From nothing, nothing comes, goes the old saying.The university Summer term has begun and an online course I have taught since 2004, along with it. World Religions in Historical Perspective was its title, now changed to just plain old World Religions, because the thinking is a reference to ‘History’ will scare students away. You see, online courses tend to attract students from many different disciplines. In my experience, only about 10% are History majors and another 10% from the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Sciences and other more practical courses of study are followed by the bulk of my online students. A few years back this course was revised to make it somewhat more non linear, and coincidentally to make for a friendlier experience for the non historian.
This marks a problem common to all online instruction. Where in the past, a student took a course in an incremental fashion, that is, each course rested on one before, this is no longer the case. Few courses have prerequisites; most float independently about the university sphere. Because students have no experience of the Humanities, it is even more so built on ‘nihil’, nothing. This necessitated features that teach essay writing and which teach scholarly research habits used in the Humanities, for example. The old (for online teaching) tool of the discussion group is effective to this purpose. But it is effective only where the instructor keeps a close watch and intervenes frequently.
In a face to face discussion in a real time classroom, the free flow of ideas is paramount. This is essential in an online environment too, but there other equally important facets here. One of these is to encourage and require students to back up their statements with evidence, and with evidence gleaned from scholarly sources, not through random Google searches of the Net. Focus is important too, and must be encouraged in discussion groups. It is here that students learn to think as scholars before they receive a grade. This could also be taught in the comments made on essays, but that is after the disaster. Discussions allow disaster to be prevented.
By discussions, I mean a forum where a question is posed, and students post answers there, but not in real time as in a chat room. This allows for each person posting to read and reflect and post a carefully considered reply, or new idea – all based on evidence as they have time to do some research and editing of their posts. These discussions are time limited – usually to a week (though most students post in the last half hour it seems).
This simple technique replaces ‘nothing’ with ‘something’ and we are off to the races!