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January 9, 2013

Making Online Lit Classes Work – The Secret Sauce

I’ve been teaching online literature courses for four years now. My lit of choice is ENH295: Banned Books and Censorship. I’m still scarred from traditional American and British lit from college, and those courses were already in the capable hands of my colleagues who also teach literature online at GCC. So I went for Banned Books. Makes me feel like a rebel or something, but I like it and the students seem to as well.

Many often wonder how we make online literature courses work when the core element in the face to face class is discussion. We read, analyze and discuss. Well, we also have to write, so moving a course like this online is quite simple actually. We use discussion forums and blogs. This was problematic in the past with our LMS, so I moved the course over to a WordPress blog years ago. I’ve since moved the core content back to our new LMS Canvas, but the blog still remains a central part of the online course. I only moved the core content back for a secure gradebook. I was always nervous about having my grades in the cloud of a non-approved web service in past.

So let’s talk about this blog and how it works for the online lit class.

enh295webFirst off, for this blog to work, it needed to be more of a community than a blog. So I installed WordPress MU and BuddyPress to create this community. WordPress has since updated to 3.x and the multi-user part is just built in. So there is a main blog site that I post to, shown above, and then all the students have their own blogs to post to. All the students, blogs, forums and groups are tied together by the BuddyPress plugin. This plugin creates separate pages for each. For instance, clicking on the Blogs page will list all the blogs for the class with a link to their latest post. It also keeps track of all the activity on the site (logins, posts,etc.) as well as provides a Facebook like space to post “check ins.” This is called the Activities page. And just like on Facebook, students can comment on each others’ activity posts.

Basically the students are maintaining their individual blogs by writing literary analysis posts on the texts we are reading. The best part about this format is that all of their writing is shared with everyone in the class. They can read each others’ posts and comment on it, thus extending the discussion about the text. In a traditional class, much of the student writing is private and only shared between the student and the teacher. In this setup, I can build impromptu discussions around any individual student blog. My options are endless. And students are comfortable with each other because of the social network feel of the course network, so they’re not shy about commenting on each others’ work.

This setup has worked well for my class for four years now, so I’ll be sticking with it even now that we have Canvas.

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