Web Teaching Journal: Week 1 (Why do it, My class, Moodle, Message Board Worries, and Drops)

Web Teaching Journal: Week 1 (Why do it, My class, Moodle, Message Board Worries, and Drops)

OK, before it all vanishes into the ether, I think I will write a weekly blog about my experience teaching my current web class. Hopefully I can chart the ups and downs of this experience and get a grasp on how this class progresses or does not progress.

I got into web instruction because I saw in it an opportunity to ensure curricular stability in an environment in which qualified instructors for night classes could not always be found. Web classes, I reasoned to myself, could be a serviceable “patch”, to ensure the maximum amount of coverage for working students who desperately needed certain classes to graduate on time. What if we made decent, creative, exciting web classes to meet the needs of these students? That was the plan. That’s how I slipped down the proverbial slippery slope a few years ago. My experiences teaching these classes have been infuriating and rewarding. Sometimes I have felt like a total joker and other times like an effective teacher. In future posts on this series I plan on filling in more blanks about my history teaching web classes.

My current class, Spanish 3312: Introduction to Latin American Culture and Civilization, is being run on Moodle, although in the past I have used WebCT. This is the class description: “Spanish 3312 is an interdisciplinary introduction to Latin American society, history and culture. The course is designed to provide students with an engaging and accessible outline to the diverse and complex contours of Latin American history and culture. Topics covered include Pre-Columbian culture and history, themes relating to the Conquest of the New World, private life and customs in Colonial Latin America, race relations, important literary texts and writers, the Mexican Revolution, political controversies surrounding the Cuban Revolution, human rights in the Southern Cone and U.S.-Latin American Relations in the Twenty-First Century.” Sounds pretty cool, huh?

I made myself crazy in December of 2008 developing the foundational series of video lectures around which I would build the present incarnation of this class. In the past, my videos had been boring talking head videos (aren’t all talking head videos boring?), and I had taken the most generic approach to the material. Basically a lot of annotated chronologies of events. In December 2008, however, I developed a new approach: I picked the most “fascinating” topics imaginable around which to build my class lectures. So, for example, I developed lectures on the weapons used by the Conquistadors (including their use of dogs), on the vagaries of translation during the Conquest, on witchcraft in Colonial Mexico in relation to the Inquisition, on the Cult of Che Guevara, etc. The second change I made was to make video lectures based on animated powerpoints with embedded audio. I used ishowu, a 20$ screencasting programa for Macintosh, to overlay my voice onto the powerpoints. I am still working with this core set of videos, each of which contain a bibliography to let students know where my information is drawn from, and image source credits to teach them something about the importance of attribution. (All images I use in my videos are public domain, and a lot of them were found in pre-1900 books in google books).

My course requirements are as follows: online quizzes, a few short homework essays, message board participation, one essay and one final project, which will be an annotated bibliography of online and bricks and mortar library sources. I used to have an on-campus midterm but I’m making a go of it without that this semester to see what it’s like. I’ll return to these assignments and my thinking behind them in future posts.

So, what are my initial impressions after a few days of running the class?

My first impression is that I am happy to be using Moodle over WebCT or Blackboard. Moodle is very webpage like in its layout and I really like how it’s open. Unlike WebCT and such, you don’t have to click 5 times to navegate through the site. It looks like a big, long webpage through which you can scroll up and down. It works better for me, but I’m curious to know what students who have worked in different web environments think about it.

My second impression is that it is pretty hard to communicate with students, no matter how many instructions you write. In fact, the more instructions you write, the more they seem to get lost in a fog. Now is a key time in the class because students need to get established into a routine and figure out how the forums and quizzes work. Once they get into a routine and know how things work, then the class can run smoothly and we can tackle other challenges. But it’s a rough road to hoe so far. Students are not using the message board that much to talk to each other and to ask questions about the class, as I’ve instructed. They are holding back questions and some are sending me private emails to ask questions that relate to the whole class and its functioning, questions that need to be asked publicly for all to see. All of which is making me worry about getting on track properly. It’s as if the class was not “together” yet.

I had a review session on campus and two students showed up. To help foster community, I told the students who attended to report back to the class on the message board. And I’ve directed those students who emailed me with questions to post their questions on the message board. Maybe this will help crack the ice.

A few students have dropped, including one who cited “scheduling conflicts” with my web class! Poor guy, I should not have confronted him about dropping the class, even jokingly (as was my intent). Students don’t realize what they’re getting into often, and when they start working in a web class, they realize that they HATE IT. Although I too prefer live classes, it always bothers me a little bit when this happens. It may not seem that way, but a lot of hard work went into making my class interesting and fun. But the truth is, the more I speak to other students about their other web classes, the more I realize that mine is much better than many others. You know, those classes in which the only thing that happens is this: Read this web page, visit these web links, here’s your homework, and here’s your quiz. Goodbye. What a travesty. People actually get paid to teach that way?

OK, see you next week.

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