So You Want to Try Writing an Online Course?

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Ms. Morse, Ph.D., is an instructional designer at the Distance Education Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Gould, Ph.D., is Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Gould was responsible for writing"History 315L, The United States since 1865" for the Distance Education Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Gould and Ms. Morse collaborated on the transformation of HIS315L into an online course. The course recently received the 2003 Distance Learning College Course Award from the University Continuing Education Association.

Writing and teaching online courses can provide an exciting and creative means for historians to reach out to an audience beyond the traditional classroom. In shaping our course at the University of Texas at Austin, we found that the flexibility and richness of the web enabled students to become enthusiastic participants in the process of analyzing and evaluating historical problems.

The course was developed at the Distance Education Center in the Division of Continuing and Extended Education at UT Austin (DEC), using a homegrown course management tool, Speedway, the talents of a team of distance learning professionals. The Center specializes in online college and high school courses.

This U.S. History survey course has all the traditional elements--a popular textbook by Edward L. Ayers, et al., American Passages A History of the United States, its companion documents reader and a rich mix of essay and identification questions for students to answer in each of the written assignments. To ensure the course's success, we chose a sound text that provides the students with an accurate foundation to understand the unfolding of American History. (It also helps that one of us, Gould, is a co-author of American Passages; students know that the course's author is also one of the contributors to the text.

To complement the traditional elements, our DEC team selected a variety of primary resources online; these transformed the course into a tool that enables students to become full partners in the learning experience, not just the recipients of knowledge. Using these abundant online resources, we constructed questions that progressively build writing skills while encouraging persuasive interpretations formulated for a broad array of topics. As students work their way through these questions, they learn how to identify historical arguments, interpret original documents (textual and visual), and ask critical questions of historical actors, events, and concepts.

For example, in a question for the first assignment about President Ulysses S. Grant and his "peace policy" toward Native Americans, students read several online documents to construct their answer. Some of this research involves role-playing as Indian leaders, while other aspects require students to examine and appraise primary documents and to relate evidence to the study of Native American history. Other assignments include questions about the rise of industrialism and require students to use the photographs and writings of Jacob Riis, the impact of the San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike, and the career of Emma Tenayuca in the labor movement of the 1930s. As the course progresses, it encourages interested students to use other online sources to broaden their historical perspective in ways that are relevant to them.

One of the additional virtues of this complementary online approach is that it allows us, as history teachers, to frame questions for each lesson that go beyond a single ideological, thematic, or chronological perspective--political, economic, and social--and enables students to explore issues from varied points of view. The online environment breaks down the barriers that occur when students are confronted with a single text and narrative based on the views of a lone historian or on the collective vision of multiple authors. The problems of ideological bias that have been so much a part of recent discussions on HNN are, thus, much relieved when students are able on their own to visit a broad range of sources, documents, and historical writings. By drawing upon web resources, this course promotes an eclectic, inclusive approach to history and enhances students' ability to think for themselves.

Introducing greater complexity with each lesson can be done in a number of ways, depending on how web resources are used. The reliance on student choice makes the course different for each student and yet broadly similar for all those enrolled. The course also includes "Past and Present" discussion questions that encourage interaction between students and instructors. In all aspects, the course encourages students to make connections, to ask critical questions, and to explore history from a variety of perspectives.

The key to this course's success is the collaboration between writer (Gould) and course designer (Morse). As our experience with History 315L proves, a collaborative course should be more than just the vision of the historian who is writing the individual lessons. In a few instances, the author will have the expertise that will not require the assistance of distance education colleagues on campus. Far more often, however, a blend of substantive knowledge and online skills from several collaborators will produce a course that is better than the sum of its instructional parts.

Or, as HIS315L instructor Kim Richardson notes, online history courses "bring history to life at the fingertips of the students. They don't need to go to a library or bookstore to read beyond the materials given, but have a whole virtual world at their fingertips. I love teaching online. It allows me to work one-on-one with students in a unique way. Many students enter the course believing this to be an easy 'A.' They quickly learn this is not the case, but they also discover that they can have fun and learn history at the same time." For us, comments like this prove that the time and effort we put into a course pay huge dividends for history students and teachers. Yes, history does go the distance!


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More Comments:

Kimberly Morse (Lobody) - 5/5/2003

My name is Kimberly Morse. How are you related to the Morse family??

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/26/2003

I apppreciate the response, in particular the level of detail concerning the points I raised. You addressed many of my concerns.

I also agree that it is good to consult with other course creators and instructors in other programs. I have done so in the past (as I am sure that you have), I hope to do so in the future, with you, perhaps, and with others.

While I understand the displeasure at the suspicions I voicedI am a little puzzled by the wish that I had consulted you privately first. The whole point of this site is to be a public exchange. However irritated you may feel, our exchange has added a great deal of information that others can profit from.

I will conclude, non-confrontationally I hope, by noting that a description of an online course--particulalry a description that describes student activity in detail--is incomplete without a description of the instructor's role in facilitating that activity.

