Assignments and activities in online courses?

I’m working on another syllabus at the moment, this time for an introductory course on the history of technology for undergraduate students. I’m not so concerned about the course literature this time, but since the course will be taught online, I’m wondering what experiences people have with designing such courses centered on student activities and active learning processes. I know that I do not want to simply record lectures and put them online. I plan to do short (10-minute) video introductions to each week’s theme The course will have about 30 students and will run over 9 weeks at “half speed” (it will be half the total course load for the students for these weeks). By default we have access to the university’s customized Sakai LMS installation – it’s quite minimalistic, and I’m not particularly impressed by it. I can ask for my own Moodle installation, which I’m tempted to try out, but the university does not offer support here, so I’d have to do all that myself.

The big challenge, as I see it, will be to design a set of activities that:

a) require and encourage the students to explore and learn the course literature
b) foster collaboration, interaction, and creativity in ways that I as instructor can observe and evaluate on an individual level
c) make sense to the students.

I would also like the activities to feel integrated – in other words, I do not want to randomly jump from one type of assignments to another without any idea of how they fit together. My current plan is to have the students work in groups to create a website based on a combination of a tiny bit of primary research (online sources) and secondary literature discussions. I’d need to break this down into smaller assignments, of course, but the goal would be for all the assignments to support this final project, as well as integrate the project with the course literature.

So – what are good examples of activities and assignments that works in an online course setting?

Teaching at BAS; thinking about learning spaces

Bergen School of Architecture at night

I gave a lecture on the history of the Norwegian leisure cabin, emphasizing the infrastructural and systematic nature of the many interlocking technologies embedded in the cabin, for the students at the Bergen School of Architecture this week. We also discussed where the ideal of cabin living comes from and how the cultural and material history of the cabin shapes particular trajectories, possibilities and limitations for change.

After my lecture, I got a chance to listen to the students present their projects – this semester, the students all work on examining the relationship between the cabin and the primary home. While they of course had some interesting thoughts and perspectives on the cabin, I found the project format they followed perhaps even more interesting.

Architecture student projects in studio space

I think the studio space allows the architecture students to work with, manipulate, and visualize information – and to structure it into coherent arguments – in different ways than humanities students generally can. The information our students work with is almost exclusively text, and it lives in the students’ heads, in text processing programs on the computer, and in printouts meant to be read in a particular sequence. The information and the ways in which the student structures it into an argument is quite abstract, as it never leaves this private loop between the student’s mind, the computer, and the printout. The architecture students work in small groups of 2-3 students and approach their assigned topic in a much more physical way (yet still with the same tools as humanities students). The studio space with its large wall spaces allow the students to structure their project differently. A vertical row of printed sheets contain a series of claims about cabins and primary homes. These claims are supposed to be clear, forceful, and preferably a bit provocative. For each claim, a vertical row of sheets contain information that supports the claim.

In many ways, this is not very different from how we teach effective writing. The vertical row can be considered the outline of a whole article – a series of arguments that build on each other to a logical conclusion. Each horizontal row can be considered a paragraph, with the claim serving as the topic sentence, and the following sheets the supporting evidence in each paragraph. The architecture students use visual sources, statistics, newspaper articles, and traditional academic scholarship to support their claims.

Furthermore, the output of all these group projects is collected into a book – this is not uncommon for architecture and design students. I saw a couple of examples of previous project books made by BAS students, and they looked really nice. Having such an end product seems to motivate the students to work even harder on getting their projects done well. I wonder how it would work to do something like this in a class for history students? Can and should we train our students to work with more than just text in the most abstract possible sense? I think so.

Modernizing Rural Landscapes in Pori and Reposaari, Finland

I was invited to teach at a PhD workshop on “Modernization of Rural Landscapes” and to give a keynote at a public seminar titled “Maaseutumaisema modernisaation kourissa” in Pori, Finland in December. The workshop took place in a small research station on the island of Reposaari just outside of Pori. Pori seems to me like the Detroit of Finland, a heavily industrialized place that was hit hard by the recession that hit Finland in the 1990s. This was also visible in the island of Reposaari, where many workers used to live. Some still lived here, but the average age was getting rather high. Some new leisure cabins had been built, but the island was pretty dead in the winter (see the pictures below).

My keynote was titled “The Norwegian Leisure Cabin and the Infrastructure of Nature,” discussing how Norwegian nature was discovered and make accessible through the development of particular kinds of leisure infrastructure.

Map of the region
Leisure cabins and shipyards
Not a whole lot of traffic