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In my last blog post, we talked about the role of structuring an instructor's presence in asynchronous online classes. Today we will talk about how to develop a sense of community among students.

For some instructors, having students get to know each other in a face to face class might not be a goal, but it is for me. I teach at a small school and was vexed when, years ago, I was talking to a student who did not know "Joe" in our class. This, despite that "Joe" talked a lot in class, and I call on students by name. After that conversation, I set as a goal for every class that I teach that all students interact with each other and get to know each other. While it might seem like in an online asynchronous class that would  be harder to achieve, I have found the opposite to be true.

My classes always begin online with a "get to know you" week of introductions. The discussion boards for that week include prompts to get students  to introduce where they are from, their major, and why they took the class. While this is not the most robust of conversations that I'll likely read during the semester, it sets the tone.

I tell my  students that they must show a "sustained and persistent  presence in the course through their posts  in the discussion boards." They must answer the discussion prompts for themselves - their idea - and then also comment or ask questions of each other in a way that shows their engagement both with the content of the course and with fellow students.

I have had many faculty ask me - and students ask, too - if there is a "minimum" requirement for this. I resist this. I know that this is the Age of The Rubric and that assessment has ruled our teaching plans for many years. But I think it makes for a more authentic  discussion when students are led by their interest and curiosity in their posting and commenting. I want them to keep coming back to see what so-and-so said in response to what someone else said. I want the discussion to keep moving forward. I don't see how it can do that if a student says "well, I did my five comments; I'm done." I  explain all of this in videos and in a READ ME FIRST course guide that explains my ideas. Generally, once that explanation is given students understand and accept it.  Sometimes they ask me if they are "doing enough," and we have a conversation about that in the learning journal area.  And some students complain. But I hold my position, and last fall, I had robust and wonderful conversations among the students in all three of my classes. Sure, a few of them do not participate as much. They are graded accordingly with feedback about how they could improve.

Another issue is: should you, as the instructor, comment on students' posts?  There are many  ways to deal with this, but for me, I don't. The reason for this is that I want it to be their community  space. If they go off the rails on a topic, I will sometimes post an additional question. I keep that to one or two per module, and I don't always need to do  it. If there is something weird being discussed I don't want to "pick on" one person, so a rephrased question can often do the trick. Sometimes a short video correcting the discussion is needed. I had to do that one year, when students started talking about the "unicorns" in cave paintings in southern France. I was like, "Unicorns? Where did they get that idea?!" Because, of course, and sorry if this is a spoiler, there are no unicorns! I finally found an image on the official site of the Lascaux cave that called the painting "l'unicorne." Clearly the quotation marks had no effect. The students took this image to be an image of a unicorn. This is important since the main point of the cave paintings is that these people were representing elements found in their environments to elicit some control over their lives. And if there are no unicorns...

"Unicorn" by scorpiorules58 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Found through Creative Commons.

Discussion  boards are the heart of any asynchronous class. Some faculty hate them because they can not "hear" their students. But to that I say, in a face to face class, how many students do you really hear from during a discussion?  Five? Six or seven? Ten? Unless you work something into the class to make it happen, you likely do not hear from everyone.

With discussion boards, you do hear from every student. Every single one. So "Sue," who sits in the back and doesn't often answer because it takes her longer to  formulate a response, has just as many contributions in the class as another student who can think on her feet much faster.

To me, this equalizes the class and doesn't favor those who can think and speak more quickly than others. Discussion boards are not perfect, and it's important to design questions or prompts that will get a robust conversation going (quick tip: no yes or no questions!). But it's worth it. Because for me, hearing from every student one of the best outcomes of an asynchronous class.

In my last post I talked about the importance of grouping material  into modules. It helps organize your class and students can more easily navigate where they are in the course. If  you go by weeks only, it can seem to a student that it's endless and they might not see the cohesion  you have planned.

After setting up the modules and goals for those units and the course as a whole, you need to think about different "presences." Today we will talk about Instructor presence.  How do you, yourself, connect  with students In an asynchronous course when you are not "live?" Since you will not be  requiring all of your students log onto their computers to gaze at you in a box, you have to find other means to engage with your students and to be present with them. The good news is that you can.

How can you still be present when you can't be in person?

Yesterday I was talking to a student who had one of my classes in the fall and  is in another one this coming spring. I told him I'd teach it the  same way, asynchronously. He tilted his head back and said, "Thank GOD! I wish other faculty would stop making us Zoom!" So take that for the anecdote that it is.

In any case, I plan to make my presence known in several ways. After deciding on the content of the module, I will figure out what is lacking or what ideas or images are particularly difficult, thorny, or if there just isn't enough information out there  to fully cover the artist. Unfortunately, I am finding that is the case with many African-American artists from the nineteenth century (like, no smarthistory.orgentry on Edmonia Lewis!? Come on, now!). Thus, I plan to make a narrated PowerPoint presentation on some artists for whom I have not found enough material to cover completely. But most of the content IS found on smarthistory.org and other educational sites. There  is a lot of  content out there, for free, if you take the time to search for it.

