‘As Human as Possible’

Suddenly trying to teach humanities courses online? Mind your presence, ask good questions and manage expectations, experts say.

March 16, 2020
 
University of Delaware

What weeks ago seemed unthinkable is now a reality for many professors: take all your courses online, suddenly and indefinitely, due to COVID-19. And while technical and other practical challenges abound for instructors in all fields, those in the humanities face some particular ones: creating virtual classroom environments that foster the deep and often intimate discussions that promote trust and learning.

Humanists and instructional design experts don’t underestimate this task, as research suggests that training and having time to plan are crucial to leading successful online humanities courses. Time to plan is, of course, off the table in sudden coronavirus-related campus closures. Most humanities professors likely do not have ideal training: according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ most recent survey of humanities departments, 70 percent were not offering a single online course as of 2017. Technical and instructional design support will be helpful but may be limited during this time due to a variety of factors, including demand.

Despite these daunting conditions, but with their choices being few, professors are, by many accounts, forging ahead -- step by step.

No Widespread Panic

“Our members, and language and literature faculty members in general, seem to be buckling down and figuring it out -- I have not seen panic,” said Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which has made teaching resources available online here.

Noting that professors are sharing their own resources and experiences among themselves on social media and elsewhere, Krebs added, “They are working really hard to create the best learning conditions for their students.”

Jenna Sheffield, assistant provost for curriculum innovation and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at the University of New Haven, would “not say that faculty are panicking.” Instead, she said, they’re “concerned about being able to reach the learning outcomes they want students to achieve when this quick move to teaching online will clearly require more of a time investment, extended deadlines and so forth.”

Sheffield said she imagined many professors are also trying to learn new technologies. She remained optimistic about their success.

“I definitely think that it is possible to teach the humanities effectively online.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said, “Our members are doing the best they can to be good teachers in a challenging situation.”

The AHA has heard “only what you would expect,” continued Grossman, namely, “professors who want to teach well, are concerned about whether this can work, and yet even more concerned about the health and welfare of their students.” (Beyond COVID-19, instructors are worried about students’ access to technology, Grossman explained, as some are working high-end equipment and others have cellphones only.)

Remote vs. Online

Grossman said the AHA plans to publish a set of short essays by historians with experience in online instruction this week. In any case, he said it’s imperative to recognize the difference between “remote” and “online" instruction.

“What you're seeing across the country is remote instruction,” not online, he said. “Faculty are taking courses designed for in-person learning into a digital environment. That's different from teaching a course designed for digital interaction.”

Why does that matter? Expectation management. Kevin Gannon, professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at Grand View University in Iowa, participated in the Council for Independent Colleges’ Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction and said the big takeaway from that experiment is doing online education “well takes a great deal of time and skill.”

That’s “not what we have now,” however, he said, “so I think it's worth thinking about what we're doing as remote instruction, so as to distinguish what we're doing now from the practices that make up good online teaching and learning.”

More to the point, Gannon advised both professors and students “that this is going to be a bumpy ride, and that's OK.”

“Use tools you either know already or for which you have institutional support, communicate regularly and clearly with students,” he said, “and be willing to change and adapt as needed.” Now is not the time for rigidity, rigor in the “weaponized” versus “positive, encouraging” sense “or anger. A little grace and patience go a long way, because we'll need those ourselves, too.”

Similarly, Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an American studies scholar and instructor of sociology with online teaching experience at Arkansas State University, recently posted an essay to her website only somewhat facetiously called “Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online.”

“For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it,” wrote Barrett-Fox. “You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”

Even so, Barrett-Fox’s essay is full of practical advice about what to prioritize, how to approach lectures, setting deadlines, creating assignments and assessments and keeping sane.

Good Questions, Presence and More

Barrett-Fox said last week that the key to leading productive online humanities conversations is to ask good questions -- just like in a face-to-face classroom.

