Saturday, August 23, 2014

Building an Online Course: Resilience, Teamwork, and Organization

Over the past several months, as I have sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of issues around the development and deployment of an online course, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the particular personality traits and skills that such an undertaking requires.  Working in this world is really nothing like the work that most faculty--especially liberal arts faculty--do as researchers and instructors.  Administrators who are urging faculty to take on these projects likewise seem to have only a tangential sense of what it takes to produce and deploy a high quality, scalable, asynchronous online course in a reasonable amount of time and without running tens of thousands of dollars over budget.  For a complex project like an online course to be successfully developed and deployed, three qualities seem to me to be the sine quibus non: resilience, ability to delegate, and strong organizational skills.

Far and away the most important quality that any project leader for online course development needs to have is resilience.  This is still a brave new world.  Universities are, on the whole, not well-positioned or equipped, either with adequate technical resources or clear policies and procedures around this mode of course production and delivery.  In addition, different parts of a university (e.g. the provost's office vs colleges vs departments) can be (often are?) at odds on matters of policy, including essential issues like who bears the responsibility to staffing these courses (paying instructors but also processing appointments).  I have spent much of the past 8 months feeling like a YoYo, being jerked in every which way and having to work very hard to stay calm and focused.

To give just one small example (with major consequences): I found out in mid-August that the oversight for online course development in my college was moving from one dean to another.  Exactly a year ago, the exact opposite move was made.  The move itself made a certain amount of sense in terms of course development: it was returned to the college unit that oversees instructional technology.  As well, this unit is responsible for producing the SMOC courses (Synchronous, Massive, Online Courses that are filmed in studio and live-streamed to students).  Unfortunately, for a more traditional online course, this move introduced an incredible amount of chaos just as we were pressing to finish development and working to get everything in order to appoint instructors and open the course to registration.  Thankfully, my home department of Classics stepped in and picked up all the many dropped balls (including a pressing visa issue for one instructor).  Still, it has been an incredibly stressful two-week period caused, apparently, by a lack of awareness of all the different aspects involved in course deployment.  Perhaps the most difficult part in all of it was that I was responsible for other people.  Sure, I could have just pulled the plug on going live with the course this fall--I certainly had plenty of reasons to do so.  But, had I done that, I would have been leaving members of my team in the lurch.  This meant that I had to remain calm, focus each day on what needed to be done/who needed to be talked to/what form needed to be signed, and try not to let my frustrations with the lack of institutional infrastructure (or even, clear understanding of what was needed) get in the way.

The second major lesson of this project: it's a team effort and every team member needs to be used to his/her full capacity.  Hire good people, preferably people you know and trust to deliver a quality product on time.  Hire people with different skill sets.  Developing an online course requires a tremendous range of skills: content expertise, creativity, ability to navigate technology, good written/oral communication, a sense of the aesthetic, ability to respond to constructive criticism; willingness to wrestle with challenges.  If classroom teaching has long been the provenance of the individual instructor, high quality online course development is and will always be a team effort (and, incidentally, it causes one to rethink the idea that traditional classroom teaching ought to be done by professors working in isolation).  No single person can do everything--even if they had all the skills.  The workload is simply too high.  As we get ready to go live with Online Rome, I realize that the workload of preparing this class is akin to writing a scholarly book, not to preparing a new course for the classroom.  I was fortunate to have an outstanding team of recent PhDs, a current PhD student, and an undergraduate working with me all summer.  This fall, one of these recent PhDs will continue to work closely with me as an instructor of one of the sections of Online Rome and also in the capacity of a postdoctoral researcher.

