Teaching online: 1st steps

Taking the first step in a new endeavor can be the hardest. Changing history instruction is not a task for the faint of heart, since historians are notoriously conservative when it comes to our discipline. For centuries (literally centuries, but not since the dawn of time; apologies to thousands of student essays, everywhere), history instruction has consisted of dense reading, lecturing, Socratic questions, and group discussion or debate. These practices don’t transition seamlessly to distance learning. 

Granted, reading dense texts was always a solitary activity, but for students, it’s one that is (ideally) punctuated with frequent opportunities to ask questions, check comprehension, and get feedback. Scaffolded reading assignments with in-class check ins seems (from my informal survey of high school and college teachers) to be a very common mode of instruction. Moving online removes the community aspect of the process, and makes informal check-in much harder.  Encouraging today’s generation of students to do a lot of reading without a process to check in frequently is likely to be disappointing for students and teachers alike.

Image credit: Antonios Ntoumas 

So how can we adapt? And what’s the first step? 

I’ve had good luck in face-to-face instruction with short reading-response assignments using Google Forms as homework to prepare for class. Of course, students could simply type answers to guiding questions about the reading into a Word or Google document, or a text response box in a learning management platform like Blackboard or Canvas. Google Forms has the benefit to the instructor of reporting student responses in a spreadsheet, so I can quickly scan all the responses to question 2 or 3 to see if students are collectively on the right track. In an on-line context, being able to relatively quickly see what students understand and where they are struggling now informs my first comment on a discussion board. The Google Forms questions get the students primed; the follow-on discussion board interaction can move us deeper into the subject. 

Beth Pollard, part of the Worlds Together, Worlds Apart author team, put together a useful process chart to help teachers consider a range of options for transitioning from in-class to online instructional techniques.

If you’re looking for a detailed how-to for making the transition, check out today’s AHA Perspectives blog by Steven Mintz of UT Austin. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments. 

By Laura J. Mitchell, WHA President