A few days ago I finished grading for an online summer class, The History of Latin America (HIST75V). I was the TA (teaching assistant) for Professor Juliette Levy, and this was the first time that either of us had conducted an online course. We’ve both taught the traditional in-class version of this course many times, and the opportunity to transform our in-class materials and teaching styles into an online presence was quite exciting. Professor Levy and I are both from the University of California, Riverside, and the course itself was hosted through UC Online. This class was an accelerated summer course, only 3 weeks long, and the LMS (Learning Management System) was Canvas. We also used Piazza for a student question & answer forum (I’ll write more about Piazza in another post).

Here’s the public demo-link to our Canvas online course: https://cole2.uconline.edu/courses/18966

Here’s the public demo-link to our Piazza forum: https://piazza.com/demo_login?nid=hcl80qeye0r1wv&auth=1cae5a5

Regarding pedagogy, the learning strategy was different in this digital classroom versus the traditional analog classroom, but not drastically so. Overall, this was a hybrid pedagogy combining the most needed attributes of both online and in-class learning. Professor Levy created a wonderful series of video lectures, some were just a few minutes in length, and they discussed the themes of the learning section, or “module” as they’re referred to in Canvas. Other videos Professor Levy created were 25-30 minutes in length and they discussed the materials in depth. Students read textbook chapters as well as PDF’s of primary sources, and they also watched film clips and movies, such as Viva Zapata! and Gringos at the Gate. One of the assignments the students particularly enjoyed was a Storify project on Argentina’s Dirty War (here’s a student example).

Distance education has a long history, and in the past I’ve taken some online courses myself. However, this particular class was quite different from my previous experiences, some of which turned out to be more like a correspondence course via electronic mail. And to be perfectly clear, this class was not a MOOC, nor did we have any designs on creating a MOOC-like experience for the students. MOOC’s are all the rage at the moment, and I do mean rage, as there is quite a bit of anger within academia concerning this new learning format. Our roster was only 40 students, and we had direct interaction and visual contact with 95% of them on a weekly basis.

This direct interaction with the students made all the difference for the learning experience. We used Google Hangouts to conduct weekly Discussion Sections online, with 2-8 students plus myself and Professor Levy. These were 30 minute video conferences, and each member of the Hangout was present in both video and audio form. Most video conferences are one-to-many, meaning that the instructor is shown in video form to the students, but the students can only watch and listen. With Google Hangouts anyone can speak at any time (it’s less chaotic than it sounds), and the main video screen will automatically change to the person speaking. Skype has a similar group video conferencing feature for education, but we chose Google Hangouts because of the high ratings it’s received for quality and ease of use.

This is a screenshot of one of our Discussion Sections using Google Hangout. Professor Levy is in the main-screen, and students are talking and typing.

The most important aspect of these many-to-many video conferences was the personal interaction with the students, and Google Hangout was merely a tool that enabled these interactions – any similar video conferencing service could perform the same duty.

As in most online courses, our students were scattered across the world. We had a few students in China, and with the 15 hour time difference this sometimes meant students had to wake-up early to make the Hangouts. Other students were in Northern California, some were from other UC campuses, and a few of the students needed to use the WiFi at their local McDonald’s or Starbucks in order to attend the Google Hangout Discussion Sections.

An important note: about a quarter of the students had a laptop or desktop computer, but no webcam! Thankfully, all of these webcam-less students had an Apple or Android smartphone or tablet, and there are both Android and iOS apps for Hangouts, so many of the students were attending class on their portable devices. Apps have quickly become as important as the laptop or desktop computing experience for education, whether in digital or in-class form, and this is one area where much more innovation is needed in LMS technology.

Most of the students were familiar with Google and Gmail, but none of the 40 students had ever used Hangouts or any other many-to-many video conferencing tool. The first round of Hangouts in Week 1 was a little rocky, there were some missed invites and some connection issues, and there were plenty of questions before we began. The second round of Hangouts in Week 2, however, was exponentially smoother and the students quickly adjusted to the format. By Week 3 the students were talking to each other as much as the instructors, and the Hangouts felt like a normal part of the course.

Actually, the these online Discussion Sections didn’t just feel normal, they were an essential part of the course. These face to face interactions, although digital in nature, were crucial in transforming the online course into a class – the Hangout, in effect, became the classroom.

These video conferencing Discussion Sections through Google Hangout were only 30 minutes in length, but they were extremely intense. In these Hangouts everyone is on the spot, both the students and the instructors, and time passes rather quickly. A 30 minute Hangout Discussion Section felt like an hour, but this was because of the efficiency of the interaction. The time compression and intensity were positive effects resulting from the greater need for focus and concentration. These video conference Discussion Sections were very effective for creating a constructive learning environment. Instead of a computerized class full of text-boxes that need to be filled, the Hangouts made the course personable and thoroughly enjoyable. The number-one student request in our exit survey was for longer Hangouts, and more of them! 

In the end, not only is the traditional lecture “dead” as Professor Levy wrote in her own blog post concerning this online teaching experience, but the personal connections between instructors and students are more important than ever. Digital tools can provide for real and personal interaction, and so much so that they don’t need to be reserved only for so-called online courses. The need for physical classrooms won’t entirely diminish, but the walls that confine them will slowly erode through the use of hybrid, digital tools.