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Rethinking Online Education - Rethinking Assignments PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

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.


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