Deployment of the course required a whole other team of people: our department's executive assistant to process instructor appointments, including the paperwork for a visa; the course coordinator; the undergraduate adviser.  I hope that, now that these online sections are "on the books", it will be less hectic to open them for enrollment each semester.  But, each semester, decisions will have to be made about how to staff the courses.  Someone will have to process those appointments.  Likewise, the different sections of the online classes will likely need to be coordinated in some manner, and updated.  At present, there is no infrastructure in place to ensure this sustainability.  It is not part of my teaching load and I am receiving no compensation for all the work I've done (and will continue to do this fall) to ensure that the online courses run smoothly.  I am hoping that a good amount of this can be delegated to my post-doc, however.  And that's the other major lesson: delegation is essential--as is knowing what to do yourself and what to delegate.

Finally, when working with a team, it is essential that the team-leader (which, in online course development is likely not the project manager but instead, the faculty leader) have a clear vision, an operative sense of the big picture, and an ability to work a few weeks ahead of everyone else.  It is not necessary for each team member to be aware of issues that don't affect their work (e.g. I handled the vast majority of "project management" issues without the involvement of any of my course development team).  It *is* essential that the faculty leader not simply rely on a project manager to run the show (more on this point in a different post).  The faculty leader is the content expert and they are the person who, in the end, needs to provide that clear editorial voice that will give the course fluency and coherency.  They also need to remain aware at all times of who is doing what, how well they are doing it, whether they need extra help, etc.  Team members need to have firm deadlines for producing work and also need to have a clear sense of how their part fits into the bigger whole.

Even more importantly, when working with graphic designers and technologists, it is crucial that these partners know what you will need them to do well in advance of deadlines.  Problems inevitably come up (we've had several on the technology front); time has to be built in to deal with those problems.  Likewise, it helps these non-academic members of the team if they can plan their own workflow.  I found that I was able to get good results when I communicated needs and deadlines several weeks in advance.  Of course, it is still the case that we are scrambling to finish all the "packaging" of the modules.  Yet, because we've been talking about design specs and vision for final look and student experience of navigating the course, we aren't trying to make decisions and implement them at the same time.  The decisions were made long ago--now it's just a matter of having enough hands on deck to do the work.

Faculty often hear that they are the obstacles to innovation, particularly on the teaching front.  We are the ones who resist adopting new classroom technologies or experimenting with new modes of course delivery.  Some of this is certainly true.  Yet, in reality, I think many faculty are eager to experiment, particularly in developing digital assets that could be used to blend/flip a course or even convert a traditional classroom course into a fully online course.  However, for this to ever happen on a large scale, institutions need to build infrastructures that support these faculty efforts; they need to understand all the complexities of developing and deploying digital content and ensure that these efforts are adequately incentivized and supported.  They need to create and implement clear policies so that it is as straightforward to get an online course approved as it is a classroom course.  We faculty who are diving into these projects are learning a lot about the sorts of support that needs to be in place in the future.  Administrators who are advocates of online course development would do well to learn from our experiences--the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Online Rome for UT Austin

FINALLY jumped through every last hoop!  Online Rome now has a unique number and is open to UT Austin students who are paying flat rate tuition.  A great option for getting your VAPA requirement out of the way while learning all sorts of fun things about Ancient Roman culture, history, politics, art, and literature.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Is an Online Course a Good Idea for Me?

This fall, UT Austin students will have the option to take my Introduction to Ancient Rome course as a more traditional, classroom-based, large-enrollment course (though we capped it at 200 for the fall); or as a more individualized, more self-paced online course.  The course content is largely the same, except that students in the traditional course will receive credit for meeting two graduation requirements (Ethics Flag and Visual and Performing Arts area requirement).  At present, we have not added an ethics component to the online course and so it meets only the VAPA requirement.  Otherwise, the courses have the same learning outcomes (as pertains to the course content).

What sorts of students are going to succeed in the online course?  First, to succeed in a course that is more self-paced, you will need to be able to discipline yourself.  The course is not entirely self-paced: there are fixed dates for midterms and other assignments.  However, compared to the traditional course, it offers a lot more flexibility to students.  This is likely to be especially useful if you are an upper-division student, with a tight schedule.  The course instructor will be working closely with you to make sure you don't fall hopelessly behind, but you will have to take on a lot of responsibility for managing your time.

