This summer, I taught my first online course—Political Science 305: Urban Politics & Policy. It’s an upper level elective that enrolls students from diverse majors—social work, public administration, political science, education, and urban studies. Although I was a bit nervous to teach online, the course went well, and I learned a lot about online teaching. I thought it would be fun to share some of the observations I made and lessons I learned along the way.
The class that I taught was 6 weeks long. I found it challenging to include as much information as I would in a semester length face-to-face class. It’s important, though, to make sure that online classes are just as rigorous as face-to-face courses. During the first week or two of classes, I received a number of e-mails from students telling me that the reading was excessive (I generally assign a chapter per day with some of the longer chapters spread across multiple days) and that I didn’t give enough time for exams (I use 60 minutes for 10-15 short answer questions each week). My approach to dealing with student e-mails about the course design/timing was simply to post a news item in D2L outlining my rationale for each of my choices. I think that if you tell students exactly why you are doing the things you’re doing, they respond really well and they respect you. I tried to make my response fun and humorous (I formatted it like a Q&A session you’d see in a magazine), so that students would be receptive to it.
Here’s an example of how I addressed the question about reading requirements:
Q: You know you assign a lot of reading, right?
A: Yes, I do. I wrote the syllabus so that covers the same amount of material that we would cover if you took my face-to-face version of this class, which I teach during Fall semesters. In order for online classes to be a legitimate offering, they must be rigorous, just like in-person classes. This is an upper level class, so there is fair amount of reading, which means you really have to stay on top of things. I’ve tried to design the class to make it as easy as possible for you to track your progress (e.g., suggested reading completion dates on the syllabus, checklists, etc.). If you have any suggestions that you think could make things even better, please don’t hesitate to let me know! I’m always looking for ways to improve.
And here’s an example of how I addressed the question about using timed exams:
Q: Why do you use timed exams? And, do you really think 60 minutes is enough time?
A: I use timed exams because it forces students to know the material. It creates accountability. Sixty minutes is about the length of time you would have for a normal exam during an in-class course (in some classes it would actually be 55 minutes), so it seems fair to me—especially when some of the questions I ask are quite simple (some of the questions should take just 3 or 4 minutes if you are well prepared). In addition, in-class exams generally don’t allow for the use of notes, so you get that bonus in this class. Sixty minutes doesn’t seem unfair to me given that you get all of your notes (and my notes and the books)—the only condition is that you have to really know your stuff before you begin the exam. You definitely shouldn’t be entering into exams without doing the readings or having just read the PowerPoint (and you shouldn’t plan on looking up every single answer—there’s not enough time for that). Keep in mind that my expectation is that you will spend time reading the text and studying the PowerPoint, but also putting in several hours of additional study time (as you would for an in-person exam or quiz) in order to develop a mastery of the material. As I noted in the syllabus, UWGB is quite serious about online classes covering the same amount of material as would be covered in traditional face-to-face classes (and with the same amount of rigor). The challenge is that we have to cover a lot of ground during a 6-week timetable rather than a 15-week timetable. More on this point below.
After I posted this message, I didn’t get any other questions (or complaints) on the course design. Students could see what my logic was and it seemed fair and reasonable to them. Next time I teach an online class, I plan to do the same thing during the first week.
Another thing that I think is important when teaching online is to ask students for feedback along the way (and to flat out ask students what they are learning). One of the things that I started doing after week 1 was including a question at the end of every exam that simply asked: “What was the most important thing you learned this week?” This was really helpful because it gave students a place to tell me what they enjoyed or how the material connected to their major or future career and to think about what they found to be most interesting and useful. Students also used this space to suggest ideas to me, to comment on challenges, and to point out additional topics they thought should be covered. Typically, I responded to each student’s comments by using the feedback feature in D2L. I think this let students know that I was taking them seriously.
One of the things that I found most helpful in preparing me to teach online was participating in the CATL Starter Online Teaching Fellows Program here at UWGB. I learned a lot of tips and tricks that came in very handy during the course. I also learned a lot about different approaches to designing an online class. I’d highly recommend that you participate in the program if at all possible.
One of the interesting things that I noticed during my class is that students seem to feel much more comfortable complaining or asking you to change course features in an online setting than in a face-to-face. In my face-to-face classes, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student complain (to my face) about the time limits for exams, the number of exam questions, my exam formats, etc. However, in my online class, many students would send e-mails telling me about the course features that they should be altered (usually to give them more time).
I think the difference between classes stems from two things. First, I think there might be a perception among students that online classes are easier than face-to-face classes—that the course should cover less material than a face-to-face version since it’s shorter, that the course won’t require as much outside studying as a face-to-face class, etc. (Note: this is just a thought; I don’t currently have any data to support my hypothesis). This definitely shouldn’t be the case; a 3-credit online class should cover the same content that would be covered in a 3-credit face-to-face class (and with the same rigor). Second, I think that the use of technology removes some of the social pressure that comes with confronting someone to their face.
Generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to fire off an e-mail to someone (especially when it’s someone you’ve never met in person) than to walk up to them and tell them your complaint. I always appreciate student feedback (and I especially want to know if something is problematic for everyone), but I find it really interesting how the use of technology can make it easier to complain/request changes to the course design. This could be something that was unique to my course, but it was something that I haven’t noticed in the other classes I’ve taught (all of which have been face-to-face).
Overall, I think my first online course went well, but, like any class, there are definitely things I will change and modify next time around. After all, part of the fun of teaching a class multiple times is the chance to make it better each time around.
Public and Environmental Affairs