volume 43, number 1
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Piloting an Online Course in the City of Neighborhoods
By R. Scott Hanson

Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and Religion

   In the Spring 2012 semester I was asked by Professor Terry Rey (then Chair of Religion, and currently Director of the Intellectual Heritage Program) if I was interested in working on an online version of Religion in Philadelphia, a course I have taught regularly for several years. I learned that General Education Program (GenEd) had recently launched a Distance Learning Course Development initiative to “convert a new cohort of face-to-face courses and also to develop new online sections thereby expanding the accessibility of needed courses to satellite campuses (TUJ, etc.), adult learners, veterans/armed service members.” Faculty who apply have to submit a proposal and gain approval from their Department, Dean, the Director of Temple’s Office of Distance Learning (OLL), and the GenEd Executive Committee (GEEC). If approved, applicants are required to participate in a 20 hour Virtual Teaching Program, and they receive a stipend to develop and then teach the course. Initially, any full-time, part-time, tenured or non-tenured faculty could apply, but budgetary issues recently led to a new policy this semester limiting the initiative to full-time faculty only. 

   Since I already had compiled a lot of content on Blackboard (daily writing assignments based on readings, PDFs, a discussion board, video clips, external links) from teaching Religion in Philadelphia in the traditional classroom format over several years, I had a good head start for an online course. I had also collaborated with several other faculty who teach the course (Terry Rey and Rebecca Alpert in Religion and David Watt in History) to share content with Fred Rowland, Librarian of Reference and Instructional Services in Paley Library, so he could create a Religion in Philadelphia course guide on the library website. The challenge, however, was rethinking how to present the material in the most effective and engaging way—a process of conversion that takes a good deal of time and planning.

   There are three different types of online courses at Temple: courses that are fully online and require no virtual meetings or campus or face-to-face meetings, virtual courses that do require regular online meetings; and hybrid courses that blend virtual teaching with some amount of campus meetings (for instance, field trips). Religion in Philadelphia was designated as an online course, so this presented another challenge: how does one teach a course online that is so site specific? In the past, I typically led six field trips to different places of worship throughout the city.

    The Virtual Teaching Program that I completed with a cohort of about a dozen other faculty members from a wide range of disciplines “met” once a week online over the summer using the Wimba Classroom program on Blackboard where we discussed readings on a variety of topics related to distance learning and learned how to navigate and use all the different features of Wimba Classroom and several other online teaching platforms. The program was led by Dr. Dominique Kliger and Carly Haines in OLL, and they both modeled the kind of enthusiasm, patience, and organization necessary for online teaching. In addition to the presentation of lecture material via Powerpoint slides on the Wimba Classroom eboard, we learned it is possible for the instructor to talk simultaneously as in a classroom but also to utilize a number of very powerful features that would not be possible in a face-to-face course. For instance, students can click on a button to “raise their hands” to ask a question, and the system assigns a number to each student’s “hand” depending on the order in which they clicked the button. Students can click on an emoticon to express confusion, interest, or to tell the instructor to slow down, etc. Students can be broken up into “breakout rooms” for group or individual work where they can write text on the screen and the instructor can then toggle back and forth between windows to check in on each group or individual and interact with them. The online course environment seems to encourage some students who might otherwise be reserved or shy in class to be more interactive. Students can also be instructed to read a PDF or watch a video clip that resides on the Blackboard course website and then come back to the Wimba Classroom to discuss it (I have begun making short videos using my iPhone of various places of worship in the city and posting them on Blackboard). Another feature allows faculty to conduct polls and surveys. Lectures and sessions can also be “archived” (recorded) and saved for students to watch at any time. Finally, the audio and video features help make the online experience feel more personable and immediate. Assessment can be very similar to a face-to-face course in that quizzes can be completed on Blackboard, papers can be uploaded to SafeAssign on Blackboard, and participation/attendance can be based on the level and quality of interaction in the Wimba Classroom.

   With students checking in at different times from different places, creating a sense of structure and community is something that faculty who teach online have to constantly keep in mind. However, when Wimba Classroom (or other online teaching platforms like WebEx) is combined with what one can already do with all the other features of Blackboard, the potential and possibilities for any course in an online environment are exciting.