In spring 2017, I served as a teaching assistant for "Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans," Brown's first ever online-only general education course in the humanities. In this gamified course, students follow a humanoid's curiosity about what it means to be human through the use of literary analysis. In addition to weekly readings, students completed cafes (discussion forums) and quests (close readings, papers, visualizations, or fun assignments!) In addition to the conceptual questions around humanity and nature, the technical skills of close readings and literary analysis, we also wanted students to think about the creative opportunities to engage with literature and express new viewpoints from the readings. Along the way, students had the option to earn skill badges and levels to 1) highlight achievement throughout the course and b) take on new opportunities or challenges.
Here's what I learned.
1.There is a person on the other side of the screen.
This is true of every course – students are people, and people have lives. But in this class, it felt like something I had to remind myself of regularly: when students were sending emails at all hours of the day, when they included their personal experiences from varied disciplines, when I had to pull the questions out of them for that week's discussion. This is particularly important in thinking about the students who participated in the course - When your only interaction is a quick forum post, there's a harshness that removes the human element from the conversation. (We weren't even using our own faces – everyone used character avatars!) For a class that was centered on themes of humanity and moral judgment, that had to be at the crux of what we were doing
2. Use your words.
Building on that: When you're only communicating through grade comments and forum responses, there's almost an amplification of my role as an educator. And the best TAs and instructors that I've had recognize the bigger implications of that power dynamic – trying to be as helpful as possible to see where we're going. I tried to send out regular emails that communicated that aspect, to send comments that focused on the student as scholar and person.
But also, use your words in developing the course. Be clear in what you're expecting (and what you're not.) Articulate course goals, missions, and skills each week – ask them what's working and what isn't. Because if you don't ask, you can't help students effectively. One week, we forgot to include a step on an assignment, so students didn't complete the analysis we were expecting. That's not their fault – that's entirely on us. Text was our primary mode of communication throughout the course, so we had to be sure to use it effectively through course materials.
3. Building community is…difficult.
It can happen in digital spaces – just look at online fandoms, hashtags, or old-school forum discussions. Digital communities make up a large part of our daily experiences. But it's different to recreate that in the context of a course – it's artificial at best, forced at worst. I've seen a lot of professors work to incorporate digital elements into a course for community-building, with limited success.
In our café/forum discussions, I tried to make my comments geared towards continuing the conversation: "Timothy, how does your comment correspond with Jane's post?" I also encouraged them to talk about their creative quest assignments in the class discussion: "What did you learn from looking at the book covers for last week's quest? Can you talk about that here?" And it worked, sometimes! It was exciting to see conversations carry over from week to week, to see students build on each other's ideas in ways that seemed genuine – like you'd expect in a traditional classroom setting! To take this a step further, I think collaboration would be an important step to add to the gamified nature of the course. Finding ways for students to work together and peer review as a form of participation places a value in the gaming process.
4. What students expect from online courses =/= What we want out of students in online courses
To be fair, I'm not entirely sure of how to change this one. As someone who has taken a lot of online courses, I recognize the implicit assumption that online courses will be easier. It feels like a get-in, get-out space, because all you do is the work. There's an assumption that will be easier (even when it's not), and that makes students frustrated. And then the course becomes something of a push/pull – handing in assignments without thinking through the goals of the course or why students are interested in the topic in the first place.
Speaking with other instructors who work online, this is a common issue – students are resistant to changing the structure of a course for more interaction, creativity, and further discussion. I think the gamified nature of this particular course made it somewhat easier for students to digest the more experimental assignments – it's hard to work through traditional literary analysis without taking the steps to explain the process. Digital environments require educators to think about different entry points in materials – how do we get students to recognize that shift, too?
Thank you to my fellow "travelers" in this course: Jim Egan, Naomi Pariseault, Matt Rockman, my fellow TAs, and of course, the great students who accompanied us on this journey! The BrownX version of the course, which is non-credit and no-cost, will run January 30 through February 26, 2018.
All images used in the course and in this blog post were designed by Matt Rockman.