Model voice-overs

Let me start by offering my sympathies to everyone making the transition from seated to distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.  This is a difficult project even for the most experienced online teachers among us, and I personally know many colleagues who are facing the daunting task of setting up their first online course in just a week.   

Eric Nelson.

As someone who has been teaching online for a number of years, I thought that it might be helpful to offer a few thoughts about one of the most difficult aspects of moving a seated world history survey course to online delivery—specifically how to help guide your students through readings and other course materials that they will now have to engage with and master without regular seated class sessions.

Distance or online delivery does offer several advantages that I would encourage you to consider leveraging.  The first is time. You are no longer constrained by a fifty minute or one-hour and fifteen-minute class meeting, which comes with advantages.  You can split material into shorter more digestible pieces that focus on the most important elements that you would have addressed in a seated class.  In my online courses, I have found that what I call “podcasts” of two to five minutes focused on a single question, puzzle, or event work best, especially if linked to an activity at the end.  These activities can be low stakes and self-grading or easy to grade. A short quiz is perhaps the simplest, but I frequently assign online journal entries with a very simple grading rubric that help both my students and I (because I have access to their journals) prepare for discussion.

Online lets you reorder student work habits & learning process

I would also encourage you to think about when your student will experience your podcasts.  In a seated class format, students typically read before class. Online it is possible to integrate what you would have done in class more closely with their readings and other outside-class activities.  I, for instance, embed links to my podcasts directly into my e-textbook (on Launchpad) between sections (a- and b-headings) of the text. This way I get to speak to and interact with my students while they are reading. Many of my podcasts encourage students to engage further with a passage in the text or challenge the text with alternative interpretations or evidence.  

Posting my podcast links in the text also has the advantage of breaking up the reading into more digestible chunks. For students this blend of text, commentary, and related activities provides a more seamless pathway through the material. I know that my publisher and others too are offering free access to selected online platforms for the rest of the semester. So embedding may be an option for you.  If so, I would also encourage you to consider using any adaptive learning quizzing technology—LearningCurve in my case—that a publisher makes available.

Image credit: slightly_different @ Pixabay

I know that the idea of creating a set of podcasts probably sounds like a big undertaking at this point in the semester and it is.  But there are two things that make it easier than it may first appear. First, these podcasts are really just the most important parts of your current live class sessions. So you don’t need to create something completely new and they can take the place of online lectures.  Second, there are many options for recording these at your desk and a short, informal podcast approach makes them relatively easy and quick to produce. Posting them is as simple as sharing a web-link.


I wish that I could share a few of my podcasts, but they are behind a university firewall and our tech staff are overwhelmed at the moment. Instead, I post here a series of links to some short voice over powerpoints that I made for my textbook.

These links take you to the Members’ Area of the website. Because these segments contain copyrighted materials, the WHA can’t publish them for the general public.

Editor’s note

Islam & Christianity

The Mongols!

Atlantic Revolutions

The Nuclear Age

They are more well-produced and refined than my typical podcast and lack their informality, but they are based on podcast topics in my survey course. 

In terms of the technology required to record your podcasts, I would suggest starting with any products licensed by your institution. I use Mediasite for this reason.  But there are a number of other options out there—some free and some requiring a subscription—including Quicktime, Screencast-O-Matic, Yuja, Panopto, and Camtasia. The web-conferencing tool Zoom is also a possibility if you use the record “session” option.  And Powerpoint also has a voice over feature that allows you to record audio with slides. In terms of hosting, YouTube is an easy option, or you can use Microsoft Stream (if your university has a license to Office365). If none of these work for you, here’s a link to a site with some more free-to-use suggestions

Let us know how your experiments are going, and what works for you and your students. 

By Eric W. Nelson, WHA Executive Council member and co-author, Ways of the World

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