Suzanne McCormack on Teaching History Online

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mccormackSuzanne K. McCormack (Ph.D., Boston College) is Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island. She is the coeditor of Carol McEldowney’s Hanoi Journal (Massachusetts, 2007) with Elizabeth R. Mock and is currently at work on a study of asylums in World War I–era Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In her March 2015 Journal of American History piece “Teaching History Online to Today’s Community College Students,” (subscription required) she discusses teaching history for community college students in online courses.

Note: this is the second of a five-part series on teaching history in the digital age. See part one here and check back the rest of the month for more.

Could you tell us a little more about your U.S. survey course?

I take the same approach to my online U.S. survey as I do my on-campus survey. Generally my students are engaged in two semester-long studies of U.S. social history. Although organized chronologically, the central themes of my course are race relations and economic conditions. I teach both halves of the U.S. survey. In the first semester the central theme is the history of slavery while in the second semester I use the history of the home front during and between times of war as the unifying theme.

Many instructors have the conception that it is either “easier” or “harder” to teach online than it is to teach face-to-face. Can you speak to this? In your experience, how does the amount of time spent in preparation for one classroom session compare to teaching the equivalent online?

Faculty new to teaching online often believe the experience will be easier than teaching face-to-face. I think this misconception has developed at least in part because of the speed and ease at which we complete so many tasks on the internet in our daily lives. The reality, in my experience, is that teaching the survey online is quite labor intensive. I find, for example, that my online syllabus is a longer, more detailed document for the simple reason that I am not present in front of the students for two to three meetings per week to answer questions. My syllabus, therefore, seeks to cover an array of questions I think might come up as a student is working independently.

Above and beyond the preparation associated with teaching the survey face-to-face—writing lectures, creating and grading assignments—the online survey demands a great deal of computer-generated work both before the start of the course and throughout the semester. A class discussion online, for example, requires not only the formulation of questions for discussion but also requires my reading and responding to students’ posts and recording grades and/or comments on the posts in my gradebook. Finally, the sheer volume of student emails is greater in an online class because the students do not see me regularly. In my experience, teaching the U.S. survey online is more labor intensive than teaching it face-to-face.

In your article you discussed the ways your online discussions are often more robust than those in a classroom setting. What do you think accounts for this?

I have found my online discussions to be more productive than those in equivalent face-to-face classes. I believe the difference stems from the increased comfort level many students feel composing their thoughts in a written discussion forum post rather than speaking to a classroom of their peers. The common face-to-face experience of a handful of regular discussion participants does not exist in my online class where 20% of the student’s course grade is dependent upon his/her contributions to the discussion forum. As a result, very few students fail to participate. Most, in fact, do an excellent job of providing specific examples from the course readings to support their ideas and arguments. Rather than silence after a classmate has spoken, students in online discussion forums are required to respond to each other’s posts, which creates more back-and-forth discussion than I generally achieve in my on-campus classes.

At the same time, however, the online discussion generally lacks the organic, unscripted moments that take place in a traditional classroom setting that can be great teaching moments. If they manage their time effectively, my online students have the luxury of time as they “discuss.” As a result they generally develop more sophisticated thoughts and express them more completely in their written posts than they might otherwise do in a face-to-face setting.

How have your experiences teaching online fed back into your teaching in the classroom?

As a result of positive experiences teaching online I have dramatically increased student participation in my face-to-face classroom. I have moved from a predominantly lecture-based approach to one that seeks to include opportunities for class discussion at every meeting. Many of the techniques I employ in the discussion forum online are easily adapted to the traditional classroom, including group evaluation of images, maps, charts and tables. Together we view and then discuss short film and video clips, evaluate political cartoons, or listen to music. While there is always a little bit of grumbling when I say “Let’s move our seats for discussion,” I sense that the students actually enjoy the interaction with their classmates and are gaining a richer understanding of the course content as a result. I have been able to use many of the same prompts with my online and on-campus students successfully. Students in my online U.S. survey, for example, have engaged in lively written debates about cartoons from the web site Dr. Seuss went to War while those in my face-to-face course have argued passionately about the same images and ideas. From a teaching standpoint, I have the benefit of reading and/or hearing the insights of each class, and then sharing those ideas and observations with other students.

Could you speak to some of the difficulties or challenges of online teaching with regard to technology?

The greatest obstacle to online teaching in my experience has been student accessibility to technology. While smartphone usage is common, not all college students have round-the-clock access to high-speed internet with a tablet or computer. In both face-to-face and online courses college students who must rely upon on-campus computing facilities or their public library for internet access need to manage their time carefully to meet course deadlines. At the same time, students’ ready access to technology will sometimes lead to the misconception that their professors are available for consultation 24/7. As a result it is important that faculty convey a clear communication policy to students at the start of the semester. I tell my students, for example, that they will hear back from me via email within 48 hours. My hope is to erase any preconceived notion they may have that I will respond within seconds or minutes.

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