“Though discussion board conversations are probably the hardest part of online teaching,” she said, “I actually think that humanities professors have some advantage here because their content so often opens itself for debate in a way that, for example, the natural sciences and math do not.”

The best questions “really invite the particular students in our class to bring their particular lives, understandings and experiences to the classroom,” Barrett-Fox added. “‘How is Moby Dick a story of 19th-century globalization?’ isn’t going to lead the class there.”

Asking students to “find an object in their house that has been shaped by 19th-century globalization” -- and it “doesn't have to be scrimshaw -- and discuss it with photos in the context of Moby Dick is.”

If asking good questions is similar online demands the same skills set as asking them face-to-face, then perhaps the biggest challenge for humanities professors in this brave new world is staying present.

What is presence? Steven J. Hoffman, professor of history and anthropology at Southeast Missouri State University and editor of Teaching the Humanities Online: A Practical Guide to the Virtual Classroom (History, Humanities, and New Technology), said it’s crucial and defined it like this: “In a face-to-face class, students have some sense that they know the professor,” and “that’s harder to accomplish online, because there isn’t the face-to-face interaction.” But by using a variety of methods to “insert yourself and become present in the online course, learners are able to feel a greater connection to the instructor and tend to report better learning outcomes.”

Penny MacCormack, chief academic officer at the Association of College and University Educators, which specializes in pedagogical training and is offering online instruction resources, said that instructor presence has indeed been determined “to be one of the most important components connected to students staying engaged with and completing online courses.”

Good news: there are many ways to be present while teaching online, Hoffman said. The easiest way might be to send “periodic emails to the class about upcoming assignments and reminders.” Responding to emails quickly is another way, he said, while some professors record a “welcome video” for a class so students can see them. Others use Zoom and similar services to hold synchronous office hours. (This different from synchronous instruction, however, which Barrett-Fox and others recommend against.)

Among MacCormack’s suggestions: sending a welcome video to “share who you are and why you think the topic of the course is compelling,” making regular “announcements,” offering virtual office hours, making micro-lecture videos and being online and available -- especially before major due dates and exams. Instructors may be concerned that they need to be available all day, every day, she added, but the literature supports “making it clear to students when you will be available, and what they should expect regarding turnaround time for an assignment or question -- and then sticking to those commitments.”

Hoffman said presence is really “any technique that continues to insert the presence of the instructor in the course.” Otherwise, online courses can feel “very disconnected, akin to the old-fashioned correspondence courses” or being on “autopilot.”

Gannon, of Grand View University, agreed that instructor presence is “definitely the most important factor” here. “Social and cognitive presence means things like regular communication and using audio or video,” he added, “instead of having things mediated solely through text.”

Above all, “Make the learning space as human as possible, given the constraints.”

Hoffman edited his book prior to COVID-19. In general, however, he said, teaching the humanities online is challenging in that “many of us tend to think of ourselves and our subjects as not being technology-oriented, and we really enjoy the personal interaction and the tactile nature of working with hard copies of our materials.”

So while the digital environment “seems sterile and distant,” in some ways, Hoffman said, the humanities-heavy skills of reading and visual analysis are “such vital tools for preparing our students, those kinds of sources really lend themselves to being digitally available.”

Lessons From a Consortium

Richard Ekman, the Council of Independent Colleges' president, said he agreed that online humanities teaching can be done well, based on the sometimes surprising findings of the consortium experiment in which Gannon participated.

“One of the main surprises was that faculty felt students who had taken courses online had learned as much as they would have learned in a traditional academic setting,” Ekman said. “And believe me, the faculty didn’t go into it with that view.”

Students also didn’t seem to miss “the collegiality of the live classroom as much as they thought they would -- but the faculty did,” he added.

The CIC’s consortium includes 42 institutions that collaborated to offer online, upper-division humanities courses, starting in 2014. Lessons included in a recent report on the consortium are based on quantitative findings from four years of surveys, interviews with participants and other feedback. Major, perhaps relevant findings to the present COVID-19 scenario were that a large majority of students met or exceeded the expectations defined by their instructors’ specified learning outcomes, and students’ grades were consistently high.

