‘Teaching America’ is a collaborative blog series by the Historians of Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and U.S Studies Online that aims to offer readers an insight into the ongoing conversations around teaching U.S. history in higher education. Featuring posts from leading historians the series offers advice on new and established approaches to teaching intellectual, radical and religious history, gender and sexuality in higher education, and race and transnational history, plus much more. Find out what you can expect from the series in the series introduction.
The sixth post in the series is by Dr Christian O’Connell (University of Gloucestershire), author of Blues, How Do You Do? Paul Oliver and the Transatlantic Story of the Blues, who discusses the benefits to online distance learning when teaching the history of U.S. music.
For many academics, the idea of delivering courses online is either a frightening prospect that would force them to engage with the evil that is digital technology, or something that represents the dumbing down or cheapening of academic teaching. In the past, my own views bounced between these two viewpoints. However, given the way in which academics now engage with one another through the web, alongside the digitization of academic publications, and the increasing reliance of students on the Internet for their studies, it has now become very difficult for teachers to completely shun the development of virtual teaching aids. Considered in conjunction with the rising costs of going to university, it is almost inevitable that academics will have to adapt to new online teaching practices in one way or another. Indeed, the flexibility inherent in online courses allow students to study at different times from anywhere in the world, alongside their apparent reduced running costs, make online studies ever more appealing for institutions as well as students. However, as my experience of setting up an online course demonstrates, it is certainly not all doom and gloom. Teaching online need not come at the price of academic rigour and meaningful student engagement. What is required is a different approach from teaching face-to-face in class, and the ability to take full advantage of the study materials offered by the web.
Over the last year I have designed and delivered an online course entitled ‘A History of the Blues’ through the University of Exeter’s distance learning program. Building on my research expertise in African American cultural history and the significance of the blues in transatlantic history, the course runs over 12 weeks and provides an overview of African American music from its origins at the turn of the 20th century to its spread across the Atlantic during the 1960s. While examining the development of African American music and the importance of some of the most influential musicians that make up its history, the course places the music firmly within the context of American and African American history. It deals with many of the most prominent debates over the significance of this music: its relationship to the African American experience, the role of women in the development of the genre, and the significance of the blues in relation to post-WWII movements such as the Civil Rights movement and the Black Arts movement. Overall, despite the initial front-loading of work required in designing the course, it has been an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
The two most important questions when I began were firstly, ‘how can I make sure the delivery is engaging and challenging?’ and then, ‘how do I ensure meaningful student engagement?’ With regards to the former, it is fairly obvious that translating a traditional lecture into a 45-60 minute video – even if you are David Starkey or Simon Schama – will not be particularly effective. There is plenty of research that suggests students do not engage with video content if it is too long and too dense. For this reason, the key to my online teaching has been variety. Where I have been brave enough to use video, I have used shorter 10-15 segments, and spread them out in between other materials. Another option is to use tools like PowerPoint with a voice-over, or programs like Camtasia (a tip for video or audio recording: make sure you emphasise and exaggerate, otherwise you will sound dull and boring – a good example is the historian David Blight). I have also relied on text based lessons, which again are broken up into shorter segments and are interspersed with links to photo galleries where appropriate, sound clips, historical documents, videos, and of course, additional readings. As a 20th century historian, I am in a particularly privileged position in terms of the range of historical materials available online in a range of formats. The important thing is to provide opportunities for students to do as much as they can or want to do.
As to the second question, outside the traditional classroom context the means by which an online tutor can test student knowledge and engagement is somewhat limited. This makes the form of the delivery described above increasingly important. One of the factors affecting the tutor’s ability to do this is student behaviour. As you will find in much of the literature, students on online courses vary from those that are almost invisible (so-called ‘lurkers’), and those that find confidence in the safety of web-based communication. In response, I designed all my lessons with student-to-student debate in mind, ensuring that discussion could take place at any point throughout a lesson via a forum. I deliberately designed the course so that any time a student was encouraged to read, watch or listen, there was a clear and specific purpose, usually in the form of an open-ended question relating to an historical debate. Although my course is asynchronous, I normally intervened in discussions by prompting further explanation, or challenging student responses in order to achieve more meaningful engagement with the subject. In synchronous online courses, tutors can set-up timed discussions using chat tools as well as video conference calls on Skype.
Overall, the important thing I have learned throughout this process is that online teaching should not be regarded as a replacement for traditional face-to-face teaching. The death of the lecturer is not yet nigh. There are some things that happen in a classroom that cannot be replicated virtually. That being said, particularly for lecturers in American Studies and 20th century American history and the resources available to us, online courses should be seen as a valuable and innovative addition to our teaching toolbox. We must not forget that they offer possibilities to students who may not have the opportunities to commit to attending university studies, and as education becomes increasingly privatized, enabling these students to access higher education is one of our principle duties.