The online course will also appeal to experienced students who, in basic terms, already know how to be college students.  You've been at UT for a few years, you know how to manage your time reasonably well (hint: cramming for exams is NOT good time management and we have excellent evidence, collected over many semesters, that it works very poorly in this course), and you know how to make constructive use of feedback.  In the online course, you will be getting a lot of feedback, some automated and some in real time from the instructor.  The instructor will also work with you to help you identify and clarify points of misunderstanding.  But, again, some of this will demand that you take ownership of your learning, seek out help when you need it, and make good use of the feedback you receive.

There is good evidence that online courses work best for students who are experienced college learners (e.g. generally not freshmen, though there are always exceptions); who are good at self-regulating their learning (i.e. who know how to take in feedback and self-correct; who are able to avoid procrastination and cramming); and who are generally self-directed learners.  If you are the sort of student who gets bored in class but happily do your work outside of class, this is a good course format for you.

This online course does not expect you to "teach yourself.".  Far from it.  It is carefully designed to engage you in the content, to lead you through the complexities of Roman history. and to help you develop a firm grasp of the most important details.  You will have the chance to connect with other students in the online class as well as in the traditional, classroom-based class.  There will be strong student support in place and we will add more if we can see that it is necessary.  We want you to succeed in this course and will be doing everything we can to support your success.

At the same time, if you know that you need outside structures to discipline your study (e.g. weekly quizzes); if you know that you learn better in the more social environment of the classroom, then you might consider registering for the more traditional, classroom version of CC 302 this fall (or in future semesters).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

I am very excited about my upcoming Intro to Ancient Rome Online course this fall.  The course has been a year in development; and a team of us have been working crazy long hours this summer to get it ready to go live in early September.  It is being offered via UT Extension for the very reasonable (downright cheap!) price of $350 for three transferable credit-hours.   You can see a short introduction to the course here.  Why should you take a course on Ancient Rome?  What have the Ancient Romans ever done for us?  Well, here's one good answer....

The course is intended for high-achieving high school students, university students, but also anyone who is interested in continuing their education.  It would be an ideal introduction to the rich and complex world of Ancient Rome for a couple or family planning a trip to Italy or Western Europe over the next year.  It has been designed in accordance with the principles of active, constructivist learning.  There are very few moments of straight lecture.  For the most part, students will work through interactive modules, answering questions, watching curated videos, looking at and discussing paintings, architectural remains, coins, etc.  In designing the course, we imagined ourselves laying out an entertaining treasure hunt, with clear clues.  But it will be the students' responsibility to navigate the content, construct meaning and understanding, and then refine that understanding based on both automated and real-time instructor feedback.

The course will be run by an instructor, Jessica Luther.  She will work closely with each student as s/he moves through the modules.  She will be offering feedback, both oral and written; she will be available to help with logistical issues; and she will be an excellent resource for helping students identify and correct misunderstandings prior to graded exams.  In addition, Jessica will be hosting several live events, streamed from the UT Austin campus, during the course of the fall.  The course is designed to appeal to learners who need a flexible schedule.  Only the midterm exams have fixed dates.

If you have any questions about the course, its intended audience, or the design, please don't hesitate to contact me directly (jebbeler at

Course Development vs Deployment

With one week to go before classes start on the UT Austin campus, the inevitable end of semester panic looms.  One thinks of all the good intentions, the long to-do lists, that marked those halcyon days of late May and early June, when time seemed to be an infinite resource.  Now, in the dog days of August, it is time for the reckoning.

My primary goal this summer was to have an online version of my large-enrollment Introduction to Ancient Rome class ready to go live via the UT Austin Extension School (the current home for all online courses).  This version of the course would be priced at $350 and was aimed primarily at students who were not paying flat-rate tuition as full-time UT Austin students.  I had also hoped that I would be able to work through the cumbersome bureaucracy to get a section of the online course opened to UT Austin students, i.e., students who were paying flat-rate tuition and who would be able to opt for the online version at no extra cost.

