Teaching large lecture classes online: Reflections on engaging 200 students on Blackboard and Facebook

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1 Teaching large lecture classes online: Reflections on engaging 200 students on Blackboard and Facebook By Marcus Messner, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, VCU School of Mass Communications VCU Online Learning Summit (May 14, 2012) Abstract This paper is a personal reflection on the experience of moving a large lecture class online at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the spring 2011, as part of the Center for Teaching Excellence s online teaching initiative, I moved a class with 200 students online. Using Blackboard, Facebook and Delicious, the engagement of students has greatly improved since then compared to the previous offline setting. Weekly online lectures, testing and discussions in Blackboard help students to stay on top of class work, while at the same time being able to instantaneously communicate with me, the teaching assistants and their classmates through a Facebook group. Introduction The idea of moving my MASC 151 Global Communication lecture class online developed when VCU s Center for Teaching Excellence sent out a call for the provost s Online Teaching Institute for the summer of The class is not a requirement in the curriculum of the School of Mass Communications, but an option that students can choose in the general education curriculum of the College of Humanities and Sciences. While I had never taken an online class during my own college studies, I had developed two online classes before for the School of Mass Communications Multimedia Journalism Program. However, both graduate classes, MASC 685 Business of Media and MASC 646 Convergence Law and Ethics, only had 10 to 15 students. A previous version of MASC 151, which had focused on communication technology and global Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 1

2 society had also been taught as a hybrid course, which had relied on seven paid teaching assistants to monitor and grade online discussions. The challenge for MASC 151 was now to develop an engaging online class environment for 200 students and to keep it manageable for the instructor with only two unpaid teaching assistants assigned for the class. I was fortunate to discuss the challenges of online teaching in a one-week workshop at the CTE during the summer of 2010 and then discuss the specific course development with the CTE staff and fellow professors during the following fall semester. Looking back, this extended preparation time was absolutely necessary to develop a high quality course with online lectures, detailed technology tutorials and an overall course structure that made it easy to navigate for the students. One of my main concerns in developing the online class was the expected communication flow from the students to me and the teaching assistants. Online tutorials and specific guidelines on how to solve and address problems helped to channel a lot of the communication and make it manageable on a daily basis. Welcome screen of the MASC 151 Global Communication Blackboard site. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 2

3 Student technology adoption and use Before developing the online course, it was important for me to develop a sense of how comfortable students in my MASC 151 class were with online tools, social media and technology in general. Every semester, I had surveyed my students in the offline version of the class on their online news habits, which already gave me a good sense on their technology adoption. Since then, I have continued to survey the students and also included questions on mobile technology and studying habits. Below is a selection of the results from the survey of the students in the spring semester Every semester, the survey results show that the students, who come from a variety of majors from throughout the university, have many different communication devices at their disposal to engage in an online class. Most of them have a laptop or netbook and many of them have a smart phone as well, such as an iphone or an Android. At the same time, most students are engaged on social media platforms every day, making the course engagement on a platform like Facebook easy to implement. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 3

4 Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 4

5 Developing an online class structure When the class was launched online in the spring semester 2011, it had a relatively basic structure in place. The class was completely available on Blackboard for online lectures and readings as well as online testing and discussions. A discussion forum was opened in Blackboard during the first semester to allow students to ask general questions with answers from me and the teaching assistants available to everyone in the class. This was changed to a Facebook group in the second semester to allow for more interaction. You can view an overview on the class structure, which was prepared for the students during the spring semester 2012 (http://youtu.be/h_8jfqrwr5w). When the students enter the course Blackboard site during the first week of the semester, they are asked to review tutorials on the class structure, online testing, online discussions as well as the general use of Blackboard (you can view an overview on the Blackboard site here: They can also view video introductions of me and the teaching assistants and read about our backgrounds. I created a Getting Started menu item in Blackboard where all of this introductory material is available in one place. At the end of the first week, the students have to take an introductory quiz that tests them Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 5

6 on their understanding of the course structure and the introductory reading material of the first week. Thereby, I can guarantee that everyone understands the structure of the class and that we are ready to move on to the course content at the beginning of the second week. Getting Started material on the MASC 151 Global Communication Blackboard site. The class is broken down into four modules and 14 weekly topics which are closely aligned with the structure of the textbook (please see the class syllabus here: I release course content on a weekly basis to move students along throughout the semester. Students are not able to finish several quizzes and online discussions within a week or two, but they have to follow a weekly class structure similar to what they have to do in an offline setting. However, the online class runs asynchronously. I release course content on Fridays and students work on their own time to complete tests or discussions by the deadlines for the following week. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 6

7 Course modules (above) and weekly assignments (below) on the MASC 151 Global Communication Blackboard site. Each week, I assign readings in our textbook (generally one chapter) and provide online lectures on the main points as well as on additional reading materials. I record the Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 7

