The first day of class—most people know what that experience is like: Nerves—Am I in the right place?—Excitement—I’ve heard this professor is really good—Curiosity—Who are these people sitting around me?
As an undergraduate student of European History at Dickinson, I’ve only ever had Professor Pinsker once, for a methods course which met once a week for a three-hour period. I had heard from the upperclassmen that he was an intimidating professor, one of those who forced you to really defend and question your opinions. Both excited and nervous, I arrived over ten minutes early with all the course materials in my book bag and the reading printed out. As my classmates trickled in, I recognized some of them and made immediate judgements about the others. One or two people were conversing with each other but no one tried to start a conversation with the entire class. At five past, the Professor walked in, sat down between two students (we were in a seminar-style classroom), and introduced himself. We did what you usually would on the first day of class: review the syllabus, discuss the course aims, and ask a few questions before being dismissed early. It was what every student expects from their first day of class.
Last night, I had the opportunity to attend another first class led by Professor Pinsker, but this time, it was very different. Yesterday was the launch of our online course, Understanding Lincoln, and I virtually attended the first online seminar via Adobe Connect. It ran from 7-9pm EST and was exclusively for the graduate-level students who had paid to take the course (though the free participants were able to watch a half hour after its conclusion). I will admit, I was a bit skeptical going in. I didn’t think it would be at all comparable to a traditional classroom, having participated in other MOOCs and finding it not that compelling to watch a professor lecture on a screen.
Well, I was right, and I was wrong. It certainly wasn’t a traditional classroom, but it was surprisingly engaging. I entered the “classroom” three minutes late, having had computer difficulties, but no one noticed. The flexibility of the program allowed participants to come and go as they needed to, and up to 70 students were present by the end of the session. The setup included a shared screen with the professor, a live feed of him at a lectern, and a chat window where participants could ask questions and comment on what the professor was saying. Although the professor couldn’t read them, Gilder-Lehrman’s Education Coordinator, Lance Warren, moderated the chat box and communicated the best ones to him.
Although it was by no means a traditional classroom, I was intrigued to find that there were some key overlaps. Even though I couldn’t see my fellow students, I still found myself curious about who they were and where they were from. I kept making judgements about their personalities. Kory L. reminded me of an awesome high school teacher I had, while James G. was obviously a snarky Lincoln-skeptic. I could tell when participants were excited to talk or nervous to ask questions, just like on the first day of class. What’s more, Adobe had a “Raise Your Hand” feature, where a participant could ask a question of the professor directly. Clicking that button would put them in a queue, which Lance would access and enable their mics. Aside from the technical difficulties some participants experienced, it was very much like asking questions in a traditional classroom, and I think that alone could be said to have revolutionized the online lecture.
There were a few adjustments that could be made. For one, I’d prefer the live feed of the professor to be larger. Some of the time I felt distracted by other things on screen, and I found I was able to pay more attention when I was watching him speak. If he can’t adjust the size of the video, he might try to do more interactive things with the shared-screen as he lectures, especially bringing up text as he reads it. And while I do feel that the live chat was a great tool, I would suggest encouraging students to utilize the private chat more for trivial comments. I assume that will happen more often as participants get to “know” each other, but last night some of the comments were more distracting than helpful.
I know the question on everybody’s minds is how online learning might change or negate the traditional classroom. Already, from my experience yesterday, I can see the possibilities of utilizing social media sites like Twitter to replicate the live chat in the online seminar. I really appreciated this feature because it encouraged the meeker students to pose their questions, without physically having to speak up. A greater diversity of voices were heard and intellectual conversation flourished.
Overall, I thought it was a great experience, better than I had hoped for. The chat box and the ability of the participants to ask direct questions really underscored the objective of this online course—to have participants collaborate to create a project that is useful to others outside of the course, to expand Lincoln’s legacy using the legacies of present-day scholars.
This post is part of a series on “Making History Online” that involves an examination of open online learning. Students and faculty at the House Divided Project at Dickinson College are collaborating this summer on a new open, online course called, “Understanding Lincoln,” taught by Prof. Matthew Pinsker and covering ways to teach Abraham Lincoln’s legacy using close readings of his most important writings. This new type of online course represents a unique partnership between Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The course is available for both graduate credit and free participation. Registration for the course closes on Friday, July 19, 2013. For more information, go to https://www.gilderlehrman.org/programs-exhibitions/understanding-lincoln-graduate-course.