Some Online Teaching Advice from the Pietist Schoolman

I am working on my online courses today.  I am rewriting my course schedule after consolidating some readings and dropping others.  I am creating videos and trying to get up to speed with the discussion board feature on Messiah College’s course delivery system (Canvas). I am trying to figure out how to teach writing online.

My personality and face-to-face engagement has always driven my pedagogical style. This will be different.

Last night, in a moment exasperation, I posted this pic to Instagram and Facebook under the caption, “What are these things called online courses?”:

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My friend Amy Bass, a professor of Sport Studies at Manhattanville College, provided some inspiration:

Another friend, Chris Gerhz, aka The Pietist Schoolman, offers some good advice. Here is a taste of his recent post:

1. Don’t try to do too much.
I think this goes without saying. We’re all improvising here, and not just as teachers.

2. Recalibrate expectations for students
They’re improvising, too, as they adjust to their different professors figuring out different solutions to these problems. They’ve lost most of the routine and structure that makes academic work doable day to day, week to week. Many of them have lost the jobs that help them pay for college, and some are working parents facing the same challenges I do. I still expect my students to do the best they can, but I’m not sure that “rigor” is anything we ought to expect under these circumstances.

3. Avoid synchronous activities
This is not the time to prove to anyone that you can do lecture, discussion, etc. live online. Internet access is too unreliable, ed tech companies are being stretched to their limits, and students’ schedules are thrown out of whack. I generally plan to allot at least a day or more, for students to complete even small activities. I’m trying to think more in terms of weekly than daily objectives, a sequence more than a schedule. And I’m glad that, in two courses, I’d already had students doing a lot of project-based learning, since we’ll lean into that approach even more while online.

4. Let necessity be the mother of invention
I don’t expect too much of this half-semester. But by the same token, I do want to leave myself open to the possibility that I’ll figure out new ways of teaching. That was one of our lessons from teaching online in the summer: we treated it as a kind of pedagogical laboratory or playground, one that has indeed generated a few ideas that we’ve since integrated into other modes of teaching.

5. Talk about COVID
It’s what we’re all thinking about anyway; let’s teach to it. I’m not a specialist in epidemiology, public health, public policy, or economics, but as a historian, there are things I can do to help students think about topics connected to the crisis, if not the disease itself.

Read the entire post here.

What Stories Will You Tell About Coronavirus 2020?

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This kid just came home to continue her college education online. She is not happy about it, but she is making the best of it.

The coronavirus story is far from complete, but I hope that many of you are collecting stories to pass on to your families and communities. Let me encourage you to keep a diary or journal. Future historians will thank you for this. Here’s a start:

My life has not changed considerably since this pandemic hit the United States. In fact, I feel a little guilty as I watch so many people whose lives are changing drastically as a result of the coronavirus and are now overburdened with work–especially healthcare providers and people in leadership. I am trying to continue my calling as an educator during the crisis. I have a platform here at the blog and I have been trying to do as many posts at possible to help folks put this pandemic in some kind of larger perspective. We are getting a record number of readers these days, so thanks for following along.

I have largely self-quarantined. I had some kind of flu bug last week, but I have managed to recover. Joy now seems to have picked it up. But relatively speaking, we are all fine.

Today I stopped going to McDonalds to get my morning coffee and bought a Keurig. I am watching a lot of CNN and trying to stay up to speed on what is happening around the country. It is is important to stay informed in times like these.

I am currently on Spring Break. Joy is now working full-time from home. My youngest daughter Caroline came home from college on Tuesday night. She is continuing her semester online from her bedroom. Yesterday I was tempted to “sit on” on one her classes, but then thought better of it.

My eldest daughter Allyson is still in Grand Rapids. She learned last night that she will never take another face-to-face college course. She is sad about this news and we are sad for her. At this point we are not even sure if she will have a graduation ceremony.  She lives off-campus with her friends and is trying to make the most out of the last weeks of her college experience. Tonight she played Monopoly with her housemates. She is also battling some kind of non-corona flu bug.

I am proud of Caroline and Ally.  Both of them canceled Spring Break trips and they have been taking social distancing very seriously. I wish I could say the same about their peers across the country.

