my students were not getting the basic communications about the course. This inference could have been unwarranted, since posting tweets is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee following twitter. In any case, I began to follow important tweets (after a couple of hours) with duplicate email messages. Then I stopped the tweets pretty much altogether.
I had great hopes for using an online discussion board to take the place of class sessions. It didn’t work out well in practice. I never got the majority of the students to participate in the online discussions we had. Most students seemed unable to do the type of critical thinking necessary for using the schema to categorize content in each topic—perhaps the approach was too abstract for them. I never got a majority of students to participate, even when I changed the task to asking them to “summarize” a reading for the course. They appeared to see the discussion board as something extra, not something central to the course. This could have been because, though I gave students credit for participating, I gave no explicit grades on the participation. I made note of the quantity and quality of student posts, but I didn’t provide that to students. This is something I could improve on in the future. It’s also possible I needed to spend (more) time training the students in what I wanted them to do with the discussion board. The students seemed to want me to “give them” what they needed to know, rather than asking them to dig it out for themselves.
Finally, the macromooc was a fail. I think the concept had legs, but the timing didn’t work out. By the time we had covered the course content needed to evaluate the presidential candidates’ economic policies, the election was upon us so we had no time to do what I had planned. I think I will try something more limited next year.
What was left to distinguish the course was the writing assignments which worked fairly well at getting the students to explore the content in more detail than they would in a lecture-course. Some students, though, seemed to see them as independent of the course content. Several asked, “Will what we did on the essays be on the midterm?”
The online class ran consistently about a week behind the face-to-face class. This lag was due to the first week in which we spent team-building and getting used to the online features. Note that I tried to do this before the “first” day of class but didn’t get enough participation. It was fortunate that the final exam for the online course was the last day of the exam period.
Students didn’t do a good enough job of “following” the course. A number missed Essay 5, which was given around the same time as Essay 4. Essay 5 was announced via an all-class email. One student emailed me, “How did you notify us that it was due? I was talking to some classmates and none of us had any clue that there was an essay due.” Eight students had already turned the assignment in at that point.
I knew coming in to this course that there were certain analytical topics that students have traditionally had difficulty learning on their own. I planned to video my in-class lectures on those topics and edit the videos down to bite-sized chunks for the online course. The first of these topics, Supply & Demand, occurred early in the term. I found it difficult to come up with the video equipment by the time the lectures started, so I didn’t video this topic. The online students did noticeably worse than the f2f students on the first exam questions involving S&D. They also did very poorly on the second exam, which prompted me to find a friend from whom to borrow the video equipment. From that point on, I lugged the camera, tripod and power cords to and from class each session. I had to arrive early to set everything up, and depart later to break everything down. This was tedious. I learned that video editing can take *hours and hours*, though I did get better at it by the end of the semester. I did find it very interesting to see myself lecture. I also got a good sense of how my interactive lecture style is very different (less efficient, time-wise perhaps) than a direct content delivery lecture would be. In some cases, the pared down videos were only 10 minutes in length for a 50 minute lecture. I did make sure that none of the clips were longer than 10 minutes and most were closer to 5 minutes. They are all up on YouTube if you’d like to look at them. A number of students told me they used the videos to study for the final and that they were very useful, but I think by that point it may have been too late. I need to think more about how to build the interactive elements of my face-to-face course (e.g. small group problems to work out and present) into the online version.
In retrospect, the students never seemed to buy in to my vision for the course, but neither did they seem to have the self-discipline and metacognition to do the work, and thus the learning, on their own. Perhaps undergraduates (first and second years and upper level students with other majors) do not have what it takes to be successful in an online course. Or perhaps the failure was due to my inexperience as an online teacher.
In sum, I found this online course a tremendous amount of work and more than once asked myself why I was killing myself to do this when teaching face-to-face is so much easier and fun. Nonetheless, I think I should teach online at least once more, since there clearly is a learning curve.
I have two more tasks to do to complete the evaluation of this course. I asked students in both my face-to-face and online sections to do a course evaluation that I designed. I need to review and reflect on those evaluations. I also plan to do a careful statistical analysis of exam grades in the two sections, controlling for student ability, credit hours completed and a couple of other standard variables. To get that data I need to talk to the Registrar, so both of these tasks will have to wait until I return to school next week.
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ladybugblue/295252840/sizes/m/ “Harder than it looks”