I will also record  videos of myself  introducing the course and each module. I also end each module with a  wrap up, but do not record those until I see what comments  students make as the class begins and rolls. These videos are a way to get your personality across and connect with your students.

But perhaps the best way to connect with your students  is through the learning journals. I find that this is one of the most important  elements  to an asynchronous class, especially at the undergraduate level. This is a  space where students reflect on their learning, ask  questions,  or just comment in general on how their experience in the class is going. Last semester I had many students on  my evaluations (yes, I know, I still read mine) talk about  this  feature as very important to feeling connected to the class and to me. I offer a few prompts, but usually I want students to set the tone and the topic. I want them to feel free to write anything - and I mean anything. It can be content; it can be personal. And I answer  every single entry. Every. Single. One. It's  a lot of work, but since my classes  are completely ready to go on Day  1, I don't have to "prepare" for each day the way I would for a more traditional face to face class. My time is taken up with responding to these learning journal entries. I learn so much about my students in this format; it's so important!  If you have not  tried this element of an online class, I urge you to do so, but you must make the commitment to write back to the students. Otherwise, your presence will not be felt.

Next time we  will talk about how to create a community presence among students through discussion boards and how to make them work and function well.

This is the first post about how I design my online classes for asynchronous delivery. This coming Spring semester of 2021, I will be teaching all three of my classes online and will deliver them asynchronously. I will be teaching a 1000-level History of Western Art II (from the Renaissance to Modern), as well as a 2000-level class in  Medieval Art and  a 3000-level class on African American  Art. This last is a new class for me; I have never taught it before at all so it may be the one that gets the most posts about the course design.

However, all three classes will begin with the establishment of learning goals. While that may sound like someone who has been dipped  too long into the waters of the River Styx (also  known as the Waters of Higher Education Assessment), they are key to establishing a sound online course. I learned about this when I took my first  online course - which was about best practices in online teaching - back in 2013. It had a profound influence on how I approached ALL of my courses, whether face-to-face, hybrid, or online. I started to think more about WHY we were covering the topics. For instance, it was time to teach the art of Emperor Augustus in Roman Art,  but what is the key to teaching him? What is the most important  element about his art that I want to get across? The answer to that question becomes a learning goal: students will understand the propaganda that Augustus was communicating through his sculptural and architectural works in the city of Rome.

Learning goals for a course come at different levels. There are overarching goals for the entire course, as well as for a class. We have a "Multicultural" requirement in our general education plan, and those courses must consider marginalized groups in the US, analyze the factors that led to that marginalization, and study the culture of these groups. My African American Art course will do all of that, but it's important to break all of that down into specific goals for each module.

Yes, module. I know that many of us have designed syllabi by the week. That made sense, I guess. But it's not the only way to design a class. In online courses, it makes much more sense to group topics and unify them for students with a theme. Thus, while the overarching goals remain, I come up with learning goals for each module that I will create with content, discussions, and assignments. I will have about 6 or 7 modules for my 14 week class. Module 1 will consider the roots of African Americans. The learning goals for this are to: 1) consider of the time of enslavement and its impact on the making of art; 2) examine the art made by African Americans; 3) examine contemporary black artists reference themes from the time of slavery,  reconfiguring them to say new things.

For this module there will be links to a site called Smarthistory, which was started by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to create an  online free video art history "textbook." The videos and written  pieces are shared by art historians from all  over the world and always growing. Here is one of the videos I will use in this first module of  this course: a Face Jug from Edgefield county, South Carolina, c. 1860. We will consider more than this one piece in order to have students think about the realities of living as an enslaved person.

A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby' at the Domino Plant - The New York Times
From NYTimes, May 11, 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/arts/design/a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby-at-the-domino-plant.html

For the contemporary exploration of these themes, we will consider Kara  Walker's A Subtlety which you can read about here. The term "subtlety" refers to confections made in Europe and were, essentially, edible art. In the seventeenth century and the early American colonial period, the increased desire for sugar led to an increase in enslaved laborers in the sugar fields. The slave trade was fueled, in part, by the demand for sugar, which is discussed in this video which will also be a featured assignment in my class module.  Walker's piece explores all of these themes. It was constructed in the late spring 2014 in a defunct Domino Sugar warehouse in Brooklyn, NY. It was as big as a football field and five stories high. Our class will look at this piece, after looking at pottery, quilts, and other works of art uncovered in archaeological digs to achieve the goals of this module.

Now that we have established the learning goals for this module, I can start to think about what students will  do: what will they read? Watch? How will they engage  with me? With each other? What assignments will they create? These will  be discussed in future posts.

For now though, consider this. How could you rearrange your class into modules? What learning goals could you establish for them?

Please leave a comment if you'd like to have a conversation about these  ideas.

 

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