Seminary experiments with live sessions & video in online course

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Upcoming online courses at EMS

This just-concluded spring semester was the first time an online course offered at Eastern Mennonite Seminary made use of synchronous online activities, which we facilitate through WebEx. In ed-tech lingo, “synchronous” describes any activity that takes place in real-time, in online/virtual space. This is a particularly important moment for EMS because they have been doing online education at EMU the longest, since 1997 when an e-mail based correspondence course was offered. Around 2000, they switched over to LMS-based (Blackboard, then Moodle) online courses and basically hadn’t changed that formula since.

There are currently no comprehensive online programs – such as degree or credentialing programs – offered through the seminary, but a la carte online courses are offered every semester and through the summer, and are taken advantage of by residential and remote students alike. Core faculty have consistently taught these online courses, but there is a trend toward increasing use of remote adjunct instructors to teach them. Such was the case in the spring semester when I assisted Dr. Laura Brenneman (CJP alum, ’00), who resides in Illinois and taught an online Intro to Old Testament course for EMS in the spring.

I approached Laura last fall as she was preparing her course, and let her know that I was available to help support her and her students in the use of newer ed-tech offerings such as WebEX and online video.  She added me as an instructor in the course in Moodle, and we were off. So here are the ways she incorporated these technologies into the course…

Optional synchronous sessions: Review & discussion

Since students had already enrolled in the course with no sense that there would be a synchronous component, live sessions in WebEx were made optional and therefore did not impact students’ participation grades. Six sessions were conducted over the course of the semester.  As usual, both students and instructor entered the live session directly from the course page in Moodle. The sessions consisted of Laura reviewing content from the reading assignments, as well as some more open discussion time. At the outset, Laura polled the students as to when the optimal meeting time would be, and that time was kept consistent for all sessions. Since not all students could make every session, each was recorded and made available in Moodle after the live event, which some students took advantage of.

While there were some technical hiccups and some concern voiced on the part of busy students that live sessions made the convenience aspect of online courses a little less, well, convenient, Laura is confident that WebEx made a positive impact on the course. For one thing, students and instructor were scattered across a number of locales, so the possibility of seeing the faces and hearing the voices of others helped develop a deeper sense of connection. Laura noted that what was discussed in the live sessions began to trickle into another area of the course, the text-based/asynchronous forum discussions in Moodle (which is where the traditional bulk of an online course has played out). When conversations begin jumping across media, you know a thicker form of connection is taking shape, and with it – student engagement.

Online video

For one assignment, Laura tasked the students with reciting a passage of Scripture and using their webcams, YouTube, and a Moodle discussion forum to facilitate it in the digital realm. Students recorded themselves reciting the passage, uploaded the video to their own YouTube accounts (more on this below), marked them as “unlisted,” then pasted the links to the Moodle forum. Moodle then takes those links and automatically displays the video player, so everyone could watch each other reciting Scripture by scrolling down the forum topic.

For this assignment, my support consisted of a very basic overview of the process, with links to the YouTube upload page. Happily, I didn’t receive any further support e-mails, so everyone was able to complete the tasks for the assignment. The use of YouTube arose out of the absence of an EMU-owned online video platform, something we are very close to addressing. In the near future, faculty and students will be able to upload video from within the Moodle course itself, and it will be stored in a collection that is only visible to the people in that course and not published to a global-scale site like YouTube, also erasing the need to sign up for yet another online account. This will make video assignments even more streamlined. The more that technology can fade out of the picture, the better.

Next time around…

Already this summer term, Laura is teaching another online course for EMS, on the Sermon on the Mount. For this course she is using WebEx to hold regularly-scheduled “virtual office hours,” which gives remote students an opportunity to drop into their remote instructor’s “office” to talk about the course. Laura also plans on assigning student presentations, which could easily be facilitated through WebEx. These two new use cases show the various ways that synchronous tools such as WebEx can help address some of the problems of disconnection and disembodiment in online courses.

As the use of remote adjunct instructors looks to increase (reflecting broader trends in higher ed), I’m continuing to think about how EMU can structure support resources and best practices for these remote instructors and their students, so that EMU can ensure a more consistent level of quality in their online offerings and experiences.

My thanks go to Dr. Laura Brenneman (and her students) for being such a great partner in this new territory!