This past summer, two dozen students took a fascinating and highly interactive class—with lots of guest speakers, field explorations, student interaction, and strong teacher involvement—that examined the role of disease in history around the world.
And not once were the students or the instructor in the same room at the same time.
Professor of History Michael Martin’s "History of Disease" is an upper-division course that “exposes students to specialized concepts about examining how disease, from antiquity to modern day, has had a significant impact on the development of history and cultures in a global context.” Those who took the six-week summer intensive class were a mix History and Public Health majors and other students just interested in the topic.
Martin, meanwhile, was in Rozet, France. And his students were, well, all over the place. That’s because for the first time the course was held entirely online, utilizing platforms and software provided by the College that allow students to view lectures and videos, discuss ideas and workshop papers, turn in and get feedback on work, and conference individually and in groups with the professor on their own schedules and from any location.
“We don't meet in a physical classroom, ever. I may never ever see them in person. They can take the class from anywhere in the world—and I was teaching the course from France,” says Martin. “The students didn’t have to be in the classroom Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from eight to nine. They could watch the video lecture that I've already prepared at any point in the week.”
“ I was skeptical. I thought that a physical classroom was needed to meet with and see the students. And for some students, that does work better. But it's a fun way to teach. I'm hooked.
Professor of History Michael Martin
Martin says that because the course’s lectures were pre-recorded, it opened up his options for whom he could bring in to guest lecture in areas outside his own expertise. Those guest lecturers also weren’t confined to standing in front of the class describing their work—they could film their talks in their laboratories or in the field, greatly enhancing their presentations.
In fact, since he was in Europe during the course, Martin himself found he could bring his experiences into the class. “Some lectures I prepared from my office, but some I did while I was in France, so those were like I was taking them on virtual field trips,” he says. “I did one of my lectures inside of a 12th century church. We were talking about the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church and its influence, so I was able to say, ‘Let me show you this medieval church that I'm in’ and give them a virtual tour.”
Martin also found that doing a course like this online rather than in the scheduled boundaries of a classroom allowed him to expand and improve the course on the fly as new and unexpected opportunities presented themselves.
“The course as it was initially designed was going to focus on five or six major diseases, and that was it,” he says. “But one time I was describing this to someone in psychology, and she said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about mental health as a disease?’ And I thought, well, no. So she videoed a guest lecture, and all of a sudden, the structure of the course changed.”
“It was so great how people just kept making these contributions that I could act on and integrate,” he adds. “And I kept thinking, this is marvelous!”
Even though the class never actually met together, the online digital tools used to deliver the course maintained the interactive elements of a physical classroom. Students still discussed their ideas, worked in groups, and workshopped each others’ projects. In fact, the open-ended, online nature of the course improved those interactions.
“They were still able to read each other's work, so they were also teaching each other. But it opened the class up because they were discussing things together in a more focused atmosphere that was all virtual,” Martin explains. “So at whatever point in the day that they were working, they would shoot a discussion posting off, and then their colleagues could respond, maybe right away or five hours later.”
“In a classroom, though,” he adds, “we've got maybe an hour, so you have to be at your best at that time. Here, though, they can read somebody's response, and then sit on it and really think about it, and then come back with a more informed response.”
That includes feedback from the professor, through office hours and conferencing. The online platform allows for virtual office hours, and even has a “waiting room” that queues students as though they’re lining up in the hallway outside Martin’s real office.
And those office hours? They included, as the syllabus said, “MWF 12:30—1:30 a.m.,” because that was early morning in France for Martin. “But that’s when some students with jobs or families are doing their homework, so they liked that time,” he says.
According to his students, the experience was a great success, Martin says. And for himself, it was an unexpected eye opener.
“I was skeptical,” he says. “I thought that a physical classroom was needed to meet with and see the students. And for some students, that does work better. But it's a fun way to teach. I'm hooked.”
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