Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

Last week I attended a small conference where different instructors demonstrated techniques they use in their online classes. Ironic in that the meeting was F2F …. but all the ideas presented were useful and worth considering. Not all, of course, fit all subjects but I was interested to see how others are making their classes work online.

Just as important, I made contacts. For example, I have learned something and gained a new avenue for my World Religions course from another instructor who teaches World Music.  Music and religion are often in an intimate relationship and this sharing will be incorporated into my teaching.

Over the next while I will devote a blog post to each of the presentations, which were sent to all participants online.

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Class Size

I decided not to attempt to be clever in choosing a title for this blog post. Universities and colleges for many years now have had to deal with large class sizes. In particular this is a problem for online classes.

When I was in 1st year (Freshman year to Americans)  back in 1969, my introductory History class had 27 students. We sat in a small classroom where the Professor taught us modern European history. There was no Teaching Assistant, we asked questions and were asked questions in an intimate manner. It was small even by the standards of my High School and elementary schools where classes often had 40 or more students. Now, History classes taught in classrooms usually have at least 60 students, which is considered intimate. At one point in my pedagogical career I was a teaching assistant to an introductory history class with 500 students.

Online courses taught in a standard university setting (not a MOOC) number at least 100 students and usually more.

How then do you deal with these numbers?

For major assignments such as essays, which are still a primary tool in learning history and learning evidence-based critical thought that is the principle intellectual tool of the historian, time must be found to add comments. In the past, when class numbers were smaller, or where universities had the budgets to assign adequate numbers of Teaching Assistants, detailed comments on evidence, logic and grammar peppered the essay paper. With very large classes, that is any class over 50 or so, without adequate assistance, a summary comment at the end is all you can do. Grammar skills are very poor these days too often. Unless you are teaching in an English class, you have to let this go except in cases where understanding is difficult – then some comment directing a student to one of the writing labs they have at universities now is appropriate.  But mostly you will just have to grin and bear it, and provide an assessment of the evidence provided and the logic based on that foundation for the student.

Online teaching must involve a fair degree of discussion, as this is the place where learning in direct communication with an instructor occurs. Here personal, pointed commentary is impossible. All you can do is to give an overview for the entire class of strengths and weaknesses of logic, evidence, understanding.

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A New Term

One of the dangers of online teaching and indeed of all teaching is to become stale. By this I mean that once you find a comfortable niche and comfortable practices they can become set in stone. I recall a professor I had as an undergraduate who taught a final year seminar in Historiography. Twelve of us sat around a table in a seminar room with the prof, who was nearing the end of his career. I sat by his left elbow and could see his note papers. Incidentally, I also could see his hands shaking. I have wondered ever since if he was still nervous after all these years or maybe had some debilitating  disease – or was he hung over?  Anyway, to return to the point, the papers were lined notebook papers of the sort we used to put into three ringed binders or tung-lock/Duo-tang folders. Except in his case, they were so old, they were yellowing with edges curled up. This was in the late 1980s but his review of historians stopped in the early 1970s. He, or at least his life as an historian and as a teacher, had become stale.

With online teaching, this is an even greater danger. Technology and indeed publications now arrive at a fast and furious pace. There are a number of multimedia apps and techniques that grow in numbers, and AI (Artificial Intelligence) is just around the corner for teaching both online and in classrooms, I suspect. I maintain a Facebook page for my teaching area, make Prezis to add content to my course, which is done by the university on Courselink. Apparently Courselink is engaged in a major upgrade now, to be ready for next Fall. I make videos of me blathering on for the students using my MacBook Air’s Photo Booth. Photo Booth used to only take still pictures, but now has a video capability. I upload those to YouTube, then post the YouTube link to the main page of the course. I use links within text, but have decided to reduce these. Why? Well I have recently read a number of articles which seemed to have links every other sentence. This is link overkill – if I had spent time clicking on every link in these articles, I would have never finished the actual article, or at the very least, the point would have been lost in the confusion of links.

So, a new semester. I made a video introduction today on the first day of ‘classes’. This I promised I would do as in the past I have not posted until later – I think it important to  begin at the beginning. The essential foundation of good online teaching is to be active and to be seen to be active so students do not spin anonymously in cyber space with the instructor as an after thought.

I do hope to continue as I have begun!




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I am still working my way through the course revision for Religion & Society in the Modern World. Files came back from an editor last week and I am working my way through them. I am reminded how important it is to have a fresh pair of eyes look at written work before it goes live. In one place today, I had mentioned a ‘Protestant bishop’ in Wales writing in the 16th century a defence of reformed Christianity that would appeal to the Welsh. The editor suggested I name the man. I agreed, but for the life of me could not remember who he was or where I had found the information for that paragraph. So… being an online course…. being a writer of eBooks… being someone constantly on the net…. I started googling, then even searching the university library online to look at articles and eBooks that might have supplied the source. Finally I gave up and rewrote the section to take a detour around the original idea.

Then, flash!  I recalled where I might have found the information when I first wrote this course many years ago.

A book!

A real, live, ink on paper book, with cover, beginning middle and end!

I went into my home library, grabbed the volume: A History of Religion in Britain, edited by Gilley and Sheils. I remember clearly having found it on ABE books and ordering it from a bookstore in Vancouver, I think. It was just what I needed. And most usefully, unlike most histories of religion in the British Isles, it included a good deal of information on Wales! So, I did the old fashioned thing, opened the book and settled back in my office wing chair and read! Mind you, I had my iPhone close at hand for security; one must not go too wild. And there he was: Richard Davies, the ‘Protestant bishop’ whose name I needed.


