Recreating an Online Class for Greater Student Participation and Retention

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

I am core faculty for the M.A. program in Literature and Writing at Vermont College. In the last decade, Vermont College was bought by Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio. I live full time in Tucson, Arizona. I attend faculty meetings in Ohio and Vermont by conference call, and nearly half of the participants in any meeting are phoning in from all parts of the United States.

Last semester, two days before classes started, I took over a course that a colleague had developed; he was unable to teach for health reasons, and so I had no choice but to use the syllabus and the course site that he had developed. I went through the semester following the syllabus he had created and the discussion prompts that engaged the students each week in a conversation about the materials. I scrambled to keep up with the reading each week; I have a Ph.D. in literature, but my specialty is nineteenth century poetry and fiction, while his was drama and postmodern literature and theory. Reading even a part of what he had assigned was enough to stretch me, and I could only imagine how the students who were attempting their first graduate work might have felt.

I realized as I went through the semester that I would have to redesign the course, not only to incorporate material with which I was more comfortable, but also because I wanted to create a course that would lead students into a discussion of a variety of critical methods applied to a wide range of the literary canon. I do this in face-to-face courses when I write a syllabus and very seldom now do I have to think consciously about how students will progress through a course since I will be there to give them the directions they need, make the connections that will help them make sense of the materials.

The necessities of an online course are different. I have to create a way to remind students that what they are reading in Week 10 is in fact connected to the Week 2 readings. My prompts have to be succinct but inclusive, suggestive but not didactic.

In addition, my goal in any course is to encourage students to embrace complex issues, to be willing to see more than one side or thread or perspective in an intellectual issue. To do this, I bring contentious issues forward as a means of starting this process. It is important to NOT do this early in the course, nor do I want to leave it to the end. In an online course, I schedule this discussion when individuals in the cohort know one another, have had other exchanges that are serious and personal.

How does that work online?

cover of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The prompt itself is fairly simple. A few words of background are followed by two specific questions:

Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899) is an enduring and controversial classic. European colonialism in Africa forms the background of the story. More specifically, Conrad writes of the acquisition by Belgium (“the sepulchral city” is Brussels) of the Congo and the brutal, wholesale looting of that African land. The story presents an odd mixture of racism and anti-imperialism in a masterful narrative that makes Heart of Darkness one of the most widely-read and talked-about short novels in English literature.

1. After reading the novella, read the exchange between Chinua Achebe and Caryl Phillips (authors, from Africa and the Caribbean respectively). Comment on their perspectives and the merits of each one’s point of view.

pictures of Chinua Achebe, Caryl Phillips and Lennard J. Davis

2. Comment on Lennard J. Davis’s essay, “The Value of Teaching a Racist Classic.” He suggests that, perhaps, The Heart of Darkness should be dropped from the curriculum. Explain why you agree or disagree.

And then the fun began. The first student to post said that the book “needs to be removed from the canon of American Literature because it’s so acutely insulting to so many people.” Another student agreed immediately that she could “completely relate” and added that “when we read this book in my undergraduate theory class, I was no less than disgusted.” She does say that it is important to remember that Achebe is coming from his own “place” as an African and that may have relevance to his opinion. Another student is hesitant about removing books from reading lists because they are insulting to someone. “The book generates a good discussion and perhaps encourages people to look at some of those heart-wrenching issues and find out what their role is.”

That was phase one of the discussion. There was very little nuance or complexity and no discussion at all about the book as literature. Students talked about free speech, about the teacher’s “right” to select texts versus the student’s right to request a substitute when the selection is offensive.

In the second phase of the discussion, students began to consider the novel itself. One noted Phillips’ argument that “Conrad uses colonization, and the trading intercourse that flourished in its wake, to explore these universal questions about man’s capacity for evil.” Conrad, the student argued, did not “glorify colonization.” And then she quoted from the text: “They [the Europeans] wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘Ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.”

After a close reading and re-reading of the text, one student writes that, “for me, a good piece of literature is almost a living document; each time it is read it exposes something new to the reader. And as a result of reading this text, I have a new appreciation for the horrors of prejudice. This is an appreciation I would not have had without reading this text. Isn’t that what education is all about?”

And a student from Latin America chimed in: “After reading the book, and knowing that these people suffered so much, (many died, many were tortured, many lost their faith, integrity, dignity and dreams in the name of freedom), and today we are still arguing if Conrad’s books should be taken from the future learners. So, why then they fought for freedom, if today we are prisoner of our own judgmental mind?”