One of the biggest lessons of the summer was coming to grips with the distinction between course development and course deployment, that is, making the course available to students.  While the development work was largely in my power, the deployment process relies almost entirely on the decisions of others.  In particular, it relies on the policies and infrastructure of the residential campus.  When I began the development process back in the early Spring, I knew that the policies and infrastructure were not in place.  I spent many months having conversations with the relevant actors about the need for such policies.  I was assured that everything would be in place by the early summer.  As so often happens, however, this hasn't been the case.  So we find ourselves in a somewhat interesting position: a course that has been developed but still largely not available to the students it is intended to serve.

I'm reasonably optimistic that, over the next few weeks, the wrinkles will get ironed out.  At the same time, the immense amount of time and energy that I've spent navigating "back end" issues related to the deployment of the course (e.g. getting it open to registration) has been an important lesson.  We faculty generally don't deal with much of the back end aspects of the university (staffing appointments, marketing, opening courses for registration, managing registration) and tend to think of our job as complete at the point of course development and classroom delivery.  At institutions that are not well-situated to support team-teaching or interdisciplinary course offerings, we might have some sense of how infrastructure can get in the way; yet, on the whole, we are able to ignore issues of policy and infrastructure.

As more campuses are investing serious resources in the creation and management of digital assets, including online courses (but also hybrid or blended courses), it is going to be crucial that they first create at least some basic guiding policies and supporting infrastructure to support the deployment of developed courses.  Yes, it is expensive and difficult to develop digital assets; but, without solid infrastructure and clear institutional policy in place, the work of course development will ultimately be for naught.

In my own case, a lot of the hiccups can be attributed to being on the front lines.  I expect that, even a year from now, my institution will have more clear processes and policies in place.  I expect that getting courses open to registration will happen in a far more timely and effective manner.  I would certainly hope that we would be doing a better job of working with other campuses in our system to allow for a more seamless enrollment process.  In the 18 months or so that I have been involved in conversations about online education on my campus, it seems that we all know what the main obstacles are; but, even a year later, very little progress has been made on finding solutions to those obstacles.  I hope that, as we offer more for-credit online courses, this situation will change.

Most importantly, it will require a serious investment of time and careful thinking to develop clear policies as well as a fully scoped out and adequately staffed infrastructure.  Finally, it will take a clear recognition of the difference between course development and course deployment.  There are faculty who are willing to be "early adopters", the experimenters out on the front lines, but it will be difficult to sustain this energy and interest unless the institution puts in place all the "back-end" support that is so crucial in bringing courses to students.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Online Rome via UT Austin's University Extension Program

Roman Theater at Hierapolis in Phrygia

I am delighted to announce that an online version of my Introduction to Ancient Rome course will be available for credit to non-UT Austin students in Fall 2014 via University Extension.  The course credits are transferable. Here's a preview. The course is designed for current college/university students but would also appeal to lifelong learners with an interest in knowing more about the history of the Roman empire.  It could also be taken by advanced high school students who want to earn college credit. For more online course information visit the College of Liberal Art's online class website

The Introduction to Ancient Rome course is slated to begin in early September and run through mid-December. The course is made up of 9 highly interactive, engaging, multimedia modules, built in the Canvas LMS and keyed to Mary T. Boatwright's A Brief History of the Romans.  Each module concludes with a mastery quiz.  Students can complete the modules at their own pace, but will have fixed deadlines to complete the mastery quizzes and other assignments.  In addition to the modules and mastery quizzes, there are three midterm exams, a discussion component, and a creative exercise.  There will also be some live events throughout the fall, during which experts in Roman art, history, literature, and culture will appear.

