Teaching with Tech
Online Course Shell: Worth the Effort
Maria Andersen, April 2011
With the advent of learning management systems (LMS) run by companies such as Blackboard, D2L, Moodle, and Sakai, I’d bet nearly every teacher today has been approached about using a course shell for classes. A well-developed course shell contains resources for every topic that you cover in a course.
Many instructors see building a course shell as daunting. You have to learn how to use the LMS, spend time populating the course shell with resources, and maintain it.
The good thing is, having a shell is worth the effort.
A robust course shell is developed over the course of a semester (or even several semesters).
When I built my first course shell, I concentrated on getting the calculus lessons and activities from the classroom into the digital space. The next time I taught the course, I put in links to interactive demos and supplementary videos. Now, three years later, I add resources as they come to my attention.The benefits to teachers and students that I explain in this column make it worthwhile to set up a course shell.
Missed Classes. With a course shell, students who miss class become online students to make up the work. They watch the video lessons, print the handouts from class, find out the homework assignment, and ask any questions in the course discussion space. This arrangement is particularly useful when a student has to miss a week or consistently misses classes over the semester (as student athletes often do). And when we have a campuswide snow day or I have to miss a class, the students are expected to be online students for that missed day. We never fall off schedule.
Communication. You can email all the students or a group of students from within the course shell. Very convenient when you wake up sick and need to get word out.
Rewind. It’s unrealistic to expect all your students to grasp the mathematical concepts in the span of the normal class sessions. Sharing video content is especially helpful for students who need extra time. They can rewatch the lessons until they understand the material.
Reclaim Office Hours. Once I had a course shell, I began capturing question sessions with students and then sharing these hints online for all the students (see my February/March column). After many students thanked me for this, I realized how difficult it was for some students to make it to my office hours. Posting the questions and answers for all the students seems much fairer than helping only the students whose schedules match mine.
Independent Studies. Do you ever need to offer a course as an independent study? If so, a robust course shell will provide you and the student with all the resources to run a self-paced course.
Consistency across Sections. If your department teaches several sections of a course using many adjunct instructors or teaching assistants, you might worry about students having consistent access to resources. At some colleges, each full-time instructor is the course shell caretaker for one multisection course. This “master” course shell can be shared with all the sections, giving the students a basic set of materials and resources regardless of their instructor.
Mentoring. Giving access to your course shell to a new colleague teaching a course for the first time is a great way of mentoring. He or she will be able to see how you explain concepts, what activities you do in class, how much homework you assign, and the pace of the course. While a syllabus is helpful, a course shell is like sitting in on a class whenever a new teacher needs some guidance.
Grades. Students can see their grades if you put their scores in the LMS gradebook. Most systems can do some complex grading maneuvers, such as figuring out weighted grades or dropping the lowest grade in a category. You can also generate paper grade reports with a few clicks to hand out to students.
Freedom in the Classroom. With the course shell to fall back on, I can use more collaborative learning and inquiry-based learning in class. Originally, I worried that students would no longer come to class with so many resources online. But as I started to change my classroom practice so that the students could be more active, their attendance actually improved. I’ve found that the presence of a well-developed course shell has freed me from the pressure of covering all the content in class. If I can go through only three of five examples, for example, students can find the solutions and video explanations for the missing problems in the course shell.
Online Q&A. Once students get used to using the LMS as a place to get help, you can transition them to asking questions about homework and answering each others’ questions online.
Alternative Formats. Finally, unless you’re retiring in the next year or two, there will come a day when you’re asked to teach the course in an alternative format: weekend, evening, hybrid, or online. If you’ve already developed a robust course shell, you’ll have done most of the work to easily transition the course into any format that requires students to learn material on their own time. The course shell I use for calculus is the same one I use for my online calculus classes. The students in both classes get access to the same lessons, do the same homework, and take the same tests (online students have to be in a proctored testing environment).
Prep Work. I’m not going to lie. Setting up a course shell is a lot of work the first time (much akin to doing a course prep for the first time), but after that, it’s like a comforting binder of lecture notes: a collection of activities and examples to consult and a resource to keep improving semester after semester. The course shell also becomes a catch-all for tidbits related to your class: the newspaper article that would be a good example for a particular section (link to it), the YouTube video a colleague sent that would provide three minutes of comic relief (embed it), or the birthplace of a famous mathematician you saw on a family vacation (upload the photo).
In my next column, I’ll talk about how to build a course shell and how to find resources for it. This gives you approximately two months to learn to use your campus LMS. I hope you’re now motivated enough to tackle setting up this valuable tool!
This column appeared in the April / May 2011 issue of MAA FOCUS.
Maria H. Andersen is a Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute and a Math Professor at Muskegon Community College. She is also president of Edge of Learning LLC (formerly Andersen Algebra Consulting LLC), an educational consulting business. Follow her on Twitter @busynessgirl or visit her official website.