Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reflections on this online learning experiment

First, would I teach US History in this online format again??  YES
Second, did this consume too much of the time I would have otherwise spent reading for pleasure or sitting on my mother's dock starring off at the lake?? YES
So why, given how much I value summer for the time to read would I do this again?

The paradox in the above statement is emblematic of so much of teaching 10 students US History in an online course. There are real trade offs that have to be made.

Face to face versus virtual: I believe absolutely in the teacher student relationship that happens within a bricks and mortar classroom and the peer relationships that develop around those tables. The online experiences is different. You have to work with great intentionality to make it personal, to make it human. It helped that we began with two days in a real classroom. Assignments were created in such a way as to "force" conversations between peers in the discussion forum and the class wiki. And early projects were designed to be collaborations. Regular SKYPE check ins between myself and the students, even for just a five minute discussion of an assignment idea were a necessity. But the upside of this individualized approach to building class cohesion and student support is that the learning is individualized. Rather than spending time preparing for four classes a week, I prepared for one class and focused on individual student thinking and learning the rest of the time.

Time is an all too precious commodity in a 6.5 week summer school course: Over the course of 9 months, teachers feel pressed to cover all the content. 6.5 weeks raises that pressure at least five fold. I had to stay focused on the themes I wanted my students to have ingrained in their brains: the evolution of the meaning of freedom (and who it includes) over three hundred years, the development of a market economy, the rise of American imperialism/exceptionalism,  the Constitution as a living document with meaning for their lives, and the agency of ordinary citizens for creating change in their communities and nations. Over these themes, stood my own working assumption about history--that history is created by the actions of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary people). Within these themes, I had to let go of insisting every student learn every detail of the battles of the War of 1812 or the Civil War, the many treaties signed by the US over the course of the 19th century, or even all the places the CIA fomented rebellion during the Cold War. Did I make the right choices for my students? Should we have spent more time on Reconstruction or the Taft Presidency and how it compares to Roosevelt's or Wilson's (something I do when I teach US History over the course of the school year)? I have colleagues who believe this is the only chance many of our students will ever have to learn the details of our history. In 6.5 weeks, either the details come fast and furious -- in a blur-- or the focus is on the big picture with details helping to ground those themes in time and place.

Students still need to communicate: Thursday evening class was a rich experience (even when the technology wasn't perfect). The short class time worked because students had already been "talking" in the forum. The discussion forum worked because the students came to trust each other to read carefully and respond honestly-even when they didn't agree.

There is a place for this sort of learning within the continuum of bricks and mortar to large scale MOOCs. Done well, student's learn content and skills--skills they will encounter in their life. This sort of learning helps to break down that artificial wall between what you learn at school and the rest of your life. The students learned at a time they were ready and in a manner that served their very different learning needs.