Thursday, July 9, 2015

Guest Post: A Day in the Life of an Online Rome Instructor

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Now that I have finished the development phase of Online Rome and have entered into the far more complicated process of implementing a course that, by design, I am not teaching, I am encountering numerous obstacles.  Lack of infrastructure and policies is the most significant obstacle.  A complete ignorance of online pedagogy--and, especially, the time it takes to instruct a successful online course--is running a close second.  I am stunned at the number of "deciders" who assume that online=automated.  There is a clear assumption that, somehow, teaching online requires none of the intensive work (and then some) that teaching f2f does.  Partly in an effort to address this assumption, I asked the instructor of the Online Rome course to write up a post about his experience of teaching the course.  I asked him to approach it as "a day in the life," to give both administrators and potential online course instructors a sense of what it takes to teach online.  It is my hope that, at some point, enough people will have experience with online instruction that these ridiculous assumptions about it will fade away.  Until then, however, it is important for everyone to understand the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to manage an online class, work with students at a distance, and keep the technology running.  What follows is a post by Dr. Steve Lundy: 

By way of introduction, I didn't come to this course as a specialist in online teaching. My initiation into online course development was a happy accident of my growing dissatisfaction with the conventional academic career path, and contributing to the Online Rome project provided the perfect alt-ac opportunity which has continued to return high yields as intellectual endeavor and professional trajectory. I started work on Introduction to Ancient Rome Online in summer 2014 as a developer, but by the end of the summer I had acquired a good understanding of the course and its mechanics, and made the transition to instructing the course in its first iteration. As with all pilot courses, online or otherwise, much of that semester was a crash-course for us in identifying what worked and what didn't; for Spring 2015, we refined our model, eliminated elements that distracted students from more important course goals, and made key additions (like short essays). We also made the decision to cap the course at a much more manageable figure, which allowed us to focus more on student experience and student-teacher interactions.

By the end of the academic year we had developed a strong course design which, we felt, was ready to be reiterated with new instructors at the helm. A successful transition of this sort includes being able to anticipate many of the major challenges and opportunities of online instruction. With the work we have done this year, we're in a good position to do this. After the frenetic first semester, I found that my work week gradually settled into a satisfying and challenging routine, with structured opportunities for interacting with students and moving them efficiently through the work. Beyond office hours and emails, there are a few ways to communicate with students: through Canvas announcements, which I sent about three times a week; through Piazza, the online discussion board; and through an f2f review held once a week, which was also live-streamed and archived on the course website. The last of these was a new addition to the Spring iteration, and was successful enough to be continued and expanded for future iterations: although a solid core of around 10% of students showed up in person week-on-week, about a third of the class watched online regularly, with spikes around major assignments and exams. I'd like to see this kind of work be developed even further, with different kinds of f2f groups appearing, like instructor-led reading groups and instructor-less study groups -- the more participation the groups include, however, the harder it becomes to make sure online students have equal opportunities to attend and take part.

The largest part of my teaching time was taken up with grading student essays. In the first semester of the course, we designed discussion groups to be moderated in Piazza, but it was difficult to encourage students to take these interactive exercises seriously. In the Spring, these were replaced with essays, which students had to write for every other module, based on randomly allocated sections; this meant that around 50 out of 100 students were submitting essays every 10 days or so. Especially compared to the Piazza-based discussions in the Fall, I was consistently impressed with the quality of these submissions, which demonstrated a good amount of care and comprehension. Since I wasn't preparing and giving lectures, I also felt like I had more time to give substantial feedback than I have done in many of my f2f classes, offering detailed comments to students on matters of both content and style. The technology assisted this work, and the "Speedgrader" function on Canvas quickly became my favorite feature. Speedgrader allows for various kinds of interlinear comments on the paper, as well as overall comments, which function itself could become the basis for a conversation with the student. Over the course of the semester, I got pretty good mileage out of this.

The other major part of my work was ongoing development. Although I had drafted and implemented around a third of the course material over the preceding summer, this work needed to be revised and refined as we worked through both semesters. When the final drafts were produced, I took on the role of copy-editor, including checking for consistency and accuracy in multiple choice and short answer questions. The other major part of this ongoing development was maintaining our archive of podcasts, both writing scripts and recording them at the Liberal Arts IT Services (LAITS) studio. This proved a tremendously enjoyable part ofmy work week, in no small part because of the outstanding staff, sound engineers, and student assistants who work at LAITS. Podcasts feature prominently in our course design, because they are a simple and cost-effective way to convey complex information efficiently and in an attractive way.

There are several challenges ahead, as we transition the course out of its initial development phase and into a regularly offered course with a rotating instructional team. I will continue to work with this team in a developmental capacity, but I will not be leading a course myself. This may make it more difficult to experience how evolutions of the course design are felt on the ground, and we do not plan to make too many changes in the first post-development year. That said, the course is designed to be continuously evolving to accommodate instructors' personalities and student needs; I'm keen to see how we might reincorporate peer-to-peer interactions in the mode of the old Piazza discussion boards, since in the current model there is no strong (i.e. graded) basis for student collaboration. 

That said, even contemplating that kind of evolution feels unusual: in the past, when I have finished work on a course one semester, I don't have much input into how it is run subsequently; here, it feels like we're in continuous development, building in the cumulative experiences of teachers and students as an integral part of the model. This is certainly a concept I'm keen to carry forward into any f2f teaching I'm doing, as well as my new role in the development of UT's Online Latin program.