Online Courses: Experiments and Innovations

As I continue to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to constructing and executing online courses as part of my professional development as a teacher, I am emboldened by the amazing positive feedback I’ve received from my students on their evaluations of the courses. I expected a much rougher first year. Instead, student approval of my courses is as high as I achieved teaching in-person in small seminar courses. I might be doing something right!

My primary focus has been on achieving some that’s-a-real-person identity via remote technologies in spite of the severe limitations of those technologies in forging real human connection. In this brief post, I want to share two things I’ve learned and prospects for further online teaching improvement and effectiveness.

Minimize Handout Use

I love to write. Which means I love to revise and rewrite. Look at any handout I’ve written and used for five years running and not one of ’em will be reused without edits. It’s one of the ways I incorporate lessons learned as well as feedback from colleagues and students. I also love to “borrow” handouts my colleagues use and make them my own.


Source: “5 Fresh Powerpoint Alternatives,” by Adam Tratt. Haiku Deck Blog.

But for an online course, printed handouts–or electronic versions of the same–have not been as effective in communicating background information, assignment instructions, assessment criteria, and other common types of supplemental course material I provide to my students. There are reasons for this phenomenon that are part of an ongoing research area of mine. The online nature of the course is itself not the direct cause of this; I have noticed the same ineffectiveness of communicating vital information via the printed word with students in traditional in-person classes. So this problem exists on a continuum.

The second thing I’ve learned from teaching online courses has been a result of trial-and-error experimentation.

Video Handouts

That phrase makes no sense, right? Nevertheless, this is how I’ve begun to conceptualize my handouts for my online students. The information in my handouts is critical, I believe, for providing the context and guidance students need to achieve the course objectives and learning outcomes.

Fortunately, before I taught my first full online course, I had already observed the problem of student use and understanding of printed text handouts in my traditional seminar courses. So I knew that I needed to communicate this information to my students in an alternative medium. Video was the obvious choice, but how best to deliver that video content?

I’ve tried three platforms: Periscope, Google Hangouts, and YouTube. In a separate post, I’ll review my experience with each. Presently, I am working with YouTube (links below). With Periscope and Google Hangouts, my focus was on real-time accessibility. I wanted to produce a kind of virtual class session / office hours space for students to connect live with each other and me. But this runs up against one of the main benefits of taking an online course as a student: the flexibility to complete the course assignments on one’s own schedule. Students are often working jobs full-time or have other responsibilities that limit the days of the week and times they can engage online. The same is true for us teachers! Since the majority of students could not attend these virtual meetings live, I decided to take the additional steps of recording and editing them for replay. I upload them to YouTube so that all of the students in the class can watch them at their convenience. But this misses the original goal of having real-time engagement. Unless such online meetings are “contractually” built into the course, that is, showing up for an online class meeting is counted like attendance in a traditional classroom, it is going to be difficult to find days and times when the majority of students can attend together.

So that has been a major lesson I’ve learned about online pedagogy for typical online courses. I think the promise of real-time online class meetings is so valuable that I don’t plan on giving up on it – just think how underserved communities could be reached with world-class courses taught live by master teachers. All that is needed is a minimal commitment to technological infrastructure in a traditional school, library, or community center, and colleges and universities promoting the program and dedicating a small staff for technical support.

One day. For now, I am pleased with the complementary written and video materials to deliver all of the course structure and content to empower my students to work their way through the course at their own pace. Having all of this in place before the course starts allows me to focus my time and energy where it is more valuable: evaluating the work produced by the students and giving them constructive feedback.

A version of this post was originally published on my LinkedIn site.


Course Introduction (video only)

Course Syllabus (written and video – written primary)

How to Read the Course Texts (written and video – video is primary)

How to Use the Analytical Model for the Course Assignments (written and video – both essential)

How to Participate in the Online Discussions (written and video – video is primary)

If you’d like a copy of any of my written handouts, just drop me a line using the Contact form and I’ll be glad to share them with you.

Socratic Method in Teaching and Learning

socratesYesterday NPR ran a good story on schools and teachers using the Socratic method in their classes in a variety of subjects. My own kids are fortunate to attend a public school that incorporates Socratic teaching in middle and high school.

The story quotes John Caelstrom making the crucial point about the aim of Socratic teaching: “Let’s not make this all about learning to gain information but to learn how to learn.”

In a good Socratic seminar you do “gain information” about the history, culture, author, and any number of facts, but the point isn’t merely to acquire the kind of information you can regurgitate on a short answer test or multiple-choice exam. It is instead to sharpen your mental acuity so that you can think through difficult problems and important questions, sift evidence, weigh propositions, and evaluate answers and solutions, all on your own. To encourage an awareness of what you don’t know together with an inquisitiveness and mental toolkit to seek out knowledge. As I emphasized in my tutorial, it is to gain new and healthy habits of mind, intellectual dispositions, that empower you to participate and lead in a democratic society.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll be starting a new series about the specific texts that one often finds on “Great Books” or “Great Ideas” courses. These will be very brief posts, very opinionated, and if given due consideration, I hope very helpful to you. Gilgamesh will be coming to your browser very soon.