What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

I just finished teaching my Women in Western Culture course online for the third time. The course materials span from prehistory—in the form of various creation myths in diverse cultures—to modern art and literature. It’s a quick overview with a theme: How were women seen in each of these instances and did the literature create or reflect women’s positions in the culture? Topics for discussion include the effect of religious myth on gender stereotypes, gender expectations of men and women, gender biases in language, among others. This is a class that I have taught at least a dozen times in a face-to-face format over the last 15 years. In the summer of 2008, I designed the class for online presentation for the first time.

Here are a few of the comments from students at the end of this summer term. I offer them not to compliment myself but to lead into an examination of what these students appreciate in a university level course and how we can design experiences that will take them there.

Preference for online format—personal interaction and group dynamics:

  • Ellie—I would definitely recommend a class like this, whether it was a boy or a girl. I think that an online class like this may be an even better experience because people can express their feelings and reactions to certain readings without having to worry about the reactions of their classmates. I am very glad I took this class.
  • Grant—I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt like it was easier to post my opinion online than in a classroom. When I started posting I was sort of nervous about posting my ideas, but after a little while I felt a lot more comfortable with it than I would have in a classroom. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I guess just not having to see everyone’s responses immediately kinda changes things.
  • Ashley—I would definitely recommend this class to a friend. I would tell them to take it in an online format over a classroom format. This class requires your opinion and not everyone is comfortable in expressing their opinion in a classroom format because they don’t want to be judge. The online format makes you worry less about other peoples judgments which makes it easier to express your opinion.
  • Hoi Ying—I agree with you that this class is perfect for web-delivered. Since some of the topics that we discussed were relatively controversial, it was better for us to discuss it online, where we would not see each other’s races and sexes. I know I certainly would be too embarrassed or timid to voice my opinion in the classroom.

How do we design for anonymity and protection of opinions?

We don’t. To a large extent, this is one of the gifts of the online format. Students don’t see one another and any intimacy they develop (and they do grow to know and like one another in varying degrees) is based on their expression of ideas and exchange of ideas. The one important role for an instructor in this regard is making sure that appropriate online etiquette is described, modeled, and enforced.

Significant learning from online interactive discussions:

  • Arlene—The most surprising thing that happened consistently over this semester, was not necessarily in relation to the readings, but to the responses that my classmates had for each discussion. I was so surprised by the numerous postings, holding such high quality and different responses. There were definitely remarks made that I had never considered before reading their posting. All I can say for my fellow classmates is job well done, you made it easier for me to discuss the readings – whether it was giving me a new perspective or answering a question that I simply couldn’t answer. Actually, to be completely honest, I enjoyed every day that we had discussions because I could write what I thought and have the ability to comment on the totally opposite idea that someone else had. There were definitely some good discussions from this semester.
  • Keith—The thing that surprised me the most was that the course wasn’t about women’s oppression in the business world or the objectification of women in the media but the course was more about the oppression of a woman’s ability to think and act for herself. The most important thing I learned was to listen to not just women but to other people as they express their opinion because i never know when they may bring up a topic or have an idea that I never thought about. This will help me with being a doctor and being a better human being.
  • Carley—When you mentioned that each classmate has very different ideas and opinions that they bring to the discussion, and it helps you form your own ideas, I can honestly agree. In the beginning of the class I would always read what everyone said before me but I realized that wouldn’t help me when it came to my turn to write my initial post. I think it really helps to go with your gut instinct of what you pulled to the reading. It brings more conversation, cause you might find people agree and disagree with you but it helps you learn.

Annie Leibovitz

How do we design for interactive discussions?

The first time I taught this course, I was pretty pleased with myself when I looked at the discussion forums I had created. And then I wasn’t. Student responses were perfunctory, not expansive. I required them to “respond” to one or two other postings, which they did in very limited ways: “Oh, great idea!” or “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.” I went back to the drawing board with the discussions remaining and was more specific. “Respond to an opinion that disagrees with yours.”  That was better, but an even greater improvement came when I asked them to “Respond to an opinion that disagrees with yours and ask a question about the source of that opinion.”

