Teaching US History Online: Some Reflections

Next semester, I’ll be offering an online version of my Civil War and Reconstruction course. This is the third time I’ll be teaching this upper-level, reading- and writing-intensive course in a fully online environment. Thanks to being a part of the initial cohort of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction, I’ve had the opportunity to take what had been a very traditional, face-to-face, seminar-style course and rethink and redesign it to be an effective online course. This process has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects I’ve undertaken as a college educator. Early in my teaching career, I was-to put it mildly-skeptical about what was then called “distance education.” I doubted whether effective teaching or learning could occur in an asynchronous environment, one mediated by digital technologies rather than personal interaction. But as I gained experience teaching a wide variety of courses to an even wider variety of students, I’ve dramatically changed my estimation of online learning. Of course, new technologies and tools have also played a part in improving the potential for meaningful engagement in online courses. But I see online learning as fulfilling a larger purpose as well: it offers an excellent means to democratize access to higher education. For that reason alone, online learning is worth doing, worth doing well, and worth doing more.

As with anything I write about online courses and programs, I want to put a few things on the table right away. First, I don’t think that every course in every discipline is perfectly-suited for being taught online. But: not every course in every discipline is perfectly-suited for any single modality or pedagogy. One size does not fit all, and we need to be discerning when it comes to what and how we teach. Online courses, in this respect, are merely part of that larger conversation. Second, we need to avoid turning discussions of online teaching and learning into blanket condemnations, where the critics just accuse the online environment of being inferior to face-to-face courses always and forever. This argument is based on an assumption that everything that happens in a traditional, face-to-face classroom is the gold standard of pedagogy merely because it happens in that type of environment. But let’s not pretend, for example, that an hour of uninterrupted lecture delivered to an audience of several hundred undergrads in a poorly-lit auditorium is inherently good teaching just because it’s “live.” That’s sloppy logic, and its a priori reasoning prevents us from thinking constructively about effective pedagogy. That leads me to my third point: we need to stop approaching online teaching and learning as either inherently better or inherently worse than face-to-face. Like anything having to do with pedagogy, it’s more complicated than that. Far better, I think, to realize that rather than “better,” or “worse,” online is just different. Taking the value judgment out of the equation help us remain mindful of the fact that for online classes-as is the case with any course-the conversations about our work are still, at root, conversations about teaching and learning.

As I revisit my Civil War and Reconstruction course, then, I do so with the conviction that in today’s higher education context, there are important reasons for those of us who teach online to reflect deeply on our practice. A recent essay by Devoney Looser in the Chronicle of Higher Education powerfully affirms that, for many of the students whom those of us committed to a democratic vision of higher education attempt to serve, online learning is a powerful means of access. And it’s not just access to educational content and instruction, but to important skills and digital proficiencies, that online courses can offer to student populations who historically have not been well-served by the educational community. As part of those reflections, then, I’m revisiting the lessons learned in the first couple of iterations of the course, and from other online teaching I’ve done as well.

The most important element, I think, in online teaching is presence. Research on online teaching and learning shows that there are a couple of important aspects of presence that have a positive impact on student learning. Social presence is the idea that students and instructor are all interconnected in the course, that they are regularly engaging with the course material and with one another. It shouldn’t surprise us that when students perceive higher degrees of social presence for themselves and for others in the course, it correlates with perceptions of better learning as well. This is particularly true, some studies argue, for the instructor; the more socially present the instructor is in a course, the better the students’ self-perceptions of learning and the better their performance in the course itself. We tell students in an online course that it’s a different experience, not seeing everyone else regularly two or three times a week, that it’s important to be regularly engaged in the course in order not to “drift” and lose that vital element of presence. I’ve discovered, both from my own experience and from working with colleagues through my teaching center, that this advice is just as important for instructors. As our workloads grow increasingly complex, as some of us teach across multiple institutions, and as we feel ourselves pulled in multiple directions, that which is not immediately in front of us can get lost in the shuffle. In order for online teaching to work as effectively as possible and be a meaningful experience for our students, it’s vital that we are consistently active in our course spaces: in the discussion threads, the course blog, giving timely feedback to students’ work, or wherever we have the opportunity to engage with them on a regular basis. For me, that means establishing a routine that includes daily check-ins on the conversations unfolding in the discussions area, twice-weekly email/announcement updates to my students, and online office hours via videoconferencing. The more I am present with my students in the course (and that presence has to go beyond just text on a screen), the better the course goes for all involved.

But social presence is only part of the story. Since I began teaching online , the importance of cognitive presence has become readily apparent. Interaction, as one study puts it, isn’t enough on its own. Effective design-from the course in general all the way down to the level of individual assignments and activities-is crucial to create an experience where students are being challenged and thinking deeply and critically. I’ve found that encouraging students to engage in reflective, metacognitive work pays significant dividends in this regard. Regular low-stakes writing with feedback from either me or their peers is a good way to build opportunities for this kind of work into our courses. But I’ve been so impressed by the quality of reflection my previous students have done that I am adding a reflective component to my upcoming course’s final examination; I want to create the opportunity for students to not only demonstrate their progress towards the course objectives, but assess the meaning of that progress in a more formal, summative manner. There are a number of ways to enhance cognitive presence in an online course environment. As historians, we’re fortunate in that our discipline and its materials give us ready-made tools with which to do so.

This process of reflecting and redesigning my online Civil War and Reconstruction course with an eye towards building social and cognitive presence has been great for my teaching in general. Online teaching and learning is still teaching and learning. Thinking about the ways in which my courses can create the space for deep and meaningful engagement is a vital part of my reflective practice, whether those spaces are in-person or digital. As a historian teaching at a university whose mission includes a democratic vision for access to higher education, I’ve found that online teaching is a powerful way for me to contribute to that mission. As every post on this blog makes abundantly clear, there are significant and compelling benefits that accrue to students who have the opportunity to study US History on the college level. Anything that promotes access to that opportunity, while maintaining the qualities of learning and interaction that we prize in our courses, is worth doing. If online courses are designed and taught with mindful attention to presence-in all its facets-then they can be an excellent way for us to not only bring additional students into the scholarly conversation, but become better teachers as well.

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