Sunday, June 8, 2014
From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side to Party Planner?
I am now in the midst of another significant redesign, this time from blended ("guide on the side") to online. Mine is a course that is being designed to be taught at scale. It can certainly be taught to small groups of students, but it also needs to be possible to teach hundreds of students. I am fortunate to be coming to this project in the midst of the MOOC era. I have participated in several MOOCs on humanities topics and quickly realized that recorded lectures, no matter how well produced, were not going to be especially effective learning tools. They are a great way to make content available, as is a textbook and other readings. But they are not a very good way to engage students who are likely to be inexperienced learners, and especially inexperienced online learners. For most of the past year, I have been thinking hard about how to design a history course--a course that is, at its base, the story of a culture--independent of lecture. The other significant challenge: a good part of the course will be asynchronous. There will certainly be synchronous elements, such as occasional live lectures/discussions and exams; and students will be encouraged to interact with the instructor. But one goal is to produce a course that has more flexibility than an on-campus course. The challenge is to find a balance between flexibility and structure.
I have another reason for wanting to avoid an over-dependence on lecture: most of the time, others will be instructing the online course. As we have all seen with the MOOCs and the Super Professor culture they have helped to cultivate, talking heads can distract from the course content. The class becomes about the professor instead of the content. In a basic sense, I wanted a course design that rendered me invisible. I wanted to leave space for the course's instructor to assert their presence without having to compete with me. Finally, I want my course to be about Roman history, politics, literature, art, and architecture; and not about what I'm wearing or whether I crack funny jokes.
In my own experience as a student of MOOCs and other online courses, talking heads quickly become wearisome. Professors are not actors and we never, ever look as polished on screen. Professorial charisma does not seem to translate well onto the computer screen. As well, it's too easy to get bored and distracted when "taking an online class" means watching a series of lectures and answering a few questions. The guiding principle of my design has been the same one that guides my blended class: "how do I keep each student as engaged as possible at every moment." In many respects, this is an easier challenge to meet online than in a large-scale blended class. The first principle in both cases is: speak in declarative sentences as infrequently as possible. Use the Socratic method. In a live class, this means that I pose i>clicker questions, peer discussion questions, and class discussion questions in order to elicit content and model the process of creating and thinking critically about a historical narrative. In an online class, this means producing a series of modules that are question-based, that require students to interact directly with the content to produce knowledge. In both environments, it means giving them structured feedback but also encouraging them to develop their intuition (e.g. by showing them an unfamiliar image and asking them to analyze aspects of it).
When I think about my role as course designer/creator and builder (with the help of a talented team), I imagine myself as a kind of party planner. It's my job to set the scene, make sure there is plenty of food and entertainment, invite the guests and make sure that exes aren't forced to talk to one another. But the experience of the event is up to my guests. I will be there to replenish the punch bowl and make sure that the event runs smoothly, but I can't experience the party for my guests. That's on them. Like a good hostess, I will operate quietly behind the scenes. A sign of the course's success is that the students have no idea who I am.