Online Teaching and Inspiration for Classroom Adjustments

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This post originally appeared on July 9, 2015.

I’ve taught courses online during summer sessions for the past several years.  I find it a challenge, and I’m constantly retooling the courses to make sure that students are getting the most out of the experience — and particularly to make sure that I’m providing enough resources for the students who are in the course, beyond my responses to their exams and their written work.

So over the past few years, I’ve been slowly adding features to my online courses.  When I first began to do this, I simply used discussion boards, my personal blog (as opposed to lecturing), and exams with essay questions.  Last year, I began adding short video lectures to my courses — I simply use pre-loaded software on my MacBook to record, and then upload everything to my YouTube channel.  This year, along with those video lectures I added narrated PowerPoints about important literary terms, which were uploaded to my Google Drive and linked to through our Moodle page.  I also had students write daily journal responses (informal), weekly blog posts (a bit more formal), and interpretive papers (most formal of all).  And this summer I finally figured out how to create a timed exam in Moodle.

In previous summers, I’ve taught 200-level courses designed for and taken by English majors.  This summer was the first where I’ve taught the introduction to literature course as an online course.  In thinking about how it went, I’ve recognized a few things about the problems of online education, but I’ve also begun to think about how I can incorporate some of these features into my traditional classroom in the coming academic year.

First: the downside.  Having all the material online — and having students do the work asynchronously — means that students must be extremely motivated to get everything done, and that includes watching the videos.  While I tried to keep most of the videos brief (fewer than 10 minutes), I admit that some of them went longer than that.  Because I use YouTube to store all the videos, I can also see how often they were viewed, and in some cases, it was rarely or not at all.  This definitely constitutes a problem, particularly for students who are unused to textual analysis of literature.  I realized in reading the journals and blog posts that students were simply not getting some things.  Even though I make it a point to avoid complaining about my students publically (only praising them for their awesome work), I actually reached a point where I complained on Twitter something to the effect of  “Anyone who thinks online education is the way to go has never taught Yeats online.”

So, teaching introduction to literature, when the students don’t make use of all the materials available, has the possibility of being disappointing.  Nevertheless the experience of teaching online — and trying out the different tools at my disposal — does give me some ideas about how to more effectively use our Learning Management System during the regular academic year.

One thing that I’m considering is moving the exams online, rather than taking up time in the classroom for them.  This would be particularly useful in my survey course (British Literature before 1798), because I typically run an exam after every major time period — and we lose two class days to those.  I could reclaim those days for more readings, or those could be days of workshopping student papers.  It’s a matter of mashing those 1,000 years of literature into 15 weeks.

Another thing that might be useful is to create short (5 minute) videos about some of the literature, highlighting the most essential ideas that we’ve covered in class, or talking about things that are essential for students to understand.  For example, when talking about Chaucer, I talk to the students about what Middle English sounds like — but what if I were to have a short video (or audio) linked to the Moodle page so that students could go back to it?  Or what if I were to have narrated PowerPoints talking about important literary or historical terms for that survey course?  While I certainly want students to continue to develop their note taking skills, I’m probably most concerned with making sure they know the material and can use it in the classroom.

While I don’t know which of these things I’m going to incorporate into my courses — particularly that survey course — in the fall, I think it’s important to be open to better ways to connect the students with the ideas.  I certainly don’t want the tech to obscure the teaching — but rather I want to let it be a tool towards a better educational experience for my students.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.