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As we enter our second online semester, it’s time to stop thinking of remote learning as a crisis-prompted expedient. It will not go away as soon as a vaccine appears.

Online learning is going to be a permanent fixture in how institutions deliver high-demand lower-division undergraduate introductory courses. We need to face up to the challenges.

As much as many undergraduates complain about the quality of current online courses, at least as many who work, commute or care for others appreciate online learning’s convenience and flexibility. It’s a particularly popular option for students who regard required courses as boxes to be ticked off.

For all that’s lost when faculty and students interact remotely, something is gained in well-designed, highly interactive online classes that feature personalized adaptive courseware; online tutorials; synchronous interactive lectures with frequent polls, surveys, questions and answers, and whiteboard sessions; and breakout groups.

Remember: for students who sit in the back rows of an auditorium, every large face-to-face lecture class is a distance ed course.

If we see remote learning as part of a permanent restructuring of how higher education is delivered, rather than as a stop-gap response to an emergency, we need to address the four horsemen of the online apocalypse:

  • Isolation: How to transform an online class into a community.
  • Engagement: How to keep students motivated and on track.
  • Rigor: How to ensure student learning outcomes and academic honesty.
  • Quality: How to make sure that online courses meet minimal standards for accessibility and usability, learner support, interactivity, and robust assessment.

Let me be frank: I face all these challenges. I’m currently teaching an introductory U.S. history class with nearly 1,500 students. So how have I tried to address these challenges?

Community Building

Much of college’s appeal lies in the opportunities for social interaction, whether intentional or serendipitous. Undergraduates, after all, are social animals who crave interactions with others. We need to ensure that they get frequent opportunities for social interaction.

How can we mimic virtually the in-person connections of the face-to-face classroom?

By creating a host of ways for students to interact.

  • Weekly breakout sessions: These are 45-minute sections in which students can discuss the course material, ask questions, hold debates, analyze primary sources and build their writing, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Messaging and chat tools: To promote student interaction outside of class, the class features video chat and instant messaging apps and online spaces where students can take part in chat rooms and hangouts when classmates are online and available.
  • Social interaction tools: Giving students access to digital whiteboards, digital sticky notes and mind-mapping tools (which make it easy to organize information and display concepts or causal factors and illustrate their interrelationships) to facilitate conversations and brainstorming sessions.

Keeping Students Engaged and Motivated

I think we’d all agree that among the biggest challenges we’ve faced teaching online is keeping our students engaged and motivated without the structure and regular interaction provided by face-to-face class sessions. Here are some techniques and strategies that work:

  • Make sure your lectures are interactive: Online lectures, like their in-person counterpart, can involve a multidirectional flow of information. Every major videoconferencing service includes tools to facilitate interactivity. All a lecturer needs to do is take advantage of the polling, hand raising, chat and Q&A functions or the ability to invite panelists, co-hosts and other presenters.
  • Emphasizing the instructional material’s relevance: History’s rarely been so timely, and I would be remiss not to connect past to present, examine the history behind the headlines, or explore the backstory of the crucial issues of our time, such as the impact of pandemics, the roots of racism and racial disparities, or the role of protest movements in fomenting historical change.

But every subject can be relevant. You can make a stats class relevant by incorporating real-world examples: Is it true that one in four young people have been abused or that over half of marriages end in divorce or that tall people have higher incomes or how we can best illustrate the infection or mortality rate of the novel coronavirus?

Ditto for a sociology course. Examine how incomes vary among occupations or how visual imagery reveals and reinforces various cultural stereotypes involving race, gender, class or sexual orientation, or how household budgets differ at various income levels or how various factors influence decision making among a group of students.

Ensuring that Students Stay On Track

  • Combine a task orientation with a time orientation: An effective online class needs to establish clear deliverables, provide a well-defined schedule and offer frequent reminders of the tasks that need to be undertaken and when they are due.
  • Measure and monitor student progress and performance frequently: Your LMS can tell you whether students are logging in to your class and how much time they spend reading or interacting with your course material. UT Austin’s information technology team has created a tool to allow me to send early alerts to students who are disengaged or off track with a single click.

Offer a Quality Learning Experience

A quality online learning experience is a design challenge. The literature on online learning suggests that the most effective courses include:

  • Asynchronous and synchronous elements: My own big class includes an asynchronous component -- weekly modules that include readings, activities and assessments -- and a synchronous component, which combines interactive lectures that build on the modules with weekly breakout sessions.
  • An emphasis on access and accessibility: In line with the principles of universal design for learning, all the asynchronous and synchronous portions are fully accessible to all students. The lectures, discussions and all videos are captioned and downloadable. The PowerPoint presentations are text-heavy and also downloadable.
  • Making active, hands-on learning a defining pedagogical principle: I urge you in the strongest terms to embed simulations, interactives, inquiries, problem-solving exercises and other active learning strategies into your class. My class includes a host of activities that that require students to do history:
    • Geo and social mapping: Students plot social information on geographical maps, create visual tours, map social networks and use maps to visualize and analyze demographic, economic, political, religious and social trends.
    • Historical forecasts: Students explore how earlier generations imagined the future.
    • Historical icons: The students examine symbols of American nationhood, freedom and the landscape.
    • Historical judgments: I ask students to render professional judgments about past decisions and historical figures in a balanced, nuanced manner that takes account of context.
    • History happened here: Students identify and interpret the landmarks, monuments and historical and cultural sites that lie around us.
    • History through sight and sound: Students uncover the insights that artworks, movies, photographs and songs can provide about the atmosphere and dominant attitudes of a historical era and into historical memory and the reconstruction of the past.
    • My history is American history: Students examine how their family’s history can illuminate key aspects of the nation’s history, including immigration and migration, economic transformations, and the impact of war.
    • Primary source interpretation: Students evaluate sources for accuracy, audience, authenticity, authorship, bias, context, information and purpose.
    • Reading maps: Students see what historical maps can tell us not only about the growth of geographical knowledge, but settlement patterns, the influence of geography on historical events and developments, and the politics of border construction.
    • Simulations: Students sail across the Atlantic using current wind and ocean currents, extract information from colonial cemeteries, analyze fugitive slave ads, and re-examine Abraham Lincoln’s decision-making process at critical junctures during his presidency.
    • Uses of history: Students examine how advocates and partisans have invoked history to advance their causes.
    • What if: Students explore how a key decision or incident might have altered the course of history.

Student Support

Access to timely support is even more important in an online course than in its face-to-face equivalent. Virtual office hours and study guides can certainly help, but consider other ways to assist your students.

  • FAQs: Create a single resource where students can turn to when they encounter a problem. Make sure that the questions are those that students frequently ask and that the answers are concise yet thorough.
  • Generalized feedback: Every week, my class provides all students with our observations about the responses we received to the essay prompts. This feedback builds on the class’ rubric and seeks to improve their performance by discussing the weaknesses we saw and how these can be rectified.
  • Video tutorials: Much as a textbook might use sidebars to explicate difficult topics, video tutorials can elaborate on a topic, reflect on a historical controversy and explain how to analyze a piece of evidence.
  • Peer support: Make it easy for students to reach out to peers by facilitating study groups or creating online spaces where students can interact and ask each other questions. Although peer assistance can lead to cheating, it much more often leads to productive conversations and superior performance.
  • Proactive intervention: Watch for warning signs that a student is off course. Monitor online engagement and attendance at live sessions and poor grades and send out an alert or reach out whenever a problem is detected.

Maintaining Rigor

A high-quality online course includes frequent assessments to monitor learning and keep students on track. It also uses assessments as learning opportunities. I myself have adopted a multitier assessment strategy, which combines various kinds of questions for a variety of purposes. These include:

  • Checks for understanding: These multiple-choice questions make sure that students complete and understand the class readings.
  • Document-based questions: These questions require students to analyze a historical issue or evaluate a controversy with the aid of a provided one or more primary or secondary sources.
  • Inquiry and problem-solving activities: In order to build higher-order thinking skills, students are given a range of sources -- such as a gravestones or charts and graphs or advertisements or photographs or political cartoons or propaganda posters -- and are asked to devise a thesis or argument (and address counterarguments), develop a generalization, synthesize information, or render a judgment.
  • Reflective essays: These essay prompt students to engage in metacognition: to reflect on the course material and their own learning.
  • Identifying academic dishonesty: One advantage of online teaching is that it has become much easier to identify examples of plagiarism or collusion or duplicate submissions and to intervene quickly as appropriate.

It's easy to dismiss online learning as a poor substitute for face-to-face instruction -- and in too many instances it is. But it is also becoming increasingly clear that highly interactive, well-designed large online classes can be more effective than the large in-person lecture courses they replace. The best large online classes significantly reduce achievement and equity gaps, lower DFW rates, encourage students to take more classes within the discipline, and produce higher grades in more advanced classes.

Let's not allow bias and prejudice to us to reject very large online classes out of hand.

The key lies in intentional, thoughtful course design.

Building a truly effective online class is -- or ought to be -- a collective endeavor. The lone artisan approach that typified course development in the past doesn’t work well in online classes that require sophisticated simulations, advanced interactives, a wide range of cutting-edge applications and instructional and communication technologies, and high standards of accessibility.

I’d urge faculty to not only work with IT professionals, but to integrate students -- who are brimming with interesting ideas and who possess a host of design and technology skills -- into the course development process.

Faculty training and instructional design and ed-tech support are essential elements in the creation of quality online courses. So, too, are shifts in incentives and reward structures if we want faculty to become much more undergraduate and pedagogically focused.

Let’s not think of online learning as a one-off or as a poor but necessary substitute for the face-to-face education we prefer. Let’s instead embrace this transition moment as an opportunity to move higher ed in a direction that can better serve today’s incredibly diverse, highly differentiated student body. Let’s consider this a great experiment and a challenge to our ingenuity and resourcefulness.

In short, let’s apply the qualities that we associate with our scholarship -- imagination, vision, inventiveness and creativity -- to our teaching.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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