Found in a book!  Of all places. Hmmmmm.

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I received a link to a webinar  organized by a publisher in my university email inbox today. I had attended when it was live, but as usual in a distracted fashion. The arrival of the emailed link reminded me of one of the strengths of online instruction: if you are the sort of student who drifts off during lectures, you can always revisit the lecture either in whole, or a bit at a time when you are energized.

This got me to reminding myself that when you teach, you learn. I am not a fan of modern buzzwords such as ‘facilitator’ but I suppose these vague words are attempts to express this idea. The webinar was focussed on a question of much current angst among those of us who teach (facilitate?) in the Humanities these days: Why Study the Humanities?  While I am not writing this post  to engage with this idea, I do find it rather sad that the reinforcement of the foundational principles of our society (aka ‘the Humanities’) should be downgraded and questioned as to its relevancy. I suppose that is the downside of multiculturalism and ‘diversity’ – neither concept allows much space for the formerly dominant culture of the western world and diversity does not include people of European descent.

Anyway, what actually interested me here is the use of Webinars as a part of online teaching. It is not something that I have used, or even considered until now. Not that I reject the possibility, rather the use of webinars had not occurred to me until now – and I mean ‘now’ as it occurred to me as I was writing this paragraph.

I wonder how to incorporate a webinar into a course of study – how would one do this is a technical and practical sense?  Would I ask experts in a field that falls within the course parameters to agree to become panelists, with myself, the instructor, mediating, asking questions etc. with email questions from students allowed?

Many years ago, I arranged an online seminar with another professor at a university in Chicago. We linked using emails as this was before the days when all courses had their own website – set it up for a particular time and got our respective IT departments to create a chat room for students in his class and in mine. Neither of us were teaching online, but in physical classrooms, but all students and faculty had university emails. I still think it was a good idea, but it proved an embarrassment for me. Firstly, only my students participated as it formed part of their seminar grade, while his received no academic benefit and as a result said very little. Secondly, we had no means to moderate comments and one of my students launched into a rather vile anti-American rant that had nothing whatsoever to do with the course content. I have come across that sort of stupidity occasionally here with students who buy into the myth that Canada is the greatest country in the world and the Americans are all vile idiots.

But I would try it again, and try again with cross university and international discussion as the internet has very few such boundaries. But I would have to have the ability to block trolls such as that student of mine (who by the way, dropped the class right after, showing her first sign of good sense.). I am not sure that the standard webinar format of a panel of experts speaking, then pausing every so often to answer one or two emailed questions, chosen by the mediator, is the best format for teaching. It seems to ape physical conferences, where a panel sit at the front of a room and do their individual thing, then at a point in the proceedings the floor is opened for a few questions from the audience. I am not of the opinion that (and I have said this before!) one should force new wine into old wineskins. That is, online teaching should not and should never mimic  a physical classroom. This is not always possible because most designers and funders think in this fashion.

I think a webinar should be opened up -that is, there should exist a more freewheeling discussion – not a chat room (see vile rant above), but a situation where questions and comments could be put to the panel while they are speaking, so there is a discussion happening. I am not sure if this would work, or how it could work, but I am open to a discussion on how to discuss online!



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Links: the ties that soar

I am surfacing a bit from the frantic world of course revisions. My online courses contain a lot of links to outside web pages. I do this for good reasons (I hope). Firstly, to direct students to good, scholarly sites and away from nutty polemical places of the sort that take up a huge proportion of the world wide web. Increasingly top museums, for example, have excellent web sites and are leaders in producing sites that are active and interesting rather than merely static collections of text. Mind you, they all contain good essays on particular focussed topics. I would be mad to attempt to recreate all this scholarship on my own, rather than linking to the work of good analysis already done and freely available. This is particularly important as I encourage and allow students to present visually oriented online presentations of religious art and architecture using PowerPoint or Prezi, or Keynote I should add as a Mac user myself.

Another feature I wanted to include are intralinks. That is, if I mention a concept or idea I introduced earlier I would love to have an intralink on a word or phrase that could allow the student to jump back to that to refresh their understanding. More importantly, I would like to use these internal links to demonstrate how concepts and ideas can be cross cultural or cross temporal.

But. I was told that while these are technically possible – as I knew already as I use them in my Mac Pages or iBook Author programs easily – they would not allow them as they would cause too much work to repair each year. Apparently they would stop working?  Hmmm.


and again:  Hmmmmm.

I think, once the course revision is done, I will (as I am contractually allowed) produce an eBook textbook version on my own with all the bells and whistles I know are useful and easily done.

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the non-geometric mind

I am presently working on a revision of an online course. Part of this revision involves creating an ‘evolving concept map’.  I spent some time googling around to discover what exactly this might be, and when found, it looked interesting. Well, if the word ‘interesting’ means complex and daunting, then that is the word. The idea is to present an evolving concept map that grows with each of six course modules. Courses at my university are designed to fit 12 class weeks in front of a live class in a physical classroom. This does not always fit historical eras or cultural movements that blend into one another. It fits online teaching even more poorly.

I identified six that do overlap (of course) but six worked better than twelve. Each of these will have a pie chart showing the changing hues of three themes running through the study of the relationship between religion and society. And each of the six will have a concept map that shows linkages among cultural aspects.

But it all seems too much like my nightmare experience of High School Geometry. My brain does not easily comprehend carefully charted linkages. Rather I easily grasp a whole scene in depth. Well I must do it and will likely learn from the experience.


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