Rethinking Online Education Print

Sandie Gravett, Appalachian State University

Sandie Gravett is a professor of religious studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She teaches exclusively online after a gradual transition that included both online, face-to-face, and hybrid courses. In the last several years, Gravett has also worked to develop new exchanges for students to enroll in distributed education opportunities across the sixteen campuses of the University of North Carolina system. She teaches a variety of courses in biblical studies, world religions, and religion and culture.

Rethinking Lectures as Lessons

Earlier this year controversial education entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun, developer of the MOOC provider Udacity, and Philipp Schmidt of Peer 2 Peer joined twelve other educators and produced “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age.” Designed to spur conversation, the reaction to this document expresses much of the excitement and angst that continues to surround online education. From my vantage point as a tenured faculty member at a comprehensive public university teaching undergraduate religious studies courses exclusively online, it serves as a reminder that new ways of learning do not and should not completely displace more traditional models, but also that education changes and the online options cannot and should not simply replicate what we have been about in the face-to-face classroom setting. To be effective, we must embrace creatively what the evolving technology allows and adapt appropriately both in terms of our understanding of what the roles of instructor and learner mean, what constitutes teaching our disciplines, and how we develop appropriate goals and outcomes based on more formative, collaborative, and interactive exchanges. Moreover, we must also be about the business of transforming our institutional structures so that they do not stifle emerging modes of learning by insisting on making them fit into inappropriate paradigms.

For a faculty member, the challenge of excellence in online courses requires rethinking approaches, content, and outcomes as well as modifying regularly to new technologies and methods of access. I was a fairly early adopter at my university, if not so much in the digital education world. The move online for me dovetailed with relocating more than two hours away from campus, forfeiting my office, and traveling back about once a month for departmental meetings. Most semesters I teach nine hours, with the majority on the lower-level and designated for general education credit. I also teach the same courses in a five-week summer format. With these details in mind, I offer these simple strategies to assist in creating a successful course.

Universities frequently identify general education courses as high demand and require them to take on a significant number of students. As a result, they often rely on a lecture format. Administrators with little insight about online education believe these courses represent a cost-saving opportunity, given the ease of videotaping and streaming a lecture. MOOC alternatives also like the thought of providing “leading” scholars to a world of waiting students. This kind of passive learning, however, hearkens back to a time when the classroom served primarily as a location for imparting information. Online, it typically fails to engage the majority of students and can result in substantial attrition.

Forty-five minute or more lectures, no matter how enthralling the lecturer, often go unwatched. By contrast, as demonstrated by the Khan Academy, short videos (2–7 minutes) focused on a single core concept, figure, or issue with opportunities for practice or feedback or to consolidate learning get improved results. Think vlogging — high energy, tight frameworks, good visuals, jump cuts, and incorporation of other media. For instance, a clip might analyze the components of Muslim prayer while watching both individuals and groups at various locations. I also like to use videos that I make at various religious sites in order to take students with me to the sites. Broken down in short, edited segments, one recent walk traveled around the Western Wall and through the rabbinical tunnels, then up around the Haram al-Sharif and both inside and out of the Golden Gate. While the video progresses, I voice-over what I want to cover about the history, stories, belief systems, conflicts, and changes in these sites over time.

Currently, I weave a series of videos into a “lesson.” After each viewing of a “short,” the student must answer a question correctly to advance to the next step. They also have the opportunity to branch off and explore an idea in more depth or view related information. I might, for example, be sharing the story of Siddhartha Guatama. If a student wants more, I can connect into clips that dramatize it, as with Little Buddha, or link to a resource such as a timeline. This format requires careful planning to make sure the order of presentation moves logically and the focus becomes more than transmission of information. You have the opportunity to expand into problem solving (Why is the story, for example, told this way? How does it reflect other kinds of stories about key religious figures? How does this story come together and who makes the determinations?), application (How does it respond to some of the reasons religious traditions exist? What needs does it serve?), and specific areas of interest.

Do you then test? If so, to what end? We live in a time where access to information exists at a student’s fingertips twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Testing for content acquisition and repetition, then, might not be the best option. To do so in an online course also demands secure, proctored testing sites. I include quizzes (open book and note, but timed) for one reason alone. They demand that a student, minimally, opens the textbook, reviews the materials I provide, and understands how to search out answers. The compressed timeframe makes some preparation and memorization necessary. But the point is to facilitate working familiarity with foundational vocabulary and concepts, to foster an ability to locate needed information, and to think through key ideas.

By far the superior learning tool is interactive class discussion (and these can be done as video uploads). I found student success here correlates directly to my ability to provide clear instructions and useful prompts as well as to my responsiveness on the boards. My discussions have defined timeframes for participation and include explicit guidelines for the number of posts required, the minimum length, how they are to be structured, what should be original material and what should be a reply to a colleague, and a paradigm for how they are graded. I also provide “starters” to indicate the kinds of observations I expect and then I monitor the discussion boards. In this regard, I am more of a tutor than one who professes. I prod, I push, I question, I respond, and in this manner, I assist students in developing not only a knowledge base about a topic, but also the ability to analyze material, express themselves clearly, argue meaningfully, and listen respectfully to their colleagues.

