(Image credit: Hawk the Slayer, https://www.deviantart.com/hawktheslayer/art/Super-Abbey-Roadio-Bros-356435477)
I recently finished teaching my first online course. Gettysburg College has been running a pilot program for summer online courses the past two years. This year, I was one of six faculty members to participate. Before I get too wrapped up in other summery things (you know, research), I thought I'd write a few reflections down.
I taught a five-and-a-half week version of my "Music in Video Games" course, which I had taught on campus this past spring. Gettysburg gave very few guidelines on how to structure the summer courses. Since a Gettysburg semester is 14-15 weeks long, I decided to go with five weeks, so that the course would be compressed into roughly three "weeks" of work to one summer week. I then added a couple of days to the end to make up for the 4th of July holiday in week 5, so that students could take time away from the course for travel/family without feeling like they were falling behind. I then made the final project due a few days after that, in a rough approximation of an exam week or reading period.
The weekly work load looked something like this:
- There were three units per week. Many 'simulated' a week's worth of on-campus classes (or sometimes even more), while a couple were more like a single class session.
- Each unit included several readings from academic or popular sources, plus two documentaries when appropriate: Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, and Reformat the Planet, a 2007 documentary about the chiptune scene in New York City.
- Each unit included one or more lecture videos that I recorded, giving background information or examples, or explaining difficult concepts. Sometimes I went through material from the readings, but I mostly tried to avoid that kind of duplication.
- We held two live video chats per week, and hosted one "text chat" on Discord. (Discord is like Slack, but designed with gaming in mind, with a corresponding aesthetic. I started one "Introductions" channel where I asked students to post introductory videos about themselves, and then I created one channel for each week of the course. In these channels, we discussed one or two texts from the course readings - typically those that weren't featured in video chat or writing assignments.
- Most units included a short writing response on the theme of the unit, or reacting to a specific reading or other piece of media. Some were duplications of assignments that I asked my on-campus students to do; others were new, designed to replace portions of the class that I would have handled in class discussions. Because one of the major features of the brick-and-mortar course was open-ended class discussion, I needed to re-create that experience in as many different ways as possible. The video and text chats helped with this, but I also wrote new response prompts to simulate the 'share your experiences/opinions' portions of class discussion. There were a total of 12 Assignments, so a bit more than 2 per week.
- Finally students were required to keep a "Gaming Log," which was a feature from the regular course. Students needed to write about one 30+ minute session of a game, and there were restrictions to ensure variety (must hit three different genres over the five weeks; must play games from at least three different decades; one must be mobile- or browser-based.) In an ideal world, these function a bit like research journals as students work on topics for final projects.
That's a fair bit of work when you add it all up: In a single week, students would read five or six papers/chapters; watch three to five short (~15 min) lecture videos; write two responses plus a gaming log; and engage in live and/or text chats on about three of the readings. On top of that, they had a short midterm essay due at the end of week 3, and a final project (which could be a written essay, or a multimedia project) due at the end of the term.
Here are some reflections on what went well, and what I would change.
- The size of the course was just about right. I began the summer with 12 students (the upper limit for this online pilot program). One student dropped out immediately, realizing the summer schedule wouldn't work for them. Another one had other things going on that proved too much to deal with along with the course, and dropped out at the end of the second week.
- The work load was very rigorous. I'm quite satisfied that my summer students worked as hard as my semester students, if not harder in many cases. The higher number of written assignments meant I was hearing from them each individually/privately much more often than in the campus setting. It's easy to hide out in a class discussion, and I'm certainly not a "cold-calling" type of professor. Replacing 'discussions' with written reflections forced every student to offer some sort of opinion, reflection, or example, on every single topic that was discussed during the course. The pace of the summer seemed to hold students more accountable, as well -- I had fewer problems with late/missing assignments, and attendance in live chats was very nearly perfect.
- The students produced some excellent work. I'm committed to letting my students explore multimedia and creative work in their class projects. This doesn't happen for every unit, but many students took the chances that I gave them to create YouTube videos, websites, musical compositions, and in one case even a game demo (created in RPG Maker) with a custom soundtrack. One of my absolute favorite aspects of teaching courses concerned with music and media is seeing what students come up with when they're set loose to be creative. Often, they create things that I had never even thought of when writing the project prompt, so I'm always pleasantly surprised.