8 lectures with the screen casting software Camtasia and break each lecture into several segments of around 10 minutes. I also provide an overview in a screen cast on the most important news stories of the week on global media, globalization and global affairs in another lecture and provide the links to articles on the online bookmarking site Delicious (http://www.delicious.com/marcusmessner/masc151). Every week, the students either have to take an online quiz, which generally covers two chapters and the lectures of two weeks, or they have to engage in an online discussion, both on our Blackboard class site. They always have an entire week to take each of the quizzes or to answer discussion questions and reply to their classmates. This gives them more flexibility with their time, but it also demands more discipline from them, since I am not handing tests to them at a certain time. I also give a midterm and final exam. All of the tests draw multiple choice and true/false questions from a test bank I developed in Blackboard. For the online discussion, I have broken the class up into 10 groups so that students interact in online classrooms of only 20 students. In their interactions in the class, they never engage with all of the 200 students. This gives them more of a seminar feel in the online environment than that of a large lecture space. In their groups, they introduce themselves to each other and interact with the same students for the duration of the semester. My two teaching assistants each supervise five of the discussion groups and are the first point of contact for students in regards to the online discussions. The engagement level of the students in the class has increased greatly when comparing the online and offline class environments. When I taught the class in a large lecture hall, it was always difficult to see and control what was going on in the last five to 10 rows of the room. Other students often complained to me that students in the back of the room where rather disturbing the learning environment than contributing to it. This has changed in the online environment. Students have to engage to earn credit and good grades, and they have to do it on a weekly basis. Overall, there are only very few students in the online class who miss assignments throughout the semester or who turn in poor work on a continuous basis. Students receive grades every week and can see where they Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 8

9 need to improve right away. Only around 5% of the students drop the class throughout the semester. Managing communication and engagement with 200 students As mentioned above, one of the main concerns I had before developing this online class was how to manage the communication with 200 students on Blackboard and via and how to keep students engaged in the online environment. During the first semester in the spring 2011, I opened a discussion forum on Blackboard in which students could ask me general questions about the class, assignments and tests and where I would answer them for everyone to see. was only to be used for personal issues. This setup did not prove to be very effective as only few students took advantage of the offerings. Another discussion forum that I opened for students to talk among themselves was not even used once. Most conversations with me remained via , which was not very effective as I had to answer the same questions repeatedly for several students. Consequently, I changed strategies during the second semester in the fall 2011 and opened a Facebook group for the class. I have made it voluntary to join the group and students do not have to friend me to do so, meaning that everyone s privacy remains intact. Around 70% of the students decided to join the group during the last two semesters. In the group, I post the same announcements as on Blackboard, but I also post reminders about upcoming deadlines and answer any questions students might have in a timely manner. I get notifications through my mobile Facebook app and can for instance easily tackle Blackboard problems that occur on a Sunday afternoon during a quiz. The Facebook group has been highly effective in my communication with the students. While we still discuss personal and grading issues via or in person during regular or online office hours, it has greatly cut down on the traffic and enabled me to answer questions in the open for everyone in the class. In addition, it has also enabled students to answer questions for each other while I am not online. My teaching assistants have also weighed in on occasion. Many times, I only have to confirm that the answers Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 9

10 were correct. It has been a great tool to provide quick answers without having to sit in the office or start up the laptop in the evening or on the weekends and has saved me as the instructor a lot of time, which I would have spent on answering s in the mornings. Facebook group for MASC 151 Global Communication. Overall, the class presence on Blackboard and Facebook is not open to the public. While I have taught other classes that I have opened up for public discussion, I opted to guard this class with its 200 students from outside influence in order to keep the discussions manageable. Therefore, the Facebook group is closed to anyone not enrolled in the class. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 10

11 What s needed? While the start of the class in the spring semester 2011 was already relatively smooth due to the extensive preparation time given to me by the Center for Teaching Excellence, it has continued to run smoothly since then. However, there are a few issues that I believe could need improvement at the university level to guarantee the effectiveness and quality of undergraduate online classes at VCU: Online Testing Center: One of the main criticisms that I have encountered when discussing online learning with colleagues is that there is no control on what students do when they are sitting at their desk, in the library or the café around the corner and engage in the class. While I pool and scramble test questions, put tight time limits on quizzes and exams and have students acknowledge the university s honor code every time, I ultimately cannot verify whether it is actually the student enrolled in the class who takes the test. I, therefore, think it would be important for VCU to establish an Online Testing Center that administers midterm and final exam. Right now, it is impossible to schedule a large room for only a midterm and final exams. The Center, which does not have to be a physical space itself, could in my opinion administer exams for a variety of online courses at mid-semester and during the final exam period in a large lecture hall. Students could sign up for certain available times and take the assigned exam under supervision. Paid teaching assistants: What makes my online class an engaging experience for the students, are the online discussions with their classmates. I have developed a grading rubric for the discussions that my teaching assistants are trained on and use very effectively. However, without my teaching assistants, I would not be able to manage online discussions every two weeks for 200 students. Currently, my teaching assistants are not paid, but receive academic credit for their work. Subsequently, the assistants do not stay on for very long and it is also difficult to find replacements every semester. While I have tried to get my teaching assistants paid, all efforts have been fruitless so far. Nevertheless, I believe that the cost for one teaching assistant (5 hours/week) for every 100 students in the class is really minimal considering the value the online discussions add to the learning experience of the students. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 11

12 Online course evaluations: I have also found that my online classes are evaluated with the same questionnaire as for regular offline classes. My students are for instance asked how they rate the physical environment of the class and whether I use online learning tools. I think it would be a valuable initiative to develop an online course evaluation questionnaire that acknowledges the different environment online instructors teach in. Conclusion As I am getting ready to re-develop MASC 151 Global Communication with a new textbook and new online lectures, assignments as well as exams this summer, I am very grateful for the support I have received from the Center for Teaching Excellence in the initial course development. Having the time to develop an effective online course structure was essential for me to be able to provide a quality online instruction for my students. It was not enough to copy the offline course into the online environment. Online classes have their own special demands. Having preparation time for trial and error as well as expert feedback before the actual course launch were key elements for me. Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 12

13 Contact Information Marcus Messner, Ph.D. Assistant Professor School of Mass Communications Virginia Commonwealth University PO Box , Richmond, VA (office), Teaching large lecture classes online - Page 13

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