Students who do not work well independently, or who are “not disciplined,” can fall behind and must “be encouraged to log into course sites regularly,” the CIC’s report also says. As for student satisfaction, 80 percent of students in one consortium phase said their online courses motivated them to “explore questions raised by the course.” This, of course, is the goal of any humanities course: to get students to think about the big questions, even after the class has ended.

Students also appreciated the flexibility surrounding some course formats and found value in new teaching methods and media. Flexibility will, of course, be especially important now in the face of so much uncertainty. One student said, for example, that their course was “set up in such a way that I felt like I got to experience the course in more dimensions than I would have in a more traditional course setting. There were tons of opportunities for interactions with other students in a variety of mediums and always some way to participate.”

One caution: there was a common perception among students that online courses would -- or should -- be easier than traditional courses. Said one student, “This course was just very hard to keep track of and in my opinion way too demanding for an online course.”

On student engagement, some faculty members reported some concern about a lack of student engagement in online courses. Students saw very little difference in their engagement levels, however. Professors found these student engagement hacks to be helpful: short videos or mini-lectures, discussion boards, Google Hangouts and other group chat apps, assigned blogs, and earning logs.

New Opportunities

Significantly -- and echoing other research on online instruction -- the CIC found that “students who have difficulty speaking up in the traditional classroom found it easier to participate in online discussions.” One student wrote, for example, “I think learning online with other students lets me be open more in my discussions because the fear of others’ opinions of my views was decreased due to not having to be in a classroom face-to-face with my classmates … I also think I learned to motivate myself and [developed] more discipline having to do work on my own and meeting deadlines.”

A faculty member, meanwhile, commented that he “quickly realized that the technology created a kind of access that we had not had before. It enabled the 10-second thinkers in the class to be able to get into the conversation on a threaded discussion where previously they had been silenced by the two-second thinkers who dominated a face-to-face class.” This made for “a richer discussion and a deeper understanding of the text from 100 percent of the class members.”

Perhaps counterintuitively -- and speaking to the notion of presence -- students frequently reported that taking online courses actually increased their interactions with faculty members. One student said, for instance, that taking online courses “is like having several independent studies at the same time because faculty members spend more time with each student.”

Seeing an opportunity to better cater to students with diverse needs and abilities via online instruction, the CIC also concluded that colleges and universities that offered only traditional instruction until now are “recognizing that online instruction may provide new opportunities for recruiting a broader range of students and for developing new kinds of programs more aligned with professional development for adult students.”

Gadgets and Gizmos

From the faculty perspective, CIC consortium instructors -- many of whom had no online-teaching know-how -- said they benefited “enormously" from help from instructional designers. That kind of help may not be available to all instructors today, though it is available in many places to some degree.

“We’re ready to assist in what, for many of our colleagues, is something well outside their wheelhouse,” said Gannon, calling instructional designers “your new best friends.” In their absence, however, he said, “social media and other online communities are generously sharing and collaborating. Twitter or the Kansas State University’s Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed community are just some ideas.

As for tools, professors in the consortium relied heavily on features available through standard learning management systems, such as Blackboard, Canvas and Moodle. They incorporated other technologies such as webpages, videos -- their own or others’ -- podcasts, blogs and microblogging platforms and shared text-annotation tools such as Hypothes.is. Half of the instructors also used Skype, Spotify, WordPress, YouTube and Twitter, saying they were helpful because they were already familiar with them -- and their students were, too. Videoconferencing software was especially effective.

Many professors ended up using some of these tools back in the classroom, as well. One professor of English said, for instance, "I thought my tech skills would become amazing and my teaching wouldn’t change much. In fact, it was the opposite."

