Taking An Online Course: Lessons Learned

While I am in the early stages of planning my online course, I am also in the middle of taking two of them! It made me wonder how many people who teach online courses have gotten the opportunity to take one? We’ve all taken plenty of face to face classes for years on end. Doing so has given us lots of opportunities to consider what we like or don’t like about that type of instruction. But I’m guessing most of us have had very limited opportunities to see what online classes look like and to experience different structures.

I didn’t seek out online classes because I wanted the experience of taking them. I happened to come across two that fit my professional needs and so I signed up for them. While I am learning content relevant to my needs in both courses, I am also taking the time to pay attention to how the instructors organize the courses and what kinds of experiences I get as a student. In today’s post I want to discuss some of the big ideas I have learned from one of them.

Background: The Twitter Masterminds

Twitter Masterminds is an online course developed by Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19 on twitter). The goal of the course is to help you become an expert at using twitter. This includes identifying relevant people to follow (and hopefully be followed by) and how to use twitter in more thoughtful and mindful ways.

I had found myself in a bit of a twitter rut. I enjoy using the tool. I’ve written a lot about how to use it in teaching. However, I was getting stuck in terms of finding good people to follow, building my followers, and I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of the tool. I took this course because I wanted to address these issues. FYI: It’s an amazing course, and I’ve gotten everything I wanted out of it and more. I’ll be reviewing it in a few weeks, but go here if you would like to take a closer look at it.

For the rest of this post, I want to talk to you about one of the big ideas I learned about how the course was structured and how I am thinking about it in terms of an academic/higher education context.

Self Paced: All The Content At Once

In Twitter Masterminds (TM), you get access to all the content at once. Having all the content at once is a bit like being turned loose in a candy store and saying you can eat anything you want however use please. While some things don’t look useful, most do. Most everything is exciting. You want it all, and you want it all at once.

Once I got over the fact that I had all this awesome, useful content available to me I calmed down and allowed myself to skim through it. I didn’t concentrate on anything too deeply at first. I allowed myself to flit in and out with no commitment. I didn’t focus on learning or using anything.

By giving myself time to play, I was able to understand what content was available to me and where I wanted to start my journey. Because all the content was available to me, and the course is self-paced, I was able to structure my experience however I wished. Although TM is structured around modules, and each module has multiple lessons, I could do the modules in any order I wanted and navigate back and forth as I saw fit.

For the most part, I made myself go through the modules in the order in which they were created. I assumed they were placed in that order for a specific reason. If I hit content I already knew or didn’t want to apply just yet then I skipped over it to return to later if needed.

What I Learned About Myself as a Student

Once I got settled into the TM course, I immediately identified a couple of skills I wanted to focus on developing in terms of getting better at twitter. At some point, I became aware that while I was actively applying what I had learned (and getting great benefit out of it!), I had stopped engaging with new content in the course. This is neither good nor bad. However, once I recognized this I started diving back into the modules (slowly) and working on learning more. I continued to apply what I was learning.

This structure of having all the content available is great if it is narrowly focused (which the course is; recall it’s focused on helping you become better at using twitter) and meets a specific need for the user (which of course it did for me or I would not have purchased it). Because I have learning goals, I could go into this space and utilize the teachings. I was also exposed to new ideas that I would never have thought of on my own.

My Take Aways for an Academic Course

In the TM course there is no deadline on learning. The course is mine to access forever. It’s just like if I went out and bought a book to help me learn something. In thinking about what I learned and how I might apply it to an academic course, I realized the following:

  • There is probably no need to release all the content at once. Doing so (to the tune of about 15 weeks worth of content) could be way overwhelming for any student. Releasing all the content at once around a very specific chunk of the course makes the most sense. TM has a good amount of content that is appropriate for the cost. An academic course would have significantly more content. A full release wouldn’t make sense (which got me thinking about how we release content in academic courses in general, but that is for another time).
  • Students need learning goals, and they need to set these for themselves. I came into the TM course with my own set of goals. The course helped me meet those goals as well as extend them. However, because I had my own goals I always felt empowered by how I approached the content and applied it. I usually ask my students what they want to learn in a course, but I never really do much with that information. I use it to get to know them better. If we are going to be studying something that links to one of their goals, I point it out. However, I don’t think it’s my job to do something with everyone’s goals. I do think I could do more to help students think about goal setting in ways that make sense for the course and empower them to realize them.
  • Having freedom to navigate the course and use the information to help me meet my goals was extremely helpful. So while I don’t think releasing all the content at once is the way to go for a 15 week academic course, I do think there’s something to consider here in terms of when and how people get access to content and helping them think about how they use it. I think people tend to use a syllabus in a linear manner, and I’d like to think about how to break that.

