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Building Community in Online Courses

The teaching year went super well, the quality of the work I graded was the overall highest I’ve ever seen, and the discussion board was always so alive with great ideas and writing – it was inspiring! What did I do to help make these things happen?

It was the summer of 2020 and I had elected to teach Physics online asynchronously for coming fall. I had managed the previous spring, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how different that situation was from the one I was going to face: I had already spent a lot of time with those students in person and had time to build rapport and trust; it was such a highly unusual situation that everyone was ready to be understanding. This time it would be fresh crop of students with whom I’d never before interacted. On top of that, I would be teaching a course in the spring, Applied Rationality, that I’d never taught before and that would require copious writing from each student. If these things weren’t enough, there were the deep concerns faculty members were raising about how much easier it would be for students to cheat in online courses.

I spent a lot of that Summer – hours every day – combing the literature for online learning to find what problems were most likely and how I might handle them. For testing, I decided to remove most of the incentive to cheat by making the exams be a small percentage of the final grade, instead having the students’ grades depend mostly on building a substantial body of work, a portfolio, throughout the semester. Each week the students would upload notes on the videos and readings for that week; the notes had to be in their own words and had to summarize the most important points succinctly, accurately, and clearly. For Physics, the portfolios would also contain worked problems; for Applied Rationality, a chunk of the thesis writing would be included.The thesis project for Applied Rationality would be different enough from a traditional thesis that it’s perhaps worth saying more about it: Instead of choosing a point to make (the “thesis) and then marshalling up arguments like soldiers to defend it, the goal would be to explore the evidence surrounding a question important to the writer.  Students had to consider three possibilities for a topic and use tools from the class to help them decide which to choose.  It was also required for the writer to show a commitment to evaluating evidence fairly; that meant, for example, that the student would have to consider possibilities that she did not initially favor, and do the opposite of making strawman arguments out of them (this approach is commonly called “steel-manning”). At the conclusion of the paper the student would synthesize all she had found and draw a conclusion if the evidence warranted it, indicating what degree of confidence would be appropriate to have based on the weight of that evidence.

A common and major problem I’d seen from the literature on online learning would be keeping the students motivated, and a big component of that would be giving students the sense that I was there for them and that they were there for each other. Giving a strong signal that I was there for them was the most challenging part, because the best thing I could think of was to give them as much feedback as possible, which led to what seems to be a weakness of online teaching generally: Much more grading than I would have been doing in person. This feedback needed to be personalized and point out ways for improvement while still being positively framed, otherwise I ran the risk of causing students to feel not up to the task and thus discouraged.

I decided to tackle the issue of letting students know they were there for each other by having group work and an online discussion board, both done in ways designed to avoid further problems that these techniques themselves often give rise to. For group work, a common problem is that of the “free rider,” the student who lets others do everything; to handle this problem I would have the students create a contract during the first week detailing how each student would give their fair share, sign it, and upload it as part of the first portfolio assignment. The students themselves would decide the details of the contract, after I explained what kinds of assignments the group as a whole would be completing.

Morever, students would evaluate each others’ output according to a rubric as well as incorporate reviewer suggestions into their own work, with students receiving points both for reviewing and for incorporating the review of another group member. The schedule in each group of who would review whose work would rotate, so the same people were not always reviewing each other. For Physics, these were problem solution reviews; for Applied Rationality, they were reviews of thesis writing. The reviews and resulting work would be uploaded as part of the portfolio.

For the discussion board, a common problem is that students only post in order to “check a box,” so that the content would not end up being interesting or useful to other students. To keep that from happening, I would make a video to explain that the key purpose of the discussion board is for students to help each other and to be there for each other during the course; the students would have to hand in notes on that video for the first week’s portfolio. Also, I would give specific examples about what sorts of things would make the best contributions versus not, e.g., as a response to another student’s post “I enjoyed the video link you posted because it helped me understand X…” instead of “Awesome video!” (I used the eCampus discussion board, for those who are curious.)

I learned during the first semester that there was enough complexity in the course structure that it was important to make learning materials about that structure itself for the first week of the course and have the portfolio involve assignments designed to just get students acclimated to the course. To alleviate students’ worries about missing deadlines (after all, they were going to have a lot demanded of them from life during a pandemic and other online courses as well) I gave each student three “oops tokens.” A student could delay handing in any assignment for a week by using one token with no explanation required.

With these safeguards in place, it was smooth sailing; I got some heartening comments from students at the end of the year: For Physics, “I thought the asynchronous worked really well with this class. It forced us to teach ourselves while also having the available help through your videos and practice problems. I think the portfolios were a great idea especially for the situation we were in. I really enjoyed this class.”; For Applied Rationality, “Professor Lewis is an amazing educator who has a real passion for a topic most people largely ignore. I have enjoyed learning how to think rationally in a class built for any student. The class was built perfectly for the situation that we are in and there were almost no complications with the asynchronous class setup.”