- Freedom. Obviously, teaching online grants a much more flexible schedule than does teaching on campus. I was able to work on my own schedule, at home, and often from the road, without the commitment of driving to Gettysburg every morning. The college also gave each faculty member the freedom to set their own length of the class (some were as short as four weeks), though I imagine that will change once the 'pilot' phase of this ends.
- The technology isn't quite there yet. First of all, the videoconferencing. Partly because this is a pilot program, and partly because Gettysburg is a small college, we don't have a really big, enterprise-level videoconferencing solution in place yet. Free services like Google Hangouts or Discord top out in the single digits for group video calls. We used a service called "Realtime Board," which is designed as an online meeting/presentation space. RTB features a persistent workspace where users can leave sticky notes, post links and media, and chat. With a premium account, they can have a group video call. However, the app is less than ideal. The faces are arranged in a tall stack, which you can't adjust or re-size. Sometimes the software is smart enough to shrink the faces and put them in two columns, but not always. There's no rhyme or reason to who gets to be big and who gets to be small, and if there are too many people on the call (more than eight or so, give or take), some students' faces will be off the top of the screen. Nothing can be done about that. It's also a very democratic arrangement - the video call happens on the board, it's not hosted by the instructor. Which is philosophically kind of nice, but it means that there were surely times when MY face was off the top of some of my students' screens, and they couldn't see me reacting or paying attention to them (I was always careful to be very expressive with my face as students spoke, to encourage and support them). It's clear that an institution needs to purchase or subscribe to serious, dedicated video-conferencing software. This isn't just a small college problem -- two years ago while I was working at the Bok Center, some colleagues and I discovered that even Harvard wasn't yet set up for video-conference or remote teaching in any meaningful way: it required homemade, custom solutions. Institutions that have serious online distance-learning programs are way ahead on this account, and many colleges could probably stand to learn from them. A friend of mine has been teaching online courses for American University for a few years, and he says they use Adobe Connect, very successfully. The top level of that costs $3,500 per year though, so it's clearly an institutional commitment. If Gettysburg continues its online course program (which I hope they will), we need to invest in something like Adobe Connect.
- Preparation. Teaching a compressed online course is a massive amount of work. I had lectures to make for 15 units. These varied in complexity, from simple introductory videos, to more serious content-delivery lectures, to multipart videos drawn from large slide decks that would occupy an entire 75 minute class period on campus. Some incorporated video and audio examples. Since it's my first time doing this class online, I was working just ahead of the students. I strove to have at least one unit per day live in the first few days of the week, if not more. (For example, in Week 1 I had to have Unit 1 all ready to go on Monday, Unit 2 all ready on Tuesday, Unit 3 on Wednesday, and then spent my time Wednesday evening and Friday morning preparing for and leading video chats.) I kept to that schedule, but it meant that lecture production was highly front-loaded: Mondays and Tuesdays were exhausting days of work, which sometimes started early on Sunday. I've been away from campus and various life events have been going on (travel, friends and family visiting), so weekend work time was extremely rare during the course. Naturally, all the freedom that comes with online teaching can have the same 'gas in a space' effect as on-campus teaching prep time: it will fill in all the hours you let it.
- Tons of Grading. Excacerbating the amount of time I spent on lecture recording was the huge amount of grading: three or four essays per week from 10 students was a lot of reading, corrections, and commentary. It required serious work to stay on top of the grading pile, and things would often pile up until I could sit down and devote several hours to getting the assignments off my virtual desk. So while the course was a semester's worth of work for my students in only 5 1/2 weeks, it was that much work for me as well. I got very little research done during the time of the class, and while I was able to take it easy on certain days when special events were happening, it was an exhausting summer term - coming right on the heels of an exhausting first year on the tenure track, from which I haven't yet had the time to fully unwind.
This has gotten long, but those are the thoughts I have upon finishing my grades. It was an intense but very rewarding six weeks, and I'd certainly teach an online course again if given the opportunity!