Previously, I argued that the key to successful asynchronous online instruction is a minimalist approach: identify the core parts of the course and strip everything else out to streamline student experience and minimize confusion. I maintain that keeping the course streamlined is important, but I have to admit an error: I went too far this semester.
This semester, I discarded entirely the video lectures that are so often associated with online teaching, under the reasoning that they are onerous to students and excessively time-consuming to produce. I stand by that decision; not making video lectures has been very pleasant, and I think my students appreciate not having to watch yet another video right now.
I stripped down what students had to turn in, to slightly less than 1 exercise per week and an additional writing assignment (the core assignments and their components) every other week. I relied more and more on the textbooks for lecture material.
All of these seem reasonable, but I’ve found an increase in students needing extra assistance or clarification. I went too far. So what would I add back?
Going over my notes, I find that I forgot to add something I had intended to put in the syllabus that would have made a massive improvement in the course: required conferences with students.
The design of my first year composition courses has increasingly moved away from small assignments independent of each other and toward a sequence of assignments that build on each other into one semester-long project. The advantage of separate assignments was that there was a certain amount of forgiveness built into that structure: if something didn’t work, the student could start over and try again with a fresh start. As a student, I generally preferred discrete assignments, because I find myself resistant to revision and I like to move on quickly from mistakes without having to dwell on them. However, as revision is an important skill to learn, and things like research are time-consuming processes, the long continuous project has significant advantages as well. It allows the structure of the course to focus on individual skills in the context of a larger process. It allows more opportunities to revise. It also reduces the overall burden of research and reading, because these things can be cumulative over the course of the term.
One of the necessities for extended project development is regular check-ins. While my course design this semester intends for these check-ins to be in the form of feedback on the smaller assignments, this comes with an inherent power imbalance, lack of engagement from the student, and troubling time delay. Immediate feedback matters, as does the ability to respond to feedback, and conferencing can concentrate these learning opportunities into a small but very effective dose. My notes say I meant to put a conference at the beginning, during topic generation, and a conference in between the research paper and the multimodal revision of that project, pivotal points where the student has to make generative decisions about their project.
Some students have requested conferences or attended office hours more or less in those intervals. For those students, I’ve seen a distinct boost in their performance. I only wish I’d required that.
The problem with minimalist course design is that it’s a lot harder to add material than to subtract it as you inevitably adjust the course over a term. It simply isn’t fair to students to add a new requirement that wasn’t originally in the syllabus at the start of the semester, but it is fair to remove a requirement along the way and thereby reduce the course load overall.
Minimalist course design is good because it reduces confusion and helps students connect the pieces of the course together in meaningful ways. However, it does come with a warning label: you can go too far and wind up, as they say, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.