A Field Report from the Digital Frontier: My Experience Teaching Online

This past summer my colleague Sam Mulberry and I taught the first online version of one of Bethel University’s more venerable courses: GES130 Christianity and Western Culture — a team-taught, multidisciplinary, one-semester Western Civ course taken by something like two-thirds of Bethel students as a foundational experience in the Global Perspectives pillar of Bethel’s gen ed curriculum. In part because of CWC’s prominence within that curriculum (and its long history at Bethel, going back nearly thirty years now), and in part because of the unusual way we approached the challenge of teaching such a course online, Sam and I decided to give a presentation on the experience in Bethel’s library last month.

Video of our talk is now available at our department’s YouTube page. Feel free to watch the whole thing, or just skip down to some of the reflections that I thought I’d pull out and share here at the blog.

The first thing I’ll say is something that doesn’t really come out till the last third of the talk: Sam and I were pretty skeptical about teaching online coming into the summer, and didn’t feel a whole lot better about it once it was done, despite having invested enormous time and energy in producing ten documentary films, seven webisodes (for a total of ten hours of film), and seven virtual museums.

But I’ve already beaten that drum a few times already on this blog and knowing that I will no doubt return to it before too long, I’ll refrain from further comment. (Watch from around 24:00 to just after 30:00 in the video if you want to hear two of our central concerns, but bear in the mind the caveats we offer once or twice: it’s the first fully online course either of us has taught; neither of us has taken such a course.)

Instead, let me focus on two themes that came out in our talk:

1. Use online as a pedagogical laboratory

Very early on in the planning process, Sam and I agreed to two things: (1) we would scrap the central feature of face-to-face (F2F) CWC — twice-weekly lectures — and (2) not replace them with their most facile online facsimiles. Both of us actually believe in the power of a good lecture not simply to deliver information, but to tell a story and even work something akin to conversion in the lives of students. But neither of us thought that this would be accomplished through something like a narrated PowerPoint.

Our ancient history museum
The map for our first museum, named in honor of one of CWC’s four “founding fathers”

Instead, we embraced the online course as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the course: Could we accomplish the same outcomes through the same rough sequence of topics while using completely new techniques?

We quickly settled on the idea of producing a series of Ken Burns-like documentaries that would interweave narration, primary source readings, and interviews with a wide range of our colleagues (in a sense, Bethel taught this course, not us) in order to provide the narrative thrust of the course, and to frame the enormous, complex, challenging questions we ask of students. Then one of our many spontaneous conversations sparked the idea of building virtual museums that would allow students more in-depth (but somewhat free-form) exploration of the major time periods covered in the course. We populated these spaces with paintings, sculptures, artifacts, readings, clips of faculty interviews, and audio commentaries.

Because doing the films and museums was bound to take so much work (a month before the course started, we only had four of ten films and two of seven museums anywhere near ready), we decided that we wouldn’t have time to design an online counterpart to the F2F course’s weekly small group discussion sections. We knew that we’d have students write frequent film and reading responses and complete detailed worksheets guiding and evaluating their museum “visits.” But we worried that — apart from Sam’s narration of the movies and my audio commentaries for the museums — students weren’t really encountering their instructors. So almost at the last minute, we decided to produce two webisodes for each of the course’s three units (plus one course introduction) that would feature the two of us riffing (à la ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption) about key readings and issues from recent classes, with a dose of pop culture thrown inFor example, in the first webisode I got to play the roles of Barack Obama and Taylor Swift, sharing who from the course most inspired or convicted them.

Screenshot from CWC webisode reviewing the Reformations
From our webisode reviewing the Reformations…

For all of our angst about lacking any feel of how much students actually learned from this course, I will say that the idea of online course-as-pedagogical laboratory was a success. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. And it did succeed in meeting one of our personal objectives: that the online course generate new ideas that could feed back into the F2F course. (“Going to the moon” was one of our guiding metaphors, both in that we’d set such a ridiculously high bar for ourselves and that we trusted that we would spin off the pedagogical equivalents of Velcro and Tang. Sam wore a NASA T-shirt at least once a week all summer…) We had already used an early version of our Renaissance museum as a homework assignment and will continue to do so. We’ve repurposed clips of the interviews we filmed with Bethel colleagues as a way to bring guest experts into lecture. We anticipate developing in-semester review webisodes. And a week from today I’m going to teach about medieval piety by essentially leading 135 CWC students on a “tour” of our Middle Ages virtual museum.

