From April 23rd to June 5th, ICNC partnered with Rutgers University to deliver a 6 week online course on civil resistance and the dynamics of nonviolent conflict. I was the primary designer of the course, having structured it off a similar layout I used for the online course ICNC did with USIP the previous year. I was also a co-facilitator of the course with my colleague Maciej Bartkowski. There were 22 participants in the course from all over the world. The partnership was encouraged and supported by one of ICNC’s academic advisors, Dr. Kurt Shock, who is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Affairs.
Overall, I felt the course went pretty well, however there were several things that I learned along the way and would do differently in a future iteration.
First, it takes real skill to make short, insightful, useful web based videos that summarize key points, acknowledge valuable contributions from course participants and build connections between the course modules. The longer the video is (particularly when its web-based) the less likely the viewer/student is to make it through the entire video, especially if the video is just people talking into a camera.
I think incorporating video into online learning is not only a good idea but essential in creating a personal connection with the course facilitators, but if the concluding videos at the end of a module are too long they can start becoming additional “lectures”, as opposed to more relaxed, summarizing reflections.
So for the next iteration I would really work with my colleagues to ensure that the concluding/reflection videos at the end of each module are less than 5 minutes. This means picking no more than one contribution to share from each forum the facilitator was moderating and a two or three sentence statement connecting the previous module with the upcoming module in order to build those bridges between content.
Second, we tried our best to incorporate a fair amount of live interaction into the course. We had a couple instant messaging sessions, where we would converse using the IM tool built into Moodle. This actually went pretty well, and we made sure to save the entire conversation so that those who were not able to log in live had the option to go back and read the transcript.
It definitely takes skill to follow a text based conversation involving multiple people, but there are some basic techniques that can help the facilitation of that experience. First, is to ask people to start their comment by recognizing the person to whom they are responding or addressing. So, for example, if someone is typing a response to a comment or question I typed in, they would start their IM with @daryn, followed by their comment. This really helps people follow the various strands of conversation that can all be going on at the same time.
I also feel that, as a facilitator of these kinds of IM exchanges, when new questions or topics of conversation are brought up the text needs to be all caps or preceded by a few astrix (some thing that makes that IM appear different than the others) so as to visually inform people that the conversation is moving onto a new topic. This also helps people keep track of how the conversation is flowing.
We also utilized GoToMeeting, which had just recently built in a video function. This was pretty cool, and went pretty well considering I had only facilitated a online video chat with this application/service once before.
We brought in one of ICNC’s academic advisors, Dr. Erica Chenoweth, to talk about her new book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, chapters of which the students in the course had just read. So it was a cool experience for them to be able to speak directly with the author and ask her question and converse with her via video.
It can be pretty unwieldy to facilitate an online group video chat. The facilitator has control over their own video and audio, but also the audio and video of everybody else who is logged in and participating. There are also inevitably those students who have technical issues getting their video camera or microphone to work properly, so real time assistance needs to be provided in those cases. And, in addition, sometimes the presenter wants to share his/her screen, so one has to be able to give those controls over to that person when needed. All this is happening while trying to read questions that people are typing in the chat window, and the replying to them and letting them know when they will be called on and brought up on video to ask their question directly. I highly recommend practicing a group video chat a couple times with whatever service you may be using before facilitating the real thing.
Lastly, I think this experience reinforced the need for being as prepared as one can be for teaching and facilitating an online course. I think each module – the exercises, interactive elements, assignments, forum discussions, etc. all need to be set up and ready to go before any of the students are officially enrolled. This does not mean that adaptation cannot occur as the course progresses, but it does guarantee that their wont be any last minute changed being made to the course.
This also means that roles and responsibilities for those who are involved with designing and facilitating the course need to be clearly defined, agreed upon, and stuck do, in order for the course to run smoothly. There are simply too many elements of teaching certain kinds of online courses (specifically ones with lots of live interaction and ones that involve partnerships with other institutions) that require specific attention and focus, for one person to juggle. The tasks and responsibilities must be shared.