Teaching With Digital Technology: Online Classes

Photo by Maya Maceka.

In our most recent post in the “Teaching with Digital Technology” series, Venera Khalikova outlined options for enhancing our teaching in face-to-face classroom settings. Here, we tackle classes that meet entirely online. Popular belief holds that online courses are not as good as in-person classes, but this assumption is not supported by the evidence. In this post, we make a case for online anthropology courses that are simple, easily managed, and useful to our departments and students.

This post takes “online class” to mean a synchronous class that a limited number of enrolled students take during a regular course term. This excludes massive online open courses (MOOCs) such as those offered through Udemy and Coursera because, at only five years old, MOOCs are in some ways too new to evaluate. Unlike a synchronous online course with time limits and deadlines, MOOCs are typically asynchronous with thousands of students, no deadlines, and no interaction with the instructor. Effective pedagogy in such a context is yet to be determined.

In 2010, a meta-analysis of online learning research by the U.S. Department of Education found that “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” While the literature is growing and the effect was only “modest,” the idea that online students are taking classes inferior to their in-person counterparts does not hold. A few other findings from the meta-analysis seem especially relevant:

  • Videos, online quizzes, and other media-based assignments are not necessarily more effective than more traditional homework assignments. This challenges claims that developing an online class would require a new course with completely new material.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control over their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. In fact, giving students more choices and opportunities for reflection improves learning outcomes.
  • Both course content and learner demographics influence the efficacy of online learning, but it’s not clear in exactly what ways. There is ample space for anthropologists to make a contribution by developing best practices for teaching our discipline online.

The first two points suggest that designing an online course would have much in common with designing an in-person class; best practices for learning-centered classrooms outlined in a previous Teaching Tools post by Angela Jenks are just as relevant when the classroom is online. For example, backward course design is an excellent approach for online classes, while Bloom’s Taxonomy remains a good way to develop learning goals. Much of what we already know about successful in-person teaching still applies when learning moves online.

Yet there is another reason why anthropologists should be eager to explore online instruction. As literary scholar Devoney Looser points out, we are wrong to accept rumors of online classes attracting lazy students looking for easy grades. Instead, Looser calls online teaching a “feminist issue” because a “‘typical’ online student is a female who, for a variety of reasons, left college the first time without taking a degree. She returns to us years afterward, often with significant financial and familial obligations.” If online classes are important to women in this demographic, we might be able to imagine who else could benefit from online learning.

There may, of course, be some lazy students looking to take advantage of an easy online class. However, we should ask ourselves who is affected when the trope of the lazy student dictates whether online classes are available. When precarious and disadvantaged students benefit from online courses, perhaps they are the ones who should compel us to offer them.

If we accept that we should be teaching online, then we need to know what methods and technologies are available. Some of the tools mentioned in Venera’s previous post easily transition into fully online settings. For example:

Video production tools such as PowToon or Panopto may also be useful, but remember that the data does not demonstrate a clear connection between video media and increased learning outcomes. A lower-tech, but well organized online class is just as effective.

Online courses require a learning management system (LMS) and, while institutions typically decide which LMS instructors will use, some do hold more than one contract. For example, a university using Blackboard or Canvas may also offer Google Classroom or allow classes on Moodle. If given a choice, reviews and comparison charts can be helpful, but the best way to determine the right LMS is to try some out.

Once an LMS has been selected, deciding what to do with it requires just as much preparation as an in-person class. In future posts, we may go into more detail about specific best practices for online classrooms. For now, studies generally advocate developing a strong learner community and incorporating frequent self-reflection. Popular references include:

From departments looking to increase their number of undergraduate majors to individuals interested in a more equitable learning environment, online learning has a place in anthropology. Our hope is that anthropologists will at least consider offering online classes. By teaching these classes and experimenting with methods we will understand more about how anthropology, specifically, is best communicated online.