There are myriad ways to effectively deliver one’s course online. So many technologies, options, platforms, and methods exist that give instructors options for engaging and assessing their students virtually. With time and experience, we eventually figure out which one works best for us, our subject area, our school, and our students. Today, I thought I’d share my go-to approach; one that is well received by online students in my social science (psychology) classrooms and one that seems to work well for adult learners and traditional learners alike. And while it is not necessarily new (indeed, most major online schools and programs use a form of this approach), I do think this particular way of conceptualizing it puts a familiar scaffolding around online course design that can ease the mind of an instructor new to the online teaching realm.
Online Classroom as Virtual Book Club
Many of us have participated in one book club or another. A group of likeminded people decide on a book to read, spend a specified period of time reading that book, and then get together at one coffee shop or another to discuss. A lot of times, the person whose idea it was to start the book club will email around a list of questions to consider in preparation for the group’s eventual meeting. These groups tend to operate with a system that offers a lot of structure yet a lot of creativity. The discussions are often more meaningful and penetrating than the actual book and at the end of it, while some folks disagree and some folks agree on certain points, everyone feels good when they leave. And they understand the book on a whole other level than they did having read it on their own.
This is how I conceptualize my online classes: Virtual book clubs with me, the instructor-as-facilitator, at the helm. I have chosen a chapter in the textbook (or a series of articles from a course pack, whatever the case may be) for all of us to read that week. Based on that reading, I pose an engaging and interesting discussion question(s) in the class discussion forum. The students and I have Monday through Wednesday to read that chapter and then initial, thoughtful, well-considered written responses to that discussion question are due by Thursday (early birds are always welcome!). We then spend the remainder of the week substantively commenting on each other’s thoughts – sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, and always adding another example, angle, or point of view, thus deepening the learning and giving everyone a chance to share and feel heard. The instructor/facilitator has this opportunity to challenge students, to make connections between what one person is saying and what another is saying, and to bring in other aspects of the chapter that maybe weren’t specifically covered in the original discussion question. And this is where I typically will insert videos or other visual aids to further hone in on a point or give a learner a more audiovisual learning avenue. Oh, and this is certainly when the instructor can bring in their all-important “stories from the real world” that students love hearing; like our experiences in business, in therapy, in medicine, whatever the subject area is.
By Sunday night, we’ve exhausted that topic, feel good about what we learned, and are ready to move on to the next chapter come Monday.
Thus there is a shift here, from instructor-as-lecturer to instructor-as-discussion-facilitator. The “work” of teaching in this framework is discussion facilitation. To draw a parallel, the three hours an on-ground instructor might stand in front of class each week is now three hours spent facilitating deep discussions in the LMS. You’ll notice that with this conceptualization there is no need to record lectures or hold synchronous sessions. We ask students read the chapter, give them some time to do so, and then come together to thoroughly discuss it. You can incorporate a lot of your traditional lecture material in your written conversation with your students in the discussion forum, and most LMSs allow you to embed YouTube videos, TED talks, your own recorded messages, etc. to help you illustrate certain points and bring in that important audio-visual component. Asking students to watch those and comment on those is fair game as well.
The assignments and assessments in a virtual book club approach can be anything and everything – essays, quizzes, exams, projects, group work, etc. The only thing that may influence your assessment/grading system would be the addition of point values assigned for discussion participation. I tend to separate a student’s longer, initial reply to a discussion prompt from their required classmate participation throughout the week (making them two separate assignments/grades).
This approach does require vibrant, frequent, and engaging participation from the instructor. Since the book and the supplemental materials/videos/recordings you may provide are doing work of delivering the information, the “work” of online teaching in this format is an almost daily presence in the discussion threads, encouraging students, leading them in new directions, posing additional food for thought and connecting what one student is saying to another. There is an art to this process that is difficult to explain, but suffice it to say that if you are as engaged as you would want your learners to be, you are on the right track. And experience will help with the rest.
A lot of topics and questions flow out of this. What makes a good discussion question? If we like this approach, how do we handle the large online class (one with 50-100 – or maybe even more! – students in it)? How do we lay out our expectations for student participation? How do we assess student participation? These are all terrific questions and questions that attempt to address in subsequent blog articles. You can also email me and we can discuss 1:1 as well.
With respect to what makes a good discussion question, I might direct you to the two blog posts below:
Questions Without Answers – A Tip For Good Discussion Board Prompts
The Four Questions Approach: Another Tip for Writing Strong Discussion Questions for the Online Classroom
What are our thoughts on the virtual book club approach? It’s not necessarily an approach that fits every course or discipline area, but one that may be helpful to a many of you. How do you conceptualize your online teaching approach? Any other thoughts to share? Feel free to do so by leaving a comment below!