Next Wednesday I start online teaching. Fortunately, I have three sections of the same course. I am still working on platforms and approach. My mailboxes and social media feeds are flooded with links to online teaching resources.  Sometimes even good advice can be overwhelming.

While the blog continues, I am not sure about the immediate future of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  We will not have access to our Messiah College recording studio, so we will need to decide whether to cancel the season or try to continue with really bad sound quality.  We still have one more episode in the can, so look for Episode 66 with historian Serena Zabin, author of an amazing new book on the Boston Massacre.  I know some of you offer financially support our podcasting work.  Once we make a decision, I will be in touch via Patreon.

What stories will you tell about living through this historic pandemic? Even you think, as I do, that your stories are boring and commonplace, you are doing a public service by writing them down.

McSweeney’s: “Welcome To Your Hastily Prepared Online College Course”

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Yup.

Here is a taste of Ryan Weber‘s hilarious piece:

Due to concerns about COVID-19, our university recently gave me three hours to move our entire class online for the next three to sixteen weeks. I am providing these instructions for a seamless, uninterrupted course experience. I have never taught online before, but with the help of our men’s field hockey coach turned online-learning coordinator, I have developed a virtual experience that matches the intimacy and rigor we cultivated in our Philosophy of Face-to-Face Discourse In the Public Square class.

COURSE COMMUNICATION

We will use AOL Instant Messenger to recreate our passionate in-class discussions. I assume everyone has an AIM account, so please send out your usernames. Mine is HangingChad2000. For fun, I encourage everyone to include their favorite Donnie Darko quote as their away message.

VIDEO LECTURES

Lecture One

Content: I look in the camera and say, “Is this on? Is this on? Oh, I think it’s on! Wait, it’s not on! No, it is on! How do I share my screen?! I don’t think this is on.”
Takeaways: The camera was on.

Lecture Two

Content: I rhapsodize beautifully about Habermasian theories of the public square as they apply in times of pandemic before I realize that the camera was not on.
Takeaways: I don’t remember what I said, but it felt like a pretty amazing lecture. You would have loved it.

Lecture Three

Content: I provide an introduction to Amartya Sen’s work while my cat repeatedly sticks her butt into the camera and then knocks the laptop to the floor.
Takeaways: My laptop is now glitching after falling on the ground. This should not affect our course experience.

Lecture Four

Content: A YouTube clip of Bill and Ted meeting Socrates.
Takeaways: “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”

Read the rest here.

Why Face-to Face Instruction is Superior

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Christopher Schaberg teaches English and environment at Loyola University New Orleans.  He is not a fan of online teaching.  He explains why in this piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Once an online class is done, it’s done. But my classes are never complete. My students stay in touch with me, come back and visit me, occasionally even find me at my summer place in the woods and take a walk with me. I read their essay drafts and give them advice and suggestions on résumés and job prospects long after they graduate. I run into them at the grocery store. I see them on the street at night walking their dogs, and they tell me about how life changing that one novel was. We catch up, share stories and bid each other goodbye with warmth and fondness until the next time we meet again — whenever that may be. While this can certainly also result from pedagogical relationships developed online, I would wager that the occurrence and persistence of such connections is much higher when they have originated in the face-to-face classroom.

I should acknowledge here that my tenured position gives me the relative safety from which to take this strong stance toward online education. I teach at a small university where seminar-style courses are still allowed (and even used as a marketing tool). But even in this context, the juggernaut of online education looms. I am leery of my job being outmoded with each new push toward expanded course offerings online.

Sometimes I hear people on my campus say that online learning is “the future” or that it’s “here to stay.” But I doubt it. I’ve asked my students over the years, and none of them would prefer their course work be online. In their hypermediated lives, the classroom and the time therein is a sanctuary. And for children these days being raised with iPads and smartphones in the increasingly permeating, insinuating regime of the internet, being off-line is the real desirable good. (If you’ve ever witnessed a small child begging a parent to put the phone down, you know just what I am talking about.) Finally, it’s not even the future any more. The glow of online excitement is fading, at best.

