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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.

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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