One additional note: While I have taught courses with more than 100 undergraduates, I group my students so that they always think they are in a class with no more than 15–18. Anything bigger prevents forming the collaborative relationships for required interactions. Because I do not have teaching assistants, I moderate each group separately. This tactic means no one gets lost in the shuffle; I find that I can immediately spot who is missing assignments in any group soon after the course begins.

Papers (3–5 pages), again with proper instruction, give students the chance to work on fundamental skills as well as to demonstrate their capacity to apply their learning. I use peer review — I give students a paradigm for what to look for and require they write comments in a short paper (2–3 pages) form. In my experience, students provide honest assessments of one another and also come to see clearly their own deficits. Blogging and vlogging also get good results, but collaborative work like wikis or other group assignments tend to flounder on issues, such as varying schedules and difficulty with communication.

With all of these assignments, use the news. The BBC, New York Times, NPR, and a variety of other media outlets regularly cover religious events and often explore subjects in-depth around holy days. It offers both a touch of cultural currency as well as a chance to see the practice of faith. For instance, while studying Hinduism this semester, we have been reading about the Kumbh Mela. My students not only wanted to think about the pilgrimage and what it means, but also talked extensively about the ecological issues raised and how Hinduism deals with such. One student even reported back on Mark Twain’s experience in 1895.

Quick assessment is vital. For instance, my student discussions each week conclude by Friday evenings. I post grades — without fail — no later than Sunday. For papers and tests not automatically scored, I post results no later than two weeks. What about chat, texts, messaging, and e-mail? I never respond more than twenty-four hours later and, in most cases, an hour or two. Let them know when you are typically available. Online students come to you via devices that give them instant answers. Lack of timely feedback can frustrate them and ruin a course.

Also remember students enrolling in these courses often have complicated life situations. I get more than the average number of students with documented disabilities. Making certain all materials are accessible is a legal requirement. I recently encountered a challenge in getting all of my videos transcribed for a deaf student and am now training my software to close caption. I cannot count the number of babies delivered during a given term or the students struggling with issues such as chronic illness or unanticipated injuries. Students in internships, student teachers, and full-time workers comprise a good portion of class populations. I have also enjoyed working with students during their military deployments. Flexibility needs to be built in to the design of the course, and a willingness to work with students as situations arise goes a long way.

Instructional technology assistance varies from campus to campus, but most online faculty must develop course content and design as well as produce, edit, upload, and maintain it. The labor-intensive aspect of this effort can intimidate as well as pull one away from scholarship and service requirements, which tie directly to merit evaluations, tenure, and promotion. For many faculty, walking into a classroom and lecturing (or leading a discussion) uses skills they already have, consumes less time, and offers clear boundaries for student interaction.

Pedagogically, however, the online world offers all kinds of opportunities that capitalize on what a faculty member should be. The “flipped” classroom is instructive here. If you set up experiences that convey the essentials, your time with students gets spent not talking “at” them, but rather engaging their questions, exploring their concerns, working on their writing and communication, and serving to help them not only to understand the kinds of information they access, but also to analyze it critically and thoughtfully. You truly become a resource in their academic experience.

For me, it yields interesting days. Students work more in the evenings (not to mention late nights) and many also want my time on the weekends. I know now that early morning check-ins take care of the overnight concerns, and I have long stretches during the “typical” workday for writing, service work, and other obligations. Limited discussion windows mean high activity during the prescribed hours, but not as much outside of it. “Office hours” for paper writing assistance or questions can occur almost anywhere and anytime with tools such as Skype, Google+, or Face Time.

The format of the academic semester, however, feels antiquated. Instead of my normal 3:3 load meaning 3 three-hour courses taught over the course of sixteen weeks, it would be a far better use of the format to do 3 five-week courses taught consecutively over the same period. Online learning lends itself to intense bursts of effort more typical of a J-Term, Maymester, or summer school. Students also perform better in this arena when focused on fewer subjects over a limited period of time. Particularly with general education courses, it serves key goals. Students get a “taste” of a subject and the ways it is studied within a discipline, but they also get the opportunity through extensive interaction to relate it to other courses and get a feel for the interdisciplinary nature of our efforts.

We all know, however, that our institutions are not designed to think of faculty working this way, nor are university business processes set up to accommodate such changes. The advantage here goes to for-profit and experimental start-ups that can deploy resources more nimbly and encourage innovation. Universities also need to prepare to reward faculty willing to take risks and acquire new skills, because learning to work differently and to develop great content and design takes time, energy, and effort away from what departments typically expect of their faculty.

Online learning does not suit every student temperament and certainly will not be the choice of every faculty member. It does, however, reach out to populations that residential and commuter programs do not reach (as well as to students within these programs who need alternative scheduling) and offers the opportunity to use technology creatively. Unfortunately, the structure of most traditional higher education limits innovations by tying online classes to clunky learning management systems, poor faculty development, scheduling straightjackets, and no effective tools for peer or course evaluation by people who understand both the academic discipline and the online possibilities. Of even greater concern, this type of education does not work well with the demands of a tenure and promotion track. If senior scholars do not enter this world, too often it gets left to adjunct faculty who are not supported adequately and can be overwhelmed by the load they must carry. All of these issues must be addressed by any school wanting to move forward in this arena with integrity.