Above all else, I think we did succeed in producing something that was at once radically unlike face-to-face CWC and would have been completely familiar to anyone who had taught or taken the course in that format. And that points towards a second takeaway…

2. Online teaching needs to be collaborative

CWC has always been collaborative in two senses: first, it’s taught by a team of historians, philosophers, theological or biblical scholars, and social scientists; second, even as it changes year by year, we are conscious (perhaps even to a fault, at times) of having inherited something that was built by others and try to honor their intentions for the course. That spirit of collaboration certainly prevailed in the online version; indeed, it became all the more essential.

CWC's Four Founding Fathers
From left to right: Mike Holmes (back to the camera), Neil Lettinga, Kevin Cragg, and Dan Taylor. Planning CWC ca. 1985.

First, we did view online CWC as a continuing collaboration with the course’s four “founding fathers”: Kevin Cragg and Neil Lettinga (history), Mike Holmes (Bible), and Dan Taylor (English literature). Even as we scrapped the pedagogical model they’d inaugurated nearly thirty years ago, we strove to remain faithful to their vision for a Western Civ course that spanned the liberal arts to help first-year college students begin to critically and faithfully understand how Christians relate to one particularly influential culture. We actually did get to interview Kevin and Mike for the films, and I’m sure we were unknowingly repeating Neil and Dan ideas that have been around since the mid-1980s.

The course was also a collaboration with the twenty or so colleagues who agreed to be interviewed for the films. (And some clips also showed up in museums.) Of course, we interviewed lots of people who are currently teaching the course, but we also went back and talked to professors who haven’t taught the course in years — and others (from music, theatre arts, chemistry, anthropology, and Bethel Seminary) who have never before taught CWC.

But most of all, let it be said: there’s no way that either Sam or I could have taught this course without the other person. At least not in the way we conceived of it. The course was so much work (intentionally — we firmly reject the notion that “simple is best” when it comes to online course design) that we had to divvy up the labor: I did more of the visioning (finding a way to translate the schedule of the course from F2F/semester to online/summer, picking new readings, and writing most assignments and exams), wrote the scripts for the films, and provided hours of audio commentary for the museums; Sam did all of the media production, which — in the case of the museums — meant forcing Adobe software to do things it wasn’t meant to do. It meant that we didn’t see as much of each other over the summer as we expected.

Screenshot of CWC webisode on theological debates in early Christianity
Sam and I talking about theological debates in the Early Church (a webisode recorded in Sam’s kitchen)

But all of that effort was built on the foundation of hours and hours of conversations that we’d been having since first being approached with the idea of developing an online, summer CWC. We co-taught Bethel’s travel course on World War I last January, and even on the streets of London and in cemeteries on the former Western Front, we talked about virtual museums, assignment design, and more philosophical questions about online pedagogy. (Indeed, visiting so many museums no doubt influenced that element of the online course, and Sam worked in at least a couple of physical locations from the trip: the quad at Magdalen College in Oxford became part of our medieval museum; and the German cemetery at Langemark appeared in our Museum of the Modern Age, which, not surprisingly, had a large WWI exhibit.)

In the filmed talk we both emphasized that we were instinctual, “feel” teachers. And that posed a dilemma: we built the course by following our instincts (honed over years and years of teaching the course), but then the nature of teaching online meant that we got little feedback from students that would touch the level of instinct. We couldn’t see them be bored or inspired, troubled or surprised. We didn’t see lightbulbs go on, or minds check out. All we saw was what they allowed us to see of their opinions (through writing assignments) and whatever open-book, open-notes exams reveal about their comprehension.

But we did get to talk with each other. And in a course that permitted no embodied community with students, it’s indispensable to have such a community with fellow teachers.

Click here for the full video of our talk, if you didn’t watch it embedded above.

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