How I’m Planning to Teach Online (part 1)

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, I’m not a huge fan of online education. While I’ve taught an online course every summer since 2013, plus a couple of hybrid courses a few years back, I’m still skeptical that that mode of education can bring about the kind of whole-person transformation that I would associate with the Christian liberal arts generally and Pietist models of Christian higher education more particularly. While I get why ed tech enthusiasts are ready to call this a “black swan” event that will change everything about higher ed, I suspect it’s as likely that depriving students of face-to-face instruction (and community) will help them see its value more clearly than ever before.

But thanks to COVID-19, I’m spending part of my extended spring break preparing to teach all three of my classes online. At first, I was looking at doing so through Easter; as of this morning’s update from Bethel, it’ll be the rest of the semester. (As expected, my survey of Christian college responses to coronavirus/COVID had a short shelf life.)

And now I’m grateful that I’ve at least had some reps with online teaching. Between that experience and all the time I already spend creating podcasts and digital projects, I’m in pretty good shape to make this transition.

But I know that many of my peers, at Bethel and far beyond it, have far less experience teaching online. Some might never have used their institution’s learning management system before now! (Bethel goes with Moodle, by the way.) So for my sake — another case of me using this blog for “thinking in public” — and that of anyone who might need some advice or ideas, I thought I’d talk through my plans.

What I wrote is long enough that I’ll break it into two posts, starting today with some general principles I’m trying to follow and then turning to a 100-level gen ed course. (The two tomorrow are 200-level History courses.)

General Principles

1. Don’t try to do too much.
I think this goes without saying. We’re all improvising here, and not just as teachers.

2. Recalibrate expectations for students
They’re improvising, too, as they adjust to their different professors figuring out different solutions to these problems. They’ve lost most of the routine and structure that makes academic work doable day to day, week to week. Many of them have lost the jobs that help them pay for college, and some are working parents facing the same challenges I do. I still expect my students to do the best they can, but I’m not sure that “rigor” is anything we ought to expect under these circumstances.

3. Avoid synchronous activities
This is not the time to prove to anyone that you can do lecture, discussion, etc. live online. Internet access is too unreliable, ed tech companies are being stretched to their limits, and students’ schedules are thrown out of whack. I generally plan to allot at least a day or more, for students to complete even small activities. I’m trying to think more in terms of weekly than daily objectives, a sequence more than a schedule. And I’m glad that, in two courses, I’d already had students doing a lot of project-based learning, since we’ll lean into that approach even more while online.

4. Let necessity be the mother of invention
I don’t expect too much of this half-semester. But by the same token, I do want to leave myself open to the possibility that I’ll figure out new ways of teaching. That was one of our lessons from teaching online in the summer: we treated it as a kind of pedagogical laboratory or playground, one that has indeed generated a few ideas that we’ve since integrated into other modes of teaching.

5. Talk about COVID
It’s what we’re all thinking about anyway; let’s teach to it. I’m not a specialist in epidemiology, public health, public policy, or economics, but as a historian, there are things I can do to help students think about topics connected to the crisis, if not the disease itself.

GES130 Christianity and Western Culture

Course description and students: CWC is a first-year course that serves as a cornerstone of Bethel’s general education curriculum. Taught by a multidisciplinary team (mostly historians, plus philosophers, theologians, and political scientists), it surveys the relationship between Christianity and Western culture from ancient Greece through the Enlightenment, asking big questions about identity, community, truth, justice, etc.

Our textbook for CWC is meant as a supplement to lectures: Clifford Backman’s Cultures of the West

Pre-COVID instruction and assignments:

• On each teaching team, four professors take turns giving 70-minute lectures on Mondays and Fridays (100+ students), then each of us also leads two 50-minute reading discussion sections (no more than 17 students each) that meet once on Wednesday or Thursday.

• 80% of the grade in CWC is based on exams and quizzes. There’s also a final take-home essay, plus attendance/participation points.

• CWC also has a substantial academic support apparatus: faculty office hours, a prof-led review session the week of each exam (hosted in one of Bethel’s first-year dorms); a team of undergraduate teaching assistants who hold regular office hours and conduct other review activities; and online review “apps” that live on Moodle. (Almost all of this is to the credit of my co-director, Sam Mulberry.)

Where we were before break: Just over halfway through our second unit — we left off with philosophy and religion in the High Middle Ages. Before we get to our second exam, we still have to cover the Renaissance and the origins of the Protestant Reformation.

Online plan:

• We’ll replace each lecture with a narrated Slides/PowerPoint that’s been converted to video and streams on YouTube (in order to save students from using too much data/bandwidth and to make it friendlier to a variety of devices). I started this week by creating a 15-minute film that introduced all of this for students — what’s changed and what’s the same — and ended by talking about medicine in the Middle Ages and leading students in a Catholic church’s litany for healing of the sick. Some of these will be new productions; sometimes we’ll use audio and slides from lectures recorded last fall.

• Small groups are trickier. Instead of trying to host a live conversation, we’ll let students listen in on a conversation: we’re going to reprise something we did as a course supplement for several years and record a midweek podcast, with two or three faculty talking about key terms, readings, and contemporary applications of our historical content. We decided against trying to meet with all our small group students at scheduled times, though each week students will have the chance to drop in on a variety of virtual office hours (via Google Hangout) to ask questions of faculty.

• Quizzes will turn into open-book, open-note worksheets on Moodle. We’ll also have to come up with a Moodle-hosted version of the second and third exams. (We do this with the summer version of the course, though not with this many students taking it at once.) The final essay is already a take-home assignment that students upload via Moodle.

Tomorrow I’ll talk through the online versions of our department’s gateway course on the discipline of history, plus the new sports history course I’m co-teaching with my colleague, Chris Moore.