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Three Successes and Three Areas to Improve: Reflections on Teaching My First Online Course to Undergraduates

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In Fall 2018, I designed a new course I called “Reading Social Media,” which is intended to explore the ways in which social media shapes and reshapes public discourse and those who engage in it.

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The course was taught

in a fully-online environment, meaning that the students and I never met in person. We functioned entirely through the internet. This post is my attempt to reflect on the experience of teaching this course online to undergraduates; I have taught online graduate courses before—to working adults—but never to full-time undergraduates. It is different. I will not be addressing the content, but rather the structure of the course and the students’ reactions to it. I’ll be teaching the course in Spring 19 and then again in Fall 19, so this is a good opportunity for me to think through how things went. I have not yet had access to the student evaluations of the course, so this is all just my own thinking for now.

What Went Well

  1. The general structure of the course worked well. Each week, I posted an assignment due by the end of the week. The assignment included several components, each with its own deadline: usually a set of readings or viewings, then a written response to those, and then responses to other students’ responses.

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    The students got the structure very quickly, and it gave a nice rhythm to the course. Rhythm, or pace, is crucial in a good online course, probably doubly so with younger students who are not used to being so independent with their own course activity.

  2. I varied the genres we read and wrote. I assigned traditional academic articles, in-depth articles from popular sources (such as The Atlantic), Ted Talks, Oral Podcasts, graphic novel excerpts, and more. I also assigned students to write in many different formats: traditional academic writing, discussion board forums (a staple in online courses), social media posts, Twitter chats, blog posts, mind maps, letters to administrators (in a psuedo-authentic rhetorical situation), video chats, and more. Using these multiple genres also helped bring a more personal, social environment to the class, something some students and instructors find lacking in some online courses. This variation in genres was quite successful, I think. I am willing to bet the readings engaged the students more than in a traditional course, and because we were “meeting” online, it freed me up to use anything available on the internet. Also, a nice bonus: there was no charge at all for books in the course.
  3. The course was definitely rigorous. Because the students must produce work every week, work that is assessed each week, there is no getting out of it. In a face-to-face course, students need only get through 3 hours per week. Often students can do so by saying one comment in class or just keeping their head down. This structure also allowed me to more quickly catch students who were falling behind. When I say “catch,” I don’t mean I found them not working; rather, I mean catch as in they fell into a net more quickly, so I could help them get back on the path. Several students missed one week’s assignment and I would contact them immediately, find out if they were OK, and go from there. In most cases, this was the end of the issue. There was also a lot of reading (broadly defined) and writing (also broadly defined) throughout the class. So it was a rigorous and hopefully worthwhile experience from day one.

What I Need to Improve

  1. Some students simply never engaged. Out of 29 students, 4 or 5 simply never got involved with the class. They may have done one or two weeks of assignments, but they never did more than that. In face-to-face classes, this is extremely rare. Even after emailing the students with suggestions to officially withdraw from the class, they never responded. I found this odd, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be some kind of trend. There were other students who wanted to get into the class, so it was a shame these students held the seats and yet did nothing but receive Fs at the end of the course. I can’t remember the last time I assigned 5 Fs in one course.
  2. I would like to add more interactive/collaborative assignments next time. I had many creative and unusual assignments within this class, but I never really created assignments that created community or required (or even encouraged) high levels of collaboration among students.

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    This is very rare for me, because in face-to-face classes I almost always have the students presenting to the whole class in informal groups from the very first day of a course. So while the individual work was good in this first iteration of the course, I need to step up the collaboration quite a bit.

  3. I only composed one assignment that required students to meet with me via videochat. I used the program Zoom, which I think is excellent. I had the students sign up for one of six slots and we had 30-minute, small-group conversations about the readings for that week. The chats were great, and it was very nice to see the students and interact with them in real time. Once I could put an animated face with a name, the students became so much more real to me. It’s not the same looking at a still photo. A few students couldn’t make any of the six times I offered for video-chats, so I gave them alternate assignments, which worked out fine. Next time I teach this course, I definitely want to create more video-chat opportunities. I held weekly online office hours, but during the entire semester, only one student took me up on them! I think if I had broken the ice with video-chats earlier in the semester, more of the students would have been likely to pop in during my virtual office hours.

Semester Overview: It Worked!

Overall, I think the students and I found the course worked well. I’ll have to see what the evals reveal before I can be more sure of the students’ reactions. But I think it worked. The students received good information, engaged in rigorous reading, writing, and thinking. And, I believe the students found they were given ample feedback and fair assessment on at least most of their assignments. But there is definitely much improvement that can be made, primarily in the area of class community development. Especially for a course on social media, I should be able to do a better job with that.

I look forward to revamping the course for next semester and seeing how it goes. In my 30th year of teaching, it’s certainly a lot of fun to still find such challenges in my work. Teaching is hard, but truly it never gets dull.

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