The cost of the course is $350--a bargain for a three credit hour course!  Take advantage of this low introductory price. We are working feverishly behind the scenes to open the registration for the course.  If you are interested in taking the class, you can leave your contact information here (see info box on right side of screen) and we will let you know when it is open for registration [update: registration should be open sometime during the week of 7/21].  You can also follow news on Twitter @UTCOLAOnlineEd or contact me directly with any questions (jebbeler at austin dot utexas dot edu).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Pros and Cons of the Discussion Board

Students hate discussion boards--often with a degree of intensity that is absent from their work in the class itself.  Instructors, on the other hand, like them.  We may not love the effort it takes to manage a discussion, but we appreciate the medium as a way of pushing students to think more deeply and to express their thoughts more clearly.  This is especially true for large enrollment classes, where students can often get by without much active engagement with the course content.

I sometimes wonder how I would feel about discussion boards if they had been around back in my college days (not *that* long ago, but just long enough ago to predate the spread of the internet to college campuses).  I like to think that I would have loved it--I am an introvert even now but was especially reticent in college--but I suspect I would feel about it the way I currently feel about email from students: it is nice to have at times but it also means that I don't leave a class behind when I leave the classroom. 

I first incorporated a discussion board (I use Piazza) into my blended, large enrollment Intro to Ancient Rome class in Spring 2013.  I added it as a way to encourage more active learning from the students and also as a way to increase out of class engagement with the course content.  I had two TAs moderate the discussion (one of them also graded the posts on a 0-2 scale).  Threads were open for 48 hours, each student had to post five times over the course of the semester, and later posters were meant to extend the observations of earlier posters.  It was an incredible amount of work for the TAs, not least because they had to find ways to open up new avenues of inquiry on some of the heavier trafficked threads.

I loved the discussion board.  As I read through the posts, I could see that many of the students were wrestling with big ideas.  They made interesting and unexpected connections.  I could also see misunderstandings more clearly.  Often, I would talk about the major points of discussion from the board during the next class period.  Yet, in the two semesters that I used it, it was the one element of the course that the students did not like.  Their rationale: it felt like a waste of time to them.  I made an effort to connect it to class discussions and to talk about why I thought it was a valuable learning activity, but they never bought in.  In part, this is because the class size is too big.  They weren't really reading their classmates' posts (certainly not the ones who posted in response to them); and they rarely visited the board if it was not one of their five occasions for posting. 

I came to realize that, while it was a valuable teaching tool for me, I didn't have a good way to better manage how the students used the discussion board to support their own learning.  This coming fall semester, with a small class (250 students instead of 400), I am replacing the discussion board with worksheets.  The worksheets have 3 questions.  They start with a prompt and then have two follow-up questions.  In essence, it is exactly the same exercise as the discussion board but without the peer-to-peer interaction.  I was sad to remove that opportunity for interaction; but suspect that, individually, the students will get more out of the worksheets than they did from posting on a few threads.  It would have been nice to see more peer-to-peer interaction on the board, but that was probably unreasonable given the size of the class (and, thus, the fact that most students didn't know one another).  The move to worksheets should also mean significantly less work for one of my TAs.

As I've been developing the online version of the Rome class, I've gone back and forth on including a discussion board as part of the graded work.  I will certainly use Piazza as a clearinghouse for information about course logistics or a place where students can post questions.  I'm less sure about including it as a graded element--in part because I have no real sense of who the audience will be (immediately or in the future).  I can imagine that, unlike my campus course, my online students might like a discussion board.  They might value that peer-to-peer interaction much more than do my residential students.  Likewise, it should be a smaller group, which makes it much less challenging to facilitate a rewarding conversation. 

For the time being, I am thinking that I will include a discussion prompt at the end of each module (there are 8 modules).  The prompt will be something subjective and will encourage the students to synthesize the material they've learned in the module and to make connections to previous modules.  In a sense, I will use the discussion in place of a summary lecture.  This is very much in keeping with my general emphasis on student construction of knowledge rather than professorial delivery of content.  I'll see how this goes and make adjustments as needed in future iterations.