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My Radical Truth: Ways the Online World Can Improve the Traditional Classroom


By Dr. Mark D. Bowles
History Professor, American Public University

I believe that the greatest asset of the online classroom is its technological potential to engage students with remarkable new teaching strategies that are sometimes impossible to emulate in an on-ground classroom. Over the past four years I attempted to evolve my own teaching techniques in ways that enable students to gain the most out of our digital classroom.  This is something that educators Kay Lehmann and Lisa Chamberlin call the “radical truth.”  Their book, “Making the Move to eLearning,” argues that online learning can actually be “better than traditional education” when properly facilitated.

While this may be possible, it’s my assertion that two minimum components are required in order for educators to ensure that their students receive the best learning experience. It requires (1) an active teaching presence and (2) leveraging the latest developments in technology. When teaching I attempt to accomplish the first component through my forum philosophy and the second component through my personal videos approach.

Component 1: My Forum Philosophy

Herbert Baxter Adams was a founder of U.S. professional history. In 1884 he wrote a book, “Methods of Historical Study,” which described how he taught history to male graduate students at Johns Hopkins University and to female students at Smith College. He wrote, “The comparative method of reading and study is followed by means of assigning to individual members of the class separate topics, with references to various standard works. These topics are duly reported upon by the appointees… which are discussed at length by the class.”

I model this approach to forums in all of my online classes. A student has to post a main response to a common forum question by Thursday of each week. Once the student submits the post, I comment on it directly. I will share a related piece of knowledge, link the student to another resource, and then ask a unique follow-up question. I use this approach consistently for all my students and they’re required to research information and complete their answers by Sunday.

I recall a remarkably different experience during my Ph.D. seminars in the ‘90s at Case Western Reserve University when a professor would mention an important book that I needed to review. It was usually late at night, so the next day I would walk to the library (often in the snow because it was in Ohio) and see if the library had it available. If not, I would order it on interlibrary loan. A couple of weeks later the book arrived and by that time I often forgot why I was so interested in reading it in the first place.

Now that we’re out of the “technological dark ages,” students are better enabled to translate my book suggestions into an immediate learning experience–all thanks to modern technology. The unlimited and immediate access to research that technology affords students makes for a powerful learning experience. In a way, online education has become an indispensable learning tool.

Component 2: My Personal Videos

A second and equally valuable educational tool is the use of personal video technology, which I use often to enhance instruction. In my videos I discuss key topics, course expectations, and I provide a little information about myself and my approach to the subject. This supports my belief that what really matters is that the instructor must provide a tangible social presence that’s mediated by technology.

For example, I recently created a video entitled, “The History of Science” for a graduate class.

Bowles on the History of Science from Mark Bowles on Vimeo.

In another course, on History and Popular Culture, I use a green screen so that I can incorporate background images behind me to make the content more engaging for the students.

Bowles on Popular Culture from Mark Bowles on Vimeo.

These videos serves multiple functions.

  1. It’s fun and engaging for students and the professor
  2. The intention is to provide an interesting overview of the class
  3. It accomplishes what is sometimes missing with an online instructor–a connection to his or her personality.

In my videos, I often open up about myself and sometimes I include family members in the discussion. Why? My students respond positively. They get to know me as a real person who also values them as individuals. It’s my hope that this personal touch encourages students to open up in return and share their opinions and ideas throughout the class. And it works.

Throughout my teaching career I’ve discovered my own radical truth; student outcomes are directly related to how well the instructor engages the class. Technology by itself is never enough, no matter how advanced. It’s only a tool, but it holds incredible potential for educators who are actively present and constantly interject the human element into the online classroom. When executed properly and with personal passion, I believe that the online classroom in many ways can transcend traditional forms of education.

About the Author:

Mark D. Bowles is Professor of History at American Public University System. He earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1999, and he has authored or co-authored twelve books focusing on the history of science and technology.



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