Next week I’ll be writing about lessons I have learned from a second online course I am taking. This course is structured much differently and my experiences with it are giving me a broader perspective on what it means to teach online.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Finishing the Story of the Syllabus

Last week, I discussed considering what story you wanted your syllabus to tell. At that point, I had taken the ideas I learned from this site and developed a story line for the first half of my fall syllabus. My goal was to complete the story which I was able to do. In this post, I want to share the story in its entirety and talk about next steps in developing my online course.

The Story

The tale of my syllabus is as follows (Week Seven is where the new material picks up):

Week One: Adolescents’ culture and identities influence how they engage with reading and writing and shape their experiences in school.

Weeks Two and Three: Their culture and identities lead them to engage with a variety of literacy practices often not sanctioned by schools.

Week Four: Families and communities often shape and enhance both academic and personal (out-of-school) literacy practices.

Weeks Five and Six: Some students have drastically different experiences in school based on their culture, language, and how schools identify and position them.

Week Seven: As teachers, we can create instruction that is responsive and inclusive for literacy development and content learning.

Week Eight: Through technology, we can understand and engage students deeply and differently.

Weeks Nine and Ten: We can create contexts that promote a love of reading and writing.

Points to Note

First, the basics. Yes, the semester is longer than 10 weeks. I have 14 weeks mapped out on my master calendar. So why only 10 weeks here? Well, the first week would be the intro week. I might go back and add in something to the story that could be connected to some basic work I might have them do. However, I have not gotten that far in my planning. My goal at this point is to map out the big ideas and then chart the journey.

The last week is the end of the semester. While I have some ideas about what we might do that week, I am not putting any readings up. Again, could add in a sentence and finish the story line here but I’m not to that point yet.

One week is Thanksgiving week so I figured people could use that to catch up on stuff. The week before Thanksgiving has been left intentionally blank. I might develop this week later OR I might use it in some other manner. I have yet to figure this out. I like having an open week to allow for some wiggle room with our work.

Second, I actually tried to make the story an actual story. I tried to give it an arc and present both conflict and resolution. I want my students (teachers) to see the problems that exist in the issues we will be examining, but I don’t want them to feel hopeless. I want to make sure we consider solutions. Ideally, this will be a true journey.

What’s Next?

It’s interesting because so far I haven’t done anything that is specifically about teaching online. What I have done so far could be done in any context, and that’s an important point. I’m not saying that online teaching is the same as face-to-face (it’s not), but I am saying be mindful that you do know some things about teaching and how to develop a syllabus. Utilize that.

My next step is still old school stuff. I’m going to be connecting readings to the story in the syllabus. I’ll revise the story if needed. I’m also keeping a notebook where I draft ideas for my course and keep a running list of thoughts. I’m randomly writing down assignment ideas as they come to me. In no way will I use them all, but the notebook is a nice way to ensure I won’t forget them.

Once readings are done I will craft assignments. Some of my assignment ideas stemmed from readings I found. So if I use those readings, great. If not, the probably the assignment won’t make the cut. For now, things have gotten less overwhelming and more like what I am used to. But that’s going to change soon. Then the fun really starts!

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

What Story Does Your Syllabus Tell?

Recently, a colleague of mine shared a a post with me, “Steps Towards a Big Idea Syllabus.” The larger blog that this seems to be a part of, My Teaching Notebook,  doesn’t seem to be getting regular updates. Too bad. It looks like it has tons of good content to sift through. However, read the post and go dig through the site. It’s worth your time..

The Big Idea post has really helped me in thinking about what I want my online courses for next year to be about. I’ll be teaching one course per semester, and both will be fully online. They are essentially masters courses in adolescent literacy. The idea is to get classroom teachers to think about what it means to develop literacy abilities of adolescent and how to teach them in ways that support it.

Previously, I noted that I had identified some great books I could use for the courses. This was still the case, but I had gotten stuck thinking through what I wanted students to learn. Enter the Big Idea post which states:

Start with Who not What:  “Who are my students and who do they need to become?” rather than “What content should I cover?”

Granted, I do not know my students at all. I’m currently not even living in the state they reside in. But I took this nugget of thinking about transformation and used it to launch my planning rather than stay hyper-focused on content and objectives (which I think get in the way anyways).

The author also talked about seeing your syllabus as a journey and explicitly creating a story line which you would then share with your students. I loved this idea, but I had no idea what story I wanted to tell. So I picked up one of the books I had identified – a more comprehensive text on adolescent literacy – and used it to launch my story.

