Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Gilder-Lehrman Online Course on Colonial North America: Week One

The first day of class is in the books.  As some of you know, I agreed to teach an online graduate course this semester for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  The course, "Colonial North America," began last night.  Those who follow the Virtual Office Hours (which will be coming back soon) know that I have been on camera before, but I have never taught an online course before. Fortunately, Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers were there to coach me through it!

The course got off to a bit of an inauspicious start when the Internet in my office cut out unexpectedly about five minutes into the class.  This prompted at least one member of the class to turn to Twitter:

Lance and Hannah quickly moved us from Ethernet to WiFi and we were back in business.  It turns out that I was responsible for the glitch.  Unaware that the Ethernet was running through the phone on my desk, I unplugged the phone cable.  My intentions were good.  I wanted to make sure that the phone wouldn't ring during the session.  In doing so, I brought the course to an embarrassing, albeit momentary, halt.   For those students who are reading this, I am truly sorry.  I don't think it will happen again.

We spent most of our time "together" last night discussing the format of the papers that the students will be writing each week, talking about the limitations of a "Whig" approach to studying the colonies, and examining some of the economic and religious motivations for settlement.  In addition to my lectures, the students (most of them are K-12 teachers) are reading Alan Taylor's American Colonies and a host of primary sources.  In preparation for last night's course they read documents by Columbus, Cartier, Hakluyt, and others.

It took some time for me to adjust to the online format.  For example, it is hard for me to sit still when I am teaching.  I need to move around the room and wave my arms.  As I looked back at the video of the session I am constantly bobbing and weaving in my seat.  I need to get used to being "stuck" in the camera frame.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was the lack of immediate feedback from the class.  I am used to asking a lot questions--sometimes in rapid-fire style--when I teach.  This is not easy when you need to wait thirty seconds or more for answers.  Lance did a great job feeding me the questions as they came onto his computer screen, but it was still a bit strange for me.

Finally, online teaching makes it impossible to take the temperature (so to speak) of the class.  I can't see their faces.  I can't tell if they are connecting with what I am saying.  I don't see the head nods or looks of concern when they don't understand something.  I will have to get used to it.

As I come to the end of this post I realize that I sound rather negative about the experience.  Actually, I had fun doing this.  It is not the same as teaching in a face-to-face classroom, but I don't think anyone taking the course is expecting that kind of experience.  I am sure I will feel more comfortable in my virtual classroom as the semester goes on.  I think we got off to a good start last night.