Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rome Online: First Steps

 Last August, I was awarded a course development grant of $150,000 from the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning.  My task: to build a fully online version of my successful Introduction to Ancient Rome course (sizzler video here).  I was intrigued--but also mildly terrified--by this task.  As is generally the case with such projects, I had no idea what I was taking on.  I had no idea that I would be not only the course designer but also a de facto project manager.  I have pushed a lot of paper, learned more than I ever wanted to about paying fringe benefits, and had to learn how to supervise and manage a team.   There have been moments of intense frustration with the development process (e.g. being told that it was my responsibility to create a course website and market the course; having a graduate student RA spend significant time on a website; and then finding out that my college's IT unit had now agreed to take that task on).  Rationally, I know that these kinks are to be expected.  My  institution is still working out a process for staffing and supporting projects like mine.  Still, I have "I want to bang my head against the wall" moments. 

Fortunately, as of June 1, the most significant foundation-building (e.g. creating a databank of questions; budgeting and hiring staff; hiring an instructor; creating timelines and deliverables; deciding on the best pedagogy to use; working to get the course listed with our extension school and working with our college's product manager to have it advertised) came to an end and we embarked on the fun part: building the actual modules.  There are still things that frustrate me--most notably, the fact that, at present a UT student cannot register for the course without paying additional tuition.  But it's great to finally be able to see real progress and to feel like we will meet our goal of having the course ready to go live in Fall 2014.

The biggest challenge for me has been learning how to be a project manager and team leader.  As a humanist, I am used to working independently.  I have never had a research assistant and am used to taking responsibility for every aspect of a project.  When I "blended" the Rome class, I did a lot of the work myself (though I did have an assessment specialist give me a lot of help; and in version 2.0 and 2.1, I had significant assistance from [Medical] Dr. Jean Liew).  I got a taste of running a larger-scale project when I taught the blended Intro to Rome class to 400 students.  I had 4 paid TAs, an unpaid TA, and 3 undergraduate graders.  It was a production, and excellent preparation for figuring out how to get the Online Rome class built.  It finally taught me to assign tasks and supervise rather than micromanage (not to say that I'm not still guilty of occasionally micromanaging!).

I was less prepared for the active role I would have to play in agitating for resources in areas like graphic design and instructional technology.  Like many universities, my own is undergoing a transformation as it attempts to provide sufficient support for the many innovative teaching experiments happening around campus.  We have MOOCs on EdX; SMOCs in Psychology and Government; and, now, a series of online courses in development.  It is enormously challenging to have enough experienced and skilled project managers, instructional technology staff, and graphic design/audio/video people to support so many projects. 

I have tried to turn this scarcity of available human resources into a strength of the course design.  I rely very little on high-production video or graphic design.  The focus is entirely on helping students to construct knowledge, through a kind of virtual Socratic method: the content is divided into 8 modules, with each module containing a series of different kinds of questions (multiple choice, mark all correct, matching, short answer, etc.).  I use short lectures (3-5 min) only in instances where I am supplementing assigned readings (e.g. relating the story of Regulus's gruesome death) or connecting discrete bits of content that would otherwise seem disparate to them (e.g. explaining how the Roman military and governance changed in the aftermath of the 2nd Punic War).  A few other advantage of avoiding lectures with high production values: they are extremely expensive to produce and age very quickly (as I learned when I recorded lectures for the blended Rome class).  As well, it immediately makes the class about the content instead of the course creator, and it means that an instructor can step in and "own" the class without competing with the course creator.

Each module ends with a mastery quiz, requiring a grade of 90% to move on to the next module.  There are three midterm exams.  I am still deciding how I want to weight different activities in the course in the calculation of the final grade.  A lot will depend on who registers for the course, I suspect.  I am trying to think of a good way to emphasize low-stakes assessments--as I do in my blended class--while still ensuring the integrity of the grades.  One idea: having oral parts to each assessment, done via Skype.  This won't work at scale, but it might work in the first few iterations of the course when enrollment is likely to be smaller.

The other major challenge has been pedagogical.  What are the best practices for "translating" a large-scale, classroom-based course into an online environment?  There is a fair amount of scholarship on the pedagogy of teaching online to relatively small groups of students.  But what if you need to design a course that could be taken by 200 or 400 students?   What if it needs to be designed in such a way that a graduate student in Classics could run it?  I find myself flying relatively blind as I try to create an online class for a narrative topic like Roman history, that does not rely primarily on lecture to "deliver" content.  How do I design a course that models the way that a Roman historian would think and learn, but without actually performing this modeling live (or on video)?  Fortunately, I have learned a lot about how students learn Roman history in a scaled environment in the course of teaching the 400 student blended version of the course.  I suspect that, in these first few iterations of the online course, we will learn a lot about how they learn in an online environment.

Along the way, I've learned a few things.  First of all, there are two huge expenses in creating an online class: paying salaries, especially my own and especially fringe benefits (side note: skyrocketing health care costs have something to do with stagnating faculty salaries); and video/animation.  I made a choice fairly early in the process to avoid video and focus on issues of course design first, before adding bells and whistles.  I can imagine all sorts of concepts that would benefit from animation and, I hope, I'll someday be able to incorporate some of that into the course.  It was also important to me to involve graduate students in the design and production process.  In order to be able to afford to pay others, I ended up paying myself the equivalent of 2 weeks of my annual salary for the entire project.  I worry that, in the present system of accounting, faculty and graduate students end up being too expensive to hire as creators, unless they donate their time (as I know many faculty course designers are, in fact, doing).  Something needs to change to prevent the wholesale outsourcing of online course design (and instruction).  It certainly makes sense to outsource certain parts of the design and production process, but to my mind, a tremendous opportunity for institutions to benefit from faculty creativity and innovation; and faculty to sharpen their intellectual and pedagogical skills by working in an unfamiliar medium is lost if the entire process is outsourced.

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