What I Did

I first did some pretty traditional stuff. I had mapped out weeks for the course, and then I started organizing what chapters we might read from this one book for the fall semester. Since this is really a year long course, I decided to split the fall semester into two chunks. The first chunk would focus on the question, “Who are adolescent readers and writers?” and the second would address, “What is adolescent literacy.” I thought it would be important to understand adolescents as people first, and expand our understandings of their literacy practices, before tackling the concept of adolescent literacy. Once I knew what date ranges these questions would correspond with I then identified readings from the textbook.

story-2After I identified the readings, I began to write my story. The Big Idea post will show you an example, and I followed it. For each week, I had one-two sentences that told my story. In two cases we spent two weeks with the same story line. I ended up only writing the story line for the first half of the semester before I needed a break. Here it is:

Adolescent Literacy: Understanding Who Adolescents Are & What Their Literacy Practices Look Like

Week One: Adolescents’ culture and identities influence how they engage with reading and writing and shape their experiences in school.

Weeks Two and Three: Their culture and identities lead them to engage with a variety of literacy practices often not sanctioned by schools.

Week Four: Families and communities often shape and enhance both academic and personal (out-of-school) literacy practices.

Weeks Five and Six: Some students have drastically different experiences in school based on their culture, language, and how schools identify and position them.

Changing the Readings

While I found the book helpful in getting my story launched (remember this is a new course for me; if I was doing this with a course I knew well I could probably craft a story line right now based on the last syllabus), when I was done I realized I didn’t need the book in it’s entirety. Once I had the story mapped out, I could see where some chapters from the text would make sense but now I had a much better plan for identifying other readings. I also reordered some things as I wrote the story. The initial lay out that I thought made sense – in terms of topics and what we would focus on – worked better with some reordering based on the story I want my students to experience.

What’s Next

Next up will be finishing the story for the semester. I’ll then start to work a little bit on identifying readings that fit in with the story. From there, I will expand out to assignments and additional support structures an online course will require. I hope to have the story completed to share in my next post.

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One Year Ago

Two Years Ago




Overwhelmed Online

I have been very excited that I will finally be teaching fully online! I ordered some desk copies of a few books, and they were spot on with what I needed. I felt like I was really getting ahead of the curve. I’m about six-seven months out from the first course starting, and I already have great books I can use! Now all I have to do is think about what we’re going to be learning and how that is going to play out in an online environment.

doomCue the feeling of being incredibly overwhelmed.

What Happened?

I panicked and froze up when I sat down and started to work things out. I mean, I know how to write a syllabus. I’ve done it so many times. I’ve developed plenty of new courses. I’ve got the skill set, right?

What happened is that everything looked so exciting and fun that everything looked exciting and fun. I couldn’t make a decision about what direction to move in because I could visualize so many possibilities that I struggled to make a decision.

While part of my brain was focusing on content, the other part of my brain was trying to figure out how to construct a class that was innovative and creative and edgy. And honestly, that is the LAST thing I need to thinking about right now.

Part of the problem was also that I’m used to planning hybrid classes. I’m used to having face-to-face sessions where we can touch base in person about things as a group. For some reason, suddenly not having this cause my brain to fail. I don’t know why.

Creating Structure

I learned something from this, and that is the importance of structure. While I was trying to think about what to teach and how to teach it, I had neglected to consider the time frame. And while this is two courses that the same students take over a year, I needed to break it down into more manageable chunks. Thinking about how to teacher over a year, for something I have never taught before in a context I have never taught in, is too much. So I went back to something familiar.

I pulled up the academic calendar for next year, and I started creating weeks. Because my course never meets in person, it never has an official day assigned to it that I can touch base with. No big deal. I assigned it one. I picked Monday. Every time Monday hit, we started a new week. And I went through the calendar and mapped out all the weeks for the fall and the spring.

This is soooo not very exciting, right? And yet, very necessary. We have to embed structure in an online course or else students will float around in it and probably not do as well as they could. While I would like to have some free choice embedded within the course, I think I have to create a continuum of events that range from more to less freedom in terms of when they get accomplished.

And Now Back to the Content

So this is where I have gotten since we last spoke. I became overwhelmed, shut down, and then made a calendar. Now I’m back to focusing on what I want students to learn and if/how I want to use these texts I received. I’m trying not to consider things like assignments or if/how I want to apply gamification to the course. I probably do, but if I let the idea start rolling around in my mind I’ll get panicked again.

I think, for me, the message here is that there is always some value in going old school style in planning a class and writing a syllabus. It’s what I know well, and it helps me get the content down. Once I have that content then I can figure out what to do with it in ways that take advantage of it being an online class. Until I know what I am teaching, I can’t be overly concerned about the online space.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Make Time NOT to Write

Yeah…you heard me. I’m hear telling you to find time NOT to write.

Does that sound strange? Well not writing is just as important as writing. The trick is that you have to not write in mindful ways. The idea of not writing is (unfortunately) not accomplished by simply putting your writing off for another day.

You have to schedule it in just like you do you regular writing time.

Giving yourself permission to not write is about taking mindful breaks, and mindful breaks are critical to your success as a writer. There are a number of ways you can think about taking breaks, and I outline them in the video above. Overall, I encourage you to plan for breaks in your writing. Doing so will help prevent burnout and allow you to view your work with a set of fresh eyes each time you approach it.

