Reflections at the half-way mark: my first online courses

A month ago, I started teaching my first-ever entirely online courses, World Regional Geography (Geog 101) an introductory course and a particular favorite of mine for a long time, and an upper level course on the Geography of East and Southeast Asia (Geog 307.) The courses extend over two summer sessions, and I am writing this at the half-way mark. In this post I reflect on what I have learned (and what I haven’t been able to figure out) so far. (I reserve the right, though, to change my mind on anything here as the courses continue and I learn more.)

The Good News 

  1.  The fully online blended learning approach works really well; so well, in fact, that I plan to use it for parts of my regular classroom courses (even if I am sitting in my office computer and students are in their dorm rooms.)
  2. Students are excited by the idea that I am teaching about foreign places from location abroad; I tweet about my observations here, use case studies from my own observations to illustrate concepts we cover, and blog about what I am doing and seeing.  Next week a Cambodian student will talk with my students; he has questions about the US, and they are interesteed in knowing about the lives of their contemporaries in Cambodia.) But I am not yet doing enough to integrate my own location & experiences into the course; I need to figure out ways to do more, and to do it more systematically.
  3. Students are more engaged in these two courses than in any other courses I have taught. They participate in class discussions more, post on the course blog, talk to one another, class attendance is high, and some students are now even tweeting on #UMWGeog101 and UMWGeog307.)  In most of my classes over the past two weeks, students have opted to continue our discussion beyond the scheduled two hours. Two days ago, one class discussion lasted more than three hours (I record classes so that those who can’t stay can go back and review them; they can see the Powerpoint presentation, read the conversation in the chat window, and listen to the audio.)
  4. A whole lot of things are possible in a web-conferenced base class that can’t easily be done in the classroom For example: we  encounter a question I don’t know the answer to, so I ask John to do a quick search for the answer and report back; I have never before been able to say to a class “Pull up Google Earth and take a look at Naypyidaw. What strikes you as odd about this capital city?” or,  “Go US Census Bureau International Database; Suzy, look at the population pyramid for Belgium, Fred look at Italy’s”…and so on.
  5. The biggest problem for students in a synchronous online class is distraction (but there’s a solution!) I would bet that during class most students Facebook open in another browser tab, perhaps also YouTube; Angry Birds is running on the phone.  That’s tough competition for any teacher. I have learned over the past few weeks that a very effective solution (and perhaps the only) way to minimize distraction is to keep students actively engaged (see #4 above.) I suspect that if students are not actively taking part in the class, they may be doing something else. But I cannot know that, and they know that I cannot know.

Unresolved Problems

  1. My workload in my two online courses is impossibly large and I cannot keep up with it. I need to figure out a way of reducing the amount I need to do without damaging the course. I have been spending at least six hours a day, seven days a week (outside of classes) replying to student e-mails and posts, write by own posts, tweeting (and finding things to photograph and tweet about), keeping up with the news from the regions we are discussing, grading, and more. I am still falling behind, and this can be fatal in an online course (particularly if it means that I can’t respond promptly to student posts and e-mails. Admittedly, these are summer courses, but they both stretch over both sessions. Teaching even one of these courses during a single summer session would be impossible.
  2. Grades, assessment, and fairness. In an courses like mine, everything except for written work must necessarily be done under the Honor System. Grades in in Geog 307 come almost entirely from written work and class discussions, so the issue is not a big one there. In a largish introductory class like Geog 101, students do little if any written work, and their final grade comes from online quizzes and assignments, five place-name map quizzes students take one their own (where I trust them not to consult an atlas or other maps,) and a grade based on my assessment of each student’s contribution to class discussions and blogs.
    It is very easy for students to cheat their way to an A in all parts of the course except the contribution grade, and I can’t stop them from doing so. (For many, I know that the temptation to cheat is irresistible. I have given several take home map quizzes in Geog 101 in the past, and average grades are significantly higher than they are for in class quizzes. QED.)
    For reasons I haven’t been able to figure out, grade issues have generated a deluge of e-mails and complaints from students in Geog 101, and some students seem to be fixated on the issue. I had more than 50 e-mails and posts in the 48 hours after an online assignment last Wednesday, not a single one of these messages asked about the substance of any of the questions. Almost all the e-mails were about.grading and fairness. I used exactly the same assignment for the past two semesters and it raised not questions at all, so I am baffled (I pulled my first all-nighter in a long time on Wednesday night; eight hours answering e-mails about grades, grading, and the fairness of questions. If I didn’t have to deal with this kind of stuff, #1 above would practically disappear and I could devote more time to the meat of the course.My solution, this time around, was to tell students this past Thursday that I have decided to change the way I calculate the final grade for the course. Most of the grade will now come from their own assessment of their work, and I won’t change it (the details are here.) This should dispense with the pointless and distracting debate about grades, and allow us all to focus on learning. I’ll let you know how it works out.

In many ways, my two Summer courses are practice runs for the three online classes I will teach in the Fall. I would rather make mistakes now, while I have two classes and 33 students, rather than when I have 85 students in three classes and I am traveling around the world. I am also hoping that I can get ideas, suggestions, and criticisms now, from students in the classes, fellow OLIers, our expert mentors, and anyone else who has thoughts to offer. So please chime in!

Model Reflection

Remember to model this behavior yourself. Take time to regularly share your own reflections on the course and the discussion emerging from it.

Non-Traditional Reflection

Encourage students to reflect on their work in your course through non-traditional media (for example, short audio or video reflections.)


Consider a course requirement that involves regularly blogging or producing some other kind of reflective content online.