Or, to put it differently, the two of you are not the only creators of your course. The instructor does the final job of a shaping it for the students.

Kimberly Morse and Lewis Gould - 2/26/2003

In his response to our article about the on-line history course at the University of Texas at Austin, Oscar Chamberlain raises some cautionary notes about the potential problems that can come in implementing on-line courses. Though we were talking about the writing of our award-winning History course, we?re happy to speak to the issues that Chamberlain?s comment presents. We recognize, of course, the crucial role of instructors in making on-line courses work. Kim Richardson and the other instructors currently teaching History 315L with him are the indispensable link between our vision of the course and its execution with students on a daily basis.

First, a word of explanation. Our article speaks specifically of online distance education courses offered through the Distance Education Center (DEC) at The University of Texas at Austin, not the academic department. The staff at the DEC hire the faculty to write the courses, select and compensate the instructors who teach the courses, and supervise the workings of the program. All course authors and instructors receive approval from the academic department before they begin work for the DEC. Mindful of the need to keep the teaching load manageable, the DEC allocates students to the various instructors on a balanced basis, and the DEC is free to add more instructors should student demand expand. Students enroll in the courses through the DEC. They earn UT credit for the course.

All teaching, whether in the classroom or online, takes time, and the leadership of DEC has taken all the steps necessary to see that instructors have only the number of students they can appropriately handle. Again, since DEC is removed from the History Department, changes in the in-class offerings of the Department up or down would have no effect on the number of distance education instructors or their workload for DEC.

As for the payment to the instructors, the online instructors are compensated at a higher rate than instructors who grade the traditional distance education courses involving lessons submitted on paper. The Distance Education Center is not an academic department and has no power to grant or deny tenure to anyone. Professor Gould was paid $2,000 to write the course originally in 1999-2000. Kimberly Morse is a salaried employee of the DEC, and her work in developing the course was part of her regular duties. Instructors for the online courses will have exceeded Professor Gould?s compensation once 15 to 20 of their students complete the on-line course. Professor Gould himself taught correspondence courses until 2001 when he relinquished that work to fulfill other writing commitments. For most of the 1990s, he was only the full-time faculty member in the History Department at Texas teaching distance education courses. The DEC certainly benefited from his service as an instructor and as an author. During his tenure, besides the two online courses, Dr. Gould authored four traditional distance education courses. If any academic staff member was ?sweating,? it was he, but not because the department forced his hand.

We are sorry that Mr. Chamberlain did not consult us privately before reaching the conclusion that the DEC was guilty of all the crimes he has imputed to it. The reality, as we have tried to show, is more benign and less sinister. One final word. Everyone involved in distance education can learn from each other. A prize to one program does not diminish other worthwhile experiences such as the one at the program where Chamberlain is a participant. Let?s exchange good ideas, not recriminations, and make this exciting new field of teaching grow and pro

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2003

I have helped to develop an interdiscplinary online course with the University of Wisconsin Colleges (the 2-year campuses of the UW System). I also help to teach that course. I and my colleagues are very proud of it, and I agree that online classrooms can be excellent, for the reasons mentioned above.

However, Drs. Morse and Gould ignore the problems the new medium raises. In particular they ignore the contribution and the burden of the instructors like Kim Richardson, who is mentioned above.

Instructors do not simply teach the "text" of the online course as this article (I hope inadvertently) implies. They make it alive. They provide the individualized interaction mentioned above, which is far more work per student than most classroom courses require.

Yet the burdens of online courses can all too easily fall unfairly upon the instructors.

Course Load.

The time it takes to teach online class exceeds that for many classroom courses. But there is no physicial barrier to the number of students. It is very easy, both accidentally and deliberately, to overload the course instructor.

Current budget circumstances in many states will increase the temptation to push online class numbers higher as a way to compensate for reduced in-class offerings. That has not happened in the UW-System, but given the budget hit we are expecting, the temptation will be real.

In factories, that is called "sweating."

New "Class" Divisions

The instructor, Kim Richardson, who is mentioned above: How much is she paid for teaching the course? Is it the same as for in-class sections? Is she tenured or tenure-track? How close is her compensation to that of the authors?

I have both helped to write an online course and I have taught that course. The teaching is the more difficult part. Yet, here again, the temptation for administrators, is to pay the money upfront to developers and to underpay the people teaching multiple sections on the grounds that they do not have to be as knowledgeable.

The UW program has so far avoided most of these problems. (More precisely, the division is no worse that the classroom divisions between academic staff and tenure/tenure track) This is because most of the courses are still being taught by their creators, because departments must approve all instructors, because nearly all online instructors also teach in the classroom, and because compensation for online and inclass courses is the same.

If I knew more about Ms. Richardson's situation, I would know more about whether the University of Texas has actually developed a good and fair model for the delivery of courses online or simply a better way to "sweat" academic staff.

That her work was not described does not suggest a positive answer.