By Zardas Shuk-man Lee, PhD Candidate, History Department
In the Spring semester 2020, I taught as an instructor of record at UNC for the first time, offering a course on Modern East Asia. Two months into the semester, during Spring Break, the school administration made the switch to remote teaching. We were given about one week to prepare. I am writing here to reflect on the steps I took and what I may adjust if I teach online again, in the hopes that this may help other instructors in a similar position.
- Set clear goals. COVID-19 first broke out in the People’s Republic of China and soon spread to other parts of Asia in late January 2020. I can still recall how stressed people in Asia, including my family members in Hong Kong, were when they struggled for months to acquire masks, gloves, and other protective gear. As an instructor, my major goal after the Spring Break was straightforward: I didn’t want to burden my students, especially since many of them had to move from Chapel Hill back to their hometowns on short notice. I hoped my students could maintain their wellbeing and stay safe.
- Ask questions. First, I asked myself again what I wanted my students to take away from HIST134 Modern East Asia the most. I hoped my students would develop some tools and skills to question seemingly innocent ideas, such as “modern,” “Asia,” and “East Asia,” and come to an understanding that all such ideas are historically constructed. The second question: must I, or could I, stick with the same set of reading, activities, and assessment to help students achieve these goals? Not really—at least not during a pandemic. Given that students had been writing 200 to 500 words each week and already submitted the first essay, I decided to lessen students’ burden by removing half of the assigned readings and the third essay. Instead, I would explain the originally assigned readings in my lecture videos.
- Prepare to adjust the course content and format. To decide what could be the best ways to deliver the course, I took 4 steps.
3.1 Check in with students. I sent out a survey to my students–from the results, I could understand whether the students had stable access to the internet, what their concerns were, and what kinds of accommodations they needed. Then, I could decide to pre-record lectures and also hold two non-compulsory meetings synchronously in the final five weeks of the course.
3.2 Take MOOCs as a reference point. During the pandemic and in the scenario of remote learning, it is very natural that students find it difficult to focus. So, how can we help students absorb learning materials more effectively?
For ideas,we can take a look at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) (I found Learning How to Learn and Introduction to Philosophy particularly useful examples). Most lecture video clips of the MOOCs are quite short, ranging from two to fifteen minutes. Each clip has a clear focus: it usually explores one single topic or question.
“Chunking” the lecture in this way could have many benefits. First and foremost, many of my students told me they could maintain their attention, finish the video clips, and relate what they learnt from the clips to the readings. Second, if each video clip is centered on one single question, then we are demonstrating to students clearly how we historians come up with a question, gather materials, present the evidence, and make a strong argument. After watching lecture videos of this format for weeks, students could find it easier to construct and present convincing arguments. Third, it would take less time for us to re-record or edit the video clips if we make any mistakes in the recording process.
3.3 Read articles on remote teaching. I had not taught online before, but many instructors do and are willing to share their experience. Here are some articles I find useful:
- Travis Grandy. “Take Your Teaching Online: the Micro-Lecture.”
- Heather VanMouwerik. “Ready for Your Close Up?”
- Cassandra L. Clark. “Assessment in Remote Classes.”
- Steven Mintz. “Transitioning to Online Teaching.”
3.4 Learn how to use Sakai. I know, who wants to learn more about Sakai? But have you ever used the Lessons Tool in Sakai? With the Lessons Tool, you can open one or more pages, where you can upload learning materials and/or paste links to the resources you already put under separate tabs on Sakai, such as links to assignments, readings, forum topics, and so on. In short, the Lessons Tool can help organize all the course materials and clearly display every task that students have to complete. For tutorials of the Lessons Tool, see here and here.
- Deliver the course. After taking the above steps, I came up with 5 lessons. Each lesson consisted of required readings, multiple short video clips, quiz questions, and prompts for the weekly assignment, which I called the Learning Portfolio. Each video clip focuses on one question. After watching the video clips, students are required to answer about 10 to 15 quiz questions to check their understanding of the lecture. By answering most quiz questions correctly, students could gain full points in their participation grades. In the last video of each week, I included one to two prompts for students to write in their Learning Portfolio. I designed the prompts in a way so that students had to engage with the lecture videos and the required readings.
This Learning Portfolio assignment was not something I added after Spring break. Students had been doing it since Week 2 of our course. Before the course moved online, students needed to answer 4 “standard questions” in the blue book by the end of each class: 1) What are the major themes of this lesson? 2) How would you relate the readings to the content of this lesson? 3) How would you relate this lesson to the previous one? 4) What strikes you the most in this lesson, such as the lecture, your peers’ opinions, and the readings? And why? By answering these questions, students were able to practice how to contextualize sources and connect multiple ideas—the essential skills all historians need to develop in order to make a strong argument.
What would I change if I teach online again? Two things.
- Regular class discussion. I would hold more discussion sessions on the assigned readings synchronously on Microsoft Team/Google Meet/Jitsi (for issues with Zoom, see here) or asynchronously on the Sakai Forum. The mode of discussion depends on students’ access to the internet. Based on the observation of online discussion in a course this summer, I’d invite students to work together with me, coming up with the discussion forum guidelines for everyone in the course to follow. Here are some possible guidelines:
- Base your ideas on evidence such as scholarly and primary sources.
- Difficult subjects—such as nationalism, race, gender, and religion—will be discussed throughout the semester. It is important that you are prepared to engage intellectually with these subjects that are so pervasive in the history we will be studying. That being said, do not hesitate to approach me if you are experiencing emotional distress due to the discussion.
- Keep your posts constructive and relevant to the assigned topics.
- Design an assignment that employs digitized materials. I was planning to offer a workshop on using digitized archives for my students in the Spring semester 2020, but due to many reasons, it was no longer feasible after March. If I offer courses in the Spring or Fall semesters again, I would include at least one assignment using digitized materials.
Below are some archives I would explore further for teaching:
- Wilson Center Digital Archives
- National Security Archives
- Qatar Digital Library
- Teaching Decolonization Resource Collection
The UNC library also provides some valuable databases, like the British Library Newspapers, Empire Online, Foreign Office files for China, and Foreign Office files for Japan.
In a 100 or 200 level course, based on these databases, I would pick a historical event, give a lecture on it, and show students how to locate relevant primary sources on the databases. Then, I might assign one to two sources from the databases for students to conduct primary source analysis. Or students would be asked to come up with topics that interest them the most, then conduct research on the topic using the digital archives, consult relevant scholarly sources and the course materials, and write a paper to present their findings.
I study the history of colonialism, so it is ironic that this blog post reads somewhat like a British colonial government document, in which officials always presented themselves as cool and collected, analyzing difficult situations and offering solutions. As we know, anxiety ran deep among these officials–my experience implementing remote education was similarly challenging, as were my students’ experiences adjusting to this new system. But by checking in with my students more often and learning what sorts of challenges they were facing, I did my best to make their lives a bit easier.