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Preparing to Teach a Large Online Course

With increased pressure on classroom spaces, many departments are moving courses online. I’ve written here at ProfHacker about teaching online previously, but in that past experience I was teaching a very small synchronous online course. While late-night video chats have their own challenges, that course gave me plenty of opportunities to hear directly from each student and encourage collaboration and discussion. This fall, I’m embarking on an online course on a far different scale: I’m teaching a class capped at 150 with no scheduled meeting time and no teaching or grading assistants. Such courses are rising in popularity and demand particular attention to the pedagogical challenge they pose. A number of ProfHacker posts have looked at aspects of this: Doug Ward has talked about the perils of online teaching, Michelle Moravec shared lessons from a MOOC, and Jason shared his summer of teaching online.

As I refine my teaching strategies and tackle this larger online class, I’ll be posting here on the challenges and potential methods I recommend. The course is “Digital Culture and Narrative,” an undergraduate course that introduces the construction of games and digital narratives while contextualizing them in the larger conversation surrounding digital culture and social media. As such, it uses many different tools and platforms. It also requires strategies to handle creative work feedback and collaboration in an asynchronous course.

I’m currently in the first stage of developing the course, which involves translating previous iterations of the course (as I’ve written about in Syllabus) to the new context. Here are a few of the steps in my process of conversion:

  • Rethink timetables and assignments. The first weeks of an online course might require more adjustment for students, particularly those working in a campus’s learning management system for the first time. I like to start the semester with a couple of relatively simple assignments that serve both as an introduction to the platform (in my case, Canvas) and to other students. Likewise, it’s important to think about deadlines in the terms of an asynchronous online class: I find that students have come to expect midnight deadlines when working online, and having a consistent schedule and “end” of each week or unit can help eliminate confusion.

  • Evaluate learning outcomes and substitutions for physical activities. Typically when I teach interactive narrative, I begin each class with a creative prompt that involves collaborative writing, writing under constraint, storyboarding, or otherwise rapidly engaging in playful brain-loosening in preparation for the rest of the class. As attached as I am to these hands-on shared exercises, I’m replacing them with message-board based exercises that should meet the same outcomes.

  • Adopt strategies from MOOCs and other large-scale courses. Teaching this course with 24 students in the past, I could provide personal feedback each week. That becomes impossible as courses scale up, and it’s crucial to think about when that feedback is most important and how to use collaborative strategies to provide support systems for student works. For instance, I’ll be dividing students into teams and using peer review workshop strategies that fit an online environment, like those adopted by the Learning Creative Learning MOOC I participated in.

Converting the syllabus is only the first stage of preparing for a large-scale online class. Over the course of this series, I will address particular assignment types, scheduling, learning outcomes, and many more areas of consideration. Have you taught a large online class? Share your syllabus advice in the comments!

[Image: the crowd near san marco, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mararie.]

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