Ekman, of CIC, said that professors teaching online during COVID-19 must “keep in mind the way that the humanities are taught are most often interactive in terms of pedagogy.” So “it puts a big burden on the particular technology you choose to use, so you can still have that interactivity online.”

In other words, choose your platforms wisely. They don’t have to be fancy, just accessible and able to facilitate a high-touch approach.

“My general education philosophy is the superior effectiveness of live instruction,” said Ekman, a historian. But colleges and universities “have the obligation to expose us to many different formats of learning, to include online instruction,” he added, finding something of a silver lining in the situation.

Hoffman, of Southeast Missouri State, said that the rewards of teaching online -- at least in a more normal scenario -- are “considerable in that you also have the possibility of engaging a wider array of learners more deeply than you might in a face-to-face situation, and are able to hear from all learners in the class.”

Speaking From Experience

Terence Day, a professor of geography, earth and environmental sciences at Okanagan College in British Columbia, wrote a paper on what happened when he once had to stay home for a week and teach online due to a personal issue (not the coronavirus). In his limited study, Day found that learning was unimpeded by Skype-based conferencing instead of live instruction for one week, based on student test scores. There were fewer student questions over all, however.

Day’s advice for COVID-19-related remote instruction is that there is a “range of different technologies available,” he said, and the “best” ones may not be the best for everyone or every course. For total novices at online teaching, Day said he’d go with a simpler technology, such as narrated PowerPoint slides, short YouTube videos or audio recordings. Conferencing may be "more desirable from a pedagogic standpoint," he said, "but things are more likely to go wrong for me or the students." Discussion boards on course management systems may be "more robust," meanwhile, "but less engaging."

Student reactions to the situation were varied, Day said. Most who signed up for face-to-face instruction "didn’t particularly like the idea of their professor not being present," he said. Yet they were "willing to go along with it for a week because they understood the rationale behind it. The online experience was OK for a limited period of time. Many students actually enjoyed it -- but some, not at all."

Remember that students will be “stressed, too,” he said. A calm demeanor, a relaxed attitude and a sense of humor will “go a long way.”

It’s “paramount instructors look after themselves,” Day added, because it's “harder to teach online than in a classroom.”

Hannah Čulík-Baird, assistant professor of classical studies at Boston University, took her women in antiquity class totally online earlier this month, due to COVID-19.  On her pre-existing class blog, she posted a welcome video and explained that she’d be sharing short, pre-recorded lectures on the topic of the day each Tuesday and Thursday, in a certain location on Blackboard. Instead of in-class presentations, she also noted, students will upload their presentations to Blackboard on the regular due date. 

"Since we will not be together, and therefore not be able to have our usual vibrant discussion, we will have to find other ways to keep our strong community going," Čulík-Baird wrote, saying that the class participation grade is relatively hefty 20 percent. Students may use the discussion board in Blackboard to share ideas or ask questions about readings and lecture videos and interact with others’ thoughts. Čulík-Baird will devote some time, in turn, to addressing these questions and conversations at the beginning of each new lecture. Reflection pieces -- either written or recorded -- are another possibility. It's no longer an option to visit an art museum to complete the extra credit assignment on the original syllabus. Students are encouraged to report on museums’ digital holdings, however.

"Instead of show up in a classroom physically," Čulík-Baird said last week, students now have to "show up" by "using their voice in a different way." Students have a variety of choices by which to engage, she added. And instead of giving in-class presentations, the uploaded presentations mean that students will grow their own “material record.” 

Čulík-Baird always asks students to stay active within classicists’ conversations on social media, including Twitter. Beyond that, "I need to keep encouraging them to keep talking to me -- whether over email, chat or voice call, because the potential for them to feel isolated and alienated is very high." Going forward, "we have to refocus our energies on the ancient materials which we are teaching our students to engage with in meaningful ways."

The ultimate goal in the weeks ahead, she said, is reaching a place where "we are so consumed with our interests in the material and our ideas about it that we forget we are talking over the internet."

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