The last few days I've been plagued by the sense that in designing one of my online courses I've committed a pedagogical blunder. But another part of me is pushing back. This other part rails against what it sees as Taylorism, pure and simple.
I know that it would be easy to say one ought to design one's online classes so students get the most benefit, and further that there's no one right way to approach one's subject matter, and even further than one ought not be so hard on oneself. I hear all that. But still I ask: Have I committed a big pedagogical blunder?
Here's the deal.
My online course in Eastern Religions is set up like this: The first page of each weekly module lists, in order, the activities that students need to accomplish that week. They are asked to work through each item in order, so they will be prepared at the end for the short machine-graded quiz and, more importantly, to write the mini-essay (150-250 words or so).
The first item is my presentation, which includes a narrated slide show, a reading assignments page (for textbook readings), with my comments and a non-graded self-test question or two for each reading (our textbook is an anthology full of short pieces from the various traditions).
So presumably students will work through the presentation, read the textbook, and that will prepare them for the discussion in which I try to ask a provocative question that calls for knowledge of the materials. The discussion continues throughout the week, but for those who engage early there are ofter replies that say "I never looked at it that way!" Some real learning is taking place.
The machine-graded quiz is low stakes, really a formative assessment, that is designed to keep students on track with the reading.
THE SHORT ESSAY AT THE END
Finally, the short essay. And now the rubber meets the road.
The essay assignment just asks the question, such as "According to Hindu philosopher Ramanuja, why is what Hindu philosopher Shankara says pure nonsense?"
The idea here is that if a student has been diligent, she or he is prepared through interacting with others, the textbook, and my presentation to write a good answer to the question.
So what's wrong, you ask?
The essay is just the question. What's not there are multiple links to the material for the week. The essay is part of a kind of "molecular" approach--various elements of the course intertwined. Yes, I know students don't usually follow the prescribed order--that's okay so long as the quiz or essay or discussion drives them to visit the presentation and read the text. But all that stuff is not there in the instructions.
So when I ask the essay question I'm assuming all the rest. But not providing all the rest.
What worries me is that more and more I'm getting little indications from students (and maybe from those who design good online courses for a living) that I need to structure the class on more of an "atomic" approach.
Just thinking about that gives me atomic ache!
What I mean by "atomic" is that each assignment is pretty much self-contained. To do it atomically I should have links to all the relevant materials in the instructions for the essay, so that if a student wanted to START the week with writing the essay, all the links would be in place, right there. The idea is that students can complete each gradable assignment in any order (this wouldn't work for math, granted, but maybe it would for math within a given week!).
Rather than intertwining all the elements (the molecular approach), each assignment or discussion would contain all the materials right there so students could make use of them (the atomic approach). Presumably they'd still work through the presentation, and maybe do the reading, and go through the other links, but the "feeling" in the course would be of a series of things to do each week, each more or less separate from the others.
The other part of me says that's just wrong pedagogically!
In looking at other courses developed for online, I've seen many different assignments with sometimes a whole host of outside web links, instructional examples, links to course materials, textbook readings, even mini-lectures right in the instructions. It's certainly convenient for students, but this "other part" of me says it breaks the course continuity and reduces a course down to its atoms.
Yes, as I noted earlier, students don't follow in the prescribed order anyway, so one could argue that giving them everything they need in a given assignment is just being helpful, and is better pedagogy to boot!
But I don't want atoms. I want molecules!
Whatever should I do?