Creating a Conversation
According to Michael Welsch an online course should feel like a conversation. In his opinion, meaningful dialogue occurs when one engages in responsive teaching practices (integrating student questions and observations into lesson materials, using video introductions, etc.). This builds a sense of trust and comradery amongst classmates and leads to higher engagement.
Looking at my own course it feels more like an awkward family supper with the in-laws.
Essentially, Welsch is emphasizing relationships, which is hardly a revelation to any veteran instructor. So why is it so difficult to transfer these practices into online spaces? Why do I find planning a blended course so difficult?
That old sinking feeling
I am far more adept at connecting with people in person given my nearly twenty years of conventional teaching experience. Call it familiarity, or call it the fear of the unknown, but I don’t feel comfortable with most features of my chosen LMS (Google Classroom). But more than this am I have a more fundamental worry: I don’t know if my course will be engaging enough.
The purpose of my online course is to help students credit complete a failed class. Mercifully, due to luck and circumstance (I don’t use those terms when my principal is around) I don’t have many students that flunk. This creates a unique situation – effective models of online learning like OCL require rich student-to-student interaction, but my community of learners may only consist of one or two students.
How do I build a community amongst my learners if I only have one person taking the course?
It feels like being picked last for dodgeball all over again.
Possible Solutions – Possible Problems
- Building Social Presence – It is important that students feel a part of something when they take an online course. With only a handful of students working through my mathematics unit it will be incumbent upon me to step up (more so than someone with the luxury of creating sub-communities within their class). My initial plan was to post short discussion questions in Google Classroom with students typing out 2-3 sentence responses (to maintain engagement). Instead I think it would be better if students recorded short video answers to which I could respond with my own videos. This will help students feel that they are authentically interacting with the instructor and provide an impetus for them to return to the course website frequently. These short video clips will require clear goals and expectations (length, content, what is appropriate to discuss, etc.) both in written and video form (how can one teach how to respond in video form without making a video themselves?). Creating an exemplar conversation between myself and a teaching colleague (playing the role of a student) would be helpful.
- Structure learning materials to support discussion – As Bates cautions our teaching materials, videos, and readings should be chosen with the explicit purpose of supporting student discussion. In his view discussion is not an optional addition, it is the core around which all other activities are built. This means my quizzes and questions in Google Classroom need to generate conversations, rather than being mere summative tools. Thus after a quiz I will need to post a discussion question asking students to expand upon what they have learned, something to the effect of “After watching the videos and completing the quiz pose one unanswered question you still have.” Circling back to student engagement I could then use one of these as the next major topic for video discussion (see number 1 above). This would validate student contributions and make them feel that their input is valued.
- Create a relevant resource section – Part of establishing social presence is creating openings for learners to show what they have learned. To keep students engaged I will create a message board section of my course (or a place on the main newsfeed in Google Classroom) where students will post news articles, or websites that are related to classroom activities. In particular I would like students to share links to places where they have found information for their final projects. To keep things simple I will provide examples of what I expect (A sentence describing the website, the link, and why they feel it is relevant to what we are talking about) and respond in either video or text format to encourage their participation.
I am wrestling with the idea of how this should be evaluated. I would like student responses to flow organically from the material and peer discussion, but I am not sure how to get away from extrinsic motivators (i.e. “is this for marks”). Obviously as part of my expectations I will have to have some sort of marking scheme (I am thinking about utilizing a rubric, but part of me feels like explaining what I liked about student responses in video form may be more effective – encouraging excellent work and asking questions when work is not hitting the mark), but I am not sure how best to do this. If I had multiple students working through the course I could ask them which discussion answers they appreciated most, and factor their responses into student grades (perhaps using a google form?).
In short I am very open to your suggestions and feedback.