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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My six year old Brain

I am involved currently in revising an online course. One of the new features will be an ongoing concept map. Until Wikipedia enlightened me, I had only the vaguest idea what this might be – and wikipedia informed me that the inventor of the concept map, Joseph D. Novak taught children as young as six to create concept maps. This article also led me to click on a link to constructivism, a theoretical approach to the nature of learning. I hastily returned as I do not wish to become mired in educational theory. I went back to cyberspace and found the official guide.

But, this blog and the book that will come of it, are not about theory, but about how an instructor instructs online – in the trenches, as it were.

Well, I will let you know whether I am up to the level of a six year old!

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Time Out!

Teaching online can be a seven days a week habit. This thought came to mind today as this is a holiday weekend in Canada. Classroom teachers are out for three days – granted they may have grading to do – but it is more likely they are planting their gardens, or opening cottages (summer cottage to the non-Canadian), or just planning to take family to a fireworks display, or dusting off the BBQ (grill to non-Canadians).

I should define ‘teaching online’ a bit more specifically before delving into this temptation to teach constantly. The whole package consists of marking assignments, commenting on student discussion/conference posts, answering emails, posting information on the main course page, fixing broken links, reading essays, offering advice via email, conference boards, Skype…. posting additional information on a linked Prezi…

Not a terribly tight ‘definition’ but rather a grab bag of duties and pleasures (yes, pleasures!) that take up an online instructor’s time. Unlike a carefully delineated period of time spent in front of a class, online teaching can take a few short minutes in a day, or hours.

I overheard another online instructor telling his teaching assistants to set up one hour per week where they would answer emails or texts or IMs – and that under no circumstance should they communicate with their students outside that hour, unless it was a pressing situation. On the other extreme, there is me. I answer emails at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. I chatted on Skype video with a student while walking my dog one night. The times when I can smell a burnt toast odour from my brain and notice a few wisps of smoke coming out my ears, I shut down and ignore all my students for a full day. None of this is tightly scheduled.

Should there then be a scheduled day and a scheduled week for online instructors?

I think that you must do what works for you, as long as the students in your class know your availability at the outset – and remind them along the way. Say you decide on an office hour every afternoon, Monday to Friday at 2 p.m., and that you will be unavailable after 5 p.m. and all weekend and holidays…. tell everybody and anybody that, and remind them each and every day.

If you are like me, tell them on the day you know your brain is malfunctioning and just state you will be unavailable on that day, all day.

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Using YouTube

More than a year ago I first mentioned my experiment using YouTube in my online courses. At the time I said it seemed promising, and the passage of time has seen the promise fulfilled. Students listen, watch and in the end of term comments note they like this. The invisible professor becomes a real person.

This may seem odd, but the internet can be a very impersonal space. You can see words, and pictures, and sound and often videos.  But not a person. Many years ago I asked about videos in online courses – perhaps as long ago as 2004 when my first was designed. I was told  this would require booking studio space, and a full recording session. At the time this seemed artificial. Instructors teaching in the traditional manner do not get to do weeks of rehearsals for each class, then a dress rehearsal and finally you go ‘on stage and perform’.

This was not the main reason I chose to use YouTube. I did so because I could do it quickly, using my own laptop and without a lot of preparation. In the past, when speaking in front of a class, I would do research and make notes to jog my memory  while talking, but they got the real me in the presentation.  I wanted at least that for online instruction.

So….. once a week (ideally) I jot down some notes, turn on my Mac Photo Booth app, record a video of me talking in my normal and informal tone, glancing at my notes (and  I don’t hide the fact I am looking at notes), then save that. I run it to make sure I don’t have food in my beard, or something worse out of place and that I made some kind of sense. Usually this is the case. Then I drag the clip onto my desktop, open my YouTube account and upload the video there. I try to keep the clip no longer than 10 minutes and usually in the 5-7 minute range. This ensures the download isn’t too large for most computers, and also will hold the attention of any viewer.

Once the YouTube clip is ready, I upload the link to my course site. Usually I also type what I said in the video for those who prefer reading over watching.

In terms of content, I do videos to introduce a new module in the course, or new content within a module or to say something about grades in general for a just returned assignment – or of course, as a course introduction and the final remarks at the end of term.

I don’t plan to limit how or when I will used YouTube uploads as I like to keep a degree of flexibility, but these are the usual places I use YouTube.


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