Publication Date

February 11, 2019

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Medicine, Science, & Technology

Online courses are no longer considered a futurist fantasy or a harbinger of doom. But educators and institutions are still concerned about student engagement and retention in online courses (just as they are about face-to-face ones). It’s becoming clear that since online courses are different animals from those taught solely in person, faculty must develop them deliberately, with institutional support. This has been the approach of the University of California (UC) system since at least 2013. The system’s efforts were explored in an AHA19 roundtable chaired by Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and former executive director of the UT system’s Institute for Transformational Learning.

Students at laptops.

Online courses have no front or back rows. AndreyPopov/Depositphotos

At the session, called “How Online Teaching Can Enrich Research, Improve Teaching, and Increase Enrollments: The University of California Experience,” Mintz opened with a parable. “When inventors were trying to invent flight,” he said, “they tried to imitate birds” by constructing flapping wings. “It was only when they broke away from that model that it was possible for human beings to fly.” He continued, “[O]nline education is . . . in that same moment. There are people who are trying to simply imitate what we do in the classroom. . . . And it’s not surprising that under those circumstances, a lot of students flail and flounder.” He ended with a plea: “We need to do something new.”

Many members of the audience had experience teaching online and were looking for new ideas. Panelists included Ava Arndt, an instructional designer in the UC Office of the President; Juliette Levy, an associate professor of history at UC Riverside; William Worger, a professor of history at UCLA; and Gemma Repiso Puigdelliura, a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA. Online courses created by UC faculty and instructional designers have helped improve access and increase interactions between students and professors. As Mintz put it, this success happened because these educators considered “what a more learner-centric educational experience ought to be like.”

Since online courses are different animals from those taught solely in person, faculty must develop them deliberately, with institutional support.

An endeavor that emerged in 2013 from the UC Office of the President, known as the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI), has helped put this idea into practice throughout the university system. ILTI provides resources—notably funding, time, and the assistance of instructional designers—for faculty members at UC institutions to develop online courses. According to 2018 data from the UC Offices of the Registrars, 220 of the system’s 470 undergraduate online courses have been developed with assistance from ILTI; its program director, Ellen Osmundson, said in an email interview that over 120,000 undergraduates have taken online courses developed with ILTI support. And, since the UC system allows faculty to choose to open their online courses to students from all other UC campuses, online education could potentially help increase history enrollments system-wide. (There are currently 10 history courses listed on the UC cross-campus enrollment site.) Osmundson estimates that over 10,000 students have enrolled in history courses developed with ILTI.

Levy teaches three of those online history courses developed with ILTI: World History: The 20th Century, Introduction to Latin American History, and The Historian’s Workshop, a methods course. Some of the courses’ elements would be familiar to faculty at other institutions who teach online. Many UC online courses, including Levy’s and most of those created with ILTI instructional designers, use the popular learning-management system Canvas. Other elements might not be as widespread. For one of her courses, Levy recorded lectures as podcasts, so students can listen when it’s convenient for them and not necessarily be glued to a screen. She said in an email interview that she aims to move her other classes from video to podcast lectures as well.

From working with the instructional designer on her first course, Levy says, she knew she would have to “replace the routine of going to class with the routine of submission” for her students. While students in a face-to-face course are required to show up to a classroom at certain days and times of the week, students in an online course do not have that structure. Levy has her students submit the same kinds of assignments every week, so they know what is expected of them. Through her experience teaching online, she also learned that she didn’t need to “organize [her students’] time for them.” At first, she distributed deadlines for different assignments throughout the week, but she “learned very quickly that that’s a lot of hubris on our part as instructors who think that we know the life of the students and what the students need.” Now, her assignments are due at the end of the week, so students have the “agency to decide when in that week they have time to do the work.”

UC students can take online courses from any school in the UC system, so online history courses can potentially help increase enrollments system-wide.

At the annual meeting roundtable, panelists highlighted benefits of online teaching. Worger emphasized in the session that online courses could be much more accessible than traditional ones, whether in terms of distance and the cost of commuting to campus or for students with disabilities, who, for example, may not be able to listen and learn in a typical classroom. He also emphasized the potential for greater interaction between professors and students: “The student responses have been extraordinarily enthusiastic.”

Levy agreed. In a large face-to-face lecture, she says, her “relationship with the students is generally limited to the first couple of rows.” Online, there are no front rows—or back rows. Every week, she requires students to respond to the lecture. She then reviews the responses and provides her own responses to half of them, rotating her responses between students each week. The online platform makes it “easy” for her to know when a student has submitted comments and to respond, thereby producing a “back channel to the formal conversation that’s happening in the lectures and in discussion sections.” Not having dedicated time for in-person lectures during the week and “invest[ing] a lot of time in creating the content” before the course starts allow Levy time to respond to her students each week, even with class sizes of more than 100 students.

Royce Hall on UCLA's campus

Some online courses in the UC system are available to students at any UC campus, including UCLA. (Pictured: Royce Hall.) Alfred Essa/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The lessons these faculty members learned from online teaching also affect their face-to-face courses, especially the traditional format of the lecture. Jan Reiff, a professor of history at UCLA and special assistant to the executive vice chancellor/provost for online teaching and learning, said in an interview that lecturing is not always the most effective way to teach. Having taught different types of course formats, she now asks herself, “How do we make something that’s worked for a long time work even better, based on what we’ve learned from having to experiment with other models?” Levy says that now, in her in-person lectures, she focuses on “guiding students through material and giving students a significant amount of choice over what material they would like to really dig into deeply, as opposed to feeling like I need to cover material for them.”

The panelists did offer observations they thought faculty preparing to teach online needed to be conscious of. Worger said that preparing for and teaching an online class required “vastly more time” than a traditional, in-person course. Arndt, the instructional designer, elaborated, saying that online courses require more time “up front before the course starts,” because ideally the course is fully constructed before the term begins. She also noted that UC faculty received funding to prepare their courses, including a teaching buyout for one quarter.

In face-to-face lectures, professors might only interact with students in the front rows. Online, there are no front rows—or back rows.

Some members of the audience who had experience teaching online expressed concern about DFW rates (the numbers of students who receive grades of D or F, or who withdraw from the course), but the panelists said they had not faced this problem personally. Worger noted that although “the assumption always is that online classes have huge dropout rates,” most of his students completed the class. Levy thought high DFW rates were “probably an architectural issue” and might relate to “how present the faculty is in those classes.” For online courses in the UC system, faculty are “extremely present,” she said, and have “really great early-warning systems.” Professors are alerted the first time a student hasn’t checked in and can act immediately, for example.

Along with Reiff (who was not at the session), all the representatives of the UC system at the roundtable emphasized that online instruction naturally centers learning over teaching. When faculty members are working with instructional designers to redesign in-person courses for online learning, they should consider how each choice affects student learning—particularly how the faculty member can stay “engaged with the students at each step of the way,” says Reiff. Online teaching puts students and “pedagogy at the center of discussion,” says Levy, adding, “It’s been really great to be able to prioritize student learning as opposed to faculty lecturing or faculty workload.”

In any case, faculty members around the country who face the same challenges aren’t alone. As Mintz urged those attending the session: “Steal from the best.”

Zoë Jackson is editorial assistant at the AHA.

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