Ed’s Rules of Online Teaching, Part Three: “Wrangling Content”

This is my final (and hopefully still helpful) installment on my approaches to and experiences with teaching online, following Part One: “Managing Expectations” and Part Two: “Low Tech is the Best Tech.” Again, these are meant to be musings, reflections, and prompts that outline approaches to online pedagogy.

As I have been going over my last two posts and some of the responses — all very generous and supportive — I am struck by the irony and conundrum of trying to talk about, instruct on, and make interesting and accessible these ideas about online teaching via the very platforms and digital technologies everyone is trying to make sense of and use with care, detail, and creativity. In many ways, my blog posts are not great instruction since they are largely mono-directional, single channel, text-only, meant to only to be read. They deliver content but given the genre of the “blog post” are not necessarily meant to invite discussion, play, or assessment. There will be no quiz at the end. I do hope that they do invite reflection and intertextuality.

Rule #3: Wrangling Content

I think online teaching asks teachers to more fully articulate not only what a reading, activity, lecture, exam, or assignment is “doing” in the course but how it is doing it, what adaptations need to be made to make it amenable to online instruction, and is it “worth” the time, effort, and bandwidth needed. Again, I will insist that in these adaptations and adjustments that it is possible to maintain academic challenge and rigor, that courses online be held to the same learning objectives, goals, rubrics, and outcomes as face-to-face courses. Some of that care and “quality” will mean adjustments in the mechanics and pedagogy of the course — some things will be foregrounded, other things might be lost in translation — but it also means adjusting our (teachers and students and administrators) attitudes toward and proficiencies with online instruction and learning.

Online pedagogy is deeply ambivalent for me. As I said in my earlier post, I am skeptical and optimistic about it. I guess all teaching is ambivalent to a degree because many of us have been trained to be critical of norms, structures, rubrics, power, institutions even as we are representatives of and navigators of those very things. But there is something about teaching online that is far too embedded in and with late capitalist fantasies of the democratization of education, the monetization of failing-and-retaking courses, and the interactive fallacy that online means better, faster, easier, convenient, and “just as good” as other forms of teaching and learning. I do think teaching online does work — sometimes, given reasonable conditions — and it can be “just as good” (maybe not the same) as in-person instruction. But at this point in time, it requires a lot more planning, curating, and re-skilling, re-attituding of teachers and students. It is not for everyone much in the same way college is not for everyone, just as there must be other avenues, modalities, and temporalities for training and education and exploration and success.

I think most of us know that we cannot take an analog course and simply port it to online without changing anything. I think this is particularly true of wanting online courses to be organized around synchronous instruction. Ironically, in face-to-face courses, particularly large lecture classes, I see a move to asynchronous teaching (though we may not be calling it that) as lectures are often recorded, exhaustively detailed slides are available, and syllabi are textbook driven. I think the lessons in both formats point to taking advantage of both modalities when and where possible, or better yet, taking parts, distinct mechanics of synchronous and asynchronous teaching to enhance courses. Adaptation and reconfiguration and remediation become key. It will be different, but there are many ways and means to accomplish similar goals and activities.

Here are a few quick observations about organizing the “stuff” of courses online, the content of the class (i.e. texts, lectures, discussions, assignments, writing, reading, watching, playing, quizzes, exams, activities, and so on):

  • Syllabi Are in the Details: In general, my syllabi (the actual calendar part) are quite brief, trying to cut down on the increasingly contractual nature of the document, and then details are supplied at the start of each week. And in a literature course, generally, each day’s activities are pretty straightforward: read a section of a novel, come to class prepared to close read, discuss, perhaps introduce a term, bit of history, context, perhaps an assignment is due. I recognize that not all disciplines and courses can play so fast and loose. But for online courses, having a clear, premeditated, and set idea of how each week (not day) will play out is ideal. I often start with making a wishlist of what I think each week will cover: readings, in-class activities, lectures, discussions, group work, quizzes, assignments, and so on. I admit that my colleagues who plan out each class period to the five minutes is amazing to me, but it is not how I organize my teaching, which is structured yet extemporaneous. (I think this comes from my decades playing as a game master for tabletop and live-action role-playing games: know the big arcs of an adventure, a story, but then see where the players take you; correct, adjust, and deus ex machina as needed.) Once you have a wishlist for each week, looking at each item as a potential discussion thread/post, edit, combine, and decide what is most necessary to what might be optional or cut altogether. I sort my threads/posts into a handful of categories: REQUIRED, LECTURE, BLOGGING POINT, Q&A, and students can start their own threads, too. Overall, per week, at most there are 4-8 threads; only REQUIRED threads must be responded to or engaged with, but all threads can be responded to or engaged. Here’s a message I sent to students in my ENG 3060J Women and Writing online course (which also includes an explanatory video that covers what is written):