About midway through the conversation, I finally posted a second series of questions, asking essentially, where do we draw the line? “One of you mentioned having difficulty reading Benito Cereno. How about Othello? Or Oronkoo? Are any of those less racist, more “self aware” of the stereotypes being perpetrated? And think about other extremely harmful (or merely hurtful) stereotypes — Shylock the Jew in Merchant of Venice, the vile foul witches in Macbeth? How do we begin to think and talk about such things? Should we? Or should we lock them up and throw away the key? What benefits can possibly come from teaching students from books that offend? And what about the argument that no book should be required, an alternative must be allowed? Can you stretch that far? Are there any parameters you would set up for when something is too offensive?” I also reminded them that our theoretical topic for this week’s discussion was how post-colonial literary criticism illuminates a text like Conrad’s.

Many of my students are teachers themselves, and our conversation veered to how they handle controversial texts in the classroom. Several of the nine students expressed great pleasure with the conversation, and one said he was sad that we could never have such a conversation face-to-face after building relationships of trust. The student who began by insisting the book should be removed from the canon did a 180 degree turn. “I feel strange suggesting such a thing,” she wrote, “but I think Achebe needs to do a postcolonial analysis of Heart of Darkness (which draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts) in order to understand just how far Conrad ‘pushed the envelope’ in his final recognition of Africa’s humanity,” And she concluded: “I love to change my opinions — it shows me my mind is somewhat, slightly, possibly, still open!! LOL!”

At the end of the week I posted Edward Said’s 1974 perceptive post-colonial analysis of Conrad’s narratives, “Conrad: The Presentation of Narrative.” “Conrad’s narratives pay unusual attention to the motivation of the stories being told,” writes Said as though he had been listening to my students. “This is evidence of a self-consciousness that felt it necessary to justify in some way the telling of a story.” Reading Said brought together the concerns about the “whys” of reading Conrad; and the focus on his narrative structure took students back to the first week of class when we considered how Dante and Chaucer used narrative structures to shape their tales. We concluded the week by talking about who is telling the tale and who the intended audience was — and is.

Each of the students had written the equivalent of 4-5 pages of single-spaced analysis and reflection before the week was over. If I had required a 10 page paper from each student, written in solitude and shared only with me, most of what was exciting and expanding in this discussion would have been lost.

The nature of online education is that it removes the instructor from the center of the learning process and allows the students to learn from me and from one another. Carefully constructed, I don’t think there is a question that online learning can be the equivalent of any other delivery format. And in this instance, the luxury of a week to read a text, respond to it, respond to others who are reading the same text, develop a conversation, ask questions of one another, and finally, the time and space to change an opinion — I think these circumstances provided a better overall learning experience than any one or two hour class could have given.

6 Responses

  1. […] mixture of racism and anti-imperialism in a masterful narrative … Read the original post: Recreating an Online Class for Greater Student Participation and … Share and […]

  2. Lovely and really nice example of how online education is changing learning. We all can benefit from this sort of real story.

  3. I agree with Harry. Here’s my email response, yesterday, to Judith when I first saw this article:

    WOW! With this article, I have a feeling that online learning has finally grown into its promise. What I like about this is the focus on the actual interactions, the messages, the professor and students as living, breathing, thinking human beings, with little or nothing about the technology per se. Again, it represents, I believe, a coming of age of virtual learning, where the marvel is no longer the medium but, as it ought to be, the message. And what I really like is the return of the teacher in the equation, the person who has mastered the art of guiding students, through discussion — the most powerful medium of learning — toward self-discovery, the deepest and most valuable kind of learning. -Jim S

  4. […] Recreating an Online Class for Greater Student Participation and Retention « Educational Techn… […]

  5. On-line education has been a gift to me as try to further my education. I enjoy the flexibility of when I can do the work and spend time “in class.” I also find that I am exposed to far maore material than I am in a face-to-face class. The hybrid format is very helpful in supporting some of the organizational legistics of the on-line format. For the on-line format is not without its complications and drawbacks.
    I am currently involved in a graduate program for administration and leadership in education. The majority of the courses I have taken thus far have been on-line. The structural differences of the individual courses in terms of organization, and the amount of content is unbelievable. I have taken courses where the syllabus was clearly outlined and contained an appropriate amount of material to support the expectations of the course. I have also taken courses where the amount material provided to support to the assignments was so extensive it was difficult to even get started never mind figure out a direction. More time was spent negotiating the matierial then was spent gleeming any meaning from it all. I am in the process of completing two courses. One fits the description of a course containing too much material described above while the other has been nothing less than confusing to participate in for a completely different reason. The expectations and assigment descriptions have changed throughout the four weeks of the course. The cunfusion felt by the participants is apparent in the e-mail threads that develop as we questions the expectaions of the professor.
    The question becomes, what do we do to make this important instructional format managible for all students? How do we organize it so as to not be overwhelming or confusing?

    • Both of those questions need to be addressed in competent course design, Helen. As John Adsit said in his article last week, teachers and students need training in how to be successful in this environment. Yes, many of us teaching online today learned this by the “if at first you don’t succeed” method, but we know more now and there is no reason not to share this knowledge. In fact, it is crucial to the continuing development and success of online learning–and teaching.

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