Read the entire piece here.  I agree with just about all of it.  But take what I have to say with a grain of salt–I also believe that the lecture is still useful.  I am afraid my days in the academy may be numbered!  🙂

Teaching is a Human Act

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For several years now Jonathan Rees has been railing against MOOCs and other forms of automated teaching.  I appreciate his insights.  I am a regular reader of his blog More or Less Bunk.

Rees’s most recent reflection on teaching and technology appears today at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste of “You Can’t Automate Good Teaching”:

A few years ago, I spilled an awful lot of pixels over at my blog trying to come to grips with the implications of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). They were supposed to be the innovation that would not only make most college professors obsolete, but force countless colleges to close as every student would prefer to hear Harvard’s best lecture rather than get their  course content from the community-college professor in their neighborhood.

Of course, any college professor who cares one whit about teaching understands that education involves a lot more than just conveying information. There’s the teaching of particular skills. There’s applied learning. There’s the unpredictable relationship between two humans whenever they try to to accomplish anything complicated.

In other words, good teaching is just one long series of “edge cases.” You may come into class with the same lecture notes every semester, but unless you spend all your time staring up at the ceiling, how your students interpret the material you’re teaching is going to affect the way you choose to teach it. They don’t even have to stop you and ask questions while you’re talking. So long as you and they are in the same room — with you conveying information in real time — you will see how your material is going over and can adjust your presentation accordingly.

Even if you really could deliver the same exact lecture every time, you will never get the same result twice because the learning process is never entirely predictable. If we automated learning, information would still travel from the brain of the professor to the brain of the student, but we’d never know exactly how well students understood it. You might as well just hit “play” on a tape of someone else’s lecture, then leave the room to do something else.

Read the entire piece here.

Gilder-Lehrman Online Course on Colonial North America: Week One

The first day of class is in the books.  As some of you know, I agreed to teach an online graduate course this semester for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  The course, “Colonial North America,” began last night.  Those who follow the Virtual Office Hours (which will be coming back soon) know that I have been on camera before, but I have never taught an online course before. Fortunately, Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers were there to coach me through it!

The course got off to a bit of an inauspicious start when the Internet in my office cut out unexpectedly about five minutes into the class.  This prompted at least one member of the class to turn to Twitter:

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Lance and Hannah quickly moved us from Ethernet to WiFi and we were back in business.  It turns out that I was responsible for the glitch.  Unaware that the Ethernet was running through the phone on my desk, I unplugged the phone cable.  My intentions were good.  I wanted to make sure that the phone wouldn’t ring during the session.  In doing so, I brought the course to an embarrassing, albeit momentary, halt.   For those students who are reading this, I am truly sorry.  I don’t think it will happen again.

We spent most of our time “together” last night discussing the format of the papers that the students will be writing each week, talking about the limitations of a “Whig” approach to studying the colonies, and examining some of the economic and religious motivations for settlement.  In addition to my lectures, the students (most of them are K-12 teachers) are reading Alan Taylor’s American Colonies and a host of primary sources.  In preparation for last night’s course they read documents by Columbus, Cartier, Hakluyt, and others.

It took some time for me to adjust to the online format.  For example, it is hard for me to sit still when I am teaching.  I need to move around the room and wave my arms.  As I looked back at the video of the session I am constantly bobbing and weaving in my seat.  I need to get used to being “stuck” in the camera frame.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was the lack of immediate feedback from the class.  I am used to asking a lot questions–sometimes in rapid-fire style–when I teach.  This is not easy when you need to wait thirty seconds or more for answers.  Lance did a great job feeding me the questions as they came onto his computer screen, but it was still a bit strange for me.

Finally, online teaching makes it impossible to take the temperature (so to speak) of the class.  I can’t see their faces.  I can’t tell if they are connecting with what I am saying.  I don’t see the head nods or looks of concern when they don’t understand something.  I will have to get used to it.

As I come to the end of this post I realize that I sound rather negative about the experience.  Actually, I had fun doing this.  It is not the same as teaching in a face-to-face classroom, but I don’t think anyone taking the course is expecting that kind of experience.  I am sure I will feel more comfortable in my virtual classroom as the semester goes on.  I think we got off to a good start last night.