One of the challenges of teaching online is that sometimes things are “released” over the course of the week; basically, it prevents folks from waiting to the last minute to do everything, posting all of their responses on Saturday, for example.  I am going to do my best to have as much of each Week set up at the start.  But generally you will have a few REQUIRED threads, including the Episode Discussion Presentations & Curations, and a few BLOGGING POINTS (which you should read and respond to you, if you want; it would count as participation for that week).  LECTURE and Q&A threads should be read/viewed and then you can ask questions, make comments on something from the lecture or reading, ask for clarifications, point to a passage or example or issue.  Basically, participate on any of the threads as if they were “live” face to face conversations: where would you raise your hand to ask something or to contribute something?  That is where I would post something.  And finally, you could start a new thread on your own for something not being covered by the extant posts.

Other than reading, watching, and participating, you have the more formal writing assignments that have specific directions and due dates; these are uploaded to Bb via their Assignment page.  

If you don’t get to a discussion thread by exactly Wednesday or Saturday, that is fine.  Just make sure to complete them as soon as possible.  Chronic lateness or missing participation will affect your grade, though, and you cannot wait till Week 9 to do more work to make up for Week 4.  Stay on top of things: this is the best practice.

Always check the Announcements page, Q&A forum, and Class Discussion forum regularly.  Pay attention to the directions.  Weekly Folders are good for the list of tasks but they do not show you if new replies have been made to a thread.  Make sure to read the responses carefully before you respond.  Again, think about this as having a conversation or discussion (albeit a little more slowly and asynchronously).  

  • Establish a Routine: It is well documented that the students that do best in online course are those who are engaged, good at time management, and generally self-driven. Therefore, course design (and to a certain extend the instructor and even course climate) needs to maintain a discernable schedule, a pattern to the week, with check-ins, due times/dates, scaffolding and organization of material and assignments to be as regular and in a sense predictable as possible. Moreover, I tend to encourage students to develop habits of mind that are analogous to their face-to-face courses. For example, on the semester system, a typical 3-credit course meets MWF or TuTh; therefore, I say that students should try to do something similar and set aside time per course per week that they sit down to work on the class. More often is best at the very least to get the headlines, watch videos, or read new posts or comments.
  • Checkpoints and Check-Ins: In developing a routine, in my courses, I chunk the weeks, creating two check-in moments: a set of things need to be done by Wednesday evening and another set by Saturday evening; Sunday is for catch-up; due dates for formal work are usually Sunday evening. Granted, as with F2F classes, most students will wait till the last minute to get things done but at least with two checkpoints, the work is distributed and still asynchronously flexible. Then, at the scale of the term, I have a midterm check-in with students often doing a simple, anonymous course evaluation where I ask: “What are we doing well? What are we doing not so well? What one thing can we change to improve learning?” Then I share all of the responses, articulate my responses and any adjustments possible, and allow students to discuss. Overall, because you cannot see students, their expression, their body language, whether they are paying attention or seem sick or do not have their books, checking in regularly helps establish connection and community. Though, I would warn against being too available; students often think that because a course is online it means instructors are always a post, email, or instant message away.
  • Convert, Compress, and Cut: Reiterating my breakdowns above, decide what can be converted to online, what can be compressed or condensed into one activity, thread, assignment to hit multiple goals, and what cannot be adapted and must be cut.
  • Manage Clicks, Fewer Nests: One of the things that comes up in evaluations of my online courses is the complaint that “things are hard to find” or “I don’t know where to look” (particularly in the learning management system). Currently, my courses are organized by week, with folders for each week, with other folders for other moving parts like readings or assignments. I have not yet had a chance to test this theory, but I think that current user experience/interface design, particularly on smart phones and tablets, is largely not about clicking/opening folders but about swiping, scrolling, and searching. I think the fewer clicks and fewer nested items in online organization is actually easier and more intuitive to the way students interact with digital technology. Sometimes I think having one large forum with threads/posts clearly dated, labeled “3/18 Week 1 Required: Close Reading” is more straightforward than the click/nest chain of Class Discussion > Week 1 > Required Threads > Close Reading. Depending on the robustness of your LMS/CMS and the proficiencies of students, this of course will vary and change. As with most things, be clear and consistent and teaching the class the organization structures and norms is key.
  • Multimodal: Where possible, avoid the “wall of text.” I try to keep my prompts, assignments, and lectures short. All of my posts (and I encourage students to do the same) use text, image, and video where appropriate. I like making brief, unedited (who has the time) explanations of course goals, introductions to concepts or contexts, assignments, and feedback. These videos are accompanied by text (it need not be a transcript) that explains or restates what was just presented (including any pertinent handouts or assignment sheets). And I often integrate relevant, cheerful, or illustrative images or gifs.
  • Embedded Links: Though a little time consuming, I stress the use of embedded links (or just links) that connect posts to previous or related posts (when relevant) and to relevant material outside the course. I encourage students to do the same in their responses and writings. In a sense, by creating these links, you create a little internet, a kind of a wiki of the course. Obviously, there is not enough time to link every term or idea, but I like to keep big topics or similar discussions connected.
  • Be (More) Directive: Be very clear and precise about directions, about what you want students to do, how much counts as “enough,” and offer sample questions or prompts or avenues to accomplishing a task or goal. This is managing expectations at the micro level. In fact, at the start of every week, I send an email (which is archived under announcements) outlining the week’s goals, texts, activities, and assignments, a kind of “site map” for the week. Then for each lecture, discussion thread, or task, I offer directions and suggestions for engaging the material.
  • Discussion is Slow: My courses in English tend to be discussion-based, Socratic or dialogue heavy, with a smattering of small-to-large group shares. But discussion in the face-to-face sense is incommensurate with asynchronous mediums. Time, in many cases, is the enemy. Therefore, the slower pace of online discussion needs to be taken into account. Again, I create only a few required threads where everyone must engage in some way; sometimes they can choose 2 out of 3 required threads. The other content then becomes largely read-only with optional participation. I put some version of this set of reminders at the end of every required discussion post:

{Please read all of the replies before you post. You do not have to answer every single question like a laundry list. Rather, generate a response, which addresses some substantive part of the prompt. Or, generate a reply to a peer’s post. You may record and post a video response. Posts may include images or other media. Outstanding responses are one or two substantive paragraphs, focus on specific close reading details, make direct connections between the episode and the week’s readings, and do more than just personally respond to the texts. Remember to change the subject line of your post when necessary and to keep similar topics together. Be precise, analytical, concrete, and concise. Then, once you have responded, selectively return, read, and comment on at least one other person’s post. This required thread is due by Wednesday evening will be scored as complete or incomplete.}

  • Model and Highlight: In my framing of a discussion thread or explanation of an activity or assignment, I often include a brief example where I demonstrate the skill(s) and tasks at hand. For example, if I am asking students to discuss a section of a novel or a scholarly article, I will offer up directions they can take the discussion but also type out one of my close reading moments. Moreover, when you see students doing well or offering outstanding responses, quickly respond with a bit of positive reinforcement, noting how/what/why they did something well. Modeling and highlighting places, moments, people, and behaviors that are working allows everyone to see and suss out what is being expected and what constitutes solid work, effort, and participation. Moreover, the discussion threads in my course are demonstrating and practicing the very skills that will be used later for formal assignments. Here are a few things I try to get everyone to do (many of these practices are from older, text-based forms like listservs and message boards):

    –read a whole thread, including responses, before replying
    –follow directions and use the prompt as a way to generate your response
    –keep threads neat: stay on topic and task, reply to the person or post most similar to your own so similar ideas are kept together
    –change subject lines to reflect your particular take or topic
    –address people by first name (i.e. “Sylvia, I really like your argument because…” or “I want to respond to James’s point about…”)
    –be concise: one or two paragraphs is more than enough, and if you need to say more, return to respond after others have weighed in
    –asking a question or asking for clarification, particularly of the instructor is encouraged particularly if it adds to the discussion
    –selectively return to respond to others or to clarify or addend your point
    –this is not slow texting or IMing: do more than just agree or like something
    –include links, images, media where relevant

    For example, here is a blogging point where I ask students to keep a running thread on “favorite quotes” from the readings that gets them started with close reading and discussing online:

BLOGGING POINT: Favorite Quotes

Reading is a multi-layered and multi-purposed practice.  And the hope is that you will read not only with pleasure but with an open mind, open eye, and with some analytical lenses.  One thing you can and should pay attention to while you read is the language itself; after all, writing is an art and there are many ways that words, phrases, sentences, passages are shaped and polished and articulated.  Here’s a chance to share with the class quotes and places from the text that you thought were interesting, brilliant, great writing, great ideas.  Identify the quote, write it up verbatim, and give the text and page number.  (If someone has already chosen your passage, do not repeat it, but respond to their post and extend it with your comments and close readings.)  Finding these gems can make reading that much more enjoyable and focused.  In other words, always read with a pen or pencil in hand!

For example, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?,” I particularly enjoy this passage (which is quoted in the course description):

“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true.  Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy.  They know that its truth challenges, even even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial that they have let themselves be forced into living.  They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.” (44)

We will talk about the significance of this passage in class more but it is one of my favorite defintions of fantasy, of what fantasy is (and is not), and what fantasy does, why it is important.   Similar to Jack Zipes’s essay, Le Guin here (many years earlier) argues that fantasy is an antidote to the shallow, uncritical, even normative things that people want, read, buy, think.  We often think of fantasy as only about escape or about antisocial readers or about unproductive members of society.  But here Le Guin connects fantasy to freedom, defines fantasy as freedom, one of America’s central ideologies and values.  We might think more on what that means.  

  • Manage Responses: I limit the number of required threads and required responses to a minimum, usually two or three per week for the things that are central to the week’s goals. In these required threads, every student is required to respond and then to return and selective respond to a different person. Meanwhile, I am selectively responding, asking questions, making comments, particularly to address a potential problem or confusion or to signal boost those doing good work. To expect every thread or post to be commented on by everyone (even twice), to expect the instructor to respond to every post, leads to a walls of text that no one wants to scroll through. Limiting the amount students have to write per response is also helpful to manage the deluge, to remind students to put their energies into other parts of the course, and to keep particular voices from taking over a thread.
  • Create Collaboration: I encourage students to get to know one another, which is difficult even in a face-to-face class. I have a week one thread where they introduce themselves and do a little innocuous icebreaker. Integrating opportunities where students can work together, even a think-pair-share exercise, can help build community and connection. These things just need to operate at a slower time scale, as per online discussions, planned ahead of time, and allow for students to discuss and post. For example, I still use some group and collaborative work online including a “presentation” where 2-4 students work together to generate, curate, post, and moderate one of the required discussion threads for a particular week. I also keep a running thread for “collaborative notes” where the class can post their notes, digests, thoughts, and ideas that might help others keep up and connect concepts (this is particularly great for in-person classes). Finally, I require students use Google Hangouts for synchronous office hours but also to hold one-on-one conferences for final project proposals. Students then can use chat to work with each other on collaborative exercises.
  • Reflection and Metacognition: Online teaching is good at the “banking model” of education a la Paolo Freire, at delivering content, at walls of text. What it is not so good at is discussion, interplay, extemporaneity, performance, and embodied immediacy. Therefore, to approximate these things, online teaching must build in places and moments where students can reflect on what they just read, wrote, did and to think about their own engagement with online learning and digital technologies. For English, much of that is built into the ways we read, write, analyze, and research topics and archives, but online some of that needs to be made explicit not only in the way students are working on and through the material but how they present it, write it up in posts. Moreover, I also ask students to be mindful of how they are using the LMS or to think about what works online and what does not, particularly for their presentations and group processes like peer review. In other words, even if it is just a quick question or line, have students address their own online learning and how they can make their own interactions and interventions better for the class.

I am sure there are other things that I am forgetting and leaving out, but these are the gist of the things I have thought about, worked through, and continue to revise, enhance, and edit. Like with face-to-face classes, it takes a few iterations of a class to work the kinks out. What worked for one group may not work for another and sometimes that has little to do with what was planned. I feel good about the courses I have adapted to online because I think they are solid, they have been run more than twice, and they preserve the values and ideals I hold for my in-person courses.

Thank you for reading, for thinking about all of these things with me. And many thanks to those who have been sharing, asking questions, and talking about these ideas and issues. Please feel free to adapt, include, extend (but credit me and each other). Good luck out there!

P.S. Bonus level: “Sample Stuff!”

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