Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's Getting Real: From Conception to Birth

The single adjective that best captures my experience of building and deploying an online, for credit course is frustrating.  Sure, it's been an intensely creative experience; it has made me grateful for all the wonderful people who have worked on the project.  But it has also been intensely frustrating to ensure that all of our hard work was going to result in an actual course that actual students could take for actual credit.  In mid-August, shortly after learning that the oversight for projects like mine was moving from one office and associate dean to another office and different dean (and, in fact, to a very different kind of unit), I thought long and hard about postponing the launch date to the spring semester.  I knew that we would be ready with the course--the product; but was close to losing faith in my university's ability to ensure that the course was staffed and open to students.

As it happened, we barely got the UT section of the online course open for registration and an instructor hired.  We jumped through countless hoops, some of them entirely unnecessary, but managed to pull it off.  I owe a lot of this to the amazing executive assistant in the Classics Department as well as the fabulous staff at the International Students office (the course instructor needed a visa, and yesterday).  We did almost no advertising.  A good friend made a nice poster which we emailed to the undergraduate advisers on the Friday late afternoon before classes started on the following Wednesday.  We were hoping that we'd get maybe 30-40 UT Austin students to sign up.  We'd had no time at all to market the class because it took until late on Friday for the Powers that Be (no, not Bill Powers himself!) to finally sign off on opening the class to students.

Last Sunday night, I logged onto the Canvas site for the Online Rome UT section.  13 students had enrolled!  I was thrilled.  Suddenly, it felt real.  All the work, all the stress and anxiety, the constant nagging of administrators to sign forms, seemed worth it.  13 students were going to take the course!  I was immediately reminded of how challenging it is for faculty to work on courses when we don't have a clear sense of our audience, or even know if there will be an audience.  On Monday morning, I opened my email to find a message from our undergraduate adviser, letting me know that some 70 students had registered for the online class over the weekend.  I was stunned (and realized that Canvas was about 24 hours behind in updating the roster).  Over the week, many more students added the class.  We now have about 250 students in the UT Austin section, another 10 or so in the Extension School section, and then I am teaching 200 students the blended instruction version on campus.  I am utterly floored that, in just over one week and with virtually no advertising at all and well after most students had finalized their schedules, we were able to attract so much interest.

I have especially enjoyed the many exchanges with students, both face to face and over email, about the online class.  It is clear that the prime motivating factor for them is being able to fulfill a graduation requirement while introducing some flexibility into their schedule.  We spoke a lot about how they would still need to find time for the classwork, but that they could do it a bit more on their own schedule instead of the university's schedule.  Nobody asked if the online class easier, nor did they expect that it would be.  Several asked if there were live streaming lectures (since this is the dominant model at UT): nope, I said.  In fact, there's almost no lecture.  These conversations gave me a great opportunity to chat with students about self-regulated learning, about time management, about making use of different kinds of feedback.

As we continue to fine-tune the modules and get ready to start the course on Tuesday with an orientation module, that feeling of intense frustration has been replaced by exhilaration, delight, and excitement.  I am proud of what my team has built and am excited to see how these students worth with the content.  I am sure that we will learn a lot, including ways to make the course work even better.  But having 260 students on the other end of this makes it all worth it and is a great reminder for me of why I do what I do.  I love writing and research and I continue to do it.  But I am at a point in my life and career when I especially enjoy introducing my passions to others, opening their eyes just a bit and letting them have glimpses of the world to which I have dedicated my professional life.

When I tell people that I am working on building an online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome class, I am sometimes greeted with skepticism: "Who would want to take a course on Ancient Rome?" they ask.  A lot of people, it turns out, both undergraduates but also non-traditional students.  I am convinced that, once we get the word out there that this course exists, we will find that our enrollments via the Extension School will also increase.  To go along with the launch of the Online Rome course, I created a Twitter feed (@OnlineRome).  I wanted a place where I and the course instructors could post cool images and other information about Ancient Rome.  Basically, it would be a feed about Ancient Rome that is curated by content specialists, for students and other interested individuals.  I was shocked to see that, within a few days, the account had around 200 followers from all over the world.  Most of the followers are not academics and clearly just have a side interest in ancient Rome.  This delights me.  These are the people that I want to reach, whether via Twitter or an online course or even a non-credit, less weighty MOOC.  If we are going to get people to care about the humanities, our first step is to engage them and get them to see why it is worth spending money to continue to support teaching and research in this area--even supposedly esoteric fields like Classics.

I am very excited to see how things go over the next several months.  Most of all, I am delighted that all of our work over the past year (and long before that) is going to serve a purpose for at least 260 students.  They say that mothers don't remember the horrors of labor once they have successfully birthed their child.  I am hoping the same holds true for bringing online classes into existence!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.