The Ups and Downs of Teaching a Core History Class Online

by Karin Maag.

Last year, I volunteered for a new assignment. My department was looking for someone to teach an online section of our core history survey, and I agreed to try it.

Calvin College Online logoFrom the outset, I admit, I was unsure about taking this step. After nearly seventeen years in the classroom, I have a well-honed approach to face-to-face instruction. I know how to use my fifty-minute class periods effectively, and can tailor my material to fit the needs and interests of each class. I can turn things up a notch if too many of my students look bored or are nodding off (accepting that a certain amount of glazed expressions is the norm in an undergraduate core class), and I can respond to looks of incomprehension by taking a different tack to explain a concept or get them to participate in an activity. After all, there’s nothing quite like re-enacting the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 for students to grasp the key causes of the French Revolution, or trying to barter an elephant for rice and ceramic pots to understand the potential conflicts and synergies between hunter/gatherers and farmers/pastoralists in the Paleolithic age.

In a face-to-face setting, I can also meet with those who are struggling, or those who need a bit of help finding resources for a paper, or those who want to check they’ve understood a key point before an exam. But how was I going to transfer all this to an online class?

Fortunately, I was not thrown in at the deep end. My colleague Dan Miller had pioneered the history core class online, so I had his model to work from, although he did History 152 (1500 to the present) while I worked on History 151 (prehistory to 1500). Our college also provides training to new online instructors – four of us from assorted departments met weekly for a semester with colleagues from IT to help us navigate some of the technical issues as we set up our online courses.

We’re now six weeks into the semester. How’s it going so far? At this point in time, I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. I started with eighteen students, and in spite of warnings about the high attrition rate from online courses, they’re all still with me, so that’s a good sign. It helps that those who signed up for my class are all sophomores, juniors, or seniors, and about a third of them have done online classes before, so they have some idea of how to manage the workload.

The time commitment on the instructor’s part, especially the first time through, is heavy. Our online course system, Moodle, is not always intuitive, and instructors have to be very methodical, making sure that all the dates in the various sections of the course mesh and accurately match what appears elsewhere in the course. Online courses are not a good fit for instructors who fly by the seat of their pants. Fortunately, I have a few students with eagle eyes, who have already pointed out to me places where the dates don’t mesh, or where my instructions don’t match up.  As the course progresses, the heaviest demands on my time are grading assignments and responding to emails from the students – in some ways, I did this to myself by making it a rule that students had to email me weekly, to make sure no one falls through the cracks.

The most challenging part has been trying to vary the range of instructional formats and activities. I chose to provide the bulk of instruction through narrated PowerPoints (audio). That seems to work pretty well, though again, they take quite a bit of time to create. Forums and reading reflections and quizzes all work fine, but I wonder whether the students will get bored with the same kinds of activities and assignments week by week. I tried getting them to create a wiki, but that was a mess: the instructions in the system were confusing to all, and I ended up having to go back in and move students’ postings from place to place. So far, I’ve done one session of online face-to-face instruction using Blackboard Collaborate…again, it’s a process of trial and error. The one group of students was too numerous for the server to cope with, and video and audio kept cutting out. My resilient students coped by switching to the text messaging box, but I was not happy with the clunky communication. Smaller groups next time may help.

So all in all, the online course is a work in progress. Would I do it again? Yes…in fact, I’m already signed up to offer it this summer. Look for further reports as this venture continues.

Karin Maag is Professor of History and Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College. Born and brought up in Canada, she did her undergraduate degree in Montreal and her graduate work in Scotland, at the University of Saint Andrews. Her area of research is the social history of the Reformation, and she is currently completing a collection of primary sources on worship in Calvin’s Geneva.

Students, including guest and high school students, interested in taking HIST 151 online with Professor Maag can find out more about Calvin’s online course offerings.

4 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Teaching a Core History Class Online

  1. Caleb Lagerwey

    Has the online format limited your ability to conduct classes in a format other than lecture? I teach one blended course on World History and Culture, and as I explore my out-of-class options, my main concern with “flipped” or “online” formats as a (notably junior) fellow History educator is that teaching styles get forced into one mode that, while effective for some students and some lessons, is not the best format one hundred percent of the time for all students to learn at their best. Thoughts? Potential workarounds that have worked for you?


    1. Karin Maag

      Hello Caleb! It’s good to hear from you. I do worry, like you, that my online teaching all devolves into the same format – that’s why I’m interested in seeing whether I can get the Blackboard collaborate sessions to work more smoothly. That would allow me to do small-group work and discussions with students, and, assuming I become proficient, find ways to get the students to discuss topics in groups in separate “rooms” and then come back together to pool their knowledge, questions, insights, etc. There are other activities I haven’t yet explored, like choice or scenario-based learning, where the instructor creates a scenario with branched paths – if the student gives a certain answer to a question, he/she goes down one path, and if the student selects a different answer, he/she goes down a different path. But as far as I could tell, that activity requires a lot of planning and I’m not there yet…

      I’d be interested in hearing from others who have taught online – has anyone else managed to provide effective instruction in ways other than video or audio lectures?


      1. Caleb Lagerwey

        Those are intriguing possibilities. Thanks.

        As you said in your original post, technology is a blessing and a curse when it comes to managing these types of course–I use Moodle for all my classes–and exploring those conferencing and multi-room options sounds like a logical next step.


  2. Daniel Miller

    Hi Caleb,
    I second my colleague Karin. I required my students to attend one “synchronous” on-line discussion each week. I would give them a list of discussion questions ahead of time and then I would use the “polling” function to get the students to volunteer to answer one of the questions that they had in front of them. That way they all ended up talking a bit and they could present on a topic that the felt more confident about. For example I might say: Pretend you are a leader from one of the following countries and explain, from your point of view, who was responsible for the start of World War I: A) Serbia; B) Austria; C) Russia; D) Germany; or E) France. I give them a minute to pick a letter, I prod them to pick another letter if the one they prefer has already been taken, and then I have them take turns answering. It works pretty well. I also have them post responses to reading assignments in a “nested” forum that allows them to read other students’ posts after they’ve posted their own and I only give them full credit when they have commented on one of the other posts. Those are a couple of things you can do to get the students to engage the material actively and to interact with each other.


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