January 30

On Teaching Online, Part I: How to Begin

GOA’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Eric Hudson, is teaching “Advocacy” this semester. Every week, he will blog about his experience designing and facilitating this online course for high school students. You can learn more about the course here. Follow Eric on Twitter @ericgoa.

The first week of Advocacy was both familiar and strange: there was not only the usual sense of anticipation that comes with the opening of any course, but also the sense of challenge and purpose that comes with introducing students to a new learning environment. My students are from 12 different schools, four different countries, and six different time zones. For 13 of them, this is their first online course, so on Monday they entered an unfamiliar space that lacked hallways, rooms, a cafeteria, and other comforting signs of “school.” When I Skyped with each of them in the days leading up to our start, they were excited, but also nervous; they were successful students at terrific brick and mortar schools. Would those skills translate to the online learning environment?

In any class, first impressions matter, but I felt extra pressure with this class. This isn’t a graduation requirement; my students chose to take this course. They are eager to learn how to fight for causes they believe in and gain the skills to express themselves clearly and confidently. I want their initial excitement to become sustained engagement with the course. So, in beginning this course, I had three goals (responsibilities, really): set my students up for successful navigation of my course, begin building a learning community, and work with them on developing online learning skills. I have learned much from GOA’s faculty about strong beginnings, and I took inspiration from them in opening Advocacy.

I established a tone that is personal, purposeful, and practical. My course home page was open to students for a few weeks before the first day, so I posted my own introduction and this inspirational video to spark some excitement. As soon as the course opened, however, I updated the page to make it more practical (note: Canvas is GOA’s learning management system):

I use the home page the way a teacher might use the first five minutes of class: to say hello, to review the plan for the day or week, to “focus the room,” and to put students at ease with a joke or an anecdote. A blizzard happened to be pummeling Massachusetts earlier this week, so I “took my students outside” by recording a video with a greeting and course reminders. Above my video, I included a Gantt Chart that lays out the weekly plan, and I provided clear instructions for how to find coursework.

In the opening days, I prioritized connection over coursework. My colleague Susan Fine frequently uses the knitting adage, “Take time to save time,” when talking about instructional design. All GOA courses begin with a three-day orientation where we take the time to orient students properly to the learning space and each other:

Course_Modules__Advocacy__JAN_2015_ Course_Modules__Advocacy__JAN_2015_ Course_Modules__Advocacy__JAN_2015_

Each day, the students tackle a variety of activities, from the mundane but critical tasks of setting notifications and adding each other as Skype contacts to the important work of interacting in an asynchronous discussion forum and reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses as learners. I learned quickly from the “Connections” discussion that my students are smart, articulate, engaged people with an incredibly wide range of interests and experiences. The number of responses, of connections, and of exclamation points in that forum proved they were learning the same thing.

I expected challenges and tried to equip students to tackle them. Just yesterday we had our first “bump in the road.” I asked students to respond to a Doodle poll booking small group Skype discussions, and some confusion about dates and time zones arose, resulting in a few students patiently waiting online for a Skype call from me while I was outside shoveling snow from the aforementioned blizzard. I opened my Skype to find a few panicked messages, and then one very reassuring one: “OK, I figured it out! I IM’d the others to let them know!” Those connections we had worked to build over the first three days were paying off in small but meaningful ways.

What’s next? The first unit of my course, which will last four weeks, is titled “What does great advocacy look like?” Students begin by completing a Value Sort activity from the Good Project and writing me a letter reflecting on what they value and what kind of advocates they want to become. That’s our launchpad: from there, we’ll investigate case studies, engage digital communities, interview some advocates, and, eventually, hopefully, arrive at detailed proposals for personal advocacy projects by the end of February. I am excited to work with these students, and I’m looking forward to sharing here what I learn from them.