How are you working on taking mindful breaks in your writing practice?

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.

Trigger Warnings

Over the last couple of years, I have read a decent amount about using trigger warnings in college classrooms. A trigger warning is a statement that alerts people about sensitive subject matter that could cause them distress. The idea is that individuals should evaluate their past experiences in light of the upcoming content and consider if and how they wish to proceed.

While I’ve read the different thoughts on having trigger warnings in syllabi, or even put out in advance of a particular class, I had not given them much thought. The use of them simply hadn’t applied to me. There are a variety of opinions on the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms. Some consider them silly and others argued that they resulted in students not having to engage with sensitive, and emotionally difficult, content.

However, trigger warnings, if used well and in a thoughtful manner, are intended to alert students to potentially emotional content but not in a way that requires them to disengage from it. It’s in this camp that I have found myself in when planning a class.

The Emotional Response

One of my classes is getting ready to read Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. There comes a point in the book where I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the foster care system and it’s role in how students experience education. I found a great talk by Molly McGrath Tierney on Rethinking Foster Care.

The thing to know about me is that I used to be a foster parent. I did it for three years. It was push-outexhausting work, and the system is horrible. It’s horrible for children, and it also doesn’t work for foster parents. As a member of this system, I was given access to stories for why children were in foster care. I had to read files that told me – in very vivid details – what the abuse was that they experienced. Keep in mind, I have never experienced any abuse of this level. I simply read it.

And as I watched Molly’s talk, I found myself crying. Crying because suddenly I started to remember these horrible details I had read. Crying because it dredged up for me awful memories of having been a participant in that system. Crying because I was remembering painful events.

What About My Students?

I still wanted to include the video in my class. Having watched it and dealt with my emotions I figured I could handle it. However, I realized that I had no idea if any of my students had been a part of the foster care system. What if they had been? What memories might this stir up for them? It’s the kind of thing that can catch you off guard.

So I left a note – a trigger warning if you will – above the video. It reads:

NOTE: If you were ever a part of the foster care system, this may be a sensitive video to watch. I encourage you to watch it in advance (it’s only 11 minutes). If you have questions or concerns about viewing it in class, please let me know.

Notice I did not say that students should not watch the video or engage with the content. I think they should. I’m not asking anyone to share personal trauma in class. I may or may not share that I was a foster parent. We’ll see how it plays out. Honestly, I may not be in a place where I want to deal with talking about it. However, it might be that someone in my class could do with some advance warning. Watch it. Process it. If you still think you can’t handle it during class, let me know.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


Writing for Your Audience: Three Tips to Succeed

When getting started on a manuscript, it’s important to realize that you are writing for an audience. While you will not personally know each person who reads your work, there are some steps you can take to help ensure you communicate more effectively than not.

Who Is Your Primary Audience?

When writing for an academic journal, you will often find that each journal has a primary and a secondary audience. For example, when I write for journals that are intended to be read by teachers, I also understand that my work may be read by educational researchers. However, teachers are the primary (and intended) audience of the journal. Therefore, I make sure I write my piece with them in mind.

What Does Your Audience Need to Know?

This next step is tricky. Identifying an audience is relatively easy. But now you must craft your piece through their eyes. Each time you revise, you have to consider such things as:

  • what information do my readers require in order to understand my message?
  • have I over explained something or provided more details than are necessary?
  • what might confuse my readers?

You know your work inside and out. When we know something so well, it’s easy to think we are communicating it well. After all, it makes sense to us! You have to write, read, and revise with an outside mindset. Even if you are a member of the primary audience for a journal, your readers are still not as familiar with your work as you are. Think about what terms need to be defined. Consider if you are using too much jargon. Look for places where you have left out information about what you did and how you did it that people need.

Each time you revise your piece, read it with an eye as an outsider. You will keep finding ways to clean it up and make it stronger if you do this. Check out the video below to see an example of how to revise with an outsider mindset:

What Is Confusing?

Often we think we are being clear when we are not. Because our writing makes sense to us, we assume that it makes sense to everyone (or we assume the reader is at fault if they fail to comprehend our message). Whenever there is a comprehension breakdown, it is usually the fault of the writer. The only exception to this is when readers skim over text or don’t read carefully enough to get the information they need. When this happens, you should be able to direct their attention to where the information they missed is located and it will all be cleared up.

But that aside….when someone fails to comprehend any of your writing see it as your responsibility to correct it. Find a better way to communicate it. Take the comment seriously even if you are sure that your piece is 100% awesome (we all know it is). Rather than dismiss the critique, see it as an opportunity to help your writing reach even more people. This will help you be successful at connecting with your audience.

See the full playlist of academic writing tips.