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Learning Starts with People

Pedagogical Values in Online Teaching

Brandon Morgan | Mar 26, 2020

As institutions transition to online instruction in the face of COVID-19, historians are struggling with what it means to teach history online. The AHA had planned to announce guidelines in June 2020 for online teaching in history, and we will continue to work to do so. In the meantime, we are publishing a series of short pieces in Perspectives Daily to help the many historians now working to navigate this emergency. 

We offer these pieces with a few caveats. Much of what can be done quickly is not properly online instruction (courses envisioned for online or hybrid execution). Rather, for many, this is a rapid transition to remote instruction. Similarly, much of the advice depends on your own institutional circumstances; with regard to policy, particularly ADA policy, always defer to the rules of your home institution. Still, we hope these posts will help support student learning during these turbulent times, and we invite discussion of them and an exchange of ideas—both broadly conceived and narrowly practical—on the AHA Members’ Forum.


Teaching history online for a decade has pushed me to think long and hard about my pedagogical values. Online courses pursue the same outcomes as face-to-face history classes, but students take a different path to get there. In order to guide them toward a mastery of historical thinking skills in an asynchronous online environment, I create exercises that afford students the agency to learn through active participation and collaboration.

A phone, iPad, and laptop.

Lean Forward/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The novel coronavirus that is requiring faculty to convert rapidly to online teaching might not allow for careful reflection or sufficient time to build a fully articulated digital course, but the principles that undergird strong online teaching and learning can certainly help. The two guiding principles that inform all of the online work I do with students come from Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris: First, and most importantly, trust students.

In the current moment, as many of us confront the task of quickly converting face-to-face courses to an online environment, trusting our students is critical. Many of them will encounter extreme difficulties as they confront a pandemic that has altered daily patterns of living, working, and being. And too many of our students are already marginalized: living with food and housing insecurities or without regular internet access; working full time while attending classes; serving as the primary caregivers of small children or as the caretakers of older family members. 

These situations will be exacerbated by requiring students to vacate their campuses, and we must trust students who tell us that they need more time for work, that they’re facing difficulties, that they can go online only one day a week. Trusting their needs and being flexible in response will help us help them to achieve their academic goals. This includes being transparent, even vulnerable, in our communications with students. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes, “Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. . . . In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share.” These ideas apply equally in face-to-face and online classrooms; I’ve found that when we are transparent with our students and show vulnerability, they respond with kindness and empathy. This type of communication humanizes online learning and empowers students.

Our students understand that we’re facing a time of crisis, and they know that we may not be accustomed to teaching online. Communicate regularly with students via the methods provided at your institution. If you’re comfortable doing so, post short videos; let them know what issues you’re facing as you convert your course online. As appropriate, you might even ask them for help. Our students are knowledgeable and ready to take ownership of their learning. And remember that good teaching is good teaching: effective prompts for discussion will inspire meaningful responses both in-person and online. Discussions might proceed at a slower pace, but students can and will reach epiphanies and draw meaningful conclusions. Digitized primary sources can be placed within an online course, and students can respond to them in a variety of ways—from discussion forums to more traditional essays. Short videos can also be great ways to deliver lectures or lessons. 

In the spirit of trusting students and keeping their best interests in mind, avoid giving high stakes assignments on platforms that you don’t typically use in class or that you’re not comfortable with yourself. Use the digital tools available at your institution, and rely on the expertise and assistance of instructional designers and other academic support staff while recognizing that they are likely to be inundated with extra work at the moment. Be kind to them. 

Never use digital tools just for the sake of using them, but if you already have some aptitude, here are a few intuitive platforms helpful to online history classes:

  • Hypothes.is for collaborative text annotation (discussions can take place in the margins of an assigned text)
  • Edpuzzle allows you to add questions to videos to make them more interactive
  • Adobe Spark allows students to create multimodal presentations of their work

Learning starts with people, no matter the modality. That brings me to the second principle I learned from Stommel and Morris: when we work online, we teach through a screen, not to a screen. Human beings with real aspirations and challenges are always on the other side, and Morris reminds us that whatever activities we prepare for students in our online classrooms, we must never lose sight of the fact that “learning starts with people.” 

Of the many reasons to study history, surely one of the most valuable is its ability to help us build empathy. The empathy and compassion that our students acquire through the study of people in other times and places will be invaluable during this moment of rapid transition to online teaching and learning.


Brandon Morgan is instructor and chairperson of the history department at Central New Mexico Community College and a member of the AHA’s ad hoc committee on online teaching. He tweets @CNMBrandon.


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