I also developed a rubric to give the students along with the syllabus: “How will I be graded in these online discussions?” A response that is social rather than an intellectual engagement will receive no points. A perfunctory response that indicates the reading has been done will receive one point. The highest level (5 points) requires engagement, a reference to the reading for the post (or previous posts), and a question that will further the discussion. It did not take long before most students became very good conversationalists.

Hard work that is rewarding and rewarded:

  • Brittany—It was somewhat difficult because I worked everyday of this course, but it was not impossible to do in any way, shape or form. It definitely kept me on my toes though! In fact, I read more for this course than I did all last semester…I learned a lot, but each of us had to put effort into this class, it wasn’t to be taken lightly or for an easy grade. This course was structured to learn and grow, which is honestly what I believe happened for us all. I have not read one posting that said my fellow classmate learned nothing during this semester.
  • Cameron—I agree this class was a lot of work but I feel that McDaniel did her best to structure this class in a way that all people are able to do the work especially when they work everyday. This was also the best history class I have taken and would also recommend it to anyone

How do we design for a structure that challenges and rewards?

When I am designing a course for web delivery, I spend more time than otherwise attempting to balance the amount of time and work a student will need to commit. I want the reading to be fairly even across the course, which is hard when I have some poems, some short stories, and some novels. I bring in feature length films, video excerpts, both short (3 minutes) and longer (up to 20 minutes). I try to alternate straight reading assignments with time spent in interactive research on the web.

I use no lecture material in this course. All of the information is included in the prefaces to the discussion prompts, the background for the Essay responses, and in my interjections during the students’ discussions—just to make sure they have all of the pieces I want them to be considering. Moving away from the lecture format was both scary and freeing for me. After 30 years doing it one way, I had to be reassured over and over that students would have an equivalent (if not better) learning experience as I began to adopt this new format.

Discovery through original research:

  • Corey—I also found it interesting to learn about the Bloomsbury group. I had no idea that a group like that with such sexual differences existed in a time era that anything out of the ordinary would classify you as different.
  • Erika—I was actually really excited when I saw today’s assignment because I already had an idea of who I wanted to talk about! I come from a family of photographers (My grandfather was a published photographer) so it has been a passed-down passion. The female artist I wanted to reference and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. She has taken many famous photographs that many people may not know that they were hers. Annie became interested in photography in high school and then went to learn at the San Francisco Art institute and then started doing photography while living in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. She returned to the states in 1970 and became a photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, which she worked for until 1983. Her most famous photograph was that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono where Lennon is curled up next to Ono.

How do we use the web and its resources for original research online?

What I have learned since I started teaching online, which I had not been aware of in quite the same way before, is what extraordinary resources are available for teachers and students. I need to make sure the quality meets my standards, but I would never be able to find a better intellectual resource, for example, than the Itsukushima_toriiwebsite produced by a Brandeis University professor on a Shinto shrine in Japan—the history, the present day use, the myths that support it, and the art work that has grown up around it.

In this Western Culture class, I had three original research projects: one on creation myths, one on women artists from 1975-2009, and one on the social and historical background of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. I think the danger for a course designer is to become trapped in the idea that “equivalency” means using all of the same tools but somehow just shifting them from the classroom or library to the web. To some extent, we can do that, but if we do that we are missing a huge potential learning experience for our students. To me, encouraging our students to live that classic goal of higher education, the life of the mind, means giving them engaging research to do and a forum in which to discuss it with peers and mentor(s).

And in conclusion:

  • Sarah—I think the most important thing I learned from this class is being a better writer. Having to write a paper each week, and a discussion each day really improved my writing skills. I found out that I really enjoyed talking to people in our discussions, and finding ways that I could add to the conversation. I think this type of learning is very important because you learn from your other classmates. They might have found something in the text that you missed or didn’t understand. I also really liked this class cause it breaks you out of your shell and requires you to converse with other classmates. Overall I think this class has brought great improvements to myself as a writer. I’m not as afraid to write papers each week.