By Andrew McGregor
Teaching online is intimidating, but gauging by the audience in my NASSH panel “Teaching Sport History in the Digital Era,” it is a topic that many of us want to learn more about. In this post, I want to build off some of the ideas offered in that panel, on this blog, and offer my own experiences. I am by no means an expert in pedagogy or teaching online. In fact, I’m in the middle of teaching my first online sport history class right now. I hope, however, that sharing some of the ways I have approached designing and building the course might help make teaching online less intimidating.
The class I am teaching is my African American Studies course “The Black Athlete,” which I wrote about last year. This spring I was tasked with adapting that course for online instruction. I was lucky, my department gave me plenty of notice and support for building the course. They helped facilitate meetings with course design specialists, offered me templates from the department’s other successful online courses, and compensated me for my time developing the class. This environment pushed me to think creatively, and offered me the tools to try new things.
From the get-go, I was acutely aware the online format does not and can not replicate the traditional classroom in which many of us deliver lectures and/or conduct extemporaneous discussions. Online students simply won’t sit down and watch hours of recorded lectures and the asynchronous nature of online instruction means discussions must be more structured. Everyone I spoke to during the planning process emphasized this point. They also pointed out that simply doubling down on readings doesn’t work either. While you can (and should) expect your online students to read more than on-ground students, expecting them to get all of their course information from reading is unfair and ignores various learning styles.
I also knew that my particular course was going to be shorter than my normal semester-long class because it is a summer class. As a result, I was tasked with not just transforming my class into an online format, but also cutting it down. I now had only 8-weeks to cover the same content that I usually do in 16-weeks. Here, I was inspired by Matt Holder’s discussion of his engaging and empowering classroom as I thought through ways to maintain the integrity of my traditional course.
So, what then, does an online course look like? By now most instructors are familiar with their university’s learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc. My campus uses Blackboard, and I built my course shell entirely in it. (Note: for sustainability purposes, some experienced online instructors recommend using password protected Google or WordPress sites. This enables you to keep your course if you change institutions, and they are often less clunky than LMSs) In Blackboard there are a variety of options for uploading documents, organizing content on pages or in modules, and customizing the look-and-feel. I was particularly attentive to the aesthetics of the course because it helps students navigate the assignments and content. Embedding photos, videos, audio clips, screenshots of magazine article, etc. alongside links to readings gives students a sense of who and what they are learning about. For example, I try to include some sort of photo next to every link.
I chose to organize my course into modules that serve as week-long thematic units. For The Black Athlete course, some of the modules are “Drawing the Color Line,” “Breaking the Color Line,” “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” etc. Each module then covers 3-5 topics (in my course, each topic gets its own module page). So for “The Revolt of the Black Athlete” module, the Topics are “Seeds of Dissent,” “The Cold War and the Olympics,” “The 1968 Olympics,” “Muhammad Ali,” and “Optional Athletes.” Under each topic are readings and reading questions, videos, audio clips, pictures, and Powerpoints.
The “Optional Athletes” topic, which I repeat in other modules, is my way of trying to give students choices. Thinking back to Hodler’s idea of having students pick major topics to study in his course, I thought that offering my students optional athletes might be a way to break up the readings. It is also a way for me to present everything I do in my normal 16-week course, but allowing the students to focus in on the sports or athletes they find most interesting. Here’s how it works: for “The Revolt of the Black Athlete” module, I listed three pairs of athletes/teams (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Wyoming Black 14, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Arthur Ashe and Jim Brown). The students get to choose which pair to read and write about.
This choose your own adventure method to teaching online seems to be working well. My students enjoy the ability to shape their learning experience, and the freedom to read more if their interests are piqued. This approach works, at least in part, because of the ways I have designed the assignments. Each of module requires the students to write 2 blog posts (in Blackboard). The blog posts are 300-500 word responses to reading questions and prompts. After writing their post, each student is required to read and comment on 2 other blog post by their peers. This allows the students to learn about the other athletes they didn’t read about and ask questions. During these discussions students act as both learners and teachers.
I also have my students complete quizzes, a film review, and book review, mirroring much of what I do in my traditional classroom. The only challenges of doing these assignments online is making sure your expectations are clearly articulated. In addition to posting detailed outlines of the assignment requirements, developing and posting grading rubrics goes a long way to help demystify the grading. In an asynchronous environment, clarity in communication matters even more.
My students are currently through 4 out of 7 modules in my course. Despite needing to make a few points of clarification at the beginning, the class has run smoothly. The bulk of the work happened before the students arrived, as I scanned readings, located videos, photos, and audio clips, and built the course shell in Blackboard. Now, as the course is unfolding, I get to watch as the students engage with the material, post their thoughts, and discuss various ideas with their classmates. It has been really fun to see the ah-ha moments and back-and-forth between students.
While this is only a partial snapshot into my course and the world of online teaching, I hope it helps give a glimpse inside what an online class can look like. Beyond wrestling with a clunky LMS, designing and teaching online has been a fun and rewarding experience so far. It has forced me to think more critically about my teaching, considering how and why I include topics, and the best forms of evaluation. I can already see ways that my on-ground course will be improved because of this experience. No matter how you choose to approach it, it’s a worthwhile adventure!
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter:@admcgregor85