Blog Post

Creating a classroom without walls

Back in August, I posted a contribution to The Comics Grid in which I described my desire to create a classroom without walls. That classroom would be ENH280, a "special topics" course on comics and graphic novels that would be offered at Rio Salado College in the spring of 2012. ENH280 is designed as an online course that involves both online lessons served through Rio Salado's custom LMS (RioLearn) as well as a social community that could be opened to those outside the class. The grades and the core content (like copyrighted images and other pieces with permission issues outside of my class) would remain behind the firewall for those receiving course credit; however, anyone who was interested in reading through relevant materials, viewing our class lectures, and participating in our discussions could join our class community on Ning.

On top of all this, I had the added challenges of designing around an open-entry/open-exit model, working to keep costs down for students (and graphic novels are pricey!), and working to find the magic balance between adding all the features I'd like and scalability for the future.

With just a little over a month before the course launches, I wanted to blog about what it took to create this course and also my reflections on teaching the course as it proceeds throughout the spring. I'll start here with a little background about myself and my design philosophy.

Online learning is a passion of mine, but I also often find myself getting into debates about what makes a quality experience. Even with online courses becoming more common, there are still frequent debates about the superiority of the classroom experience over the inferior online experience. In my own role as a professor and administrator, I've encountered those faculty who would beg for an online class because it was seen as being "easier" than an in person class. Those who have taught online (and who have taught well) know that is a myth. The same might be said for those classes that are composed by taking a set of in-person lesson plans and placing similar activities into a course shell. It might function as a class, but is it really an "online" course, or just a class that happens to be held online? This might seem like a conundrum, but in my course designs, I try to leverage the strengths of a class that is not restricted to time, geography, or the types of engagements possible.

  • Time:Outside of the outdated notions of Carnegie units that are affecting innovations in the American online colleges (a rant for another time), the notion of time is open. Students who "don't get" something the first time through have the time and freedom to go back and reflect as many times as possible. As such, I strove to make materials clear, easily printable for those students who learn better when they highlight, and with added supplements both on and off the LMS. The addition of the Ning site for ENH280 gives students an added way to reach me. They can post on my wall, see when I'm online, and basically not have to rely solely on email for contact.
  • Geography:Rio Salado has students in many states, and ENH280 is being offered as a course elective option for GoArmyEd, meaning that there may be students who are studying while on active military duty. Geography works in an additionally freeing manner, opening the door to other scholars and even other students to join relevant discussions. For example, I am working with comic artist Jessica Abel (the author of one of ENH280's primary texts, La Perdida) to deliver a live, but online, lecture. This will be open to anyone who wants to attend on site (where they can watch on the big screen and ask questions live) or anyone who wants to tune in online. Another technique will be using VoiceThread to host sharable lectures. I might be an expert on representing historcity in Seth's comics, but my colleague out in Pennsylvania (who also has a course on comics) is an expert on Superman. We share the VoiceThreads in our respective courses and our students can engage the materials, as well as each other’s voices. The classroom can go global.
  • Unlimited engagements: Lecturing, showing a film, playing a podcast, and providing a tactile activity for key learning objectives can happen in a traditional classroom, but can take a lot of time. For the key learning objectives in ENH280, I used universal learning design to allow multiple pathways to practice the central concepts. Podcasts, voicethread lectures, games, and other activities enhance the content of the class. The Ning site will allow me to expand these offerings without upsetting the course lifecycle.
    • I should note that Rio Salado uses a very intensive course design process as each set of online materials remains the same and consistent for all sections of the course. This is essential because of our open-entry model and because of the technologies we have in place for student success, but also added a challenge for me. While I know I can handle the workload that comes with an open course design, I still need to find out how scalable it will be looking forward towards the future.

On top of these qualities, I have integrated open educational resources, "leaderboards," and other technologies into this course... I'll dig into these a bit later. For now, it's enough to say that I really see the online course as a unique medium and I wanted to leverage what makes it unique to create my ENH280 class. My next entry will discuss a bit more about the technologies in place that will make this course happen.



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